In Travel

Japan’s Most Spectacular Onsens

Japan is one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth, a modern marvel where innovation and change are practically second nature. Yet, beneath its high-tech facade is a land where the traditions and customs of the past still play a vital role in everyday life.

One such tradition is the Japanese onsen. The word onsen specifically refers to natural hot springs, however its definition has been extended over the years to encompass public bathhouses, traditional inns, and the resort towns often located close to the springs.

A volcanically active nation, Japan is home to an abundance of natural hot springs, and their steaming, mineral-rich waters have been harnessed and enjoyed by the Japanese people since at least the sixth century. They come in many shapes and sizes, yet they must all feature water hotter than 27 degrees Celsius and at least one of 19 different minerals.

Sento are another common form of public bathing facility, though they tend to be a more basic, utilitarian offering where you simply visit, wash and leave. They generally don’t use hot spring water either. Onsen, on the other hand, are an experience to be relished.

There are over 3,000 onsen resorts across the country, with the mineral content of their waters a key drawcard for visitors. Sulphur rich onsens are believed to help treat skin disorders and arthritis, while sulphate springs are good for healing cuts and bruises.

Each onsen is beautiful it its own way, yet there are some which are truly out of this world. From a still mountain pool set beside a gushing waterfall to an open-air bathhouse on the roof of a Tokyo skyscraper, these are just a handful of Japan’s most spectacular onsens.

Dogo Onsen

It would be impossible to discuss onsen in Japan and not mention Dogo Onsen, believed to be one of the country’s oldest. Located in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, the current bathhouse was built in 1894, yet the site has a long history of bathing – dating to at least 712AD.

The three-storey wooden structure is stunning, an atmospheric maze of passages, stairways and rooms. There are two types of bath available – the gender-separated communal Kami no Yu (bath of the gods), and the smaller and more private Tama no Yu (bath of the spirits).

Anime fans will no doubt recognise the building, which served as partial design inspiration for the witch Yubaba’s bathhouse in the 2001 animated film Spirited Away – the tale of a young girl who accidentally stumbles into a magical world of ghosts, gods and water spirits.

HOSHINOYA Tokyo

The rooftop of an 18-storey skyscraper is probably the last place you’d expect to find an onsen, yet that’s exactly what you get at the luxe five-star HOSHINOYA Tokyo hotel.

A hidden oasis from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s financial district below, the top floor of HOSHINOYA Tokyo features two gender-separated bathing halls, each filled with mineral-rich hot spring water pumped from 1500 metres underground. The high saline content of the water is said to help the body not only relax, but also improve its ability to preserve heat.

Each bath contains an indoor and outdoor area, connected by a cave-like tunnel. Bathing in the soothing waters, watching the clouds pass by overhead, is a truly relaxing experience.

Sennin-buro

Sennin-buro Photo: Chris Ashton

Wakayama Prefecture is renowned for its centuries-old onsens, and there’s one in particular which deserves your attention – Kawayu. Anywhere you dig along the onsen village’s rocky riverbank, hot water bubbles to the surface, creating a private pool just for you.

During the winter months, a large section of the river is blocked off from the regular flow, allowing the hot water that bubbles from beneath the ground to heat the pool. Known as Sennin-buro, it attracts thousands of visitors every year.\

Kawayu onsen is close to the ancient Kumano Kodo trail, making it an excellent place to soothe your weary muscles after a long day exploring the sacred pilgrimage.

Oirase Keiryu Hotel

At the northern tip of Honshu island, Aomori Prefecture is renowned for its lush beech forests, numerous waterfalls, and particularly high annual snowfall – all of which you can enjoy while bathing in the incredible outdoor onsen at Oirase Keiryu Hotel.

Built overlooking the Oirase mountain stream, designated a special place scenic beauty, the hotel is designed to feel like an extension of the forest with large picture windows offering striking views of the surrounding woodland from almost every corner of the building.

Its Yaekokonoe-no-Yu bath, set beneath a canopy of trees beside a cascading waterfall, is by far one of the most picturesque in all Japan. Soaking in its hot, mineral-rich waters, enjoying the sounds of abundant birdlife and waterfall beside you, you could easily think the pool was 100% natural.

More than just a form of bathing, onsen are a social and cultural experience – an absolute must-try for any traveller to Japan. Before you visit, be sure to read up on etiquette here.

Published 29 October, 2018