Where to get my onsen on?
December 3, 2012 7:22 PM   Subscribe

Where to get my onsen on? I'll be visiting Japan (12/27 - 1/08) and would love to spend a few days somewhere wintry, mountainous and full of hot springs. Preferably at an interesting ryokan. Any suggestions?

Also: If any Tokyo mefites are down for a meet-up, do send me a message.
posted by aladfar to Travel & Transportation around Japan (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You'll probably get a lot of different responses here, and they will all be good.

When I first went to a Japanese onsen many years ago, I had images of traditional architecture and rooms, and rustic hot springs. Those places exist, but take work to find, and I've stayed at them.

However, most hot springs are in large ferroconcrete hotels. The baths are nice, but the emphasis can often on quantity of food, rather than quality. And there may be "pink escorts". That sort of thing.

If I were you, I would try Hakone, simply for the variety and accessibility from Tokyo. It's what many foreigners think an onsen ought to look like.

You won't have much time, as you will be arriving right at the start of the New Years holiday, when everything will be either booked, or closed down until early in January, so you're looking at the final week of your stay in Japan to venture to a hot spring. To get to any of the resorts from Tokyo, it will take about 2-4 hours at least of travel time.

I have no idea about the availability, but Naruko in Miyagi would be an interesting choice.

Genbikei in Iwate is somewhat close to the shinkansen bullet train line. These would be more "authentic" rustic hot springs, with lots of snow. I've been to both of these places.

I typically have gone to hot spring resorts in Hokuriku, the "northlands" prefectures on the Japan Sea, north of the Japan Alps. The food is the best in Japan, if you like seafood. It would take about 5 hours to get to this region from Tokyo by train.

My favourite would be Yamanaka in Ishikawa. But it's a bit of a trip if you are traveliing from Tokyo.

Murakami, in Niigata, has some nice hot spring hotels. It's right on the Nihonkai, with lots of snow. It would take about 3 hours to get here.

However, I am sure there are closer hot springs (Atami?) to Tokyo, such as Hakone.

The challenge will be finding a booking. If you read Japanese, Rakuten has incredible deals.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:43 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

KokuRyu is right about the closings. Most Ryokan close between the 28th and the 3rd, and for a lot, that's the only time they close all year.

Rather than full on Hakone, the stop at the end of the Odakyu Line, called Hakone Yumoto, is quite nice, and has a ton of ryokan, minshuku, and the like, with a bunch of onsen as well. We went there just recently, and it was pretty nice. Another place we've been to, and liked a lot, was Kinugawa, which is about three train stops from Nikko. If you were planning a day trip to Nikko, you could stay overnight in Kinugawa and take the train to Nikko in the morning (which, honestly, would be better, since Nikko is big, and the sun sets around 4:30 in the afternoon, which doesn't give you a lot of time to wander around).

If you don't manage to get a reservation, you might be able to do a day trip somewhere to take a quick dip. I recently saw signs for a new Tokyo-Izu express service that's supposed to start up this month. There are a good number of places in Izu, where you can pay a small fee to use a hotel's onsen.

If none of that works, there are also sento (public baths) around Tokyo. There's a giant one (7 stories) near Tokyo Dome called La-Qua, which I've heard is very nice. If you can't manage to take a bath outside in the snow with monkeys, you could always head there, take a bath, and get a quality massage (no hinky stuff there).
posted by Ghidorah at 8:03 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are up for a ski resort then Nozawa Onsen was an awesome place. Heaps of different public onsens, plus most bigger hotels have their own. Travel from Tokyo was ~3 hours from memory - two trains and a bus. Not sure how many really traditional ryokans there are.

If you could change your dates then I'd seriously recommend being there on the 15th of January for the Dosojin Festival - it was like nothing I'd seen before.
posted by trialex at 8:38 PM on December 3, 2012

Ooh, I'm going to be visiting Japan shortly before that time and was thinking of posting a similar AskMe. I was thinking of venturing north and west a bit from Tokyo (and Nagoya, where I'll also be). A guidebook suggested Shibu Onsen near Nagano— any opinions on that? (Monkeys: plus or minus?)
posted by hattifattener at 8:43 PM on December 3, 2012

I stayed here, in the touristy Hakone which had a private gondola to get to the hotel.

I believe chikoku's 松山 has this onsen which is famous, and somehow connected to Ghibli's Spirited Away.
posted by lundman at 10:52 PM on December 3, 2012

Ooh, I'm going to be visiting Japan shortly before that time and was thinking of posting a similar AskMe. I was thinking of venturing north and west a bit from Tokyo (and Nagoya, where I'll also be). A guidebook suggested Shibu Onsen near Nagano— any opinions on that? (Monkeys: plus or minus?)

