Five Amazing Onsen Towns to Visit in Japan
One of the things that Japan is most famous for is onsen, otherwise known as hot springs. Travellers love to experience staying in a traditional onsen-ryokan (hot spring inn), complete with delicious seasonal delicacies served for dinner. There are many onsen towns in Japan, most never heard of by foreigner tourists. Many have seen better days, with the large complexes falling into disrepair, while other towns are still booming even now.
Here are five onsen towns we recommend:
Achi Village, Nagano
Achi Village is not so famous for its hot springs, but rather for having the "best night skies in Japan". The remote location of this alpen village means that there are very low levels of air and light pollution, leading to clear night skies perfect for stargazing. They hold a nightly event at the nearby ski slope Fujimidai Highlands Heavens Sonohara, where hundreds of people flock to each night to see the heavens from an elevation of 1400m. Take a 20 minute gondola ride up the mountain. At the top, the space is divided into the VIP zone, the educational zone and the viewing zone. Lie back and look for shooting stars - we saw two! Most people bring blankets to lie on, and remember to bring warm clothes, it was freezing. You need to book in advance, and can arrive between 5-7:30pm.
Many people who attend the star gazing event then stay the night at Hirugami Hot Springs. The area boasts more than 20 onsen hotels and inns, and is known for its highly alkaline waters which leave your skin silky smooth. Many of these hotels offer a free shuttle service to the stargazing venue.
Achi Village is also famous for "hanamomo" (peach blossoms) which bloom all over in bright pink when in season. There are around 10,000 blossom trees which bloom around Golden Week in Hirugami and nearby Gessen Onsen.
Dorogawa Onsen, Nara
Dorogawa is an onsen village hidden deep in the mountains which retains its traditional atmosphere. There are few signs of modern life and as such its spiritual atmosphere draws pilgrims from all over Japan. Mt. Omine looms over the town, and was the main focus of the Shugendo Pilgrims who have been trekking there for hundreds of years. Previously this hot spring town was entirely off limits to women, but these days women can stay.
Many ryokans retain their traditions, and thus heating may not be adequate. We were given kairo (heat packs) to keep us warm, and even sleeping in our winter coats and woolen hats we were icy cold! Be prepared. The food was amazing, unique dishes made from fresh mountain vegetables and river fish.
Take a stroll around the riverside town, stopping at Ryusen-ji Temple to see its beautiful gardens along the way. Drive about 15 minutes to reach the Goyomatsu Limestone Cave, which is accessed by thrilling monorail up a steep hill. Nearby Mitarai Valley is great for swimming in summer, or for viewing Autumn leaves in the Fall.
Kurokawa Onsen, Kumamoto
Far down South is Kurokawa Onsen. Kurokawa retains one of the best old fashioned atmospheres of all the major onsen towns. The local community has fought to maintain the authetic ambience of the town, meaning that all buildings are small and traditional and there are no high rises allowed. There are cobblestones and thatched roofs aplenty and guests don their yukata and stroll around the town at night to visit each bath, making for a vibrant atmosphere. There are about 30 different baths to visit, many outdoors and set right by the river.
There is an Onsen Pass available for 1300 yen which gives entry into three different facilities. The ryokan Yamamizuki has a particularly nice bath made like a pond with the river trinkling past and leafy trees a canopy above. It is especially wonderful in the Autumn season. There are also many walking trails around Kurokawa Onsen, including a trek to the Nabegataki Falls where you can go behind the waterfall.
Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata
One of the most visually stunning onsen towns, Ginzan is best visited in Winter when the snow-capped ryokan inns flanking the river make for a fairytale picture. It was named for the silver mine located within the town and was established over 400 years ago when the silver mine brought many people to the region. When the mining industry shut down, Ginzan successfully reestablished itself as one of the most exclusive hot spring resorts in Japan. Accommodation books out fast, so it is advised to book well ahead of time in peak season (up to a year in advance).
The buildings were all built in the early 1900s and the gas street lamps that illuminate the town at night cast a soft warm glow over the snowy landscape. There is a hike to a 22m waterfall at the back of the town, but it is not accessible in Winter. Three baths are accessible to the public (Shirogane, Kajikayu, and Omokageyu) while the others are all for staying guests only.
Kinosaki Onsen, Hyogo
Kinosaki Onsen is probably the most vibrant and bustling onsen town I have visited in Japan. A river runs through the centre of the town, with willow trees lining it on either side. Both sides of the main street are filled with ryokans of varying levels of fancy, and it is commonplace to see people strolling around in yukatas, bath hopping and eating or drinking from many of the booming establishments (I recommend the smoothie shop!). Here you will be served a feast in your room, likely featuring the local speciality - crab, before heading out to try the baths. Most of the baths were quite hot and not very large, and everywhere was crowded. In fact, we enjoyed this town more for its ambience than for the hot springs themselves. For the biggest and most varied bathhouse, try "Sato-no-yu". It has Japanese themed baths with bamboo and European themed baths with Greek statues. There is also an outdoor bath with a waterfall and a view.
If you would like us to help you plan a trip to any of these onsen towns, with itinerary and reservations covered, contact us!