Winter Activities in Tohoku : Yukimi Onsen

For many, taking a dip in an onsen (hot spring) surrounded by snow-capped mountains while watching snow fall gently is a tranquil experience bordering on the heavenly. This is called yukimi onsen, meaning enjoying snow views while soaking in an open-air hot spring. In Japan, it is common for people to do this in order to relax their bodies and minds, and to socialize with family and friends. Although stripping down naked in front of total strangers might sound daunting for some first-time visitors, the tradition (hadaka-no-tsukiai) goes back centuries; it is thought to break down boundaries between individuals, thus allowing relaxed, peaceful conversation.

Matsukawa Onsen

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Matsukawa is a charming, secluded hot spring town tucked neatly inside Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Established in the Edo Period, the water has a light, milky appearance because of its high sulfur content and is said to boost blood circulation, thus helping to heal many ailments. There are a couple of ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) where guests can enjoy old- style open-air baths with scenic views for free. Visiting is a soothing and unforgettable way to experience the traditional appeal of rural Japanese culture.

Access: 90 minutes from Tohoku Shinkansen Morioka Station by bus

Sukayu Onsen

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Sukayu Onsen, famous for its giant mixed-gender bath, is located on a 925-meter high plateau on Aomori Prefecture’s Mt. Hakkoda. Every winter, visitors from Japan and abroad come seeking moments of supremely blissful relaxation and reflection at this picturesque hot spring hideaway. The main bath, sen-nin-buro, received its name from its massive size and features an old, large cypress cabin with a timeless atmosphere. If you are looking for a genuine, traditional Japanese public bathing experience, this is the perfect spot!

Access: 70 minutes from JR Aomori Station by bus

Nyuto Onsen

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Akita Prefecture’s Nyuto Onsen is one of the most unvisited in Japan due to its remote location. Surrounded by lovely beech forests and an abundance of seasonal scenery, it is blessed with a mineral-rich spring that has been helping to heal the ailments of locals for more than 350 years. There are seven traditional inns that offer outdoor baths with views of unparalleled beauty, especially in the winter when piles of snow blanket the mountains surrounding the isolated area. If you are in the market to experience the true peace and quiet of rural Japan, this is a blue-chip choice!
Access: 45 minutes from JR Tazawako Station by bus

Other Recommended Yukimi Onsen

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Tsuta Onsen: Towada-shi, Aomori
One of the most popular hidden onsens in Japan. Feel the spring water well up from the bottom of the bathtub.

Zao Onsen: Yamagata-shi, Yamagata
Discovered more than 1,900 years ago, the onsen is located in one of the most famous mountain resorts.

Naruko Onsen: Osaki-shi, Miyagi
Naruko Onsen consists of ve areas: Naruko, Higashi Naruko, Kawatabi, Nakayamadaira and Onikobe. With more than 370 hot spring sources available, visitors can fully enjoy the experience of traditional Japanese bathing.

Come on over to Komatsu (5) : 1300 year old Ryokan – Houshi

Being established in the year 718 Houshi was once recognized as the oldest hotel in the world before another ryokan in Yamanashi prefecture beat its founding date by 13 years. Still, Houshi has been operated by the same family for forty-six generations giving it an amazing history.

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The ryokan’s hot spring is said to be founded by a monk. While he was climbing the holy Mount Hakusan he had a dream where the mountain’s deity told him about a spring with restorative powers and ordered him to find it for the people of Awazu.

It has 100 guest rooms and a ‘Hanare’, a private guest residence. There are two indoor and two same-sex-only outdoor hot spring baths. Two family baths can also be privately reserved by guests. There are a total of four buildings belonging to the Ryokan; Shinshun no Yakata (early spring building), Haru no Yakata (spring building), Natsu no Yakata (summer building), and Aki no Yakata (autumn building).

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The entrance to the building is very impressive with a beautiful decorative carpet. When you first arrive, you are welcomed with a cup of matcha and a sweet while looking at the inner garden.

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When you stay at a ryokan, food is served in your room and an attendant is there to help you explain the dishes and later to help you make your bed.

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After eating you can visit the amazing outdoor and indoor baths for a nice long and relaxing soak. The water is beautiful and it is not difficult to believe the legend that it has special curative powers given by a god.

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If you want to be truly luxurious, you can stay in the special VIP room where emperors have stayed before. It is a big complex that is more than just one room. But if that is out of your budget, you can still enjoy the view of the thousand-year old garden.

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Other entertainment at Houshi include a bar, occasional Noh plays and a small museum featuring crafts from the region.

