Before we get started, there are some things to note. Firstly, most public baths require you to be naked. Baths may or may not be gender-segregated, so it’s best to check beforehand. Next, most public baths also do not allow tattoos. If you have tattoos and are planning on visiting, booking a ryokan with a private bath is your best bet if you cannot easily cover them. Lastly, if you book a reservation with a ryokan, do check if they offer free shuttle services, as some of them very conveniently do so. On to the actual article!
Kusatsu is arguably Japan’s most famous hot spring resort and has been listed as the number 1 onsen resort for a whopping 14 consecutive years! The town boasts one of the largest volumes of high-quality hot spring water in Japan, with antibacterial properties and sulfuric content that is said to smoothen the skin. The natural onsens can be found within lovely traditional ryokans and bathhouses.
Some of the most popular open-air baths include Sainokawara Rotenburo onsen – an open-air bathhouse with beautiful views and Otakinoyu onsen – a bathhouse with both traditional wooden interiors and outdoor options.
Yumomi, which is a traditional method of cooling boiling spring water, is a symbol of Kusatsu. Performances are held daily in the Netsu no Yu building, accompanied by folk music and dances. There are even a few foot baths (ashiyu) found around the town that can be used by tourists for free!
The town is accessible from Tokyo via train. This trip is ideal for those with JR passes, as train is required to reach Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station (2 hours by limited express) before taking a JR bus to Kusatsu (30 minutes). You can consider purchasing a JR Tokyo Wide Pass, which is valid for 3 days, for 10,000 yen, which is already cheaper than 1 round trip.
If you do not have a JR pass, taking the JR highway buses from Tokyo (Shinjuku JR Highway Bus Terminal) is the cheapest and most convenient option. The one-way trip costs 3300 yen and takes about four hours. Here is their official website.
Beppu is an extremely famous hot spring resort, flaunting eight main springs, named Beppu, Kannawa, Myoban, Kankaiji, Hamawaki, Kamegawa, Horita and Shibaseki. Together they produce more hot spring water than any other onsen resort in all of Japan!
When discussing the best hot spring resorts in Japan, Beppu regularly comes up because of the wide range of bath types that can be enjoyed. Besides the usual hot water baths, Beppu is also famous for its sand baths where you can bury yourself in naturally heated sand, steam baths and mud baths.
There are also Jigoku (hell) ponds for viewing and cooking local delights. Tourists can steam their own meals at the Jigokumushi Kobo Steam Cooking Center, guided by staff. You can choose plates of portioned dishes, before heading to the steaming area. Some of the most famous bathhouses here include Tanayu – a leading ryokan with outdoor pools with spectacular views and onsen Hoyo land – the place to go for mud and steam baths.
Beppu is on the southern island Kyushu and is thus accessible from major cities Fukuoka, Nagasaki and even Hiroshima. If you have a JR pass or a JR Kyushu rail pass, you can take the sonic limited express train from Fukuoka’s Hakata Station to Beppu. This is otherwise very expensive.
If you choose to fly in, the nearest airport is Oita airport. The one-way bus journey between Oita Airport and Beppu takes 40 minutes and costs 1500 yen. Here is their official website
Arima Onsen is often regarded as one of the best hot spring towns in western Japan. The mountainous town is surrounded by nature, and has a long history backing its reputation. It is one of the oldest hot spring resorts and was regularly enjoyed by royalty and noblemen.
The town’s spring water is recognized by the Ministry of Environment for having 7 out of the 9 healing properties that can be found in spring water. The Kinsen (gold water) is reddish due to iron deposits and is said to be good for skin ailments and muscle pain. The clear Ginsen (silver water) contains radium and carbonate and is said to alleviate pain and boost the immune system.
There are two public bathhouses, Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu, and many traditional ryokans where you can enjoy the spring water. Several ryokans also open their baths to non-staying visitors during the day. Other famous places include Goshobo – one of Arima’s oldest ryokans.
Arima Onsen is very accessible from major cities in the Kansai region, such as Osaka and Kyoto by train as it is in Kobe. If flying in, the nearest airport is Kobe Airport. From Kobe, Arima Onsen is accessible by Arima Line bound for Arima Onsen Station. As usual, you can consider buying a JR Pass or one of the Kansai Regional Passes.
There is a cable car and ropeway to Arima onsen from Kobe, with the nearest station being Rokko Station. It will take you across the scenic Rokko mountains. Here is their official website.
Gero Onsen was referred to as one of Japan’s three best onsens by the Confucian poet Hayashi Razan (the other two being Kusatsu and Arima above), and now receives over a million visitors per year. The town is especially popular during the Takayama festival period.
The water of Gero Onsen is slightly alkaline and is said to be mildly scented. It is said to be great to obtain smooth, beautiful skin and relieve pain and fatigue.
There are three public bathhouses available in the town, along with many Ryokans. The best part about Gero Onsen is the Yumeguri Tegata (spa pass), which can be bought everywhere, including convenience stores, that gives you access to about 30 ryokan baths. At the south end of the Gero Bridge is a large open-air bath you can bath in for free.
Gero is accessible from major cities Nagoya and Takayama, but also can be easily reached from the Kansai region by train.The one way journey from Nagoya to Gero takes about 90 minutes and costs around 4500 yen by JR Hida limited express, and is thus more suitable for those with JR passes.
From Takayama, you can reach Gero by limited express (45 minutes, about 2000 yen). Local buses also connect Takayama with Gero Onsen. A one-way trip takes about 90 minutes and costs 1040 yen. Here is their official website.
Noboribetsu is considered the best onsen town in Hokkaido, and is also the largest- with many of its ryokans being considerably bigger than those in other places. Several of them open their baths during daytime to non-staying guests.
Noboribetsu onsen is actually part of the greater Shikotsu-Tōya National Park, and thus boasts 9 kinds of spring waters, with sulfur, iron and various salts that confer healing properties.
Noboribetsu’s waters come from Jigokudani (hell valley), which itself is worth the visit. Along with the pretty forested trails beside geysers and rock formations, the valley features Oyunuma pond, from which hot, sulfurous water flows into a river. A natural footbath can be enjoyed downstream of this river. Some of the most famous baths include Daiichi Takimotokan- a bath fed by 7 different springs with different minerals and Sagiriyu Public Bath – a small and attractive bath that is popular among locals.
Noboribetsu is extremely accessible from major cities Sapporo and Hakodate. From Sapporo, the journey takes an hour by express (Super Hokuto, Hokuto, Ltd. Exp. Suzuran) and costs 4000 yen one way. From Hakodate, the journey takes 2 and a half hours by express (Super Hokuto, Hokuto) and costs 6370 yen. Both journeys are covered by the JR pass and Hokkaido rail pass.
If you choose to fly in, the nearest airport is the New Chitose Airport. From the airport the Airport highway bus services will take you to Noboribetsu onsen. The Airport highway bus service will take you to the town in an hour, leaving at noon sharp every day. Here is their official website.
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