You’ve probably seen it on Instagram: an inviting courtyard garden lined with the soft glow of lanterns; wooden buckets placed gently atop smooth slabs of granite; and warm steam rising from mystical water nestled in natural views of beautiful earth. Such scenes are from hot springs in Japan, or “onsen,” and visiting them is a must.
These hot springs are a result of Japan’s volcanic makeup and geothermal activity. Naturally, the country developed a beautiful culture centered on onsen that can be traced as far back as the “Nihon Shoki” (“Chronicles of Japan”) of the eighth century. The waters from onsen are believed to be very good for the skin, circulatory system and overall healing, not to mention, therapeutic for the mind, and continues to be a very popular pastime for both the Japanese people and foreign visitors.
As with nearly every facet of Japan's rich culture, one must follow established courtesies. Experience onsen with confidence by following these 10 simple do’s and don’ts:
- 1.Do check that the onsen you plan to visit allows tattoos, if you have one. Some provide stickers to cover up while others do not allow tattooed guests.
- 2.Do clean yourself thoroughly using the provided washing facilities before entering the onsen. Enjoy the scented shampoos and body soap.
- 3.Do tie long hair to prevent it from falling into the onsen water.
- 4.Do clean up after yourself and put away any items you use including stools and hair dryers.
- 5.Do dry yourself with a towel before re-entering the locker room. Use a “yukata” (kimono-style robe), if available, to walk about more comfortably.
- 6.Don’t wear a swimsuit or underwear in the bath.
- 7.Don’t swim, dive, splash, talk loudly, or be noisy.
- 8.Don’t consume alcohol heavily before using the onsen.
- 9.Don’t allow your towel to touch the onsen water; if it does, wring it out outside the bath. Keep the towel outside the bath or rest it folded on your head.
- 10.Don’t use your phone or camera in the onsen. Soak in the tranquility.
If you find you’re unsure of what to do, helpful signs are often displayed so you can carry on like a local onsen expert.
Best areas for onsen in Japan
As you explore different onsen, you might wonder why some pools are blue and bubbly and others are the color of rust. The Hot Springs Act defines an official onsen as one that is at least 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) or hotter, and contains one or more of 19 specific minerals. These minerals affect the water’s appearance and benefits. For example, sulfur gives pools a milky appearance and distinct smell, hydrogen brings the bubbles, and iron makes for a reddish-brown appearance.
Also, onsen are not to be confused with “sento,” which are everyday public bathhouses that are supplied with regular heated water (and also quite an experience!). A “rotenburo” (outdoor onsen) is the most luxurious with views of falling snow or waves from the Sea of Japan.
If you’re looking for an experience that will help you de-stress and rejuvenate your spirit, visiting an onsen is a great way to bathe in serenity. With over 3,000 onsen and more than 22,000 accommodations varying from budget to luxury, modern to traditional, there is no shortage of experiences from which to choose. Here are a few onsen to try.
Mountainside onsen in Hakone, Kanagawa prefecture
About 1.5 to 2 hours by train from Tokyo Haneda Airport, Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa prefecture is one of the most accessible onsen areas to visit. Known as an “onsen theme park,” Hakone truly offers something for everyone. They are also well known for their day visit packages, with some properties offering a private room and special lunch for day travelers.
At Hakone Yuryo, the highlight is their restaurant with an authentic “irori,” a sunken hearth fireplace that was traditionally used to warm homes and cook meals over charcoal. This is a great place to warm up after a soothing bath, or even visit separately from the onsen. Another unique spot to check out is Yunessun, which is great for families and groups. Kids can enjoy a jungle gym and water slides, and for caffeine lovers, try a coffee bath made of drip coffee — just don’t drink it!
Hakone is also a popular place for skiing and snowboarding. My adventurous family members love this part best. As for me, I’m accident-prone when it comes to land sports, so they can enjoy the snow while I enjoy the warmth of the onsen!
Kanagawa prefecture is a great place to go for a quick escape from Tokyo. The western half offers lush forests, views of Mount Tanzawa and onsen resorts. To the east lies the port cities of Yokohama and Yokosuka. These cities have made their mark on the regional cuisine, producing the Yokohama sanmamen, a ramen bowl that is characterized by toppings of mung bean sprouts, soybean and crunchy vegetables; and theYokosuka Kaigun curry. Kanagawa has a few sake breweries; mostly small, boutique operations that make high quality premium sake.
