Onsen Towns for a Winter Break near Tokyo and Beyond

Lily Crossley-Baxter

Japan has more hot springs than anywhere in the world, so it’s the perfect place to warm up this winter with a good soak. Lucky you, there’s plenty of onsen towns near Tokyo, and some further afield too to fit your country-wide travels.

Probably the only thing that makes winter in Japan bearable is the prospect of sinking into a hot, steaming onsen so relaxing you forget the 20 other naked people around you—if only temporarily. There are plenty of baths in Tokyo, but for a real escape, head to one of the resorts to enjoy a mini-break that’ll leave you sloth-like in your levels of relaxation. If you’re staying in Tokyo briefly, or have more time to play with, you can opt for a weekend getaway or make it a pit stop on your itinerary—either way, it’s one of the most integral winter experiences you can have in Japan, so you might as well do it properly. If you’re more excited to see monkeys bathing than getting in yourself (or want to combine the two) have a look at our article on getting to the popular Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano.

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Side note for the nervous

Being publicly naked may not be your idea of relaxing, but believe us (as some of the most prudish of prudes), it is so, so worth it. As long as you follow the onsen protocol, and after a few stares, the other people will soon lose interest and you can carry on your merry way.


Nearby – 5 weekend getaways and day trips from Tokyo

If you’re planning on a day trip or weekend away from Tokyo, these towns are far enough away to leave the city smoke behind, but close enough to get there and back in time for an early(ish) night.

Visit Kusatsu Onsen - one of Japan's oldest hot spring resorts - and soak away your stress in amazing baths. Spend the night at a click here for details
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Kusatsu   |   Gunma Prefecture   |   4 hours

An easy bus ride from Tokyo, Kusatsu is one of the more well-known spots among onsen lovers due to its unique open-air cooling technique. Stroll through the streets in the evening to admire the Yubatake: a giant chute of hot water running through the center of the town and supplying the many onsen nearby. You can try the super-hot pools for free throughout the town and pay a small fee for some of the cooled ones with facilities. Although it could be a day trip, you definitely don’t want to to miss the lights at night, so make this one a weekend away—and don’t worry, it can be done for ¥10,000 so it won’t break the bank!

Getting there: Buses are a really convenient way to reach Kusatsu as they run direct from Shinjuku Station and are affordable too! It takes 4 hours and will cost around ¥3,000 each way. Have a look at the article here for full details!


Hakone   |   Kanagawa Prefecture  |   100 minutes

The one you’ve definitely already heard of, Hakone is an hour from Tokyo and famed for its onsen with views of Fuji, not to mention the pirate ship on the lake. If you’re after a more fun take on an onsen, definitely check out Yunessun—a kind of onsen theme park with wine baths, tea baths and more. For a more traditional approach, choose from the many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) who open their doors to visitors, like Kohan-no-yu which looks out across Lake Ashi. If you have tattoos, head to Tenzan which has beautiful rock-lined rotenburo (outdoor bath) and is more accepting than most (i.e be discreet and you’ll be fine). Hakone has plenty more than onsen to keep you entertained too, with the aforementioned pirate ship, art galleries, tea houses, steaming valleys and plenty more.

Things getting steamy in Hakone | Photo by Arian Zwegers used under CC

Getting there: Hakone is best reached by train and appears in plenty of combination deals and even has its own transport pass. Most simply, it takes 100 minutes from Tokyo station and costs ¥1,190 each way. Check our full Hakone transport guide for more details on the best combination deals though!




Ikaho   |   Gunma   |   2.5 hours

Best known for the 300m staircase that leads up through the town, Ikaho is one of Gunma Prefecture’s four famed onsen and is a wonderful escape from Tokyo. The waters here are a reddish brown thanks to iron presence in the thermal waters and believed to be good for poor circulation and fatigue especially.

Ikaho Gunma
Photo by Tomo used under CC

Much like Kusatsu, you can actually see the source of the water here at the top of the steps, near the large public outdoor bath. There are two public baths in the town, and plenty of ryokan and hotels welcome visitors for between ¥1,500. When you visit, be sure to make a short trip to nearby Mizusawa Temple which is popular for the udon shops that line the route to its doors; the area is home to one of the three most famous udon in Japan, alongside the Sanuki udon of Kagawa and the Inaniwa udon of Akita.


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Getting there: There are train options which are covered if you have the JR Pass (take the Shinkansen to Takasaki and transfer to a local train to reach Shibukawa before hopping on a bus from there). Otherwise the JR highway bus is the most convenient as they run buses frequently each day direct (some of which continue to Kusatsu) it costs around ¥2,400 each way and takes 2.5 hours. 