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Access

Awazu Onsen, Komatsu-shi
Ishikawa-ken 92383
Website: http://www.ho-shi.co.jp/jiten/Houshi_E/home.htm

Read Also:
Come on over to Komatsu (1) : The City of Kabuki
Come on over to Komatsu (2) : The Forest of Wisdom
Come on over to Komatsu (3) : Craft Theme Park
Come on over to Komatsu (4) : Natadera, the temple in touch with Nature
Come on over to Komatsu (6) : Rojo Park
Come on over to Komatsu (7) : The 7 wonders of Komatsu

Toshichi Onsen

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Toshichi Onsen is situated in the Towada Hachimantai National Park, which lies between Akita prefecture and Iwate prefecture. Sitting at an altitude of 1,400m, it is the highest hot spring in Tohoku region. It is said that its name came from the name of a logger, Toshichi, who discovered the hot spring. In this area, there are some open-air baths where you can take a bath and feel the fresh mountain air at the same time. Many climbers and skiers visit here every year. Towada Hachimantai Hot spring Resort including Toshichi Hot spring is designated as one of the Public Hot spring Resort in Japan.
Toshichi-Onsen-300x188Toshichi Onsen Saiunso It is a ryokan which stands around the summit of Mt. Hachimantai. Toshichi Onsen Saiunso has some open-air baths from which you can enjoy breathtaking view of both Mt. Iwate and Mt. Hachimantai.  The spring water is milky white and it contains sulfur that is effective in treating neuralgia, digestive disorders, diabetes, hypertension, various skin conditions, poor circulation, etc.

[ Information ]
Address : Kitanomata, Matsuoyoriki, Hachimantai,
Iwate Phone : 090-1495-0950
Hours: 8AM – 6PM
Admission: 600 Yen
Web: http://www.toshichi.com/index.html (Japanese only)

Fly me to the ONSEN

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“To an onsen!”
This was what most WAttention readers said when asked where they’d like to go when they visit Japan. There are more than 2,400 formally registered hot springs all over Japan.
The number will double if you include private onsens or those that are currently being drilled. So you’ll have plenty of choices when it comes to which onsen to visit. You can go to practically any part of Japan to enjoy an onsen.

What is an onsen or a hot spring?

Onsen technically means either a place or phenomenon where hot water springs from the ground. According to “the hot spring law”, onsen water must have temperatures of above 25℃ in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and South Africa, above 20℃ in European countries like Italy and France, and above 21 ℃ in USA. The water must also have at least more than one of 18 compounds, including manganese, ion and radium salt, to qualify it as a hot spring. Often in Japan, the springs have much higher levels of such compounds than required.

Read also: Japanese Bathing For Beginners

Each onsen location offers different water types and qualities – such as carbonate springs, sulfur springs or intense salt springs – but a common characteristic among them is the rich content of minerals in the water that is known to be beneficial for health; it can give you smoother skin, ease stiff shoulders or even aid in slimming. The medicinal value of these hot springs have been recognised since ancient times, and have been known to alleviate symptoms like nerve-related pains, excessive sensitivity to cold, diabetes, ringworm and so on. Traditionally in Japan, many who hope to cure chronic diseases often immerse themselves in therapeutic baths called “tooji”, and stay for longer periods at such spas.

Charming open-air hot springs – “roten-buro”

Can you imagine dipping yourself in an open-air hot spring bath – with the wind rustling past and sunlight bathing you – as you soak in the surrounding scenic beauty? This is a quintessential “roten-buro” experience, whether you’re enjoying the lush greens of summer, the splendid bright colours of autumn, quiet snow scenes in winter or a night bath under a starry sky. Relaxing in a hot spring bath and falling in love with the scenery around you makes for a memorable experience.

Japan is blessed with many hot springs, each with a distinct characteristic. Here are some of the more popular places:

turunoyuTsurunoyu (crane’s hot water), a part of Nyuto hot springs (Akita Prefecture), is situated in a deep mountain and earned its name from an old local folklore as a place where cranes used to go to nurse their wounds. This is a very popular place because visitors love the unspoiled natural beauty of the mountains while relaxing in the milky hot spring with a sulfurous content. Many foreign travellers come here from all over the world.

 

kuroneiwaburoKuroneiwa-buro (Shizuoka Prefecture) is located by the sea and has an open atmosphere. It is a wonderful spot to enjoy the scenery of the vast ocean spread right in front of you while you soak in the hot spring. The scent of the ocean and sound of waves add to the sense of relaxation. It’s a mixed bathing place, but don’t worry! You can wrap a towel around yourself when entering the bath. The hours between 19:00 and 21:00 are allocated exclusively to ladies.

 

shirahoneShirahone (Nagano Prefecture) is a public open-air hot spring at the confluence of two rivers – the Yuzawa and the Yukawa. Surrounded by a forest of broadleaf trees, the autumn scenes are simply breathtaking, creating a heavenly experience when bathing during this season.

