The Ultimate Guide To The Best Onsen In Japan
One of the most well known of traditional Japanese customs is the onsen – an experience that is usually new and maybe a bit unsettling for those who are not used to it. Spending time in a communal space absolutely stark naked isn’t something that has made its way into Australian culture yet. But pushing the boundaries is what travel is all about!
Here the experts reveal six of the best onsen from around Japan, all ready to welcome travellers into their relaxing pools.
Best Onsen With A Festival Atmosphere
Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Tokyo
Best enjoyed with a group of friends, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a theme-park-style onsen that lets you stroll around in a reproduction of an old Tokyo onsen town, dressing, eating, drinking and soaking like they did in the good old days.
Choose your colorful yukata, soak tired feet in the footbath, shop, and relax. It’s fun for all the family but most of all, the onsen itself is terrific and funnels natural spring water from deep underground into a variety of baths.
Best Authentic Old-School Onsen
Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama
Famous for being referenced as inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s animation Spirited Away, Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest in Japan. A pilgrimage down to Japan’s southern island Shikoku will see you transported back in time.
The beautiful building and charming onsen make for a special experienced, enhanced by the tolling of the city bell and the host of snack stalls in the surrounding streets. With 18 different water sources feeding the area and one of the most photographable onsen buildings in Japan, Dogo is an unmissable experience.
Best Onsen Town
The whole of Beppu is bubbling, boiling and steaming. Hot spring sources dot the area, the Beppu Hells, and strolling from one to another is a journey of geological discovery. The springs feed many local onsen and sento, so get your kit together and get ready to relax your way around town.
Choose to get buried alive at Takegawara in one of their sand onsen, or stand under onsen waterfalls at Hyotan. Onsen food is big in Beppu so be sure to try some steaming sweet potato buns for vegans and tasty meat-filled pockets for carnivores, soft serve ice cream or steamed puddings. Just don’t try feeding the crocodiles (they actually have their own onsen!).
Best Onsen For Travellers On A Budget
Nozawa Onsen Town, Nagano
Close to the Nagano ski fields, this small but perfectly formed town has a host of free onsen to try. It’s blessed with lots of natural spring sources and so you can try baths with different medicinal qualities.
From milky white sulphurous water with plenty of healing properties to deep green water pools surrounded by forest green, Nozawa has it all. You can even cook your own eggs in the onsen water. And most of the onsen here are totally free.
Best Onsen For Mixed Bathing And Tattoos
Beautiful countryside, western friendly, tattoo friendly and mixed bathing friendly, Takaragawa has been popular with visitors for some time now. An old school inn sits on the bank of a raging river and overlooks several outdoor onsen, which steam in the winter snows or lay under cool glades in the heat of summer. Wooden huts, stone statues, rock formations and winding paths put the finishing brushstrokes on this picturesque onsen masterpiece.
Best Super Sento, Onsen Theme Park
Spa World, Osaka
This over the top onsen is a time-traveller’s dream. A real chose your own adventure; the onsen hopper can be a ninja, Roman emperor, Greek god or Arabian Princess. It’s not cheap, but you can spend the whole day in Spa World, in an onsen world of your own. The saunas are equally as impressive. Relaxation has never been this much fun.
Now you know where to go to find your ideal onsen, read about everything you need to know before visiting one.
This is an edited extract from Onsen of Japan (RRP $29.99) by Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh, published by Hardie Grant Travel. Check it out where all good books are sold.
(All images: Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh from Onsen of Japan / Hardie Grant Travel)