Japan has perfected many things in life, but one of the best is the art of taking a bath. Taking a bath in Japan is very different than in the United States. In the U.S. we bathe to clean ourselves but in Japan you take a bath to cleanse your soul. First you take a seated shower to use soap and shampoo your hair. Once you are washed and clean – thennnn – you get into the bath for soaking your cares away. Ahhhhh…heaven.
Secondly, the bath tubs in the U.S. are very shallow, and your chest and knees stick out of the water but the tubs in Japan are small but very deep. They sometimes get filled so high that when you step in they overflow with water so only your head sticks out and everthing else is submerged…ahhhhhh again. This sound is one of the best, most luxurious sounds in the world. Like a waterfall. Bathrooms are usually full-on “wet rooms” so when the water overflows there’s a drain in the floor. It’s wonderful.
Thirdly, the act of bathing sometimes happens out in the open air and not just in a bath room, and with lots of strangers, family and friends. All naked, together and peacefully enjoying the hot water melting away the events of the day. You get to watch the sun set, the stars come out and maybe the moon if you are lucky, all from your nice, hot bath.
There are two types of bath houses in Japan:
The Sento – is a public bath house with hot water baths. Usually a lively atmosphere of locals.
The Onsen – is a public bath house that uses natural spring water from a source. Different types of spring waters have different qualities, minerals and healing properties. Sometimes the water is clear, milky white or looks like tea.
A great pleasure is finding a wonderful Rotenburo. An open-air, outdoor bath, usually in a natural setting overlooking a garden or beautiful landscape is called a Rotenburo – and is a must-have experience. Go close to sunset and stay until the stars appear. The cool breeze while you are in a hot bath is another wonderful feeling.
Different establishments of either type have different rules, prices, ways to pay, various fluctuations in offerings, etc. But the basics of bathing usually apply:
- most places have lockers, amenities and towel rentals which is nice because you don’t need to bring anything for an impromptu visit, but public sentos might not. You may want to check before going.
- always wash and scrub yourself clean before getting into a bath.
- always enter a bath completely naked. No clothing. If you have long hair, put it up in a bun. Sometimes onsen water may discolor jewelry, so take that off too.
- usually, keep your voice low. Bathing here is a sacred experience. However if you find yourself in a loud sento where everyone is chatting, then talk away!
- Unfortunately most places in Japan do not allow people with tattoos, they think it’s a sign of belonging to a gang. But if you have a small one, I suggest bringing a bunch of waterproof band aids and covering them up before you go. Like Daniel did, see below…
Here are some of the bathes we enjoyed on our journey. (There are hundreds of onsens in Japan, but these are just the few we remembered most.) If you know of better ones, please send to us! Something to look forward to.
Kurokawa onsen: the ultimate onsen town in Kyushu, Japan. So wonderful, we wrote a whole other blog post about it. This town offers an onsen-hopping pass to check out 3 onsens of choice at the various ryokans in town. But don’t worry, you can always buy another pass to see more. Some of the best onsens with outdoor rotenburo baths by waterfalls and rivers that we have seen so far. Guests walk around town in their Yukatas to visit the onsens. A dream come true.
Yamamizuki – Five stars!!!! Not only did they offer a free shuttle but their onsen is outstanding. One of the few that are right on a river. Both mens and womens side had the luxury of riverside indoor and outdoor baths facing converging streams with waterfalls in view from the tub. Absolute heaven. One of the best onsens we’ve seen yet. Yet another big plus is that they run a cozy cafe with food, snacks and a multitude of beverages to choose from, great coffee too. Only basic amenities provided. You can lock up your valuables at the cafe. Bath house only has a cubby to store clothes. We loved it so much we went twice! http://www.yamamizuki.com/english/english.html
Kurakawasou – is walking distance from center. No view of the river but really spacious and lovely indoor / outdoor baths. There was just something special about this place. Dark wood, high ceiling bath house with large, indoor and outdoor baths. The water here is a milky blue hue. One smaller bath overlooking a rocky cliff and a large, spacious rocky rotenburo. Gorgeous, colorful autumn foliage against the blue water made it quite magical. I was also touched by the stone turtle sculpture in the rotenburo – that’s my spirit animal. Loved it and Daniel said the men’s side was equally beautiful. A plus! http://www.kurokawaso.com/english/english.html
Hozantei – this one is hard to get to and about 40 min from the center of town. We were lucky to get the Yamamizuki shuttle to drop us off close to it, but you still have to walk a bit uphill to get there. Maybe because of this fact it was very quiet and they let us have a private tub hanging over a small stream all to ourselves for a half hour. Large rustic hot stone rotenburo bath with a warm bath and a third cold pool. Worth it for the quiet natural setting. http://www.hozantei.com/en/
Iyashinosato Kiyashiki – this place is also outside town center. It’s pretty old and rustic. Unfortunately it does not incorporate the river because it’s up on a cliffside. The main feature is that it’s gender separated but if you walk under the waterfall and through a small cavern you get to a larger mixed bath rotenburo – which means men and women can bathe there together naked. Baths are smaller than we thought they would be from photos.