 

 

Mixed bathing is a part of time-honoured Japanese culture

You may be astonished and even feel repulsed, but don’t be, because this has been a common custom since the Edo period (1603-1868). Public baths have served as social gathering places, where everyone – including men and women, old and young – enjoyed each other’s company. In those days, hot springs were meant for locals who knew each other very well, and would uninhibitedly scrub each other’s back while enjoying local gossip. Mixed bathing in modern days is the legacy of this custom in agrarian Japan. Many historic hot springs, such as Houshi Onsen (known to be 1,300 years old) and Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen are meant for mixed bathing.

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Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen
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Houshi Onsen

One good aspect of mixed bathing is that the whole family or a couple can take a bath together. Nowadays, the tendency to prefer mixed baths is getting popular among young women. Some would say that they felt shy in the beginning, but with their boyfriends nearby, they felt very safe. Others don’t enjoy hot springs when they have to be separated into single-sex sections. “Going to an onsen on a weekend is a special occasion for us. We enjoy bathing in an onsen together.”

Enjoying a dip together with friends in an onsen to chat or to enjoy the view would definitely make for a memorable holiday.

Reserved open-air onsen, gaining popularity

For those of you who find bathing with total strangers totally unacceptable, there is a solution! You can reserve an area in a hot spring – either open-air or indoor – exclusively for you and your loved ones. Many inns and hotels offer rooms with these exclusive onsens.

Here are a few inns and hotels that offer private open-air onsen:

Lake Toya Hot Spring – The Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with private view spa: Yes

With views of Nakajima Island and Mt. Yotei (also known as Hokkaido’s Mt. Fuji) across the serene lake waters, and active volcano Mt. Usu in the south, Lake Toya is perhaps the most scenic spa resort in Hokkaido. Enjoy the balance of tradition and convenience with their wide selection of Japanese-Western style rooms, all of which face the lake, and some of which include a private view spa. Along with the top floor public spas, featuring chloride spring, sulfate spring, sodium bicarbonate saline spring, the private onsens are perfect for catching the evening fireworks shows on the lake between April and November.

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Access:
Take the JR Rapid Airport Train from New Chitose Airport to Minami Chitose, then take the JR Limited Express from Minami Chitose to JR Toya Station. A 15-min. taxi ride from the station.

WEB:
http://en.nonokaze-resort.com/

Noboribetsu Hot Spring – Takinoya

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Private-use hot springs: No
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Surrounded by the lush greenery of Shikotsu-Toya National Park in southwestern Hokkaido, Noboribetsu is heralded as one of the world’s most extraordinary hot spring resorts, boasting nine types of water. With four of these—salt/saline spring, iron-rich ferruginous spring, radium spring, and sulphur spring—sourced from the nearby Jigokudani Valley, Takinoya is an ideal hide away for physical healing. The three onsens here come with a variety of beautiful backdrops, including rich forestry and a beautifully manicured Japanese garden. Though lively in the spring and summer, winter also makes for a great quiet escape, under the gentle cover of snowfall.

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Access:
Take the JR Limited Express from New Chitose Airport to JR Noboribetsu Station. A 10-min. taxi ride from the station.

WEB:
http://takinoya.co.jp/ (Japanese)

Kawabaonsen – Yutorian

Experience Japan’s original surroundings at this hot spring lodge just 2 hours from Tokyo

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Kawaba Village in Gunma Prefecture, which is blessed with good quality onsen water, is where the elegant ryokan Yutorian – rich in history and nature – is located. What is unique about this place is not just the fact that the kayabuki building was constructed using kayabuki from all over Japan, and that it comprises “Annex Yuzan” which prides itself for its view from 634 meters above sea level, but the way of getting around via battery-run carts and monorails is also unique. The onsen water here is known to be highly effective in beautifying the skin.

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Spacious suites over 100m2 wide, complete with their own outdoor hot springs.

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A kaiseki dinner at Yutorian featuring local produce in all 11 dishes.

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Address:
Gunma Prefecture
Tonegun, Kawaba Village, Yuhara 451-1

WEB:
http://kawabata-yutorian.jp (Japanese)

Yakushionsen – Hatago

Enjoy a hidden onsen with character at Yakushionsen Hatago

An old country house sprawling over 23,000 sq m and a reconstruction of the village days of old in Japan, Kayabuki no Sato is a popular ryokan just two-and-a-half hours from Tokyo. Set amidst the glory of nature, one can enjoy natural spring water that has been gushing forth for over 200 years here. There are two types of rooms, the “yasuragikan” which comes with a partially open-air cedar bath, and the “seseraginokan” which is a new block along the stream. A kaiseki meal cooked over a “irori”(hearth) using local produce is very popular.

