Relaxing in an onsen or Hot Spring bath is usually on the ‘bucket list’ for most visitors to Japan and it can truly be an experience for the mind, body and soul. According to the Nippon Onsen Research Institute of Japan, there are more than 27,000 hot springs in Japan, which generate over 2.5 million litres of water every minute. Hot spring accommodation facilities number around 3,000 across the country and the bathing culture has been developed over many hundreds of years and includes various types of hot spring therapy that have both restorative powers and provide esthetic benefits as well.

With so many onsens across Japan, it’s hard to narrow down the best 100 let alone the best 5 but we have decided on these 5 based on our discussions with Aussie Lindsey Bridges, who spent more than 24 years living in Japan and has created the website, 50 Onsens, which we’re sure you’ll find interesting.

Lindsey explained her choices are not just about the quality of the onsen but also about all of the other experiences including: food, culture, history, nature, festivals, seasonality and crowds, which all influence the overall enjoyment of the onsen experience.

Dogo Onsen in Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoku is the birthplace of onsen bathing in Japan. The honkan or main building was built in 1894 and legend has it that in the age of the gods, a white heron dipped its injured foot into the water and was healed. There is also the legend of Tamanoishi, a stone on which a divinity danced after also being healed in the waters of Dogo Onsen. That very stone is still enshrined within the northern side of the Honkan today.

In 1994 the Honkan became the first public bath house to be officially designated as a National Important Cultural Property. It also houses the only bathing room in Japan reserved solely for the Imperial family. Furthermore, the Honkan gained international recognition after being awarded a 3 star rating by the Michelin Green Guide. This is one onsen you must visit.

Kurokawa Onsen is an onsen town in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu located about an hour from Kumamoto airport. It’s a great getaway after spending some time in Kumamoto city and we suggest renting a car and making it a 2 night stay to really relax and enjoy the place. It’s a charming country town with so many choices of wonderful traditional ryokan. Image #2 in this article is of a riverside onsen surrounded by luscious trees that create the perfect setting to relax and soak away the stress of the day!

Kusatsu Onsen is renowned as the top onsen destination in Japan and has proudly held this ranking for a number of years welcoming some 7,000 visitors per year. It is tucked away deep in the mountains in Gunma Prefecture and is set in a scenic location with Mt Shirane and the glorious Japanese Alps providing a stunning backdrop. In the winter months it is also a popular ski resort. The somewhat intimidating acidic waters at Kusatsu Onsen kill almost all bacteria and microorganisms and have super antibacterial powers. The therapeutic benefits are said to help conditions such as arthritis, skin ailments, stiff shoulders, sprains, chronic fatigue , diabetes, high blood pressure and promote general well-being. It sounds like we call all use a soak at Kusatsu Onsen!! Image #3 taken on the walk to Sainokawara rotemburo at Kusatsu Onsen.

Nyuto Onsen is a collection of onsen ryokan in the mountains of eastern Akita Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Honshu. All the hot spring baths in Nyuto Onsen belong to ryokan but it’s possible to use them as a day tripper! Tsuru no yu is one of the most famous in the area and its history dates back to the 1600s. Image #4 shows one of the rotemburo outdoor baths at Nyuto Onsen, which look spectacular in the snow. There are a variety of onsen baths, some of which are segregated (men and women separate) while others are combined, where men and women can bathe together–which is becoming quite rare these days in Japan. It’s possible to ski by day and stay at one of these wonderful ryokan at night!

Yunishigawa Onsen is in Tochigi Prefecture far from the touristy areas of Nikko and we suggest making a weekend of this onsen as it takes around 3.5hrs to get to from Tokyo. This area also has a fascinating history as it was a remote hidden settlement of the Heike clan refugees who settled to heal their wounds after their defeat by the Genji clan in the Genpei war. Legend has it that the Heike clan went to great lengths to preserve the secrecy of their location even banning chickens (due to their crowing noise) or the boys day festival koinobori streamers (due to their bright colours). The Heike Folk Village, which has about 12 historical old homes, was built to preserve the history of the area. It is particularly gorgeous in the winter with the snow on the traditional thatched roofs. If you time it right, you can also coincide your stay with the local Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura Festival, which is held at the end of January each year. Image #5 is from the baths of a lovely ryokan at Yunishigawa Onsen.

If you’d like to visit any of these or more onsen in Japan, please talk to our consultants who can arrange an unforgettable stay during your travels in Japan.

Photo credits: Lindsey Bridges