Onsen, or hot spring baths, are a staple of Japanese culture. While Japan sits at a precarious place on the Pacific Ring of Fire (causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the like), its tectonic luck has resulted in the formation of thousands of natural hot springs, many with time-honored healing qualities.
Japan has long promoted their onsen domestically as bona fide tourist attractions, creating whole sightseeing towns around the presence of these geothermal baths. These hot spring towns continue to have enormous drawing power, and today nearly all of Japan’s premium onsen resorts are accessible to foreign travelers. We’ve narrowed down the top 10 hot spring destinations in Japan, from the southern tip of Kyushu to the snowy island of Hokkaido.
Easily one of Japan’s finest onsen destinations, Hakone is accessible as a daytrip from Tokyo. The small mountain town is known for its breathtaking views of Mount Fuji, as well as the gorgeous Lake Ashinoko. For travelers who elect not to stay overnight in Hakone, many places conveniently offer daytime passes, which grant you all-day access to the baths, showers, and facilities. Hakone Yuryo caters to day trippers, with towels available for purchase. There’s also the half-onsen, half-water park Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, where guests can sit in baths of sake, wine, coffee, and green tea. But the resort offering Hakone’s pièce de résistance — the postcard-worthy vistas of Mount Fuji — is the Hotel Green Plaza Hakone.
About 3 hours from Tokyo, Kusatsu is situated in scenic Gunma prefecture, with an actual hot water field in the town center. This is Japan’s most prolific source of geothermal waters, with 100 hot springs gushing 34,000 liters of water every minute. This water reportedly helps heal a variety of human ailments, including indigestion, arthritis, and poor circulation. For the full rotenburo (outdoor bathing) experience, visit the spacious Sainokawara onsen. Not far from the town’s water field, two bathhouses offer the traditional jikanyu experience, where bathers sit in an extremely hot bath (118 degrees Fahrenheit/48 degrees Celsius) for exactly three minutes.
Located in eastern Kyushu, Beppu is one of Japan’s most well-known hot spring destinations, with onsen that either soothe or titillate. The so-called Hells of Beppu are a collection of blood-red pools, ponds with eerie mud bubbles, boiling blue lagoons, and waters where crocodiles now live — all meant for viewing, not bathing. If you came to Beppu solely to relax, skip the Hells and head straight for the spa and open-air baths at Suginoi Hotel. There’s also the Ebisu Ryokan, which has regular hot baths, milky sulfurous baths, and the “bedrock bath,” a Japanese-style rock sauna.
Noboribetsu is a small town on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, southwest of Sapporo. Visitors are encouraged to hike around the sublime Jigokudani (Hell Valley), where there is a steaming river that runs hot, forested areas for foot bathing, and the sulfurous Oyunuma pond. Noboribetsu’s onsen produces water naturally infused with at least seven different elements and minerals, each with their own healing qualities. To experience the best of these springs, visit the superb ryokan Daiichi Takimotokan (day passes available), with specialized baths designed to relieve dry skin, weak circulation, and even eczema. Once you’ve had enough hot water, visit the town’s Bear Park, where you can interact with cute brown bear cubs from inside a “human cage.”
Nestled in a snowy valley in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, this is the onsen town famous for its bathing snow monkeys. These Japanese macaques roam the area freely but don’t care to bathe alongside humans. To see the snow monkeys enjoying the hot spring baths, you have to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park. Shibu itself is a picturesque little town, cozy and quaint in the winter months, with cobblestone streets and many centuries-old ryokan. There are nine main public bath houses, each with various therapeutic qualities. Locals say that good fortune comes to those who visit all nine baths.
Ibusuki is in Kyushu’s Kagoshima prefecture, at the very tip of one of the southernmost peninsulas of the island. The entire Kagoshima area is renowned for its excellent hot springs, as well as its delicious satsumaimo (sweet potatoes) that thrive in Kagoshima’s rich volcanic soil. Undergoing one of Ibusuki’s famous beachside sand baths involves wearing a yukata (a light kimono) as an attendant covers your entire body in warm, black sand. If the thought of being voluntarily buried makes you feel claustrophobic, visit the outdoor baths at the incredible Healthy Land, a resort with jaw-dropping views of Kagoshima bay and the Kaimondake volcano.
Kinosaki is an onsen village on the Sea of Japan, accessible by train from both Kyoto and Osaka. The town has been a hot spring destination for over a thousand years, yet few people outside of Japan know about this hidden gem. Kinosaki’s claim to fame is the seven bath stroll: wearing a yukata, visitors walk around the town center from bath to bath, stopping to eat sweets and seafood along the way. The water at bathhouse Yanagi-yu is said to help with fertility and childbirth, while the “water of beauty” at Goshono-yu guarantees luck in love. It’s best to stay overnight at one of the ryokan to ensure a leisurely visit.
You can get to Minakami in a few hours’ time from Tokyo, but this hot spring destination feels worlds away from Japan’s high-energy capital. Nature surrounds everything here, and guests can enjoy the scenery while lounging in one of the many rotenburo, or outdoor baths. Highly recommended is the Takaragawa Onsen, where there are both shared gender (and women only) facilities. Hoshi Onsen Chojukan offers drop-in bathing passes, but it’s wise to take advantage of the ryokan’s elegant Japanese-style accommodations. There’s also a bath here that’s over a hundred years old.
Yamanaka is part of Kaga Onsen, an area of four hot spring towns surrounded by incredible mountainous scenery. Yamanaka stands out by virtue of its being the production site of some of Japan’s finest traditional lacquerware. Visit the award-winning Gato Mikio to buy some modern housewares, and the Yamanaka Traditional Industry Plaza to learn more about the history of Yamanaka craftsmanship. As for ryokan, Kuriya Yasohachi is great for its updated, sleek facilities, and the outdoor bath nestled inside a bamboo forest. Most people also visit Kiku-no-yu, a public bathhouse that’s existed in the same spot for 1,300 years.
Just about an hour or so north of the largest active volcano in Japan, this onsen destination contains some of Kyushu’s most idyllic hot springs. Local law ensures that all Kurokawa’s traditional structures remain preserved, and new building materials and flashy signage are forbidden within the town limits. Visitors can purchase a very affordable day pass, which grants them access to all of the public outdoor baths in the area. If you decide to stay overnight, opt to sojourn at the quaint Kurokawaso, or Yamamizuki, another ryokan with an open-air bath that overlooks a picturesque river. But no matter where you soak, you’re bound to reap the benefits of these hot springs’ healing powers.