Enjoy a dip in this outdoor onsen with a view of the waterfall right before your eyes.

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All “yasuragikan” rooms come with an open-air bath. Japanese rooms with a hearth-space and another separate room.

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Enjoy the ambience of a hearth and the taste of local produce.

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Address:
Gunma Prefecture
Agatsumagun Higashiagatsumamachi, Motojuku 3330-20

WEB:
http://www.yakushi-hatago.co.jp/en/

Gero Hot Spring – Gero Onsen Yamagataya

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Named one of Japan’s top three onsens back in the Edo era, this region is still renowned for its ancient hot springs, with footbaths, public spas, and ryokans scattered all across town. The simple thermal spring waters here are known commonly as the “springs for the beautiful”, dating back to the 10th century, and Gero Onsen Yamagataya has been providing numerous ways to enjoy them for 180 years. Rest at the outdoor spa while surrounded by bamboo and maple trees, or listen to the soothing sound of the streaming Hida River from the private onsens. If you come in autumn, you can also catch amateur kabuki performances in town.

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Access:
Take the Limited Express Hida train from Nagoya Station to Gero Station. A shuttle bus is provided at the station.

WEB:
http://yamagata-ya.co.jp/lg_en/

Hakone Yumoto Hot Springs – Mikawaya Ryokan

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Collectively known as the “Hakone Seventeen Springs”, Hakone has been a favorite holiday onsen resort for nearby Tokyoites in particular since the Meiji era. For a classical Japanese inn that has been drawing artists and celebrities since 1883, Mikawaya Ryokan best maintains the historic atmosphere here while providing modern amenities like western toilets. Get a rare glimpse of its Meiji style bath with umbrella roofing, or gaze at the stars from the recently renovated large public bath. With the low alkaline hypotonic spring waters and simple thermal spring waters, your stress and fatigue will surely be relieved. Or for some onsen fun, head to water amusement park Hakone Kowakien Yunessun just a 3-min. walk away, where you can take a dip in sake, coffee, wine and more!

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Access:
Take the bus from JR Odawara Station towards Motohakone/Hakonemachi, and get off at the Houraien bus stop. A 1-min. walk from the bus stop.

WEB:
http://www.hakone-mikawaya.com/language/09en.htm

Hida Takayama Hot Spring – Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Just a 50-min bus ride from World Heritage site Shirakawa-go, explore Hida Takayama’s charming townscape at this secluded 17-room ryokan. Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama offers a personal touch, with lovely wooden architecture from local trees, and even assigns a serving lady to take care of you from arrival to departure. And thanks to the spring waters 1,200m underground here, you can soak in the silky sodium bicarbonate saline spring waters in your room’s onsen and the public and private spas. The bi-annual Takayama Festival—considered one of Japan’s most beautiful—makes a trip here in the spring or fall ideal, while the melt-in-your-mouth local Hida beef is delicious all year round.

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Access:
Take the Limited Express Hida train from Nagoya Station to JR Takayama Station, then take the free shuttle bus from the station.

WEB:
http://www.hanaougi.com/english/

Gora Hot Spring – Gora Tensui

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Private-use hot springs: Yes
Rooms with open-air baths: Yes

Take a picturesque ride along the Hakone Tozan Railway to its final stop, Gora, 550m high in Hakone’s mountains. Just a minute walk from the station, this stylish resort welcomes you with a footbath café and bar where you can dip your feet while sipping on a cool drink. Take your pick of eight styles of rooms, as well as two private onsens, including the “Myojin no Yu” microbubble function bath. This frothy spa offers a panoramic view of Mt. Myojogatake, towering at 924m, which lights up with a flaming “大” character and bursting fireworks on Aug. 16 for the Hakone Gora Summer Festival Omojiyaki—an awe-inspiring sight!

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Access:
Take the Hakone Tozan Line from JR Odawara Station to JR Gora Station. A 1-min. walk from the station.

WEB:
http://www.gora-tensui.com (Click on “English” site)

Fun Onsens

Even animals in Japan can’t resist a luxurious dip in an onsen. Have fun watching the onsen monkeys dip in the outdoor onsen till their faces turn redder than usual, or the capybaras monkeying around in their mandarin orange onsen.

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For out of this world onsens, do the Beppu Onsen “hell tour” of various coloured onsens!

