Natural Hot Springs (Onsen)

Onsen is the Japanese name for a natural hot spring, the term also extends to cover the bathing facilities and traditional inns frequently situated around a hot spring. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands.

In Japan, there are many types of hot springs, distinguished by the minerals dissolved in the water. Each minerals provide different health benefits, and all hot springs are supposed to have a relaxing effect on your body and mind. Hot spring baths come in many varieties, indoors and outdoors, gender separated and mixed, developed and undeveloped. Many hot spring baths belong to a ryokan, while others are public bath houses. An overnight stay at a hot spring ryokan is a highly recommended experience to any visitor of Japan.

Japanese Bathing Manners & Cultures

  • Wash yourself thoroughly in the shower area before you enter the baths
  • Leave your jewelry at home — the minerals in the water can cause it to change color
  • Tattoos are forbidden in most hot springs — check with the facility before going

Most facilities have separate baths for male and female guests, marked by split curtains. Inside, you will find a dressing room where you can leave your clothing and personal items. There’s no need to bring anything as most facilities have an array of cleansers, washes and scrubs for guests to use. You can take a small towel to cover up, but it should not be placed in the water.

Near the dressing room is the shower area. Each stall is equipped with shampoo, conditioner and body wash, as well as a stool and bucket. Take a seat, and pour hot water over yourself using the bucket. Wash thoroughly and be mindful not to splash others. Once you’re clean, you can enter the baths. Note that children cannot bring toys into the bath. The water in hot spring baths is usually around 40 degrees Celsius, so take regular breaks to ensure you don’t overheat.

When checking in to the onsen or the traditional Japanese-style inn known as ryokan, you will be given a yukata to wear while walking around the common areas of the facility. You can even wear it outside with geta — traditional Japanese sandals. Be sure to hand it back when checking out.

Japanese hot springs are known for their medicinal effects and have long been used to invigorate tired bodies and spirits. But you should know that not all Japanese baths are the same. Depending on the source, the minerals in the hot spring can change. This water type soothes muscle pain, joint stiffness, colds, hemorrhoids, cuts, burns and overall fatigue.

You may have also heard of sento or public bathhouses. These are different from onsen because they use standard water rather than natural hot spring water.

Recommended Onsen

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Noboribetsu Onsen

Noboribetsu is the most famous hot spring resort in Hokkaido, and its spectacular Jigokudani ("Hell Valley") is the source of some of the country's highest quality hot spring water.

Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉, lit. "Silver Mountain Hot Spring") is a secluded hot spring town nestled in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. The area originally developed around a silver mine; however, these days it is better known as one of Japan's prettiest onsen towns with historic ryokan lined up along the river.

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Kusatsu Onsen

For centuries, the abundant hot spring waters of Kusatsu Onsen have been considered among Japan's best and most effective, if not the best. Much of the resort's water bubbles up in the yubatake ("hot water field") in the town center.

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Gero Onsen

In the Edo period, Gero Onsen (下呂温泉) was referred to as one of Japan's three best onsen by the Confucian poet Hayashi Razan. While the town may now be quite a bit more urbanized than back then, the waters have retained that special quality which has made them so famous.

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Kinosaki Onsen

Kinosaki Onsen is a charmingly old-fashioned onsen town near the Sea of Japan coast. In the evenings guests of the local ryokan stroll about town in yukata and geta, visiting public baths and nostalgic game arcades.

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Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen is considered one of Japan's oldest hot spring resorts, and it is said that Prince Shotoku has already enjoyed the area's hot spring waters about 1500 years ago.

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Mud Bath in Beppu Hot Spring

Sand bathing was one of the excellent experiences in Beppu. If you want to experience a real Beppu onsen (hot spring) mud bath, then this place is definitely worth a visit. This Onsen Hoyo Land is a natural and simple mud bath.

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