5 of Japan’s Most Renowned Onsen

With winter fast approaching, it will soon be the ideal time to surround yourself with the beautiful Japanese countryside and relax in some soothingly hot water at an onsen, or natural hot spring. 

Onsen is a central part of the culture in Japan. The hot spring water contains many minerals and continues to be regarded by Japanese people to be one of the best ways to rejuvenate yourself. The hot springs also lend themselves to being good environments for ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns. Due to the popularity of these kinds of places, onsen continue to be built all around the country. However, the hot springs that appear naturally and do not need to be dug up have been regarded as the best.

During the Edo Period (1603–1867), a philosopher who served under Tokugawa Ieyasu named Hayashi Razan wrote about the three onsen that he believed to be the best in Japan. Since then, Japanese people continue to consider these three natural hot springs to be the definitive best. They are called the sanmeisen, or “three famed hot springs,” and they are Arima Onsen, Kusatsu Onsen, and Gero Onsen. 

Join us on a visit to these three celebrated hot springs, as well as two other time-honored spots that we’ve included in our roundup. Remember, if you’re planning on a visit to one of them, keep in mind that not every onsen allows tattoos, so make sure to check ahead of time to ensure the best possible experience. 

Arima Onsen

Arima Onsen is located about 30 minutes away from Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture. The town is also accessible from Osaka. Traditional wooden buildings and numerous gourmet restaurants can be found in the surrounding area, making it a worthwhile visit for locals and travelers. 

The hot springs are famous for the mixture of various components in the water. These compounds are said to help with skin health and even arthritis. Additionally, there are different types of onsen to choose from, including kinsen, or gold hot springs, and ginsen, or silver hot springs. The baths contain compounds that are believed to promote blood circulation and combat eczema. Arima Onsen is a terrific choice for anyone looking for a therapeutic onsen experience.

Closest Station: Arima Onsen Station
Tattoo Friendly: Yes
Price Range: ¥200 to ¥500 

Kusatsu Onsen

Located in Gunma Prefecture, Kusatsu Onsen is quite the spectacle. In the central area, mineral deposits collected in an arrangement of special drums called yubatake are scattered around the central area. Mineral mix is available for sale at Kusatsu Onsen so you can enjoy the healing benefits at your own home.

Kusatsu Onsen produces more than 32,300 liters of hot spring water. This onsen is known for its high acidity and salt levels, which stimulate the skin. One way to enjoy Kusatsu Onsen is by yumomi, a stirring of the water with big paddles. Usually, this is done in a performative fashion, but it is actually useful in cooling the water which would be too hot to enter otherwise.

Closest Station: Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station, and a 30-minute bus ride from there 
Tattoo Friendly: Yes
Price Range: ¥400 to ¥800

Gero Onsen

If you love being surrounded by beautiful nature, Gero Onsen is the perfect place for your onsen experience. Found in Gifu Prefecture, this is one of the most historically popular onsen in Japan. There are many legends about it, including one that describes an injured white heron that led a villager to the source of the hot spring. Gero Onsen is also known for having hosted Japanese emperors throughout history and has supposedly been used since the early 10th century.

The water is described as smooth. A moderate temperature and a balanced alkaline level make this water perfect for those who are wary of scalding water or extreme pH levels. The mild hot spring water is also said to make your skin smooth, which led to it being referred to as bijin no yu, or “hot water of the beautiful people.”

Closest Station: Gero Station
Tattoo Friendly: Yes
Price Range: N/A

Kinosaki Onsen

Just 2.5 hours from Kyoto, Kinosaki Onsen is located in a remote town in Hyogo Prefecture and boasts over 1,300 years of history. With its serene atmosphere and old-Japan allure, the onsen attracts people from all over Japan in search of an oasis to relax and unwind. Kinosaki Onsen features seven springs, all of which are tattoo-friendly, and are said to not only have beneficial physical properties, but spiritual ones. For example, the Kono-yu bath is believed to lead to happiness and longevity in marriage.

Within the town, visitors will find a willow-lined canal street, along with charming traditional ryokan inns, and a quaint shopping center. During the spring, the moss-covered cherry trees bloom in pink to complement the intrinsic calm of the onsen. 

Closest Station: Kinosaki Onsen Station
Tattoo Friendly: Yes
Price: Varies

Alternative Onsen Experiences

If you can’t make it to any of the sanmeisen, here are two alternative locations that surely will provide you with a similar experience. These hot springs are popular locations with rich histories behind their relaxing baths. Although it is hard to compete with the historical relevance and popularity of the three onsen above, here are some of the other best onsen in Japan. 

Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, tracing its origins back to the Manyoshu—the oldest collection of Japanese poetry—which was written about 1000 years ago. Across the centuries, the onsen has been known for hosting emperors. Yushinden, Japan’s sole bathhouse dedicated for imperial use, is still operating today at Dogo Onsen.

Dogo Onsen is one of the most popular locations in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture. The facility includes three floors, each hosting a bath for men and women. If you are a Studio Ghibli fan, this is your spot. The bathhouse in Spirited Away is in part inspired by Dogo Onsen. Remember that if you choose to visit this historic spot, it’s likely to be crowded, so prepare ahead of time to avoid peak hours.  

Closest Station: Dogo Onsen Station
Tattoo Friendly: Yes
Price: ¥2,000 for a towel

Noboribetsu Onsen

Noboribetsu Onsen is a famous onsen resort located in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. This hot spring is known for its sulfuric water and gorgeous scenery. The resort’s onsen are regarded as some of the best and most effective in the country due to the resort’s location—as it’s right in the middle of a volcanic zone, the waters of Noboribetsu Onsen are said to relieve muscle pain and fatigue. 

The resort offers 11 different kinds of thermal waters. If you feel like sightseeing, you can take a stroll through “Hell Valley.” Don’t let the name frighten you, though—the boiling hot springs and steam pouring out from the ground make for an exciting stroll.  

Closest Station: Noboribetsu Onsen Bus Terminal
Tattoo Friendly: Yes
Price: ¥1,000 to ¥2,500 

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