Atami   |   Shizuoka   |   106 minutes

Once a major seaside destination for Tokyoites, Atami has seen quite a decline in visitors over the decades, but this gives it a special kind of yesteryear charm. They have unusual salt-water onsen with incredible sea views, and with plenty of traditional inns dating back way past Japan’s 80s “bubble era”, you’ll be spoiled for choice on accommodation.

Atami
Photo by Fto Mizno used under CC

If you’re looking for a special romantic option, the Chikurinan Mizuno Resort which overlooks the bay has couples rotenburo (requires reservation) in their forested grounds. While you’re there you can visit the fake Atami Castle and even see the sex museum—it’s an unusual spot for sure! The area is well known for fishing so you can also enjoy deliciously fresh seafood on your visit.

Getting there: By train it takes 106 minutes from Tokyo Station direct and will cost ¥1,940 each way. 


Kinugawa   |   Tochigi   |   2 hours

Perfect if you’re looking to combine your trip with a visit to Nikko, Kinugawa is one of the lesser-visited spots (but still pretty visited) and some of the most beautiful scenery. Despite having been through a bit of a boom and decline, recently abandoned hotels have been removed and the area is enjoying a new lease on life. There are new nature trails and foot baths near the river as well as parks.

Kinugawa Onsen
Photo by Kzaral used under CC

The water is mild and clear and has been soaked in since the Edo period—you can try it at the public or private baths dotted throughout the town. There is a small theme park recreating feudal Japan to visit between soaks as well as a park featuring world landscapes in miniature—what more could you want from a weekend? If you want to leave behind the more built-up style of the town, visit one of the more rural spots like Okukinu Onsen (a collection of four onsen which require a bus from town and a hike to visit) or the small town of Yunishigawa (one hour by bus from Kinugawa) which is home to onsen as well as a snow-house festival in the early months.



Getting there: Trains run direct from Shinjuku taking 2 hours and costing ¥4,000. The trains are partially covered by the JR Pass, but as they are jointly run by the Tobu Line and JR, additional fees must be paid. These trains require reservations and run frequently. Alternatively, if you’re using the JR Wide or JR East Pass, the trip is covered entirely. Lastly, you can get special Tobu railway passes if you are also planning to visit Nikko and/or Kinugawa from Asakusa. 


Further afield: 5 spots to fit your travels

If your schedule is tightly packed and you want to fit in an onsen trip between destinations, there are plenty of options to choose from across the country.

Kinosaki   | Hyogo Prefecture | A picturesque stop off between Kyoto and Hiroshima

A Kansai-based onsen town, Kinosaki is up there when it comes to picturesque spots to soak in. The town surrounds a central river lined with willow trees and is a traditional spot with guests wandering the streets in yukata each evening.

Kinosaki
Photo by juson.tw used under CC

With a reputation for healing waters, many baths have been built where legend suggests the injured would bathe wounds in marshes.

There are plenty of public bath houses to choose from as well as free public foot baths to enjoy as you explore. The public baths range from small and traditional to large and modern, so you can see which you like best; there are outdoor cave baths at Ichino-yu, waterfall views at Goshono-yu, and private family baths available at Jizo-yu. If you’re staying for a while, you can go kayaking in a geo-park, try snorkeling, make soba noodles and and even go on a lava-flow hiking course, so you certainly won’t be bored.

Getting there: From Tokyo the journey takes about 5 hours (a little longer if you’re on the JR Pass and can’t take the faster Nozomi trains) and requires two changes at Kyoto and Fukuchiyama, so it works better if you’re visiting Kyoto or Osaka already.

Kinosaki is two and a half hours from Kyoto and a great stop if you’re heading down to see the sand dunes of Tottori (2 hours), the castle in Himeji (3 hours), or going straight through to Hiroshima (4-5 hours). These routes can all be done on the JR Pass and require minimal changes, as Kinosakionsen Station is well connected. 


Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama   |   Ehime Prefecture   |   Explore Shikoku from Hiroshima

Officially Japan’s oldest spa, Dogo Onsen dates back 3000 years and is thought to be the inspiration for the bath house in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Designated as an important cultural asset, the bath house is located in Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture on the Island of Shikoku.

Dogo Onsen Shikoku
Photo by Japanexperterna used under CC

The impressive wooden structure is a sight in itself, with a castle-like presence and a watchtower which rings three times a day. It is open to the public as well as the Imperial Family, who have their own private yushinden (bath room)—one of a kind in Japan. You can’t use this of course, but there are sightseeing tours available if you want a taste of imperial standards. The surrounding area is great for a stroll, with an old-fashioned shopping arcade and a traditional clock tower with puppets emerging on the hour.