If you're in Nagoya, Takayama Onsen or Gero Onsen seems like the obvious choices - they're both on the Takayama Line and are much much easier to get to from Nagoya, leaving you more time to explore the town.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:02 AM on December 4, 2012

I used the English-speaking service at japaneseguesthouses.com to make reservations at Yunoshimakan (Gifu Prefecture) and Yamanoyado Bekkan (Akita Prefecture), both recommended.
posted by jeto at 12:05 AM on December 4, 2012

I stayed in the Mikawaya Ryokan in Hakone earlier this year. My room had a private outdoor onsen, which I'd highly recommend. The staff were never less than utterly charming. Having failed to read up, I had not really understood what a ryokan was all about, so walked into a room laid with tatami mats, no bed and was promptly shown how to put on my robe by our hostess, who was all of 4'2". I also hadn't grasped how much food is part of the experience. We had eaten a modest lunch that first day and while we have good appetites, were staggered by the volume, quality and variety of food we were served. We did not make the same mistake the next day and skipped lunch. The food was incredible. I did not try the public onsen there so can't comment but I'd happily go back and stay there in a heartbeat. It was the highlight of the trip. The main lady speaks some English. The hostess who served us in the room spoke no English and so we got by with passable basic Japanese.

The ryokan was a short bus ride from the Hakone Open Air Museum, which was also a highlight of the trip. I can't recall going to a more inspiring or lovely museum.

For UK readers who might see this askme*, the trip was booked through Inside Japan as a self-guided tour. They were faultless, booked us into fantastic and/or convenient hotels and sorted out the Pasmo cards, Japan Rail Pass, tour guides we used for a day each in Kyoto and Tokyo and gave us detailed, bespoke printed guides for each place we went to.

*Although they probably serve non-UK clients too. We did not book flights to Japan through them: they only handled the bookings and arrangements in Japan. They publish their customer reviews on their site and having seen mine appear instantaneously, can vouch for their accuracy.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:39 AM on December 4, 2012

I also hadn't grasped how much food is part of the experience.

For many travelers, food is all of the ryokan experience--if you're a Japanese gourmand, and you're going to a 料理旅館 (gourmet ryokan), it can be the sine qua non of the experience you're looking for.

That being the case, if you're a foodie, give some thought to putting food in the center of the ryokan selection process. And bring an appetite, as people have said. Dinner can leave you bursting at the seams, and the process is repeated eight hours later at breakfast, which is modest in many cases, but can be a lavish spread of seafood, tofu and other delectables--equivalent, in reality, to a heavy dinner. The key to "gourmet ryokans" is to eat dinner and breakfast, and nothing else in between.

Also, despite their ugliness, the ferroconcrete ryokans can be home to delish eats. Once you're inside, you won't be aware of the drab exterior, and your room, as well as the bathhouse, may face a magnificent garden planted with exquisite shrubbery and trees. Unless you're obsessed with Japanese traditional architecture, I'd select the ryokan based on location, food and amenities, and consider architecture secondary.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:06 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jealousy! I've been to Hakone and Nikko, all over Ibaraki and Tochigi, but my favorite onsen trips have been to Arima in Hyogo Prefecture, about an hour outside of Kobe.

The town itself is delightful and full of ryokan. There are around 8 onsen, enough that you can spend a weekend there checking them out for their different architecture and mineral types. Some of them have even a concrete trough outside, where you can (for free) warm your winter feet in their hot soft waters.

Seconding Gordion Knott that you can get some great food at the onsen places, and a good night's rest. I'll be stuck in Europe, but wish I could join you...

(My second favorite onsen is at one of the hotels at Urabandai, Fukushima. Nothing beats being in the hot onsen waters while looking out over the dark pine forest as snow falls down around you, after a day of skiing. But I'm not even sure that one is still operating, for obvious reasons.)
posted by whatzit at 3:22 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also: this onsen in Shizuoka looks awesome.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:31 AM on December 4, 2012

One last Kinugawa tidbit: The Kinugawa Plaza Hotel is where we stayed. While it is a giant hunk of concrete, it's also built on a rock outcropping at a bend in the river, with a great view of the mountains around it. The inside of the hotel is quite nice, and doesn't look at all like you're in the giant concrete box. Inside the hotel are large onsen style baths, complete with rotenburo (outdoor baths). The rotenburo are inside the hotel, with an open wall, but are covered. Some of the rooms have their own private rotenburo (but those are pricey). The night we were there, it snowed, and I remember sitting in the bath on the fourth floor and looking out at the snow flying past.

The hotel also has a detached group of private roteburo down the road a bit. You pay extra for them, but they give you a time, and a private bath, which is the only way to do mixed bathing, as the baths in the hotel are divided male/female. One of the nicer touches is, in addition to the yukata you get, the hotel provides geta (wooden sandals) and thick, warm happi coats for the walk to the separate onsen. They have a shuttle van, but the walk (freshly fallen snow, quiet mountain town) was one of the best things I've done in Japan.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:50 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to kusatsu a few years ago and it was beautiful. I believe it's the granddaddy of all onset and is convenient to Tokyo.
posted by banishedimmortal at 11:57 PM on December 4, 2012

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