Written by Chiara Mischke
The Best 10 Onsen In Japan To Visit In The Winter
Hot springs, or onsen, are popular all year round but they become a special experience in the winter when they are a blessing for the body. Read on to see our selection of the best onsen to check out in Japan during the cold season.
Rotenburo, or open-air baths, are popular all year round. However, especially in the winter, they make for a very special experience. Sitting in the hot water while snowflakes are falling on your head cooling you down is extremely relaxing.
Anyone who usually stays away from hot springs because of the heat should give open-air baths a try in the winter. The temperature of the water tends to be a little milder. It also makes a huge difference to literally keep a cool head. You won't feel so hot if your head is constantly cooled down by wind or snow.
Let us introduce you to a selection of 10 onsen in Japan that we recommend with soothing waters and in areas with traditional townscapes. Should you visit Japan this winter, do give them a try. You'll understand right away why hot spring baths are so loved in Japan.
1. Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido
Noboribetsu Onsen is one of the most famous hot spring resorts in Japan. It is really quite impressive at any time of the year. Jigokudani, or Hell Valley, is the source of its hot springs. Walking through the hot sand dunes in Noboribetsu with the sulfur smell floating in the air makes you think of hell, indeed. On the other hand, it's extremely relaxing if you don't mind the sulfur smell.
As for the hot springs themselves, you might not be aware that there are many different kinds of spring water available at the onsen. Every type of water has different effects and serves a different purpose.
There are nine varieties of spring water available at Noboribetsu Onsen.
1. Sulfur springs (Lousen), which help to ease chronic bronchitis, the hardening of the arteries and chronic dermatitis.
2. Salt springs (Shokuensen), known to help ease neuralgia, lower back pain, and poor circulation. They are the most common in Japan.
3. Aluminum springs (Myobansen) which are said to help ease symptoms of chronic skin diseases and the inflammation of the mucous membranes.
4. Mirabilite springs (Boshosen) which improve the blood flow and ease the effects of hypertension, wounds, and arteriosclerosis.
Picture from JNTO
5. Melanterite springs (Ryokubansen) which are said to help ease the effects of anemia and chronic eczema.
6. Iron springs (Tessen). They help ease symptoms of anemia and chronic eczema. If you have dry skin, this is the spring water you want to use!
7. Acidic iron springs (Sansei Tessen) which help ease eczema symptoms thanks to their disinfecting action. After using this onsen, you'll need to wash your body with regular water.
8. Alkaline springs (Jusosen) which soften cornified skin layers and emulsify secretions. They ease skin conditions and sanitize wounds.
9. Radium springs (Radium-sen) sound scary but they are completely harmless. Radium spring waters have a strong sedative effect. They are particularly effective at easing neuralgia, rheumatism, and menopausal disorders.
One of Noboribetsu's most famous hotels is Daiichi Takimotokan. This hotel offers seven of the nine kinds of spring water available in Noboribetsu. Try them all and decide which water is your favorite.
In addition to its spring waters and beautiful views, Hokkaido offers great attractions which make it an ideal place to visit in winter. It is the only place in Japan where you can walk through knee-deep snow and enjoy a true winter wonderland.
2. Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata
Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata prefecture is most scenic in winter. While the old town with the wooden buildings is charming all year round, snow just adds to the beauty of the townscape.
The Ginzan area can get up to 2 meters of snow in winter. All the streets and buildings get covered with a thick blanket of snow. Now, imagine a steaming onsen in the middle of this snow blanket.
At Ginzan Onsen, you can stay at an onsen hotel or use a public bath. Some hotels make their hot springs available to the public as well. So if you choose to just enjoy a hot bath and leave, you have the option to do this as well.
Whichever way you choose, you are definitely in for a truly special experience.
3. Manza Onsen in Gunma
Manza Onsen in Gunma prefecture is a hot spring area located at a high altitude and easily reachable from Tokyo. Their hot springs are very rich in sulfur. When the sulfur content is very high, it makes the water look neon yellow.
Sulfur is known to help in treating dermatitis and clogged arteries and is supposed to have an overall beautifying effect.
Since it's situated high up in the mountains, the Manza Onsen area is covered in snow in the winter. It is also a very popular ski resort.
Just imagine yourself relaxing in a hot onsen after a day of skiing. It will warm you up and help ease muscle ache.
Manza Onsen is located around 45 minutes from Manza Kazawaguchi Station via bus.
4. Shima Onsen in Gunma
Shima Onsen is also located in Gunma. It is not as high up as Manza Onsen and this also makes it easier to reach. It can actually be reached by bus from Tokyo.
Shima Onsen doesn't get as much snow as Manza, but it is still enough to cover the streets and rooftops in the winter.
Sekizenkan, one of the hotels in Shima Onsen, has been confirmed to be one of the locations that inspired the Studio Ghibli movie "Spirited Away".
The area is also known for being the home of one of the oldest wooden onsen hotels in Japan. Shima Onsen is a really charming place with its old-school rock covered streets and wooden buildings.
Even though Sekizenkan might be the most interesting hotel in Shima Onsen, we also recommend Shima Tamura. They have a vast variety of different indoor and outdoor hot springs available. Moreover, their sister company is the Shima Grand Hotel. If you stay at either of these facilities you can use all the hot springs available in both of them for an extra fee of 500 yen.
5. Kita Onsen in Tochigi
Kita Onsen, located in Tochigi prefecture, is another onsen area you can easily reach from Tokyo. It is known for being one of the oldest onsen areas in Japan.
