As Japan is a country of volcanic activity, natural hot springs (onsen) abound: there are said to be around 19,500 of them.
The custom of bathing in hot springs in Japan dates back over 2,000 years. Hotels and ryokan and other tourist accommodation have developed around most hot springs. Travelling to such resort areas is a favourite form of recreation among Japanese people. Although many large resort areas have developed around famous hot springs, there are still numerous springs along sea coasts and in the mountains that remain undeveloped, and in their natural state.
SOME OF THE MAIN HOT SPRING RESORTS/LOCATIONS:
Nikko: in Nikko National Park there are several hot springs at the foot of Mount Nantai, a sacred, extinct volcano. There is Yumoto Onsen, and Chuzenji Onsen on the shore of Lake Chuzenji.
Hakone: one of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts, Hakone has a large number of onsen in beautiful settings in a forested valley and along the shore of Lake Ashi. JTB offers 2-day Sunrise tours to Hakone from Tokyo, travelling by Shinkansen (Bullet train) and including an overnight stay in a spa hotel in Hakone. Contact us for booking
Kusatsu: the waters of Kusatsu Onsen are considered among Japan’s best, being recommended by Dr. von Baelz, a German doctor who served at Japan’s Imperial Court in the 1880s. The town is in the mountains of Gumma Prefecture, at an altitude of 1,200 metres above sea level, and offers hiking too, in the summer months.
Atami: a small town about 100km down the east coast from Tokyo. Atami literally means ‘hot sea’; the hills which encircle the coastal town are the side of an ancient volcano crater. With this geological history, there are hot springs all over the area: Izu-yama-onsen, Izu-Yugawara-onsen, Ajiro-onsen, and the Oyu Geyser that spouts up a huge quantity of hot water. The town itself looks a little tired, but its many museums add interest to a stay; at the top of the hill by Atami Station is the MOMA Museum, with around 3,500 mainly oriental paintings and applied arts.
JTB Sunrise tours offer a 2-day excursion from Tokyo which includes an overnight stay at a seaside hotel which has Japanese-style rooms, and a hot spring bath free for guests. Contact us for booking.
Hanamaki Onsen: this is a popular hot spring resort in Iwate Prefecture, 40 kilometers south of Morioka.
Noboribetsu Onsen (Hokkaido): this typical Japanese spa is located on a mountain and surrounded by primeval forest. One reason that the place is so famous is because there are 11 different kinds of springs: bathers can select the spring which best suits their purpose. Five minutes on foot from the town is the spectacular Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”). In an explosive crater 450m across, steam and scalding water gush out from countless fumaroles of all sizes, creating a truly hellish scene.Kamuiwakka Falls (Hokkaido) : Kamuiwakka is a warm mountain stream in Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido. There is a natural basin beneath a hot waterfall: bathers need to climb up the stream for about 20 minutes to reach it.
Nyuto Onsen: (lit.: nipple hot spring) is named after the nearby, suggestively-shaped Mount Nyuto in the remote mountains of Akita Prefecture above Lake Tazawako.
Toyako Onsen (Hokkaido): located in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. A resort on the shores of the beautiful Lake Toya, at the foot of Mount Uzu, an active volcano which most recently erupted in 2000. There are several large luxury hotels right on the shore, offering rooms and hot spring baths with beautiful views of the lake. Some of the hotels’ hot spring baths are open to non-residents during the daytime, for an admission fee of around Yen 500 – 1000. In front of the hotels there is a pleasant promenade, with foot baths (ashiyu) and firework displays every evening from May through October. Sightseeing cruises of the lake also depart from here.
INFORMATION ABOUT VISITING HOT SPRINGS IN JAPAN:
Public bathing at onsen is usually single-sex: there are separate baths for men and women.
In Japan, tattoos are perceived as a sign of the Yakuza, or organised crime syndicates. In general it is not allowed for those with tattoos to use public bath facilities. However, it is common practice for foreign visitors with small tattoos to cover them with an adhesive dressing when bathing. This is perfectly acceptable and shows respect for the culture and attitudes prevailing in Japan.
Beppu: could be said to be Japan’s onsen capital. There is a great choice of hot spring baths. In addition, there are waters too hot for bathing, known as jigoku (“hells”) – tourist attractions in themselves, which can be rather tackily presented. The best of them are Oniishibozu Jigoku, Shiraike Jigoku and Umi Jigoku, all in the Kannawa district of Beppu.