If you’re considering taking a trip to Japan, one of the many pieces of Japanese culture worth experiencing is their onsen. But, if you are new to planning your trip to this magnificent country, you might be puzzled as to what an Onsen is.
In this article, we’ll be dipping our toes (pun intended) into all things onsen and rounding up some of the best places to visit to get a taste of this healing and relaxing experience. We’ll also take a look at exactly what an Onsen is.
So keep on reading to find out more!
What Is Onsen?
Before we get into the ins and outs of the places worth visiting to take a bath in Japan, it’s worthwhile explaining what we mean by onsen.
Onsen is a Japanese word meaning hot spring or bath. In Japan, it refers to a type of hot spring where water flows through natural mineral deposits. The term is also used to describe a style of bathing called yokai (Japanese folklore) or yōkai (Japanese mythology) (see also ‘What is an Oni?‘).
Owing to the fact that Japan is situated on top of four tectonic plates (the Pacific, Eurasian, North American, and Filipino plates) the country has some of the most intense volcanic and tectonic activity of anywhere in the world.
One of the few benefits to this is that this volcanic activity gives rise to hot springs. In fact, Japan offers roughly 2,300 different onsen locations to choose from. Some of these locations also include the traditional inn (ryokan).
It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when onsen became more common in Japan. Prior to this time, people would bathe at rivers or lakes, but after the restoration, onsens began popping up everywhere.
The Best Onsen In Japan
Located just outside of Kusatsu City, this onsen was originally built as a resort for wealthy travelers. It remains one of the largest onsens in Japan today, with over 1,000 rooms available.
This onsen features a large outdoor pool area, indoor baths, saunas, steam rooms, and even an ice rink! There are also plenty of restaurants serving everything from sushi to Western cuisine.
If you want to soak up the atmosphere of old-school Japan, then Kusatsu Onsen is definitely the place to go.
Located in the city of Nakayama, Nakayama Onsen is known for its beautiful view of Mount Fuji. This onsen is also home to the famous Kameoka Castle, which dates back to the 16th century.
There are two main areas of interest here: the castle ruins and the onsen itself. The old town of Nakayama is located around the castle ruins, while the modern town is located near the entrance to the onsen.
There are several small shops selling local goods like sake and sweets. You can also find a variety of restaurants if you’d rather eat than soak away your stress.
Sapporo is another popular destination for tourists who want to soak away their stress. Located in Hokkaido, Sapporo Onsen is one of the oldest onsens in Japan.
The first onsen opened in 1730, making it one of the oldest in the country. Today, there are over 100 different types of onsen available.
You can enjoy the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside whilst taking a dip. There are also many opportunities for shopping. If you’re looking for souvenirs, be sure to check out the onsen museum.
Asahikawa is a smaller version of Sapporo. It’s located about 30 minutes north of Sapporo by train. This onsen is actually part of the larger Asahikawa Onsen group.
There are over 40 different onsen within the complex. All of them offer a unique experience, whether you prefer the quiet serenity of the Japanese style bathhouse or the lively atmosphere of the beer hall.
If you’re planning on visiting Asahikawa, make sure you take advantage of all the onsen has to offer.
Hiratsuka Onsen is located in Kanagawa Prefecture, about 20 minutes south of Yokohama. This onsen is considered one of the most relaxing places in Japan.
There are three main areas of interest: the hot spring (see also, ‘Best Hot Springs in Japan‘), the bath house, and the restaurant. The hot springs are open year round, so you don’t need to worry about getting cold once you get inside.
The bath houses are where you’ll spend most of your time if you’re interested solely in bathing. They feature traditional Japanese architecture, along with a wide range of bathing options.
The restaurant serves delicious meals that will help you recover after your long soak.
This onsen is located in Kamakura, just outside Tokyo. It was originally built in 1592, but today it’s been restored to look as close to how it would have looked during this period.
This onsen is famous for being one of the best preserved examples of Edo Period (1603–1868) architecture in Japan.
It’s not only an interesting historical site, but it’s also a great location for a good long soak. There are plenty of other things to do nearby, including sightseeing and shopping.
Otaru is located in Otaru City, Hokkaido. It’s a short drive from Hakodate, which makes it easy to visit.
Otarusan is known for its beautiful scenery, especially at night when the lights come on. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the summer months, you may even see whales swimming offshore.
A number of onsens are located near the city center. Most of these are fairly modern buildings, but some still maintain the charm of the original structure.
The etiquette in Japanese onsen is taken very seriously. As such, if you’re a tourist visiting Japan, it’s important to show the same level of etiquette when making use of an onsen. Not least because you run the risk of being thrown out of the onsen for not following some simple rules. But mostly because it demonstrates good manners and respect for Japanese culture .
Rule One: Shower Before Entering The Onsen
Onsens are considered as places of healing and purity, so being dirty before entering one is unacceptable. Sweat, soap, and dirt anywhere on your body should be thoroughly cleaned off before entering. Most onsens have a shower area, usually in or just outside the bathing area.
Rule Two: You Must Remove All Clothing
As mentioned in rule one, onsens are considered to be purifying. Clothing, towels, and any other garments should never be brought into the onsen. There’s really no way around this rule, and so nudity is expressly required.
Rule Three: Be Modest
When moving around the bathing area, i.e., from the changing room to the shower to the onsen, you will be provided with a small towel. The main purpose of this towel is to hide your nether regions. Most Japanese men and women will do the same – so when in Rome.
Rule Four: Don’t Go Under The Water
It wouldn’t be too far to say that it is forbidden to dunk your head under the water. There is a very good reason behind this rule, namely that no one wants germs from someone’s mouth floating around in water that is perfect for bacteria.
It’s also best to not dip your hair in the water too, to avoid any hair products or oils dirtying the water, but also because hair clogs the drains.
Rule Five: Towels Should Be Kept Away From The Water
Much like the ground we covered in rule two, towels are considered dirty and should be kept away from the water. It’s very common for people to wear the small towel they’re given on their heads. Whilst this may look strange, when everyone else is doing it the strangeness soon wears off.
Rule Six: Tattoos Are Not Allowed
In Japanese culture, there is a strong connection between tattoos and Japan’s mafia, the Yakuza. Small tattoos can be covered with a waterproof plaster and shouldn’t prevent you from getting into the onsen.
However, if you’re covered from head to toe, a traditional onsen most likely won’t permit you entry. Your best bet if you are covered is to book a private onsen through a ryokan.
Rule Seven: Relax After Your Dip
It’s customary to stay at the onsen after you’ve had a dip in the water. Nearly all onsen have dedicated areas for relaxing afterwards, like lounges and small bars.
Traditional Japanese onsen are a cornerstone of Japanese culture, and something which we would encourage anyone to experience at least once.
These places are considered almost sacred and said to cure nearly all ailments, except for “loneliness”.
There are so many options when choosing which onsen to visit, as they’re a booming aspect of the Japanese tourism industry. That being said, in this article we’ve attempted to round up some of the best ones to visit.
However, this list is by no means exhaustive, and there are lots of other beautiful Onsen to visit in Japan.