Japan is in hot water. Literally. The stuff percolates up out of the ground from one end of the country to the other. The Japanese word for a hot spring is ‘onsen’, and there are more than 3000 of them here, more than anywhere else on earth. So if your idea of relaxation involves soaking your bones in a tub of bubbling hot water, you’ve come to the right place.
With so many onsen , it’s hardly surprising that they come in every size, shape and colour. There is an onsen on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. There are onsen high up in the Japan Alps that you can only get to by walking for a full day over high mountain peaks. There are onsen bubbling up among the rocks on the coast that only exist when the tide is just right.
Some Japanese will tell you that the only distinctively Japanese aspect of their culture – that is, something that didn’t ultimately originate in mainland Asia – is the bath. There are accounts of onsen bathing in Japan’s earliest historical records, and it’s pretty certain that the Japanese have been bathing in onsen as long as there have been Japanese.
Over the millennia, they have turned the simple act of bathing in an onsen into something like a religion. Today, the ultimate way to experience an onsen is to visit an onsen ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with its own private hot-spring bath. At an onsen ryokan you spend all day enjoying the bath, relaxing in your room and eating sumptuous food. Like many of the best things in life, some of the finest onsen in Japan are free. Just show up with a towel and your birthday suit, splash a little water on yourself and plunge in. No communication hassles, no expenses and no worries. And even if you must pay to enter, it’s usually just a minor snip – averaging about ¥700 (US$6) per person.Onsen Town
Kinosaki (Kansai;) Kinosaki, on the Sea of Japan coast in northern Kansai, is the quintessential onsen town. With seven public baths and dozens of onsen ryokan, this is the place to sample the onsen ryokan experience. You can relax in your accommodation taking the waters as it pleases you, and when you get tired of your ryokan’s bath, you can hit the streets in a yukata (light cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) and visit the public baths.Hidden Onsen
Lamp no Yado (Noto-hantō, Central Honshū;) Noto-hantō is about as far as one can go in Central Honshū, and the seaside is about as far as one can go on this peninsula. A country road takes you to a narrow 1km path, from where you have to climb a switchback hill on foot. Sit in the rotemburo (outdoor bath) and enjoy the Sea of Japan views through craggy rocks.Semitropical Onsen
Urami-ga-taki Onsen (Hachijō-jima, Izu-shotō;) Even in a country of lovely onsen, this is a real standout: the perfect little rotemburo located next to a waterfall in lush semitropical jungle. It’s what they’re shooting for at all those resorts on Bali, only this is the real thing. Sitting in the bath as the late-afternoon sunlight pierces the ferns here is a magical experience. Did we mention that’s it’s free?Onsen-Beach Combination
Shirahama (Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai;) There’s something peculiarly pleasing about dashing back and forth between the ocean and a natural hot-spring bath – the contrast in temperature and texture is something we never tire of. At Shirahama, a beach town in southern Kansai, there is a free onsen right on the beach. And Sakino-yu Onsen here is just spectacular – you sit in the tubs and watch the rollers from the Pacific break over the rocks just a few metres away.Do-It-Yourself Onsen
Kawa-yu Onsen (Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai;) If you like doing things your own way, you’ll love this natural oddity of an onsen in southern Kansai. Here, the onsen waters bubble up through the rocks of a riverbed. You choose a likely spot and dig out a natural hotpot along the riverside and wait for it to fill with hot water and – voila – your own private rotemburo . In the winter, it gets even better: they use bulldozers to turn the entire river into a giant 1000-person onsen. It doesn’t hurt that the river water is a lovely translucent emerald colour.Onsen Ryokan
Nishimuraya Honkan (Kinosaki, Kansai;) If you want to sample the ultimate in top-end onsen ryokan, this is the place. With several fine indoor and outdoor baths and elegant rooms, your stay here will be a highlight of your trip to Japan, and will shed some light on why the Japanese consider an onsen vacation to be the utmost in relaxation.Onsen Ski Town
Nozawa Onsen (Nagano Prefecture, Central Honshū;) What could be better than a day spent on the slopes, followed by a soak in a jacuzzi? Well, how about a day on the slopes followed by a soak in a real natural hot spring? This fine little ski town boasts some first-rate skiing, reliable snow, ripping alpine views and no fewer than 13 free onsen. Best of all, the onsen here are scalding hot, which is a nice contrast to the snow outside and it feels wonderful on tired skier’s legs.
