In the colour pages section of the 4th edition of Japan by Rail we list a few onsen (spa baths) and rotemburo (open-air spa baths) that we consider the ‘best’ and on this page we give basic details of those places as well as some of the resorts, or hotels, with onsen (hot spring) and/or rotemburo (outdoor bath) facilities that are mentioned in the rest of Japan by Rail. The relevant page reference (for the 4th edition) is also given so you can easily find more information.
This is a tiny selection of the thousands of onsen and rotemburo in Japan so do let us know the details of any you recommend.
Oedo-onsen Monogatari is an enormous hot-spring theme park set in the Edo period with more baths than you’ll be able to visit in a day. The hot water is pumped up from a natural source 1400m below ground. Massages and other spa treatments are available, there are 16 restaurants and accommodation is planned and may be available by the time you are here. If you’re not expecting to visit another onsen in Japan this will give you a good insight into why the Japanese take the art of bathing so seriously. See pp107-8 of Japan by Rail for more information.
If staying on the northern side of Kawaguchi-ko, one of the Fuji Five Lakes, you can sit in a rotemburo and see the reflection of Mt Fuji in the lake, as well of course as seeing Mt Fuji itself. Hotels worth considering are Koraku Onyado Fujiginkei, Kozantei Ubuya and Kukuna. See pp140-1 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Hakone-Yumoto is the entry station to the Hakone region and two hotels near the station offer both onsen and rotemburo: Hakone Suimeisou and Yumoto Fujiya Hotel (See pp165-6 of Japan by Rail for more information.) Miyanoshita is the closest station to the atmospheric Fujiya Hotel, which opened in 1878. Each room has natural hot spring water and the hotel is a Registered Cultural Asset of Japan. Facilities include swimming pools, hot spring baths. See p166 of Japan by Rail for more information.
To reach Minakami take the JR Joetsu line (60 mins) from Takasaki. A courtesy bus to Takaragawa-onsen Osenkaku (from ¥11,700pp half-board) operates once a day from Minakami station, though reservations are required. The onsen has five rotemburo (open-air baths), both mixed and single sex, and a magnificent setting. See p178 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Bessho-onsen is just under half an hour from Ueda station by local train along the Ueda Dentetsu Bessho line (¥590 one way; JR passes not accepted). The baths at Bessho are said to have healing properties which make the skin smooth. There are several bath houses in town; two with a rotemburo (outside bath) are O-yu (6am-10pm, closed 1st & 3rd Wed; ¥150) and Aisome-no-yu (10am-10pm, closed 2nd & 4th Mon; ¥500). Ryokan Hanaya is highly recommended. See p179 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Gero-onsen is one of the best-known spa towns in Japan and it dates back over 1000 years. Sumeikan (from ¥11,840pp half-board) is a vast onsen hotel that has a range of baths and a mass of other features. It is also only a short walk from Gero station (on the Nagoya to Takayama line), though the hotel provides a transfer service for all limited express services. See pp192-3 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Yudanaka (50/60 mins; ¥1160/1260 one way by local/express train – it is worth spending the extra money on the express service: sit at the front for spectacular views from the panoramic windows) is an onsen town and a good base for a day trip to Jigokudani (see below). Yorozuya Annex Yurukuan (from ¥9000pp half-board) offers spacious Japanese- and Western-style rooms, all of them en suite, though it’s an extra ¥1000 for a view. There are public baths as well as a rotemburo and a Jacuzzi (men can use the former in the morning and the latter in the evening; women at other times). See pp211-12 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Katsuura has a number of onsen, the best known of which is Boki-do spa, inside a cave, from where there are views out to sea. The cave is part of Hotel Urashima (from ¥11,200pp inc half-board. To reach it, first walk 10 minutes from Kii-Katsuura station straight ahead to the boat terminal. From there, take the free ferry to the hotel. Check where the boat is going as there’s also a ferry service to another hotel, Hotel Nakanoshima (from ¥12,000pp inc half-board. See pp242-3 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Limited expresses don’t stop here, so take a local train from Shingu (11/day; 18 mins). Though very small, Nachi station does have its own hot spring (onsen) called Nishiki-no-Yu (Tue-Sun 1-9pm; ¥600 plus ¥200 towel rental); from the bath there are great views out over Nachi Bay and also of the train tracks below, so rail enthusiasts can enjoy the unusual experience of trainspotting from the comfort of a bathtub. See p242 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Shirahama is an onsen town and a very popular summmer vacation place so it is best visited out of the main season. A highlight here is the rotemburo at Saki-no-yu (daily 8am-5pm, longer in the summer months; ¥420) as the baths face the Pacific Ocean. Other than lockers for your clothes and belongings there are no facilities so take your own towel. (See p245 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
A trip on a cable car (funicular) and ropeway (cable car) into the mountains can be combined with a visit to Arima-onsen, one of the ‘three most famous springs’ in Japan. The water quality is meant to be excellent and it has a long history of being visited by the Imperial Family and other members of the elite but the modern hotels that cater to tourists have rather spoiled the atmosphere. (See pp296-7 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
Iwaso (from ¥22,680pp inc half-board), in Momijidani-koen, has an onsen. The rooms are in a variety of buildings and not all are en suite. (See p310 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
Shiobara-onsen can be reached by JR bus from Nasu-Shiobara. There are several onsen hotels here and many have baths facing the river that runs through the town. (See p326 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
More than 1000 years ago, Atsumi served as a border checkpoint for travellers entering Tohoku. Sandwiched between mountains and the coast, Atsumi is nowadays a busy hot spring resort. The hot spring water flows from the river into the sea. The main onsen area is by the sea, a bus ride (2/hr morning and evening; few during the day; 6-8 mins; ¥240) from the station. There are a few foot baths in town as well as real baths. (See p351 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
Machinaka-onsen (daily 6am-11pm; ¥420 plus ¥200 for towel). Turn left at the second set of traffic lights (just before the main road) and the onsen is on your left. Take your shoes off at the entrance and then buy a ticket from the machine. You need a ¥100 coin for the locker.
