When I wrote the guide to having a great Japanese onsen experience, I was talking about the steps of using a Japanese onsen and how to get over the awkwardness of being naked in front of other people. However, I left out a crucial part: picking Japanese onsens you’d enjoy! Ultimately, we’d all like to go everywhere and try everything. What we don’t have is time to enjoy all of them. After all, there are more than 3,000 onsens in Japan!
Are you ready? Let’s take a look at all the criteria you should consider while picking an onsen!
Japanese Onsen vs Japanese Sento (or Super Sento):
Technically for a bath to be an onsen, it must:
- Be at least 25°C at the source.
- Meet one of the 19 mineral content criteria (ie. Having greater than 1mg per 1kg of hydrogen ion)
Onsen gets water right from the natural hot spring source. Depending on the hot spring composition and the temperature, the water may be diluted or adjusted in temperature to make it comfortable to bathe in. Mineral properties of different natural onsen water are believed to have various health benefits.
A sento can be found in hotels in the middle of the city or far away from a source. In a sento, regular water is simply being heated up like you would in a normal hot bath at home. A sento’s purpose is mainly for hygienic reasons rather than leisure or health reasons.
A super sento is like a more luxurious version of a sento with variety of baths, saunas, massages, body scrubs, tea room, and much more! Some even offer free yoga classes, hot stone bath, manga library, or delicious buffet! These are super cool things you may want to consider while picking an onsen (or multiple onsens) to visit.
The choice could depend on your location. If you’re in the city, why not look for a super sento and give it a try? If you’re hiking through nature and visiting an active volcano, look for a natural onsen! Either way, bathing in a bath house is a valuable experience.
The View and Surroundings:
If you are like me and super into nature, you will really love outdoor Japanese onsens with an incredible view. This is a super important aspect to me, and I will simply not visit an onsen that is purely indoor without any view, unless it has an interesting history with a bath made from 200 years old hinoki wood or cave rocks, or anything that is interesting like that.
I would say the view and surroundings make an onsen experience complete. Imagine soaking and looking out to the ocean, flowing river, or Mt. Fuji. That would be pretty epic right? Good news is that Japanese onsens with wonderful views are not hard to find at all. A little searching will reveal many great choices.
Time of Year Visiting the Japanese Onsen: Winter, Fall, or Sakura
Japan has beautiful seasons, whether it’s peak foliage in the fall, full bloom sakura in the spring, or a blanket of snow in the winter. For these events to be at its peak, especially with fall foliage and sakura, timing is everything. There are many maps and websites providing approximate times of fall foliage and sakura full bloom in each area. If you have a specific time for your visit, you can try to visit places that will be most beautiful during the time of your visit. I’ve made the mistake of visiting a river side Japanese onsen during the winter (see below).
It was still a great experience, but the river was so dried up, it was barely visible from the bath. In addition to that, the ropeway we had planned for the next day was closed due to a snow storm. That was poor planning by me!
Japanese Onsen Day Visit vs Overnight Stay (and the meal plans)
A day visit is usually a more budget friendly option if time allows. Don’t forget to check the time available for day visitors, since most onsens will usually limit the night time to their overnight guests. Also make sure you have enough time for transportation and to enjoy the baths! For day trips, you may need to rent or purchase towels if you did not bring your own.
I usually prefer an overnight stay, which in my opinion is the most relaxing option if your travel plans and budget permit it. It is the choice that will allow you to fully use a great onsen facility and give you time to explore the area. This option is especially great if the ryokan provides delicious authentic Japanese food made from fresh local ingredients. If you are doing an overnight stay, I would highly recommend you choosing a half-board meal plan for your stay for an optimised experience.
Variety of Baths and Mineral Properties
For natural onsens, there are so many types of water properties depending on the area and its natural surroundings. Some onsens will have a lot of Sulphur which makes the water slightly acidic, while some will consist of sodium springs. In some onsens with alkaline properties, the water will feel slippery on your skin. Some onsens will be milky blue, while some will be rusty brown in colour. These differences are believed to have different health properties like improving arthritis conditions, gastrointestinal system, or beautifying your skin. Some people will visit onsens based on these specific mineral composition and health properties.
Additionally, many onsens will have multiple types of baths to try, with different temperatures and mineral properties. Most Japanese onsens will have both indoor and outdoor onsens. Some will cater towards family and kids too, like this playground onsen at Yarimikan Onsen (Shin Hodaka).
Separated Onsen VS Mixed Gender Onsens
This may matter if you are visiting with a spouse or partner and would like to soak together. Mixed gender onsens are difficult but not impossible to find. This was one of the main requirements when I was first looking for in a Japanese onsen trip with my boyfriend. Luckily all the mixed gender onsens I’ve visited were all wonderful and relaxing. Many times, these mixed gender baths are Rotenburo (open-air baths) with beautiful views and surrounding. Some of the best mixed-gender rotenburo I’d highly recommend are Tsurunoyu (Nyuto) Onsen and Yarimikan Onsen.
If you are nervous about soaking next to someone of opposite sex, don’t worry because most onsen facilities will have multiple baths with many segregated baths too.
If your onsen of choice does not have a mixed gender bath, don’t get discouraged just yet. Check if they have private bath you can charter. Some ryokans will have so many private baths you can enjoy with your family or partner. Sometimes you need to pay a fee to use the private bath, so be sure to check ahead of time and book early, as soon as you arrive, to get the time that suits your schedule best.
Secluded Japanese Onsen Ryokan VS Onsen town
Either choice can be amazing in different ways!
A secluded ryokan can be a very blissful experience if it is relaxing, comfortable, with variety of baths, surrounding views of nature, and delicious food. These secluded ryokans tend to be on the luxurious side, like being on a river side, or with views of mountains or waterfalls. If you were to spend an entire day at this ryokan, would you enjoy it without getting bored?
Keep in mind that you may want to spend at least one entire night at a Japanese onsen that is highly secluded to fully enjoy it. I highly recommend doing a half-board meal plan if there are no restaurants in the area. You should book your plan ahead of time since most ryokans will need to know ahead of time in order to prepare ingredients for your food. Be sure to let them know of any allergies or dietary needs ahead of time and they should be able to accommodate to your requirements.
A Japanese onsen town is like a packaged experience. Here, you don’t consider just the hotel you’re staying at, but the vibe of the entire town. This is especially warm and friendly if the onsens in the area collaborate and allow day visitors staying overnight at neighboring ryokans to use the baths for free. Many times, you can buy an onsen pass where you can visit unlimited onsens and ride local buses.
A great advantage of visiting an onsen town is when there are multiple famous onsens in the area. This is also great if you are on a tight budget and want to spend little less on your accommodation. You can stay at an affordable hotel, buy an onsen pass, and go onsen hopping. Check out Nyuto Onsen and Kinosaki Onsen for warm and friendly Japanese onsen towns!
Thoroughly enjoyed your experience at a Japanese Onsen?
Then I highly encourage you to try different types of onsen trips and onsen experiences. If you’ve done only luxurious ryokan stays, try a day trip this time. Enjoyed onsens with autumn colours? Why not try soaking outdoors as the winter snow is falling? Visited a remote onsen where you stayed in the hotel all day? Try a warm local onsen town next time! There really are so much variety to it, and many that you will equally enjoy. The combinations of an exquisite experience is endless!