You’ll find the Japan of your imagination – immaculately raked gardens, quiet Buddhist temples and mysterious Shintō shrines – waiting for you all across the archipelago, even in the ultramodern capital of Tokyo. Kyoto You could stay in Kyoto for a month and see a different garden, temple and shrine each day. If you’re after traditional Japan, you could spend your whole trip here and not get bored. Nara A short hop, skip and jump from Kyoto, Nara is a compact wonder of a city that some consider the birthplace of Japanese culture. It has some of our favourite gardens, temples and shrines. Kanazawa Some call this small city on the Sea of Japan coast a ‘mini-Kyoto’, but Kanazawa isn’t a ‘mini’ anything – it’s big on temples and has one of the best gardens in Japan: Kenroku-en. Tokyo That’s right: amid all that concrete and neon there are some wonderful hints of traditional culture. If you can’t make it to Kyoto, the capital has enough to satisfy the craving for ‘old Japan’.Culinary Adventure
Who doesn’t come to Japan to eat? And we don’t just mean ‘extreme eating’; we mean some of the food you might have tried back home, only much better versions. Then there’s all the new stuff to try – and did we mention really good sake? Tokyo With more Michelin stars than any city on earth, this is the place for the best Japanese food in the country. And, if you need a break from local cuisine, some of the best French and Italian food you’ll find anywhere. Tsukiji Tokyo’s fish market deserves its own entry. Simply pointing out that it’s the biggest in the world doesn’t begin to convey the size, variety and excitement of the place. If you enjoy eating or cooking, you’ll enjoy Tsukiji. Kyoto If you want to sample kaiseki (haute cuisine) in traditional surroundings, or dine with a geisha, this is the place. And don’t forget the Japanese sweet shops and the wonderful old Nishiki food market. Depachika Department-store food halls in Tokyo and Kyoto are the best food shops on the planet. Be prepared to get hungry, get overwhelmed and get lost.Hiking
When you think of going overseas to hike, Japan probably doesn’t rank near the top of your list. But Japan has some brilliant hiking and a reasonably priced hut system that rivals anything you’ll find elsewhere. Whether you fancy a week-long hike across the peaks with nothing but a daypack or just a few good strolls in the hills between bouts of temple-hopping, Japan will definitely satisfy. Japan Alps The Japan Alps in Central Honshū form the roof of Japan. If you like big peaks, grand scenery and long walks, this is the place. Hokkaidō You’ll find some seriously rugged hiking on Japan’s northern island. From incredible coastal treks to the famed Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, Hokkaidō is a destination for nature lovers. Kyūshū If the whiff of volcanic gases and the threat of an occasional eruption adds a certain frisson to your hiking, you’ll love the volcanoes of Japan’s southern island of Kyūshū. Kumano Kodō Head down to the wooded wilds of southern Kansai to follow the ancient pilgrimage path to the shrines and hot springs of Hongū.Castles
For anyone with an interest in Japan’s feudal era (think samurai, shōguns and daimyō ), a visit to a Japanese castle is sure to get the imagination working. Kids, in particular, find them fascinating. The Japanese word for ‘castle’, by the way, is jō. Himeji-jō The queen of all Japanese castles, the ‘White Heron’ is presently undergoing a multiyear renovation and the main keep is under wraps, but it’s still an interesting stop for castle fans. Hikone-jō Within easy day-trip distance of Kyoto, Hikone-jō is a beautiful castle that makes up for its lack of size with a fine view and graceful lines. Osaka-jō It’s not original and it’s not subtle, but it sure looks good from a distance or when the cherries in the surrounding park are in bloom. Matsuyama-jō Dominating the city of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, this is easily one of Japan’s finest original castles. Shuri-jō Way down in Okinawa, this rebuilt castle is a completely different kettle of fish from its mainland cousins – the Chinese influence is clear.Onsen (Hot Springs)
If you’re tired of coming home from a vacation and feeling like you need a vacation, you should try a Japanese onsen holiday. Spend some time soaking in a few of Japan’s great onsen or, better yet, in an onsen ryokan (a traditional inn built around a private hot spring) and you’ll arrive home recharged. Kinosaki Japan’s classic onsen town is everything an onsen town ought to be: quaint, friendly and packed with homey ryokan. Walk from one great bath to another in your yukata (robe) and don’t miss the crab cuisine in the winter. Kayōtei We’re going to single this onsen ryokan out for