According to legend, Kita Onsen was discovered by a tengu (goblin) 1200 years ago. This is why "Tengu no Yu" ("The Hot Spring of the Tengu") is the most famous bathing facility in Kita Onsen.
Kita Onsen also gets snow in the winter, but it might not be as much as in Shima Onsen or Manza Onsen. However, it's long history, Meiji era charm and convenient access from Tokyo definitely make it worth a visit.
6. Shibu Onsen in Nagano
You have probably seen the famous pictures of monkeys bathing in hot springs. Shibu Onsen in Nagano is very famous for the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park. Here you can watch the monkeys roam free and taking onsen baths.
After enjoying the sight of the monkeys bathing, how about enjoying the hot springs yourself? We don't recommend jumping in with the monkeys, though. Enjoy the excellent services of the hotels and ryokans in the area.
Out of the nine open-air baths at Shibu Onsen, eight of them can be used free of charge by the town residents and those staying at one of the inns.
If you are a Studio Ghibli fan, you might want to consider checking in at Kanaguya, a ryokan which is rumored to have served as a model for the bathhouse in "Spirited Away".
In any case, Shibu Onsen is a great place to visit thanks to its many unique sights and wonderful hot springs.
7. Kinosaki Onsen in Hyogo
Kinosaki Onsen in Hyogo prefecture has a history dating back 1300 years and is one of the leading onsen resorts in Japan.
There are seven open-air hot springs within walking distance from one another. They offer a pass called the "Yumepa" which gives visitors unlimited one-day access to all seven hot springs. This offer is called "The Tour of the Seven Hot Springs". The pass costs 1200 yen for adults and 600 yen for children. You can purchase it at any of the participating hot springs.
This offer gives you a great variety of onsen to choose from. If you don't enjoy one of the hot springs, you can simply move to another.
Kinosaki Onsen also offers a wide variety of onsen-related food. At the Kinosaki Gelato Cafe Chaya, you can buy eggs and boil them in the hot spring water in front of the shop.
Onsen tamago (hot spring boiled eggs) are a very popular local treat. However, the chance to boil them yourself in real hot spring water is very rare, so don't miss it out when visiting Kinosaki Onsen!
8. Arima Onsen in Hyogo
Arima Onsen is located in Hyogo prefecture as well. It is one of Japan's oldest onsen resorts alongside Ehime’s Dogo Onsen and Wakayama’s Shirahama Onsen.
It is a hot spring area with gushing waters. It offers golden springs and two kinds of silver springs.
The golden springs have a high content of salt and iron. As mentioned previously, iron is extremely good in treating eczema and dry skin. Salt works as a disinfectant and improves blood circulation. The mixture of both is supposed to have moisturizing and healing effects.
There are two kinds of silver springs in Arima Onsen. One consists of carbonic spring water and the other of radon spring water. They are called silver springs because their water is clear and shiny like silver. The carbonic spring water improves blood circulation and is even drinkable in some cases.
Besides being the home of some of the best hot springs in Japan, Arima Onsen is a great place to just lean back and relax.
9. Dogo Onsen in Ehime
One of the most famous hot springs in Japan is Dogo Onsen, located in Ehime prefecture. It is supposed to be the oldest onsen resort in Japan, but there is really no way of telling when and where the first onsen was built. It is also famous for being another main inspiration for the bathhouse in Studio Ghibli's movie "Spirited Away".
The Dogo Onsen resort consists of two buildings, the original building "Honkan" and the newer and bigger "Tsubaki No Yu". We recommend the "Tsubaki No Yu" as it is bigger and not as busy as the main building.
Picture from Dogo Onsen, The Famous Ancient Hot Springs Of Ehime
Dogo Onsen boasts Alkaline spring waters which improve skin conditions and sanitizes wounds. It is very gentle to the skin and fit for children and the elderly.
There are 29 different hot springs feeding the source of Dogo Onsen. The various spring waters are mixed and used in the bathhouses.
If you have sensitive skin or want to experience old, opulent bathhouses, we highly recommend Dogo Onsen.
10. Beppu Onsen in Oita
Picture from Beppu Onsen - Oita's Amazing Hot Spring
Beppu Onsen in Oita prefecture boasts the greatest volume of hot spring water in Japan. It might look like the town is on fire but its just the steam of the hot water rising from the ground.
Picture from Beppu Onsen - Oita's Amazing Hot Spring
The area is also famous for its "Hell Tour" - a series of eight unusual hot spring spots that seem to be out of this world. The blue one, for example, gets its color from sulfuric acid and its temperature is 98 degrees Celsius.
This tour is worth a visit alone, but we are here for the onsen we can bathe in, right? Beppu Onsen offers a wide variety of indoor and outdoor hot springs.
Picture from Beppu Onsen - Oita's Amazing Hot Springs
In addition to normal hot baths, they also offer sand baths. You get buried in the rich soil heated up by the hot springs moving underneath the surface and relax for a few minutes. It's a great way to get rid of fatigue.
In other words, with its variety of hot spring types, Beppu Onsen is truly unique and an ideal place for a relaxing holiday.
Relax and Enjoy a Winter Bath
Winter is the best season to explore some of Japan's hot springs. Even if you aren't so interested in the steamy hot water, just think about how relaxing it is to sit in hot water after a long walk in the snow. All your tiredness would be taken away, and you'll warm up even if it's cold outside.
Followed up by hot tea or a warm cocoa drink, there is no better way to enjoy a snowy evening in Japan. How about giving the onsen another try?