Yamabiko – they have two very different pools for men and women which switch. Make sure it’s your gender day because one of the baths is small and underwhelming. It happened to be men’s day and I wound up with the small tub. I actually snuck into the men’s tub after seeing no one was in there except Daniel and was so angry – the men’s tub was gorgeous, spacious and beautiful. Argggh. I was kindly asked to return to the ladies pool of course. So you may want to check. If you wind up with the small tub I’d say check out one of the other onsens above.
Other baths we did not get to visit but heard were interesting: Okunoyu – out of town center but overlooking a river. Yamanoyado Shinmeikan – on the main river in the center of town, heard they have cave baths. Satonoyu Waraku – outskirts of town, also has cave baths.
The very quaint and charming town of Yufuin is also on the southern island of Kyushu. It is surrounded by mountains, including the very dramatic Mount Yufu. There are ryokans spread out through the town and a few streets lined with art galleries and craft shops. Although most tourists seem to come for just a day trip, you could easily spend a few days here if you love onsen hopping and wandering. There is a thermal lake at the end of town called lake Kinriko, which is quite beautiful and the lake itself is heated by hot spring water which makes for a beautiful and magical mist in the mornings and evenings.
Not all ryokans allow outside guests but the tourist desk at the Yufuin train station can give you a list of the onsens in town that allow day visits for a fee. Here are the ones we recommend:
Musouen – this onsen has one of the best views of Mount Yufu from a large and beautiful rotenburo. Sorry my photo is on a gray day, but even if it’s a gray day, Musouen will brighten your mood. Separate baths for men and women. Bonus – they have a nice, affordable cafe for lunch with an amazing view of the mountains. In addition, they also have two small, private “family tubs” where you can bathe co-ed in private, no reservation needed. Just take a tub if it says “vacant”. http://www.musouen.co.jp/index.html
Shoya no yukata: lovely rustic exterior, lovely modern design of their interior. Separate baths for men and women. Huge rotenburo bath with onsen water that appears a milky blue color. Great view of Mount Yufu from a hillside. It’s a little outside of the main town with steaming vents surrounding it. Nice little cafe for cool bath products and drinks but no food – except onsen-steamed eggs and flan. http://www.yufuin-shoya.com/top/#pagetop
Baien – smaller baths than the previous too but very nice baths and facilities. Nice view of Yufu and the hills. http://www.yufuin-baien.com
Sansuikan: This onsen is in an seemingly unattractive hotel from the outside, but it’s walking distance from the train and they have a nice view of the mountains from their indoor / outdoor bathes. The women’s side has two ceramic tubs that are infused with either Yuzu or tea scents. Nice plus. But overall not as impressive as the previous 3 onsens mentioned. http://www.sansuikan.co.jp
Shitanyu: this is a co-ed public onsen on Lake Kinrinko. I don’t know what it is about this bath, but we loved it and went multiple times. It’s just two simple pools indoor/outdoor. Men and women bathe naked in the same pools so it’s not for the shy. Pay 200 yen in a coin box outside the door next to a Buddha statue as shown above. Baths here:
There are no facilities except for some open boxes to place your stuff, no bathroom and no changing room. So you may want bring a small towel and any products you need. We got by with bringing just a small hand towel. It’s really nice around sunset when most of the daytrippers have gone, but if you stay for awhile you may find yourself bathing with some of the local older men, ha ha. An experience, indeed
Beppu is a strange city. Their mascot is a little red devil, and they call one of the onsen areas the “7 hells.” It is a bustling city on the ocean, backed by mountains so it goes up into the hillside. There is a high concentration of hot springs in the city and steaming vents everywhere. Some onsens are for viewing-only (the “hells”) and some are for bathing. We stayed in Yufuin and just visited for a day trip via bus. We checked out their mega onsen at the Suginoi hotel called Tanayu. You also pay to use also their onsen Aqua Park in your ticket. There’s shopping, a bowling alley, karaoke, you name it. But we just checked out the Tanayu bath house which was actually lovely and classy in contrast with everything you have to walk through to get to it. Tiered outdoor pools that lead out toward a nice view of the ocean, must be great during sunset. We happened to go on a cloudy, rainy day, but it was still attractive. A sauna also has a window with a view of the ocean, 2 large wood tubs and a ceramic tub, cold plunge and indoor baths. A little bit pricey in comparison with other onsen, but you can use both parks. The Aqua park is co-ed so you need a bathing suit, but Tanayu has separate men and women sides. http://www.suginoi-hotel.com/english/facilities/spa.html
