Japan is an archipelago of mountainous terrain peppered with around 440 volcanoes (with around 111 of these classed as active), and where there’s volcanic activity, there’s usually a soothing hot spring (onsen) to enjoy too.
But rest and relaxation isn’t the only reason to head to one of Japan’s onsen towns; climbing and hiking opportunities, spectacular natural beauty, impressive ‘hell valleys’ emitting sulphurous steam, and even bathing monkeys await you! Here’s our pick of five onsen towns to visit in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Chubu, Kanto and Kyushu, each one offering their own unique activities to enjoy.
Image credit: Japan large full.svg: Orange Wavederivative work Bigmorr, via Wikimedia Commons
Hokkaido: Noboribetsu Onsen, Shikotsu-Toya National Park
Noboribetsu Onsen sits within Shikotsu-Toya National Park in Japan’s northernmost region of Hokkaido. Travel to the ‘hell valley’ (jigokudani) to experience an other-wordly landscape of volcanic activity and mountainous terrain, with steaming vents and sulphurous streams. The waters here are renowned for their variety (salt, sulphur and iron) and their therapeutic properties.
The best place to enjoy the soothing effects of these hot spring waters is at one of Noboribetsu Onsen’s hotels and inn-style lodgings (ryokan). The town also has one public hot spring.
Tohoku: Ginzan Onsen Town, Yamagata
Ginzan Onsen Town in Japan’s northern Tohoku region is one of Japan’s prettiest onsen towns, sitting amidst a mountainous landscape, with traditional wooden inn-style lodgings (ryokan) lining the river. The town feels particularly atmospheric after dark when the streets are lit up by the glow of gas lanterns, or during winter when the snow settles on rooftops.
Visit one of the local ryokan and enjoy the therapeutic waters of their traditional baths, or use one of the town’s hot springs or free foot baths. There are plenty of other natural wonders to enjoy in the area too; a 22 metre waterfall, mountains to hike, and even a former silver mine to explore (weather permitting).
Kanto: Hakone, Kanagawa
Hakone is probably the most well known hot spring town in the Kanto region. Jump on a bullet train (shinkansen) from Tokyo for a day trip if you have limited time but want to experience a contrast to the neon and nightlife of Japan’s buzzing capital. Or take your time and stay a few nights in one of the relaxing inn-style lodgings or hotels in the area.
One of the most exciting ways to explore the area is to buy a pass that allows you to travel on buses, trains, boats, aerial lifts, and the mountain cable car. Take a boat tour of Lake Ashinoko and enjoy views of Mount Fuji on a clear day. Or take the aerial ropeway to Owakudani and sample one of their famous black eggs cooked in the sulphurous steam. After an action-packed day you can retire to your local ryokan and wallow in a hot spring bath.
Chubu: Yamanouchi, Nagano
Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, Nagano prefecture is the perfect place to observe Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) taking a dip in a pool of hot spring water. Onsen aren’t just for human bathers you know! For the best photo opportunities, visit during the winter months of January or February when the chances of snow fall are higher.
If you want to bathe in the hot spring water yourself, you’ll need to visit the nearby onsen towns of Shibu or Yudanaka. Shibu has a more traditional atmosphere whereas Yudanaka has both traditional parts and more developed, modern areas too.
Image credit: Jigokudani Monkey Park by Douglas Sprott: https://flic.kr/p/a6sYJV
Kyushu: Beppu Onsen, Oita
Head to Beppu Onsen in Oita prefecture and take a tour of the town’s various ‘hell onsen’ (jigoku). It may be a little touristy for some, and you can’t bathe in these onsen, but it’s a fun day out to enjoy an onsen town with a difference! There are seven jigoku in total and you can purchase one pass for admission to all.
Umi Jigoku is perhaps the most impressive of all the jigoku, with its vibrant blue water and billowing plumes of smoke, set within lush gardens. Oniishibozu Jigoku features pools filled with bubbling mud and Chinoike Jigoku has one large pond with blood red waters. Kamado Jigoku (the ‘cooking pot’ hell) is the most interactive of all the attractions; taste the spring water, tuck into some steamed snacks, and bathe your weary feet in the soothing waters. A little further afield, but well worth a visit is Tatsumaki Jigoku where you can watch a geyser erupt every half an hour or so.
Image credit: Beppu onsen by GoToVan: https://flic.kr/p/2g6ycVi
Header image credit: Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei, Kinosaki Onsen by: https://flic.kr/p/DGgy7N
Words by Emily Lovell