Best Onsen in Japan: 9 Hot Spring Towns Worth Exploring
Immerse yourself in Japanese culture by taking part in this relaxing tradition.
18 November 2022
What Is an Onsen?
Found across Japan, onsen are hot spring baths that are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike and form a big part of Japanese culture.
Due to the high mineral content of the water, some believe that these hot springs have healing properties and taking an onsen is said to help relieve aches and pains, as well as being good for your skin and circulation. Nowadays, people also flock to these public bathing spots to relax in the warm waters and spend time with friends and family. These hot springs are visited throughout the year, meaning you can plan an onsen trip whenever you’re visiting.
There are many types of Japanese onsen, with the most popular being ‘rotenburo’, or outdoor onsen. These outdoor baths are often surrounded by beautiful scenery, making them the perfect place to reconnect with nature and unwind.
Most onsen are single sex, with separate baths for men and women, but there are a few mixed-gender onsen dotted around the country. Also, while most are public, you can rent out private onsen or family onsen at many ryokan (traditional inns) across Japan. This is a great way to enjoy the hot springs in Japan if you’re traveling as a family or an opposite-sex couple.
How to Onsen: What to Expect When You Visit a Japanese Onsen
Onsen are steeped in tradition, and to make the most of your visit, there is some onsen etiquette you need to know about before using the baths.
Before you enter the baths, it’s essential that you wash yourself. Using an onsen is more for relaxation than cleanliness, and using the baths without washing your body is strictly prohibited. Take some time to get clean in the shower area using the soaps provided (or bring your own). If you have long hair, you’ll also need to tie it up before entering the water.
The second most important thing to know about visiting hot springs in Japan is that almost all of them require guests to go au naturel while in the baths. This custom is based on the Japanese principle of ‘hadaka no tsukiai’ - roughly translated as naked socializing - with the belief that people can get to know each other better and have more open communication when everyone is naked.
Most locals and visitors will however use a small towel to stay modest as they move between baths and the changing room. If you do use a towel, you should not take it into the water with you. Instead, you’ll see many people wearing their towel on their heads or leaving it in a designated area near the bath.
Another thing to be aware of is that tattoos are not allowed at most Japanese onsen - but don’t worry, you can still enjoy the hot baths. If you have smaller tattoos you can easily cover them with waterproof bandages or Band-Aids but if you have multiple or large tattoos that can’t be covered, hiring a private onsen in Japan is a great option.
Rikki Poynton, Japan expert and Senior Travel Consultant here at Scott Dunn agrees:
“There can be some challenges for Americans visiting onsen due to the rules surrounding them, so my top tip is to book a Japanese room in a ryokan with a private onsen so you can use it as you please.”
The 9 Best Onsen in Japan
So, now you know about onsen etiquette, let’s look at some of our favorite onsen towns across Japan.
Kicking off our list, Hakone Onsen is a hot spring resort with many different styles of public baths for you to enjoy.
This is a great area to visit if you’re an onsen first-timer, offering family-friendly baths, private options for couples and even some tattoo-friendly onsen; there’s something for everyone.
The number of bath options can be a bit overwhelming so, If you need a little guidance, we recommend staying in a ryokan. Ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, often have onsen attached to them for guests to enjoy, making for an indulgent and authentic stay.
Yoshimatsu ryokan is one of our favorites, offering stunning views and excellent food- the kaiseki dinner is not to be missed!
Located in the mountains of Hokkaido, Jozankei Onsen is a lesser-known spot where you can avoid the crowds and enjoy taking an onsen like a local.
Surrounded by beautiful gorges, the outdoor baths here are the perfect place to relax and spend some time in nature.
This onsen town is also conveniently located just an hour from Sapporo, Hokkaido’s bustling capital, meaning it is easy to reach for a day trip outside of the city.
Kinosaki Onsen is located just outside Toyooka and is a popular spot with both locals and tourists.
This ambient town is home to seven onsen hot pools, each offering a different experience; from bathhouses with caves inside to ‘rotenburo’ with panoramic views, there are a variety of styles to choose from. Its website even shows you which baths are busiest at different times of the day so you can plan your visit around the crowds.
All seven onsen are also tattoo-friendly, meaning everyone can enjoy some time in the baths.
If you’re looking for gorgeous scenery, crystal-clear lakes and tumbling waterfalls, Yumoto Onsen has got you covered.
This hot spring town is located within Nikko National Park, near Lake Yunoko, making it the perfect place to take in some of Japan’s famous tranquil landscapes.
Most of the Japanese onsen here are connected to ryokans, but there is a small public bath connected to a Buddhist temple just north of the town.
Located in a scenic mountain valley, Shima provides a beautiful backdrop of mountains, waterfalls and a river that runs through the town. Shima Onsen, or ‘Forty-thousand hot spring’, gets its name from the belief that its waters can heal 40,000 different ailments. This quality made it a must-visit location in the past, and has helped it maintain its popularity in modern times too.
The best time to visit this onsen hot spot is undoubtedly September and October, as the trees around the valley begin to showcase vibrant autumn colors.
If you’re a nature lover, Kawayu should be top of your list.
This secluded onsen town is nestled inside Akan Mashu National Park and sits along the Oto river, meaning you can enjoy breathtaking views as you relax. Alongside bathing in the river itself, you can also enjoy a soak in the Sennin-buro - a giant outdoor bath created by diverting the river. Kawayu onsen is one of the few Japanese onsen where you can use the onsen while wearing a swimsuit.
We recommend combining your onsen visit with some exploration of the local area’s highlights such as Lake Mashu and the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails.
A collection of four separate hot spring towns just south of Kanazawa, Kaga Onsen has plenty of unique public baths for you to try.
Head to Yamashiro Onsen to relax in the Ko-Soyu - a traditional-style public bath mimicking the design of the Meiji Period - or travel to Katayamazu Onsen for some ambient lakeside bathing opportunities.
All of the onsen in this area are also said to have specific healing properties, such as easing muscle pains or improving circulation, making for a truly rejuvenating experience.
Tenzan No Yu Onsen
Just west of Kyoto, this onsen is part of a large spa complex and provides a luxurious experience for locals and visitors alike.
Alongside the onsen hot pools, treat yourself to some time in the cold baths, jet pools or sauna rooms.
This onsen is also located near the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and is the perfect pit stop for tired feet after a day exploring the area.
Nestled among the scenic mountains of Yamagata’s Obanazawa City is one of the most popular Japanese onsen - Ginzan Onsen.
It is a favorite onsen destination amongst locals and tourists from all around the world. What draws them to this magical place is its unique structure and atmosphere, with wooden hot spring inns lining each side of the Ginzan River.
Travel back in time to classical Japan and be transported to the 1920s and 1930s, which was when Ginzan Onsen was built - giving this place its own unique historic charm.
Explore and Relax on a Tour of Japan
Looking for a luxury tour that combines excitement and relaxation? Try our expert-led Ultimate Japan tour.
During this tour, your guide will show you all the highlights and famous sites like shrines and mountains, while also arranging luxurious experiences so you can unwind after a day of exploring; it’s the perfect introduction to Japan.
Our Ultimate Japan tour includes time in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto, as well as a couple of days in Hakone, where you can take a break and enjoy the region's many Japanese onsen.