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Read our full article on the Beppu Onsen “hell tour” here :
http://www.wattention.com/do-the-hell-tour-at-beppu-onsen/

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park
Nagano Prefecture
http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm

Izu Shaboten Park
Shizuoka Prefecture
http://izushaboten.com/

Beppu Hell Tour
Oita Prefecture
http://www.beppu-jigoku.com/

Tohoku Secluded Hot Springs: Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen

Away from modern life

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Quality hot spring are scattered throughout the mountainous Aomori Prefecture, but for the most authentic experience, head over to Lamp no Yado Aoni Onsen. The writer of this article has been to many different hot springs throughout Japan, but calls this the real deal.

That doesn’t mean it has the most gorgeous looking bath or spectacular ryokan attached to it, but actually kind of the opposite…hear me out!

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Located along Aoni Valley deep in the mountains of Aomori, every twist your bus or car makes up to the mountain, is a step away from modern society. It was only the beginning of the winter during my visit, but thick snow had already piled up so much it wasn’t hard to believe that Aomori is the snowiest city on earth.

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While too white to be true during winter, nature brings much more to these mountains than just snow. During autumn, the area is known for its golden foliage, and expect lots of fresh verdure as well as bright hydrangea flowers during the summer. The ryokan itself is surrounded by some sakura trees which are usually in full blossom during May, a bit later than in most other parts of Japan because of the long winters.

The moment you arrive at Lamp no Yado, which translates itself as “Inn of Lamps”, you will realize that you have come to a true mountain retreat completely surrounded by nature.

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Heading inside the ryokan, you make a slip in time to a more traditional Japan, completely untouched by the invasion of convenience stores and hamburgers. Electricity here is scarce and the whole ryokan is lit only by oil lamps, which add an authentic touch to the Japanese style rooms.

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Expect no power sockets in your room, but consider it a small price you pay to experience something truly unique.

The mountain vegetables and freshwater fish make for a divine, healthy meal that will allow one to appreciate the blessings of nature.

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Dinner at Lamp no Yado

The fish are grilled on an irori, a traditional Japanese hearth, which together with the tatami mats, a Japanese wooden table and your yukata (the kimono you wear at the inn), create an atmosphere that is about as Japanese as it gets.

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Lamp no Yado comes with a total of 4 different baths. One of these baths is a rotenburo, or open-door bath. The lukewarm water allows one to stay in for a long time without getting too hot. Ladies should note that this bath is gender free, which was more common in the old days in Japan. Special ladies only hours are available from 11am to 12pm and from 5pm to 6pm.

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Lamp no Yado’s open-door bath

The other 3 inside baths each look at the scenery from a different angle. The scent of the large wooden tubs add a lovely fragrance to the hot water. Ladies can feel at ease as men and women go in separate baths here.

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Lamp no Yado’s indoor bath

According to the owner, the natural hot spring water here is not only good for the body, but also has the power to “make a love that has cooled down hot again”. I believe that it is not only the water, but the unforgettable experience Aoni Onsen Lamp no Yado provides as a whole, that brings the romantic inside one. While its inconvenient location and lack of electricity make it a destination that is certainly not for everyone, if you appreciate a truly secluded hot spring far away from the hustle and bustle of modern society, this is one of the best mountain retreats to forget about the stress and worries that come with modern life. A relaxing soak in the middle of nature together with the precious people in your life next to you here, will be a lifetime memory for sure.

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Do the “Hell Tour” at Beppu Onsen

Beppu in Oita Prefecture is probably the most famous onsen resort in Japan, producing the most hot spring water than any other area. The type of hot spring water varies on the location of the onsen, such as whether it is near the sea or the mountain.

Other than soaking in a hot spring, a popular activity is to do the Jigoku Meguri, or Hell Tour. There are a total of 8 Hell Hot Springs in an array of colors, but there probably isn’t a need to visit all of them unless you prefer to watch animals in hot springs than dip in one yourself. Here is a selection of six of them.

LAKE OF BLOOD 

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The high temperature of the hot spring water here (about 78 degrees) and the resulting volume of iron oxide and magnesium oxide in the water gives it its blood red colour.

SEA OF HELL

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Formed from a volcanic explosion around 1,200 years ago, this hot spring is nearly 98 degrees Celsius and the high content of radium iron sulphate gives the water its turquoise color.

SHAVEN MONK’S HEAD HELL 

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The bubbles forming in this hot spring of grey mud are said to look like the shaven head of  a monk. As the water temperature here hits around 99 degrees Celsius, dipping in this onsen is not advised, however, a foot bath facility is available on premise. There’s also a public bath next door with various pools to dip in.

WHITE POND HELL 

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This steaming milky white hot spring lake is surrounded by a Japanese garden and has an aquarium with rare tropical fish such as the man-eating piranha.

TORNADO HELL 

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This geyser erupts every 30-40 minutes for up to 10 minutes at a time, reaching around 50m in height.

