Best Onsen Towns In Japan – Japanese hot springs, or onsens, are renowned across the world for being a symbol of rest and relaxation. They’re aspects of the Japanese culture that are so intrinsic and distinct that it’d be a crime not to visit one during your visit to Japan. Onsen baths were historically used as a means of purifying the body both physically and spiritually. There were quite a few rules and regulations regarding bathing back in the day, however, these days, there are many relaxed onsen baths throughout the country that cater wonderfully for foreigners who want a taste of the unique experience.
Onsen bathing is a very Japanese affair, and thus you can expect there to be a few things to know before you go. If it’s your first time, please refer to our Dos and Don’ts here, and if you’re interested in finding more about the history of onsen baths, we’ve got an interesting and detailed article here for you to have a read: Onsen Etiquette.
Apart from onsen baths being a beautiful feature of the Japanese culture, it’s also an easy and great way to spruce up your travel itinerary, especially if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary. However, once you begin looking into it, you’ll start to realise that there are many, many hot springs located throughout the country. In fact, that is even entire towns dedicated to the onsen bathing pools in that area. It’s quite a handful when you begin looking into which one to build into your itinerary.
Thankfully, we’ve put together a list of the 10 best hot spring cities you can visit when you’re in Japan. Visit one, two, three, or make it your lifelong goal to visit them all over multiple trips – it’s up to you.
The 10 Best Onsen Towns In Japan
You will find below our complete list of the 10 best onsen towns in Japan. We also places them on a map to help you to select which one you can visit easily.
- Gero Onsen
- Kusatsu Onsen
- Kurokawa Onsen
- Yufuin Onsen
- Okuhida Onsen
- Yunomine Onsen
- Zao Onsen
- Noboribetsu Onsen
- Shuzenji Onsen
- Dogo Onsen
1. Gero Onsen
Gero Onsen, located in the mountainous Gifu region, has been famously referred to as one of the top three hot springs of Japan by an esteemed Confucian scholar (alongside Arima Onsen and Kusatsu Onsen). It’s definitely more off-the-beaten track than not, however, that doesn’t mean it comes without charm. In fact, the discreet location and lack of spotlight on this onsen means that it’s the perfect getaway for those looking for peace and quiet to unwind and recharge.
The city itself offers stunning ryokan accommodation that provide onsite hot spring baths, however, you’re encouraged to purchase a Yu-Meguri-Tegata spa pass whilst there and go onsen-hopping to really get the most of the onsen experience.
Read more about this beautiful onsen town here: Gero Onsen >>
2. Kusatsu Onsen
Nestled deep and high up on the mountains of the Gunma prefecture sits Kusatsu Onsen, a sleepy town that’s said to hold one of the best hot springs in all of Japan (refer to above paragraph!). As noted by one famous scholar, it’s said to be one of the top three hot springs, and for good reason.
We could go into detail about how the unique but rarely spotted method of cooling down hot sulfuric acid is on display here for visitors to experience, and how literally thousands of litres of water flows down from the mountains to this town every single minute of the day, however, it truly is something you need to experience for yourself. Visit as an overnight trip, or stay for a few days to really get the most of the onsen town experience.
Read more about this city here: Kusatsu Onsen >>
3. Kurokawa Onsen
All the way west of Japan sits Kurokawa Onsen, one of Kyushu’s greatest offerings. This old-school onsen town has been around for centuries, but got its deserved break in the 1960s when the public began to pay attention to the wonderfully preserved structures and authentic ambience of this place. It draws more of a local crowd, and at any point in time you’ll find tourists walking leisurely through the town in their yukata, quietly enjoying the atmosphere and taking in the gorgeous sights.
One thing you’ll note about this place is that although it’s considered a top spot for Japanese locals, it’s still relatively rustic looking and feeling, and that is because there has been substantial effort put into preserving the historic roots of the town. Thus, you will be truly getting a historical experience if you visit this place!
Read more about this lovely place here: Kurokawa Onsen >>
4. Yufuin Onsen
If you’re after a quaint countryside onsen town that offers a laid-back and enjoyable atmosphere, plenty of hot spring options, and incredible food, then Yufuin Onsen is a great choice. This small onsen town sits at the foot of Mount Yufu within the Oita Prefecture, and is a great option if you want to combine some intense mountain hiking with a languid hot spring hopping experience.
Unlike many other towns where there is one main strip of onsen baths, here, you’ll have to walk around town, exploring the little strips to alleyways to access all the baths and shops and restaurants, which is a great little change!
More travel tips to visit this onsen town here: Yufuin Onsen >>
5. Okuhida Onsen
For a magical experience, the onsen village of Okuhida, which is made up of a whopping five different onsen towns, is the place to go. Because of its location deep in the mountains, you can imagine that the water quality is of superb quality and abundant quantity. What makes Okuhida Onsen stand out is the fact that it’s home to an incredible number of rotenburos (outdoor open-air baths).
