Japan is one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth; a glittering, neon marvel where change and innovation are almost like breathing. Yet, beneath the high-tech façade is a land where the customs and traditions of the past still play a substantial part in modern life.
Among its most enduring traditions – and one every traveller loves to embrace when they visit – is public bathing. Specifically, luxuriating in the steaming, mineral-rich waters of an onsen. It’s an experience that has been enjoyed by the Japanese since at least the sixth century.
Although travel to Japan is off the cards for at least a little while longer, it doesn’t hurt to keep the dream alive by planning your next onsen escape.
And there are so many to choose from: the country's active volcanic network is responsible for over 3,000 onsen resorts dotted among the lush valleys and misty mountains of Japan’s major islands.
They come in all shapes and sizes, with the definition of an onsen expanded over the years to include public bathhouses and resort towns located near the hot springs, and can be enjoyed pretty much all year-round.
To fit the true definition, however – one enshrined by law in Japan's Hot Springs Act – a naturally-occurring onsen must have water above 27 degrees Celsius and contain at least one of 19 different minerals to treat or at the very least soothe all kinds of ailments.
Sulphur rich onsens are said to help with skin disorders and arthritis, whereas sulphate springs are good for healing cuts and bruises (and bruises are almost inevitable after any winter ski trip to Japan's richly-powdered slopes).
Although tempting to stay longer, it’s recommended you spend no more than 10-15 minutes in the water, as the high temperature can raise your blood pressure and also lead to dizziness.
While every onsen can be beautiful in its own way, some are simply breathtaking: from a still mountain pool perched beside a gushing waterfall to an open-air bathhouse hidden on the roof of a Tokyo skyscraper.
Intrigued? Here are some of Japan’s best onsen to inspire your next trip.
Swiss-owned Aman Resorts are synonymous with elegance and understated luxury – a perfect complement to the Japanese ‘wabi-sabi’ design aesthetic of finding beauty in simplicity.
Set amid the forested hills of Ise-Shima in central Honshu, overlooking the maze-like islands and sapphire waters of Ago Bay, their exclusive Amanemu property is no exception.
Inspired by ryokan hotels of old, each of the resort’s beautiful villas and suites is a haven of tranquility, with woven textile shutters, abundant natural light, and a design that seamlessly flows from indoors to out. Guests can soak their cares away in a private onsen bath in their room, or relax on a daybed between dips in the main thermal hot spring pool.
2. Kinosaki Onsen
Located around 2.5 hours by train from Kyoto, Kinosaki Onsen is a charming village with not one, not two, but seven natural hot springs.
Beautifully preserved architecture, tourists wearing traditional yukata, and a serene, willow-lined canal that reflects the lights of guest houses at night… visiting Kinosaki is like stepping back in time to old world Japan.
Unlike most onsen in Japan, the bathhouses in Kinosaki all accept visitors with tattoos of any size, shape or colour (tattoos have long been associated with less-desirable elements of society such as organised crime).
Ryokan guesthouses in the area will often include entry tokens to the various onsen too, with all of them located within walking distance of each other.
When you’re pruned from enjoying the hot springs, there are also pristine beaches nearby, such as Takeno, as well as the Edo-era Izushi Castle Town and scenic hiking trails to explore.
A short drive southeast of Osaka will lead you to the historic Wakayama Prefecture, which is renowned for its mossy temples, centuries-old onsens, and Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.
Kawayu, one of the area’s most popular onsen villages, is home to an impressive geothermal party trick. Anywhere you dig along the village’s rocky riverbank, hot water will slowly bubble up to the surface, creating a warm and inviting hot spring pool just for you.
During winter, a large section of the river is blocked off from the main flow, with hot water that rises up heating the open-air pool. Known as Sennin-buro, meaning ‘thousand person bath’, it attracts thousands each year. But, often in the early morning, you can have it all to yourself.
4. Dogo Onsen Honkan
It would be negligent to discuss onsen in Japan yet not mention Dogo Onsen Honkan, which dates from the Meiji Period and is believed to be one of the oldest bathhouses in the country.
Located in the city of Matsuyama on Shikoku island, the current structure was built in 1894, yet the site itself has a long history of bathing, stretching back to at least 712AD.
The three-storey, wooden building is an atmospheric maze of narrow passageways, staircases and rooms. There are two types of bath available – the gender-separated communal Kami no Yu (or bath of the gods), and the smaller and more private Tama no Yu (bath of the spirits).
5. Hoshinoya Tokyo
On the rooftop of an 18-storey skyscraper in Tokyo’s financial district is probably the last place you’d expect to find an onsen, yet here it is. And it’s a thing of beauty.
Hidden from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, the top floor of the five-star Hoshinoya Tokyo hotel features two gender-separated bathing halls, each filled with hot, mineral-rich water pumped up from 1500 metres underground.
The high saline content of the water is said to help the body not only relax, but also improve its ability to preserve heat.
With indoor and outdoor bathing areas connected by a cave-like tunnel, relaxing in the soothing waters, watching the clouds pass by overhead, is an experience worth travelling for.
6. Oirase Keiryu Hotel
At the northern tip of Honshu island is Aomori Prefecture – a destination renowned for its clear streams, mossy rocks, lush beech forests, and spectacularly-high annual snowfall.
All of these natural wonders come together at Oirase Keiryu Hotel, a luxury property that feels like an extension of the forest, with large windows overlooking the Oirase mountain stream.
Its Yaekokonoe-no-Yu bath, set under a lush canopy and alongside a cascading waterfall, is one of the most stunning in Japan – and you could easily assume it sprung up as part of the natural landscape.
In winter, a frozen waterfall in nearby Oirase Gorge is reproduced around the edges of one of the hotel’s hot spring pools, creating a magical, almost Narnia-like atmosphere.
More than just a form of bathing, hot springs are a social and cultural experience – and a must-try for any traveller to Japan. With thousands to choose from, and plenty of hidden gems other tourists have no idea exists, a spa holiday could be just what the doctor ordered.