If you had 18 days, you’d do them all, but if you’ve got pick just one, this onsen expert’s flow chart is here to help.

Tokyo is one of the most interesting, exciting cities in the world, and a lot of that is thanks to how dense it is. But no matter how much you enjoy exploring its restaurants, shops, museums, and other points of urban interest, too much time in Tokyo’s urban jungle can have you longing for a relaxing night outside the city limits.

At those times, the best course of action is a dip in a hot spring, or onsen, as they’re called in Japanese, and you’re in luck because there are over a dozen onsen towns that make for easy overnight trips from Tokyo. But which one is the right destination for you? Japanese Twitter user @onsen_nagachi, who’s visited over 400 hot springs in Japan, has a flow chart that’ll help you pick.

The quiz has a maximum of five questions for you to answer, so let’s get started.

1. Do you want to go to the hot spring using only trains and/or buses?
Because of their rural locations, some onsen require cars/taxis to reach, although there are also ones that are easy to get to using public transportation,
Yes → Go to Question 2
No → Go to Question 3

2. Do you want to go someplace quiet?
Yes → Go to Question 4
No → Go to Question 5

3. Is it OK if the hot spring is a little far from Tokyo?
Yes → Go to Question 6
No → Go to Question 7

4. Do you want to go to a hot spring with cloudy water?
“Cloudy water” might sound suspicious, but the mineral content of some natural onsen give them a milky color, which is actually a bit of a plus if you feel self-conscious about the prospect of Japanese-style shared soaking in completely transparent water
Yes → Go to Takayu Onsen

Located in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture, Takayu offers lush forests in summer, and also yukimiburo, outdoor hot springs where you can warm your body while looking out at the snow, in winter.

No → Go to Question 8

5. Do you want to stroll around the streets of the onsen town?
Some onsen communities have what’s called an onsen-gai, streets of restaurants, souvenir shops, and other traveler-oriented businesses, which visitors often explore while wearing lightweight kimono provided by their hotels.

Yes → Go to Question 9
No → Go to Question 10

6. Do you want to enjoy other outdoor attractions besides the hot springs?
Yes → Go to Question 11
No → Go to Question 12

7. Do you want a luxurious atmosphere?
Yes → Go to Hakone

Located in Kanagawa Prefecture, Hakone is the premiere hot spring destination for Tokyoites, and the lakeside town’s incredible views of Mt. Fuji on sunny days make it an enticing place to splurge on a fancy hotel or ryokan inn.

No → Go to Question 13

8. Do you love sake?
Yes → Go to Echigo Yuzawa

“Echigo” is the old name for Niigata, which produces some of Japan’s most delicious rice. Combine that with the prefecture’s abundant supply of high-purity water, and local brewers have everything they need to make excellent sake, the perfect way to cap off a day of hot spring baths.

No → Go to Shima Onsen

It’s not the only hot spring town in Gunma Prefecture, but Shima Onsen, by virtue of being less famous than some of the other Gunma spots we’ll see on the list, is also quieter and less crowded.

9. Do you prefer the ocean or the mountains?
The ocean → Go to Atami

Situated at the eastern entrance to the Izu peninsula, Atami boasts beautiful views of the gently curving bay the town rises up from, as well as a picturesque castle.

The mountains → Go to Question 14

10. Do you want to go to a place with lots of natural beauty?
Yes → Go to Kinugawa

The name might translate to “angry demon river,” but the hot spring inns built along the top of the gorge Kinugawa’s river runs through are likely to leave you feeling divinely peaceful.

No → Go to Question 15

11. Do you prefer the ocean or the mountains?
The ocean → Go to Higashi Izu

Keep heading south from Atami, and you’ll reach the part of Shizuoka Prefecture called Higashi Izu (“East Izu”), which gives you great ocean views and smaller crowds than what you’ll find further north.

