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.