Namiha onsen: at Bayside Place pier is a peaceful respite from the city. Indoor and outdoor baths, sauna and cold pool. http://www.namiha.jp/index.html
**Yamato-no-yu. There is just something very special about this place. If you have a long layover at Narita airport, I highly suggest you go here. It’s a bit of trek on the train out into farmland with rice paddies and bamboo, and about a 15 min walk from the station, but the location makes it feel even more relaxing. It’s worth it. We stayed overnight in Narita and liked this onsen so much we went back again the next day. They switch sides for men and women so each time is a new experience. Wonderful rotenburos, indoor and outdoor baths, wooden and ceramic tubs, saunas and cold pool. The design is great, a mix of traditional and modern. Small cafe with snacks and drinks. Places to sit and relax. It’s been one of the nicest so far. http://www.yamatonoyu.com/eng/
Saya no Yudokuro. This onsen is on the outskirts of central Tokyo in a residential neighborhood, about a 10 min walk from the train. Nice rotenburos and ceramic outdoor tubs that overflow, a steam room and a lovely outdoor shallow pool you can lay down in. Other highlights are a great restaurant and cafe overlooking a lovely zen garden and tatami mat rooms where you can take a nap after the baths – my dream come true! They also offer massage and body treatments. http://www.sayanoyudokoro.co.jp/english
Oedo Onsen Monogatari. I would not recommend this place to serious Onsen afficionados. If you are looking for a place to deeply relax, this is not the place. It’s also an expensive, touristy, super Onsen. The bathes are kind of an afterthought. But, if you are looking to have fun with family, kids and friends – this is the place. Highlights are colorful Yukata robes everyone walks around in and a central cafeteria for food and games. http://www.ooedoonsen.jp/en/
Yudanaka (snow monkey town):
Yoroduya Onsen. This onsen feels like you stepped into another time. In a historic building, lovely indoor and outdoor rotenburo bath. We also tried the bathes at Isaa no Komichi hotel, but we liked the ambiance and bathes at Yoroduya better. We also saw snow monkeys playing in the trees around this onsen. They allow day use for non-guests, but check for what time, usually only during the afternoon. http://yudanaka-yoroduya.com/bath.html
Around Kyoto and Kansai region:
Kurama onsen. If you go early and do the 2hr hike from Kibune town to Kurama, you can make this onsen the dessert after your hike. Hey, you earned it! A memorable day. The hike is beautiful and dotted with wonderful temples. Kuramadera temple is very special. This onsen also runs a free shuttle bus every few minutes picking up from the Kurama station and back, otherwise it’s a 10 min walk from the station. It’s a very simple bath house, one indoor pool and a lovely, simple rotenburo that looks out to the hillside of Kurama’s mesmerizing trees and sky. Wonderful. http://www.kurama-onsen.co.jp/index_e.html
Fufu no Yu. We were on our way to another onsen in Arashiyama, but it was only for ryokan guests so they sent us here, and so glad they did. This onsen was lovely. Simple, clean design. Nice rotenburo and small zen garden. Steam room, sauna and cold plunge. http://www.hotespa.net/spa/fufu/
Genji no Yu. This onsen is close to Uji, (matcha tea town!). Pair it with a day of sight seeing in Uji, only 30 minutes away or so from Kyoto, and you will have a really beautiful and relaxing day. This onsen is new, clean and was one of our favorites. They have many different types of baths, a sauna, a steam room with salt you can use to scrub your body smooth, a great cold plunge, lovely rotenburo. But my favorites were the two outdoor ceramic tubs that overflow when you get in. Nice view of the sky from the outdoor tubs. This onsen also offers massage, massage chairs, a tatami mat room to chill out in with magazines and books, and a great and affordable restaurant. http://genji-yu.jp/en/index.html