MONSTER MOUNTAIN HELL 

 

 

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Over 80 crocodiles and alligators inhabit this hot spring which was the first hot spring facility to rear crocodiles over 90 years ago.

 

 

 

Onsen Oasis: Kinugawa Nioson Plaza

An onsen for everyone, with everyone

Kinugawa is a popular onsen retreat in Tochigi Prefecture, located near famous world heritage site Nikko. In the old days, it was a sacred onsen only for monks and Daimyo  (feudal lords) after their prayers in Nikko. Today many spas, ryokans and hotels are located along the leafy valley of Kinugawa.

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Other than onsens, a wide arrange of activities can be enjoyed here. Take a leisurely boat trip downstream or go whitewater rafting along the Kinugawa river. Also be sure to visit the Tobu World Square, a museum park where famous buildings and world heritages have been rebuilt on a 1/25 scale.

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Tokyo Skytree is huge even when its 25 times smaller!

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Located along the Kinugawa river, Nioson Plaza is a great place for families or couples to stay and soak in an onsen for a one or two day trip to combine with Nikko. The traditional tatami rooms here create an authentic atmosphere, and the romantic view of the river from the outdoor baths while soaking in the 100 percent natural onsen water is amazing.

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One of the outside baths is entered with a swimsuit and is gender free. That means that you can enjoy this great onsen experience as a couple or even with the whole family!

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Another outside bath is a real Japanese riverboat filled with onsen water. How about staring at the boats descending the Kinugawa river from your own boat?

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*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!


Kinugawa Onsen Nioson Plaza

Location: Kinugawaonsen Ohara 371-1 Nikko, Tochigi

Access: 10-min by taxi from Kinugawa Onsen Station (Tobu Line)

URL: http://www.niousonplaza.com/ (Japanese)

Japanese Bathing For Beginners

A step-by-step bathing lecture

For the Japanese, bathing is not just done with the pure purpose of cleansing one’s body. Taking a good bath relaxes both the body and soul, and is seen as one of life’s major pleasures along with gourmet and entertainment.  Be it an old-fashioned sento (public bath) or a luxury onsen (hot spring) resort, visiting a Japanese public bath should be on the list of any tourist in Japan. However, the majority of Japanese bathhouses have little to no English explanations, let alone English speaking staff. Heading into a bathhouse without any knowledge on the subject will leave you feeling naked, literally. 

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Although it is generally understood that a foreigner is unaware of the Japanese bathing etiquette and rules, seeing you do things right will make the locals surrounding you genuinely happy. To make sure you can enjoy your soak without having to worry, here’s a fail-proof step-by-step guide on public bathing in Japan!

*Note that some details may slightly vary depending on the bathhouse.

STEP 1: SHOES OFF

Before you take off your clothes, take off your shoes!

Just like when entering a Japanese house, entering a bathhouse starts with taking off your shoes. Most bathhouses have shoe lockers to put your shoes in.

Before heading into the bath, pay for the fee at the reception counter, or bandai in Japanese. Depending on the bathhouse, shampoo, soap, a towel etc. need to be purchased here as well in case you did not bring your own. Note that luxury onsen usually have shampoo, soap and more provided inside the bath.

STEP 2 ENTER THE RIGHT DOOR

Unless there is only one mixed-gender bath (which is uncommon in Japan), a Japanese bathhouse usually has both a male and female bath. Two separate entrances for these baths have a noren, or curtain which indicates for which gender it is. In most cases the male bath curtain is colored blue while the female bath curtain is colored red.
However, this is not always the case, so you are advised to memorize the kanji (Chinese characters as used in the Japanese language) for male and female to make sure you don’t enter the wrong bath. 男 (otoko) means male while 女 (onna) stands for female.

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STEP 3 UNDRESS YOURSELF

A Japanese bath should be entered completely naked. Don’t keep on your T-shirt or trunks, and refrain from wearing swimwear. As you share your baths with others, entering the bath completely undressed is considered more hygienic. Also, be sure that you put all your clothes and belongings in the provided lockers, and check if none of your belongings are left on the changing room floor. Once you are ready, take a small towel to wash your body and enter the bath, and don’t forget to close the sliding door behind you.

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STEP 4 CLEAN YOUR BODY FIRST

Although the spacey, hot-steaming bath-tub might be tempting, don’t jump in right away (jumping is forbidden anyway). Cleansing your body at the showers first is probably the most important etiquette in a Japanese bathhouse. While it is common to stand under a shower in most foreign countries, Japanese tend to sit in front of the shower on a small stool. Don’t stand under your shower here as you will splash water on the people surrounding you. Put soap on your small towel and rub your body, but rinse yourself well and be sure that no soap or shampoo is left on your body or towel once you go in the bath.

