Add these to your Japan travel bucket list!

Ahh, there’s nothing like a good soak in a nice, hot onsen (hot spring), especially in the cold months of winter. Luckily, onsen are everywhere in Japan, thanks to the volcanic activity that heats water under the ground. Many hot springs also have tourist areas built around them, which offer delicious food, relaxing entertainment, multiple different kinds of baths, and traditional Japanese accommodation–all excellent ways to wind down after a stressful year.

Some onsen resort areas are more popular than others, however, and most of the time it’s not just because of the quality of the baths, either. A lot of times, what makes an onsen resort great is what’s around it, and that’s definitely true of the top ten most popular onsen in Japan. Travel company Jalan surveyed 13,342 users  and asked them about their favorite onsen areas, the ones they liked so much that they want to go back, and they all seem to offer much more than just soothing hot waters and Japanese ryokan inns.

10. Gero Onsen (Gifu Prefecture) and Kinosaki Onsen (Hyogo Prefecture)

Tied for tenth place are Gero Onsen in Gifu prefecture in central Japan and Kinosaki Onsen in Hyogo prefecture in western Japan. Pictured above is Gero Onsen, which is famous for its large, free, public open air bath and its many public foot baths, as well as its open air museum of Shirakawa-style farmhouses.

Kinosaki Onsen (above) is known for its traditional onsen town feel, which is wonderful to stroll around in while wearing yukata. The town features local ice cream shops, old-school game arcades, and a ropeway up the mountain, and there is also an aquarium outside of town as well as a stork sanctuary, so this little area provides plenty to do. Coincidentally, both Gero and Kinosaki also have an Onsenji Temple, though they worship different things.

9. Atami Onsen (Shizuoka Prefecture)

The coastal onsen resort town of Atami took the ninth spot, quite possibly because it is just two hours outside of Tokyo by express train and provides a great weekend retreat from the big city. With beautiful ocean views and interesting cultural heritage and historical sites, Atami onsen provides a lovely place to stay for a weekend away from life’s hustle and bustle. Plus, they have some of the best fireworks displays around, which, as you probably know by now, are a popular attraction for many Japanese people.

8. Yufuin Onsen (Oita Prefecture)

This rural onsen town on the southwestern island of Kyushi is often overshadowed by its larger neighbor Beppu–which will appear farther down this list–but it is no less attractive for its small size. Nestled in amongst mountain ranges, Yufuin’s main road is lined not with ryokan but with shops and restaurants, which makes it feel more like a shopping area than a resort town, but with its with strikingly beautiful natural scenery, cute little boutique shops, and relaxing hot spring baths, the rural resort provides the best of all worlds.

7. Arima Onsen (Hyogo Prefecture)

Said to be one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, Arima is actually within the city limits of Kobe, and so provides a great day trip for locals as well as Kansai residents. The town has plenty to explore on its own though, with various picturesque temples and shrines as well as a hot spring museum to enjoy.

The waters of Arima Onsen is believed to be excellent for your health; the “gold water”, which has turned brown with iron deposits, is said to be wonderful for skin and muscles, and the “silver water”, which contains radium and carbonate, is said to be good for muscles and joints. Undoubtedly people enjoy the health benefits of this little town’s onsen as well as its sites and its proximity to the port city of Kobe.

6. Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto Prefecture)

Kurokawa Onsen is frequently voted as one of Japan’s best onsen, likely because it’s one of Japan’s most picturesque. The whole town feels very traditional and in commune with nature, with the buildings and features all built of wood and stone and the river that runs through it. Even the baths feel very natural, as Kurokawa Onsen is famous for its many large outdoor baths, some of which were frequented by feudal lords from the nearby Kumamoto Castle. Overall, travelers likely enjoy the quiet, rural, and traditional atmosphere of this beautiful riverside town.

5. Beppu Onsen Township (Oita Prefecture)

Beppu Onsen is widely regarded as one of the best onsen resort areas in all of Japan, precisely because they have so many onsen-related things to do. With eight different sources of hot spring water, travelers have a wide variety of different kinds of baths to choose from, and there are also multiple springs called “Hells” that are too hot to enter but are all different colors due to the chemical makeup of their water. Vents release hot steam all over town, and even the sand is hot–you can take a “sand bath”–so Beppu has plenty to offer for travelers and sightseers.

4. Dogo Onsen (Ehime Prefecture)

Dogo Onsen, on the island of Shikoku, is believed to be the inspiration for the setting of the movie Spirited Away–although it’s not the only place to make that claim to fame. Either way, Dogo Onsen Honkan’s main building is a popular destination not just for tourists, but also the imperial family, who stay there when they visit the area. Dogo Onsen is located within the city of Matsuyama, so along with the town’s castle, temples, shrines, shopping arcade, and parks, there is plenty to do nearby to keep the wandering tourist happy.

3. Noboribestu Onsen (Hokkaido Prefecture)

Noboribetsu, in Japan’s northernmost prefecture, offers 11 different kinds of baths, so visitors can spend a day–or a weekend–doing a circuit of all the different waters to enjoy the benefits of each one. But what’s most attractive about Noboribetsu may not be the waters you can bathe in. This area also has a “Hell Valley”, where hot rivers flow and steam rises from the ground. The valley itself is dangerous to enter, but there are hiking paths around the edge, so Noboribetsu makes for a great exploration of natural geothermal elements.

2. Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma Prefecture)

The water of Kusatsu Onsen in central Japan is believed to have tremendous healing properties that can cure any illness. The area features public and private bathhouses all across town as well as foot baths, so if you’ve been feeling a bit tired, stressed, or perhaps a bit under the weather, or if you’ve recently suffered an injury, Kusatsu may be a soothing place to convalesce. The area also has beautiful mountainous landscaping, which makes for wonderful hiking in the summer and fabulous skiing in the winter.

1. Hakone Onsen (Kanagawa Prefecture)

For the fifteenth year in a row in Jalan’s annual survey, Hakone, just an hour and a half outside of Tokyo by express train, was voted to be the best onsen resort area in the country. There are a lot of reasons why Hakone is a popular tourist destination, not least among them the startlingly beautiful proximity to Mt. Fuji. And with plenty of things to do there–ferry boat rides, a cable car over a volcanic mountain, a scenic railway, shrines temples, and museums, just to name a few, there’re lots of reasons to love Hakone enough to keep coming back over and over again.

That Hakone made the top spot once again isn’t entirely surprising, though it is interesting that the top ten remains largely unchanged since last year, except for Kurokawa Onsen, which jumped up two spots. Perhaps that’s because travel was limited due to the coronavirus, or perhaps that’s because these places are just too good to pass up. Either way, if you’re looking for an authentic, fun, and memorable onsen resort experience, look no further than one of these top places!

Sources: PR Times, Jalan
Top image: Pakutaso
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