The mountains → Go to Question 16

12. Do you want to go to a hot spring with cloudy water?
Yes → Go to Manza Onsen

Another of Gunma’s often-overlooked hot springs, Manza Onsen also offers access to nearby ski slopes in winter.

No → Go to Question 17

13. Do you love seafood?

Yes → Go to Boso

Out of Tokyo’s neighbors, Chiba Prefecture has by far the least onsen cachet, and is usually thought of more as a place for surfing, hiking, and eating fresh seafood. But with a little searching, you can find beautiful seaside baths like the ones shown above.

No → Go to Kawaguchiko

Kawaguchiko is actually the name of a lake in Yamanashi Prefecture, but while the lake is pretty enough in its own right, the real reason to visit is what’s visible just beyond the lake: Mt. Fuji.

14. Do you like the smell of sulfur?
Like the question about cloudy water, this one might seem kind of strange to Japanese hot spring newbies. But while sulfur is usually an unpleasant odor, to many veterans the aroma is intrinsically tied to onsen baths, and thus takes on a relaxing aspect in hot spring-related contexts.

Yes → Go to Kusatsu

Gunma’s Kusatsu is most famous for the dynamic open-air pool of hot spring water that flows right into the center of the town. While there’s no full-body bathing at this landmark, you’ll find free-to-use foot baths around it, as well as several inns with standard hot spring baths.

No → Go to Ikaho

Also in Gunma, and a bit closer to Tokyo than Kusatsu, Ikaho’s distinguishing feature is the steep set of stone stairs that runs through the center of town, with hot springs located along the way.

15. Do you want to spend your time in a ryokan (traditional inn), or someplace with a sento (public-bath) atmosphere?

Ryokan → Go to Kofu

Kofu, the prefectural capital of Yamanashi, isn’t exactly famous for its hot springs, but there are still some real gems, like Hottaragashi Onsen, seen above.

Sento → Go to Yugawara

It’s not entirely clear what makes Kanagawa’s Yugawara “sento-like” to @onsen_nagachi, as it’s a genuine onsen town with natural hot springs. It is comparatively less fancy than the prefecture’s more prestigious onsen destination, Hakone, but that also means smaller crowds, and the open-air foot bath (seen at top left above) is a wonderful place to relax in near-solitude on off-peak days.

16. Do you want to go into hot springs at many different locations in the same town?
Some hot spring towns offer the opportunity to do what’s called yu meguri, going from onsen to another at different inns or day-use baths.

Yes → Go to Nasu Shiobara

In addition to hot springs, rustic Nasu Shiobara, located in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, is also famous for its dairies, and so the locally made ice cream is a can’t miss. Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the pyramid onsen while you’re there.

No → Go to Shuzenji

Back in Izu once again, Shuzenji is further inland than the other Izu onsen on the list, so guests trae ocean views for ush bamboo forests.

17. Do you like eating wild game like venison and bear meat hot pot?
Yes → Go to Yunishigawa

Originally a hideout for a defeated samurai clan, Yunishigawa offers distinct cuisine and a beautiful igloo festival in winter.

No → Go to Minakami みなかみ

And finally, we make one last stop in Gunma. Minakami offers strenuous outdoor activities like skiing and rafting, but if you’ve come to relax, there’s arguably no better place to do so than in the Hoshi Onsen ryokan, which has been receiving guests for over 140 years.

It’s worth noting that @onsen_nagachi’s flow chart/quiz isn’t an absolute, iron-clad manifesto of where to go. For example, the path to get to the Hakone recommendation suggests you’d need a car to enjoy the town, but it’s actually fairly easy to get around by train and local busses if you check the timetables (and there are even some great train/bus pass combos for travelers). Still, given her extensive hot spring experience, her suggestions are a great jumping-off point from which to plot an onsen getaway from Tokyo, and really, if you’ve got the time, it sounds like each and every one is worth checking out.

Source: Twitter/@onsen_nagachi via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert image: Wikipedia/掬茶
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