Getting there: You can hop across the waters from Hiroshima by ferry if you are sans-JR Pass and prefer boats—choosing between a 2.5 hour journey on the cruise ferry (¥3,500 one way) OR just over an hour on the SuperJet (¥7,000 one way).

Rail pass holders can catch the bullet train to Okayama and from there catch a Limited Express to Matsuyama, which takes just over 3 hours. Taking some time in your itinerary to explore Shikoku is definitely recommended, with stunning mountains, the Shikoku pilgrimage and the vine bridges of the Iya Valley all making for incredible adventures.


Gero  |   Gifu Prefecture |   A great pitstop for the gassho houses of Shirakawago

Definitely not one of the most scenic onsen towns, but Gero’s reputation carries it through as it was mentioned as one of Japan’s top three onsen by the Confucian poet Hayashi Razan. The town name may also be slang for vomit, but don’t let you put that off (although we’re glad to have found that out after our visit, since it definitely doesn’t help).

Gero Onsen
Photo by u dou used under CC

The Japanese are less temperamental however and it is still really popular, with plenty of ryokan and public baths available. You can purchase a wooden Yumeguri Tegata spa pass which grants access to three different onsen (from around 30) for ¥1,300. You can pick this up at the tourist office and see brochures of which you would like to visit. The perk of Gero is its proximity to Shirakawago and Takayama so it is an easy one to fit into your schedule as an overnight stop.

Getting there: From Tokyo it takes roughly 3.5 hours by train via Nagoya and Gifu, costing between ¥12,000 to ¥13,000. If you’re leaving from Nagoya, it’s only an hour and a half by Hida Wide View (extra wide windows to enjoy the view!). Both journeys are fully covered by the JR Pass and you can travel to Takayama in under an hour if you are on your way to see Shirakawago’s gassho houses. 


Beppu  |   Oita Prefecture   |   A relaxing break near Nagasaki

A destination in itself, the onsen of Beppu are nicknamed the Eight Hells of Beppu and are genuinely filled with varying horrors like crocodiles and a blood pond. But don’t let that put you off. there are some normal ones too. There are eight different hot spring sources here, each with their own public baths and ryokan.

Beppu Onsen Hell
Photo by Greg Lane

The area produces more hot spring water than anywhere in the country—so you’re biggest problem might be choosing where to start. Once you’re bored of water, why not relax in hot sand baths at Beppu beach or soak in some mud? The Hyotan Onsen is  a public bath with an impressive range of massaging waterfalls as well as both indoor and outdoor pools for only ¥700.

The most well known onsen in town is the picturesque Takegawara which was built in 1879 and offers and old-fashioned interior for a traditional soak. To visit the eight hells you can catch a bus and choose a couple or visit them all—here’s our guide on what to see! If you would like a prettier onsen experience, check out nearby Yufuin, it’s small, tree-lined and traditional!

Getting there: If you’re traveling direct from Tokyo, it will take just over 6 hours with a transfer at Kokura, but if you’re using it as a stop off to Nagasaki life is much easier. Beppu is 2 hours from Hiroshima (covered by the JR pass) and from there it’s a 4-hour journey to Nagasaki (also covered)—admittedly you could just go straight to Nagasaki in 2.5 hours, but Beppu is well worth the extra time!


Noboribetsu Onsen   |   Hokkaido Prefecture

If you find yourself up north, perhaps for the famous snow festival, this is an onsen town too good to miss. The hot springs here release up to 10,000 tons of water each day, and it’s the perfect place to warm up on the coldest of Japan’s islands.

Photo by Nao Iizuka used under CC

You can visit the source of the water, nicknamed Hell Valley (sharing the Japanese name of Jigokudani, but not the monkey one unfortunately). The area has 11 different types of water and are considered some of the most effective in Japan with most onsen offering a choice of waters. Daiichi Takimotokan has the biggest range, with 7 different kinds, and is a very modern space to relax in. There is only one public bath, the Sagiriyu, which has two types of water and is by far the cheapest option in town.

Getting there: On the JR Pass you can travel by train all the way from Tokyo to Noboribetsu station via Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto which takes 7 hours, before catching a bus for 15 minutes to the onsen area. If you’re in Hokkaido already, it’s a mere 1 hour and 20 minutes from Sapporo by Limited Express to the station. 

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Location(s): Hakone,
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