The hot list
Where to go and enjoy a thoroughly therapeutic soak
JAPAN is in hot water. Literally. The stuff percolates up out of the ground from one end of the country to the other. The Japanese word for a hot spring is onsen, and there are about 3000 onsen here, more than anywhere else on earth.
So if your idea of relaxation involves soaking your bones in a tub of bubbling hot water, you’ve definitely come to the right place.
With so many onsen, it’s hardly surprising they come in every size, shape and colour. There is an onsen on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay.
There are onsen perched high up in the Japan Alps and which can be reached only by walking for a full day over mountain peaks. There are onsen bubbling up among the rocks on the coast — when the tide is just right.
In fact, some Japanese will tell you the only distinctively Japanese aspect of their culture — that is, something that didn’t originate in mainland Asia — is the bath.
There are accounts of onsen bathing in Japan’s earliest historical records, and it’s pretty certain that the Japanese have been bathing in onsen as long as there have been Japanese.
Over the millennia they have turned the simple act of bathing in an onsen into something like a religion.
Today, the ultimate way to experience an onsen is to visit an onsen ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with its own private hot-spring bath. FIRST: relax. That’s what onsen are all about. If you remember just one basic point, you won’t go too far wrong — the water in the pools and tubs is for soaking in, washing, and it should be entered only after you’ve scrubbed and rinsed your body.
This is the drill: pay your entry fee, if there is one. Rent a modesty
However, some of the finest onsen in Japan are free. Just show up with a towel, splash a little water on your naked body and plunge in. No communication hassles and no worries.
And, even if you must pay to enter, it’s usually just a minor snip, averaging about Y=700 ($8) a person. Oedo Onsen, Monogatari, Tokyo: On the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, this giant super-onsen is modelled on an Edo-period town. There is a huge variety of tubs, including outdoors, as well as restaurants, relaxation rooms and shops. You can spend a whole day here soaking away your cares. Jinata Onsen, Shikine Island: The setting of this onsen could not be more dramatic: it’s located in a rocky cleft in the seashore of lovely little Shikine Island. The pools are formed by the seaside rocks and it’s one of those onsen that exists only when the tide is right — spend a few lovely hours here watching the Pacific rollers crashing on the rocks. There are two other excellent onsen on the island. Kinosaki, Kansai: On the Sea of Japan coast in northern Kansai, this is the quintessential onsen town. With seven public baths and dozens of onsen ryokan, this is the place to sample the bathe-sand-stay experience — relax in your accommodation while taking the waters and, when you get tired of your ryokan’s bath, hit the streets in a yukata (light cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) and visit the public baths. This an edited extract from Lonely Planet Japan (12th edition; $47.99); © Lonely Planet. Takaragawa Onsen, Gunma Prefecture, central Honshu: The locals often pronounce Gunma prefecture’s onsen to be the best in the country. Difficult for us to argue. Takaragawa means ‘‘treasure river’’, and its several slate-floored pools sit along several hundred metres of riverbank. Most of the pools are mixed bathing, with one ladies-only bath. The alkaline waters are said to take care of fatigue, nervous disorders and digestive troubles. Lamp no Yado, Noto-hanto, central Honshu: Noto-hanto is about as far as one can go in central Honshu island, and the seaside is about as far as one can go on this peninsula. A country road takes you to a narrow 1km path, from where you have to climb a hill. Sit in the rotemburo (outdoor bath) and enjoy the Sea of Japan views through craggy rocks. Uramigataki Onsen, Hachijojima: Even in a country of lovely onsen, this is a real standout — the perfect little rotemburo next to a waterfall. Sitting in the bath as the late-afternoon sunlight pierces the ferns is a magical experience. Did we mention that it’s free? Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai: There is something peculiarly pleasing about dashing back and forth between the ocean and a natural hotspring bath — the contrast in temperature and texture is something one can never tire of. At Shirahama, a beach town in southern Kansai, there is a free onsen right on the beach. And Sakinoyu Onsen is just spectacular: sit in the tubs and watch the Pacific surf break over the rocks a few metres away. Kawayu Onsen, Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai: If you like doing things your own way, you’ll love this natural oddity of an onsen in southern Kansai where the waters bubble up through the rocks of a riverbed. Choose a likely spot and dig out a natural hotpot along the riverside and wait for it to fill with hot water and, voila, your own private rotemburo. In winter, bulldozers turn the entire river into a 1000- person onsen. It doesn’t hurt that the water is a lovely translucent emerald. Nishimuraya Honkan, Kinosaki, Kansai: If you want to sample the ultimate in top-end onsen ryokan, this is the place. With several fine indoor and outdoor baths and elegant guestrooms, a stay here will shed some light on why locals consider an onsen holiday the utmost in relaxation. Nozawa Onsen, Nagano Prefecture, central Honshu: What could be better than a day spent on the slopes, followed by a soak in a jacuzzi? Well, how about making that a natural hot spring? This little ski town boasts some first-rate skiing, reliable snow, ripping alpine views and 13 free onsen. Best of all, the onsen are scalding hot, which feels wonderful on a tired skier’s legs. This an edited extract from Lonely Planet Japan (12th edition; $47.99); © Lonely Planet.
towel, if you don’t have one. Take off your shoes and put them in the lockers or shelves provided. Find the correct changing room or bath for your gender, strip and put your clothes in the basket provided and then into a locker. Take the modesty towel into the bathing area.
Find a place around the wall to put down your toiletries, wash and rinse. You’ll note that some locals may dispense with this step and just stride over to the tubs and grab a wooden bucket (there are usually Takaragawa hot springs in central Honshu, among the best onsen in Japan some around) and splash a few scoops over themselves. Some miscreants can’t even be bothered with this step and plunge right into the tubs unwashed and unrinsed.
Frankly, I like to think these people will be reincarnated into a world where there are only cold-water baths.