STEP 5 ENTER THE BATH

It is now finally time to enter the bath and relax. Letting out a sigh of pleasure is allowed and something you will see the locals doing, but please refrain from doing the following:

1. Entering the bath with shampoo or soap on your body.

2. Diving, swimming or splashing the water.

3. Putting your small towel or other belongings inside the water. Your small towel should be rested on your head, or put it on the rim of the bath, but be sure that it does not fall inside.

STEP 6 DON’T MAKE THE FLOOR WET, AND DRINK MILK AFTERWARDS

Back in the clothing room, dry your body at the entrance to make sure that you aren’t dripping water on the floor as you head back to your locker. Once you have put your clothes back on, take all your belongings with you and exit the bath.
By the way, did you know that the Japanese like to end their bathing experience with a bottle of cold fresh milk? Although this is of course not a rule nor an etiquette, doing as the Japanese do will largely enrich your experience!

So, follow these unspoken rules to make the best of your public bath visit, because there’s no point crying over spilled milk afterwards, is there?

Onsen Oasis: Yumori no Sato

Tokyo’s best soak even Tokyoites aren’t aware of

People from Tokyo often head out to other prefectures in search of “hidden hot springs” deep in the mountains to refresh their weary bodies and souls. 

But believe it or not, Tokyo has a natural “hidden” hot spring of its own that can compete with the best hot springs in the country – and it’s just a 30 minute ride away from Shinjuku.

Even many Tokyoites are not aware of this hidden gem, so you can enjoy your soak peacefully and quietly.


The Yumori no Sato Hot Spring is located in Chofu, a residential area west of Tokyo which you can reach by taking the Keio Line from Shinjuku.

From Chofu Station, take a 10 minute bus ride headed for the Jindaiji temple, which is well worth a visit by itself – even if only for the soba noodles, a a specialty of the area since the Edo period.

The hot spring is just 5 minute walking distance from here. Walk down the street forking right from Jindaiji Temple, with Soba Restaurant Kiyoshi on the corner.

Once you reach this hot spring oasis, you will be treated by what I think is Tokyo’s best and most authentic soak. I have been to countless hot springs and bathhouses in Tokyo, but this is the one I keep coming back to!

The water you soak in gushes from 1,500 meters under the ground, and contains various natural minerals and substances – such as humic acids that makes your skin feel silky smooth – resulting in a deep black water color.

The leafy natural surroundings will give you the illusion that you are at a hot spring somewhere in Japan’s countryside.

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And to complete your authentic soaking experience, how about a bottle of cold milk or coffee-flavored milk after your refreshing bath just like what the locals do?

You can also choose to enjoy a wide array of treatments at the massage salon, ranging from authentic oriental to esthetic massages.

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If you have been looking for an onsen retreat in Tokyo’s concrete jungle, Yumori no Sato is your definitive answer!

*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot information

Name: Yumori no Sato

Price range: 1000 yen

Hours: 10 am – 10 pm

Location: Jindaiji Motomachi 2-12-2, Chofu

URL: http://public.oidejapan.jp/yumorinosato/

Onsen Oasis: Arima Onsen

1,400 years of history hidden in the outskirts of modern Kobe

After introducing two of Japan’s three oldest hot springs (Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture) it is now time for the last one.
Last but not least, here is Arima Onsen of Hyogo Prefecture.

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Starting from Nihonshoki (a book of classical Japanese history) in 631, there are many ancient documents that mention Arima Onsen. From these documents we can learn that a monk in the 7th century helped develop Arima Onsen.
The connection between Arima Onsen and monks goes on in the 12th century, when the monk Ninsai came to rebuild Arima Onsen which had suffered from a natural disaster in 1097. He also established and ran 12 monk accommodations in the area, which is why a great number of the ryokan at Arima Onsen today have the word Bo (坊, monk) in their name.

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Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) with sakura blossom in spring

Arima Onsen can be found in the outskirts of Kobe city, hidden behind Mt. Rokko, away from the city center’s hustle and bustle. Given the fact that it is located in the mountains, the narrow roads in town can be quite steep.

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You can find the two public baths (Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu) on a short distance from Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) which marks the town center. Kin no yu, or golden bath has yellow-brown colored water from iron and salt. Gin no Yu, or silver bath, has transparent water and contains radium and carbonate. All of the other baths at Arima’s ryokan and bathing houses share either the same characteristics of Kin no yu or that of Gin no yu.

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Since the area is rich in carbonate, Arima Onsen is known for cider, carbonate rice crackers and cakes which can be purchased at the souvenir shops of traditional facade in the town center.

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Most of the luxury ryokan can be found in the mountains on a short distance from the town center. Enjoy tranquility, wonderful scenery and a fantastic warm bath!