Kumazawa Brewing Company, makers of the Tensei brand — one of my personal favorites — is located along the southern coastal part of the prefecture. Brewed with relatively harder water, they produce “Infinite Summer,” a light, dry honjozo, and “Song of the Sea,” a complex junmai ginjo. I’ve enjoyed both with barbeque dishes and recommend trying them with your neighborhood lamb kabob dish or Filipino pork lumpia. The rich flavors of both are really a treat!
Coastal onsen in Beppu Hatto, Oita prefecture
They say blessings come in threes, but in the case of Beppu Hatto, they come in eight! Beppu is a phenomenal onsen resort town that is connected by eight distinct springs, and together they produce the most hot water in Japan by volume. Not only can you enjoy a variety of onsen experiences, you can also immerse yourself in naturally heated sand baths and mud baths!
At the heart of Beppu is Kannawa Onsen, which dates back to the Kamakura period (1192-1333), and is the base for the “Jigoku Meguri” or “Hell Tour.” This tour takes visitors to seven springs with different characteristics; it is a view-only tour (no bathing) to demonstrate the area’s hydrothermal activity.
We’re happy to say that the Tippsy Brewery Tour to Usa Jingu Shrine & Koku no Kura stops in Beppu for a stay at the modern Suginoi Hotel, which features an open-air bath with a gorgeous, unobstructed view of the town and Beppu Bay.
Oita prefecture is a relatively small producer of sake, but most breweries also produce barley shochu. Seki saba (Japanese mackerel) is a popular food, as well as tenobe dango jiru (hand-stretched dumpling soup). Although Oita is not a major rice grower, Koku no Kura (producers of the Wakabotan brand) grows Hinohikari rice locally and uses it to brew “Hinohikari 50,” a light, sweet and aromatic junmai ginjo sake. The appealing aroma of apple is not overpowering in any way, and the umami on the palate is a delightful surprise. My family tried this sake at home and enjoyed it with our lunch of chicken braised in herbs. It also paired well with chicken tandoori and basmati rice.
Snowy onsen in Zao Onsen, Yamagata prefecture
If snowscapes are more to your liking and you don’t mind taking a longer trek out to the countryside, Yamagata prefecture is a great place to visit and onsen hop! About 3 to 4 hours from Tokyo Station via the JR Shinkansen is Zao Onsen. Walking through town, you can see the towers of sulfuric steam rise from their numerous inns and hotels, and at night the illuminated hoarfrosts offer an ethereal view.
The snow cover in Zao is like a fortress built by Elsa from the movie “Frozen,” with larger-than-life piles of snow that form “snow monsters” guarding this otherworldly locale during the months from December to March.
Takamiya Ryokan Miyamaso, one of the area’s most popular ryokans, has a 300-year history and authentic Japanese accommodations with modern touches. The cypress bathtubs offer a sensational aroma that is distinctly Japanese and one that will stay with you even after you depart.
If you feel a sense of mystery and reverence for the mountains, that is not by accident. The pre-Meiji name for both Yamagata and Akita prefectures was Dewa province, and refers to the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa — a famous mountain range with an ancient history of mountain worship. Dewasansan is also the name of a local sake rice. There are a number of local varieties now in Yamagata, but Dewa 33 is still the most popular for now.
Yamagata sake is well known to be soft and deep with a distinct flavor profile. My favorite sake from Yamagata is from Kato Kahachiro Brewing Company. Their Ohyama “Tomizu” is one of my three favorite junmai sake because of its soft character and incredible versatility in serving temperatures. Whether accompanying mountain vegetables, La France pears, Zao beef, or other regional specialties, this sake has excellent pairing potential and is definitely the kind of sake one can drink for different occasions.
Include an onsen visit during your next trip to Japan
Onsen in Japan are one of the best ways to enjoy the local culture, cuisine and sake, and an important part of what makes Japan unique. With so many places to choose from, there’s no doubt you will find one that suits your taste and pace. Make sure to check in advance for hours of operation, availability of local amenities, and special rules on tattoos and the like to make your stay as relaxing as possible.
Have you had an onsen experience? Which onsen are you looking forward to visiting? Let us know on social media with #tippsysake, and keep an eye on our Tippsy Brewery Tours page for unique excursions across Japan.
Beppu Onsen Sunigoi Hotel. 2023.
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