While visiting destinations in the research for our book, Japan – 100 Hidden Towns, we had the privilege of immersing ourselves in many places that positively gurgled with hot spring (onsen) loveliness. While we do not claim that the following are the most well-known onsen towns in Japan, we do guarantee that each one is a fabulous place to go with the flow, let off steam, and tap into the local bathing culture.
URESHINO (Saga Prefecture)
Tucked away in the quiet northwest of Kyushu, Ureshino is more than just a hot spring resort town, providing fine dining options and a pretty town centre. Famed for its tea and pottery, it has a slight ambience of a European resort, possibly due to its historical links to Nagasaki and the West.
MIMASAKA (Okayama Prefecture)
Mimasaka is locked into the heart of rural western Japan. This quiet backwater has notable history, and offers resort-style attractions in an onsen setting. Unwind at one of the spa resorts and venture out to take in some local history and crafts.
NOZAWAONSEN (Nagano Prefecture)
During the winter months, Nozawaonsen is one of Japan’s most iconic winter sports resorts, combining a bustling, village atmosphere with competition-level ski slopes. During the off-season, the tempo slows down and it becomes a perfect place to relax. Nozawaonsen has been renowned for its hot springs and traditional inns since the Edo period. Legend has it that the first hot spring here was shown to a hunter by a wounded bear. Throughout the village, there are many different types of hot springs, including 13 public hot spring baths where villagers and visitors can share a conversation and a relaxing soak.
BIBAI (Hokkaido Prefecture)
As with many towns in the central region of Hokkaido, much of the recorded history of Bibai dates back less than 200 years. The discovery of coal seams in the area led to its rapid development, as the island became a powerhouse in Japan’s industrial boom. The other upshot of the many geological studies made at the time was the discovery of a wealth of artefacts from Japan’s prehistoric past. The hot spring water in the Pipa-no-Yu Yurinkan hotel onsen is famed amongst locals as being the silkiest to gurgle through the pores of the volcanic strata in the whole region.
MIYOSHI (Tokushima Prefecture)
The rugged terrain of Miyoshi, in the heart of Shikoku Island, makes for an invigorating experience – mist-covered mountains, capricious rainstorms, sunlit rapids, strata-lined valley rocks and a revitalising dose of the colour green. The beautiful, emerald rivers that run between Oboke and Koboke are where most visitors begin their excursions – trips which might include trekking, rafting, pleasure boat cruises, hot spring baths and a taste of local folklore.
GERO (Gifu Prefecture)
Though not well known among foreign visitors, Gero has long been a place of recuperation and relaxation for the Japanese, thanks to its hot springs – including open air baths and free foot spas that can be found dotted around the town. Set in a striking valley, criss-crossed by two rivers, the town is perfect for strolling around, sampling local goods, and as a base for hikes further afield. Combine a soak with a visit to the nearby Gassho Village in the hills above the town, or go hiking amid the lush nature of Gandate Kyo.
KUSATSU (Gunma Prefecture)
The spa town of Kusatsu is considered one of the very best places to experience hot springs in Japan, and the area is geared almost exclusively to relaxing and bathing in volcanic baths. Located near the active volcano of Mount Shirane, the town is like a scene from a film, where hot steam rises from the grates in the streets, and visitors can relax their feet in one of many free-to-use foot baths. Every other building is a bathhouse, either old or new. Kusatsu is surrounded by beautiful countryside and boasts an impressive ski resort.
HAKUBA (Nagano Prefecture)
Located in the Northern Alps, just over an hour from Nagano City, Hakuba was one of the main sites of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Its scenery is spectacular, with a number of rugged, inspiring peaks towering at almost 3,000 metres. The loosely bound town has spread along the valley floor at the foot of Mount Shirouma, and is home to hotels, restaurants, hot springs and art galleries.
MISASA (Tottori Prefecture)
Misasa is a relaxing hot spring resort that boasts curative radium-rich waters. The characters for Misasa literally mean ‘three mornings’, a name that is said to have originated from a belief that a visitor who stays for three mornings in the hot springs of the town will be fully cured of any ailment they are suffering. Aside from a relaxing soak, the main draw of the town is the Nageiredo Hall of Sanbutsuji Temple, located on the cliff face of Mount Mitoku nearby.
SEMBOKU (Akita Prefecture)
Semboku encompasses a large and diverse area in Akita. From the graceful, Edo-era streets of Kakunodate, to the heights of Mount Komagatake and the relaxing hot springs of Nyuto Onsen, Semboku has something for everyone.
Brian Smith is the Designer of Japan – 100 Hidden Towns (ISBN 9784905527497, published by Nellie’s Ltd.) available worldwide from autumn 2018.
For more information, visit: 100hiddentowns.jp