*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Arima Onsen

Location: Higashimonguchi 1401, Arimacho, Kita, Kobe, Hyogo

Access: Get off at Arima Onsen Station (Kobe Electric Railway Arima Line)

Onsen Oasis: Dogo Onsen

Get spirited away at one of Japan’s oldest hot springs

At Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture, you soak in the historic atmosphere just as much as the hot spring itself. While Matsuyama as a whole has become a vibrant, modern city, the Dogo area remains the laid-back hot spring town it has been for over 3,000 years.
It is said to be Japan’s oldest hot spring together with Nanki Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.

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At Dogo Onsen Honkan

When stepping out of Matsuyama City’s streetcar at Dogo Onsen Station, you make a time slip to the late Meiji Era, with a quaint old Western-influenced station building and a nostalgic locomotive. Here, you can hop on the “Botchan” locomotive named after the novel by Natsume Soseki, who used to frequent the onsen when he was working nearby as a teacher. The foot baths under Japanese parasols at Hojo-en park complete the package for a classic hot spring station.

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Standing in the center of this hot spring town is Dogo Onsen Honkan, which is without a doubt the most imposing public bathhouse I have ever seen. The 1894 wooden architecture, looks gorgeous enough to be mistaken for a small castle.

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Ghibli Studio fans might notice that the building’s facade has a mystic feeling to it similar to that of Aburaya, the bathhouse in “Spirited Away”. This is not a coincidence; Ghibli Studio has acknowledged that Aburaya was roughly modeled on Dogo Onsen Honkan.

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Not only the facades have spirit in common. Much like Aburaya, the inside of Dogo Onsen Honkan is a maze with many different baths and other rooms. The two main baths go by the divine names of “Bath of the gods” and “Bath of the spirits”, but probably the most famous – and at the same time least used – bath has to be the Yushinden, a bath exclusive to the Imperial Family, which can be viewed by guests.

After you’ve had your fill of the bath, wrap yourself up in a yukata and cool-down at the tatami salon with some Japanese tea and dango (a rice-cake sweet), or observe the street view from a private room that novelist Natsume Soseki used to relax in. 

In front of Dogo Onsen Honkan, is a cozy hot spring town where one can walk around in a yukata without standing out from the crowd. Souvenir shops and restaurants fill the nearby shopping arcade, and the Dogo-Biru-Kan serves local brewed beer you won’t easily find in Tokyo, let alone your home country.

dogobeerAnother thing that you might want to note on, is that while the Dogo Onsen Honkan is by far the most popular bathhouse among tourists, locals tend to prefer to soak at the Tsubaki no yu nearby because it is cheaper and less crowded. If the Dogo Onsen Honkan is too full, how about rubbing soap and shoulders with the locals?

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*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot Information

Name: Dogo Onsen

Location: Dogomachi 1, Matsuyama, Ehime (Dogo Onsen Station)

Access: From JR Matsuyama Station, take the Jonan Line streetcar for Dogo Onsen Station.

Onsen Oasis: Zao Dairotenburo

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King of Onsens – The Princess Water hot spring

Some hot springs are so good you never forget them. For me, the Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring in Yamagata prefecture is one of those. A decade has passed since my trip there, but I can still remember thinking to myself excitedly, “So this is what a real onsen is like!” as the sulphuric hot spring smell became stronger and stronger and started to permeate the taxi as we ascended the mountain.

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What I saw upon arrival, was beyond my expectations. While famous throughout the country, Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring has managed to resist modernization into a tourist attraction, and I mean that in the very best possible way.

Unlike other man-made onsens that are designed and dugged, this is a natural onsen around which some basic structures have been built to allow people to enjoy it – so don’t expect any saunas, showers or any drink dispensing machines!

All you will find, is the huge crater-shaped natural stone baths located on the top of a mountain hill surrounded by mountain forests. As you soak in the steaming hot, silky smooth, milky water, you realize that people must have come to enjoy this hot spring in the exact same way for centuries.

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The milky water feels like music to your skin, or rather makes your skin sing! This is not is not just one’s imagination, as the water comes from a natural sulfur spring with strong acidity. The water is so good for softening and whitening the skin that it has become known as “Princess water”.

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The Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring is open from mid-April to the end of November. You will be mesmerized by either fresh verdure or golden foliage depending on the time of the year, but whenever you visit, this hot spring and its surrounding nature are well worth you visit and make for an authentic experience you will not forget!

*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot information

Name: Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring

Price: 470 yen

Hours: 6 am – 7 pm (clost from end November to mid-April)

Location: Zao Onsen 832, Yamagata

URL: http://www.joy.hi-ho.ne.jp/ma0011/T-Yamagata01.htm (Japanese)