A Day at the Onsen

by Christopher DArcy

onsenTokyoites needn’t go far for a leisurely soak in a hot natural spring surrounded by the finest in nature and luxury.

The Japanese are famously fond of onsen, or hot spring baths, and there is no better way to unwind after a long working week than to soak in a series of scalding pools of naturally heated water.

The waters of many onsen are often pumped up from deep below the surface and contain minerals that have naturally therapeutic effects. Many include outdoor rotenburo, with stunning views of the sea or snow-covered mountains; another key element of a visit to an onsen would be staying at the attached ryokan, or inn.

leadBut that is not a requirement and it would be a mistake to think that anyone needing a break from the stresses of urban life needs to travel to the far ends of the country for this sort of remedy. And with many within a short distance of Tokyo, there are plenty of options for a day trip.

In Shizuoka Prefecture, just 80mins by train from Tokyo Station, Ito Yamatokan has been carefully constructed around a traditional Japanese-style garden, complete with pools fringed by winding paths, meticulously tended trees and lanterns beautifully lit during evenings.

Ito Yamatokan has four individual hot tubs, two indoor and two open-air, with the water flowing into the Ryujin no yu onsen down a series of rocky waterfalls. The ryokan also operates suite rooms with private open-air onsen, of cypress wood or granite, overlooking the garden or the Matsukawa river.

Such private baths are an attraction for many families, as men and women are generally expected to bathe separately, which has become increasingly common since Japan began to open up to the West in the Meiji Period.

gero4The Gero Onsen Yunoshimakan was first constructed near the Gifu Prefecture city of Gero in 1931 on a site that used to belong to the shogun of the day and has included the emperor among its guests. The present wooden building, constructed in the classical sukiya-zukuri style, took three years to complete and is set among heavily wooded hillsides with stunning views.
There is a selection of baths, including outdoor pools with rocky edges reminiscent of plunging sea cliffs. Stone lanterns stand in the water and others hang lit from the rafters. Water plunges into the pool from a high channel, keeping the surface of the pool in constant motion. Gero Onsen Yunoshimakan prides itself on its traditional kaiseki—or Kyoto haute cuisine that make the most of choice beef from the Hida district, seafood and fresh local fruit and vegetables.

One of the most famous hotels in Japan remains the Fujiya Hotel, which dominates the resort town of Hakone, just a couple of hours east of Tokyo by car. A favored destination for dignitaries and celebrities since it opened its impressive doors in 1878, all the 146 rooms at the Fujiya are supplied with natural hot spring water, while reservations are required for the family use of the Mermaid Hot Spring Bath — that is graced with a large statue of a mermaid.

At the foot of Mt. Fuji and an area of regular volcanic activity, Hakone has numerous open-air onsen and the Fujiya Hotel makes an ideal starting point for exploring them at your leisure.

yumoto-fujiyahotel-public-bathFor anyone who prefers to look over the sea instead of across mountains as they relax in their onsen, Shiomiso is the place to stay. Located right on the beach in Niigata Prefecture, the hotel has breathtaking views of the setting sun from the tea lounge, each of the guest rooms and the onsen every evening.

The hotel’s various hot springs include indoor communal pools overlooking the waves on the beach, private tubs and a stunning oval tub rimmed with wood that looks out across a private garden fenced with bamboo and, beyond that, the Sea of Japan.

Higher in the mountains of this part of northern Japan, macaques are frequent visitors to hot springs during the freezing winter months and the photo of the red-faced monkey in the bath has become a classic onsen image.

For anyone not willing to travel outside the city, it comes as a relief to find that even the ultra-modern Odaiba district is home to one of these marvels of Japanese culture. Oedo-Onsen Monogatari , opened in 2003, i s Tokyo’s only hot springs theme park. The interior of the complex has been designed in a traditional Japanese style, with old-fashioned shops and restaurants clustered along a main street. Visitors can try their hand at traditional games that are usually found in the grounds of temples during festivals, including archery and scooping up goldfish from a tub. The shops sell yukata, geta and purses made of kimono cloth.

The main attraction, however, are the hot springs. The water used in the baths, which are separated for men and women, is pumped up piping hot from 1,400 meters below the surface. Each area has a washing section and a series of different pools, including some outside and beneath a wooden pagoda. Stones have been set around the baths to resemble a traditional Japanese garden. Tendrils of steam coil off the water.

The women’s side of the onsen has okeburo, which are individual barrels filled with steaming water, while there is also a range of massages and saunas available. The sunaburo sand baths are popular with female visitors, who lay down in their yukata and are covered with hot sand. A large communal garden has another series of pools, some containing added herbal balms and one where fish nibble the deadskin from bathers’ feet.

Sushi, soba, ramen and other Japanese meals are served in the restaurants, ideal after working up an appetite in the onsen. And for those who wish to stay longer, rooms can be reserved and the baths are available throughout the night. The city’s forefathers would surely have approved. ❖ 


Recommended places to stay

fujiya-hotel Fujiya Hotel
359 Miyanoshita, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa
Tel. 0460 82 2211


Ikikaeri no yado Takinami
3005 Akayu, Nannyo-shi, Yamagata
Tel. 0238 43 6111

Ito Yamatokan
1-1 Kotobuki-cho, Ito City, Shizuoka
Tel. 0557 37 3100

2-9-36 Senami-onsen, Murakami-City, Niigata
Tel. 0254 53 4288

Gero Onsen Yunoshimakan
645 Yunoshima, Gero-shi, Gifu
Tel. 0576 25 3131

Oedo-Onsen Monogatari
2-57 Oumi, Koto-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03 5500 1126