During any time of the year, whilst you’re soaking in the steaming hot baths, slowly feeling your muscles giving way, you can take in the views of the mountains which stretch for miles and the starry night sky and know that you’ve experienced something intrinsically Japanese.
Discover more this area here: Okuhida Onsen >>
6. Yunomine Onsen
Located along the famous Nakamichi trail of the vast network of Kumano Kodo trails, Yunomine Onsen is a popular stopover for those completing the hike. Noted as the only hot spring that is included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this quaint town absolutely boils over with charm and character. With its discovery being more than 1800 years ago, some even declare it as the oldest hot spring across Japan!
Here, you won’t find bustling crowds, loud cheers, or any rambunctious behavior. Instead, you’ll find an extremely serene atmosphere, historic structures, small roads, and the feature that shot Yunomine Onsen to its popularity level today – the Tsuboyu Onsen, which is a tiny, century-old onsen that’s said to have great healing waters.
Read more about this onsen town here: Yunomine Onsen >>
7. Zao Onsen
Zao Onsen is mostly known for two major things: an exciting snow resort destination during winter, and an easily-accessed, majestic hot spring destination throughout the entire year. If we’re being honest, the town itself is slightly more commercialized than most, but the number of visitors it draws per year is extraordinary. It’s a popular choice not only because of its hot springs, but also due to the number of activities visitors can participate in whilst there, from skiing and snowing, to hiking, exploring the area using the ropeway, and experiencing some local culinary delights.
From Tokyo, it’s an easy 2.5 to 3-hour direct train trip, so if you have larger groups or are part of a traveling family, this option is great for convenience and ease of travel.
Read more about this cool city here: Zao Onsen >>
8. Noboribetsu Onsen
For an onsen town experience unlike any other, Noboribetsu Onsen up north offers a fantasy-like experience. Due to its unique location at the foot of the volcanic Mount Hiyori, the trails of Hell Valley are constantly surrounded by mist, smoke, and fog, making it look and feel as though you’re walking through a dystopian town. In our opinion, the photographic opportunities here are one of a kind, which may be reason enough for some people to put it onto their itinerary!
Aside from that, there are plenty of activities to participate in here, including, of course, visiting the numerous hot spring baths throughout the town, visiting the picturesque Lake Kuttara (the ‘roundest’ lake in Japan), witnessing some real-time gurgling hot spring lakes, and resting your feet in a natural footbath.
Read more about this spot here: Noboribetsu Onsen >>
9. Shuzenji Onsen
The Izu peninsula is best known for its gorgeous azure blue water, but if you delve a little deeper, you’ll find that the hills of Izu hosts the gorgeous Shuzenji Onsen town, a quaint but locally-famous town which offers a wonderful insight into Japan’s nature and hot spring baths. Instead of mountain views, you’ll find yourself wandering through forests under tall bamboo trees, breathing in the fresh air.
Whilst it does not boast an extensive list of activities to do, its easy-to-get-to location and slow atmosphere this makes it a great option for all travelers; whether you’re on a tight schedule and want to just do a day trip (it’s only 90-minutes away from Tokyo), or whether you’d like to spend a few days away from the city life to experience the famous Japanese Zen.
Read more about this area here: Shuzenji Onsen >>
10. Dogo Onsen
Dogo Onsen shot to international popularity after the anime Spirited Away featured it in its film. However, prior to that, Dogo Onsen was still a popular choice amongst Japanese locals, and the gorgeous exterior and interior are only part of its overall charm. Located on the island of Shikoku, it’s not necessarily on the main route that tourists like to visit in Japan, but that’ just part and parcel with its charm. Whilst many other onsen towns offer ambient atmospheres and rustic landscapes that are surrounded by nature, Dogo Onsen is unapologetically full of life. The colours are vibrant in this town and the restaurant owners and shop keepers are happy and chatty.
When visiting Dogo Onsen town, you may feel inclined to visit the famous Dogo Onsen Honkan, but if you look further into this town, you’ll find that there are many other onsen bathing options where you won’t have to fight a crowd.
However, if you’re just looking for an epic photo opportunity that screams ‘I was at the onsen in Spirited Away!’, then we recommend heading to the Dogo Onsen Honkan at night when the lanterns are all lit up for a spectacular sight.
More info about this own town here: Dogo Onsen >>
Given the high density of onsen towns across Japan, chances are we’ve covered at least one that can be easily reached from where you may be visiting in Japan. Our above linked articles details all the information you may need for each hot spring city – how to get there, where to stay, and what to do. We recommend that you give each one a read to figure out which experience would best suit you, and go from there!