There are several baths, including a Jacuzzi-style one and a rotemburo (outdoor bath), as well as a sauna. The ergonomic lilo is a very comfortable way to relax when you are thoroughly clean. (See p363 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
Noboribetsu comes from the Ainu word ‘Nupurupetsu’, meaning ‘a cloudy river tinged with white’. A bus ride away from the station is Noboribetsu-onsen (a hot-spring resort) that draws water from Jigokudani (Hell Valley), the centre of which is a volcanic crater where steam rises from the earth. It was only in 1858, when a businessman who was mining sulphur realised there was money to be made from tourism, that the first public bath house was opened using hot water from the crater. Since then tourism has taken off and the resort is now full of concrete hotel blocks and tourist attractions. See pp375-7 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Kami-Furano Bus goes as far as Tokachi-dake-onsen (the stop is called Ryo-unkaku; 3/day; 46 mins; ¥500), but it’s better to get off earlier at Fukiage-onsen (33 mins; ¥500). This is a completely natural (wild) hot spring where bathing is mixed and there are no admission fees. It’s just there in the open for anybody to take a dip.
If mixed bathing in the wild is not your thing, just down the road is Fukiage-onsen Recreation Centre Hakuginso (10am-10pm; ¥600; no English spoken), with a variety of segregated baths at different temperatures as well as a sauna and rotemburo affording views over the mountains. Buy a ticket from the vending machine in the entrance lobby. See p391 of Japan by Rail for more information.
If you want to soak weary limbs after a day spent traipsing around the city, Sky Resort Spa Pulau Bulan (daily 11am-11pm; ¥2800, hotel guests ¥1600, inc towels) boasts modern and minimalist single-sex hot-spring facilities on the 22nd floor of JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo. It has a variety of pools, Jacuzzis, and a Finnish sauna, but best of all is the Karuna air massage bath. Massage and spa-treatment packages are also available (a 40-minute massage plus use of the spa is ¥6500); expect to be in the same room as other customers. See pp402-3 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Hotel Bearmonte (from ¥7000pp) has a variety of indoor baths and rotemburo; rates depend in part on which way your room faces as some views are better than others. See p411 of Japan by Rail for more information.
A sand-bath in naturally hot sand at Sunamushi Kaikan ‘Saraku’ (daily 8.30am-8.30pm; ¥920, towel rental ¥200) is a truly wonderful experience. It is meant to improve circulation and relieve conditions such as arthritis, asthma, rheumatism, ‘alimentary disorder’ and ‘sensitivity to cold’, but should be avoided if you’re pregnant or have high blood pressure.
Having undressed and put on your yukata, follow the signs to the sand bath on the beach. You will be allocated a space and staff will cover you with the hot black sand. You are recommended to stay for only 10 minutes, after which you get up (not an entirely easy process) and shake yourself down before heading back in for a shower followed by a bath in the onsen. See pp462 of Japan by Rail for more information.
Beppu produces more hot spring water than any other onsen town so not surprisingly there are lots of onsen options here. However, another attraction is the eight ‘burning hells’ where the water is too hot for humans. Each hell has its own feature and you can buy a ticket to visit them all. See pp426-7 of Japan by Rail for more information.
If you were to make one expensive splurge on a ryokan during your trip to Japan, try Hotel Kamenoi Besso (from ¥35,750pp inc half-board) near the edge of Kinrinko. It’s an idyllic and luxurious retreat; each room boasts a private natural onsen. However, there are many other more affordable options here.
(See pp428-30 of Japan by Rail for more information.)
The hot spring here dates back 3000 years and according to legend was discovered when a white heron put its injured leg into hot water flowing out of a crevice in some rocks. The main wooden bath house was built in 1894 and is said to be the inspiration for the bathhouse of the Gods in Miyazaki’s animated classic Spirited Away. The hot spring is now deemed one of the three most famous in Japan.
For the best atmosphere and views of the illuminated Dogo bath house schedule an evening visit. Tickets for the no-frills ground-floor bath, called Kami-no-yu (Water of the Gods), cost ¥410. For ¥840 you are given a yukata and served Japanese tea and a rice cracker afterwards on the 2nd floor. The 2nd floor also has its own bath, the more exclusive Tama-no-yu (Water of the Spirits), which costs ¥1250 including yukata, tea and cracker, or ¥1550 with a private room (with balcony) for relaxing in. This option also includes Botchan Dango, dumpling-shaped sweetmeats, that Soseki Natsume, author of Botchan, used to eat when he was a teacher at Matsuyama Junior High School. All options other than the cheapest include a tour of Yushinden, the bath area created for any visiting emperor or memboer of the Imperial Family. This tour is highly recommended and can be done (¥260) on its own, which may be worth considering if the baths are very crowded.
If you decide to stay in the area there are several options. (See pp494-5 of Japan by Rail for more information.)