Winter is the perfect season to enjoy Japan’s warm waters. (And man, has it ever turned into winter practically overnight here.) I personally love hot springs and like nothing better than to plan an evening’s escape to a small onsen town in the middle of nowhere. While Japan also boasts big tour-focused towns where tons of bathers can soak in the springs, my favorite places are the “one-horse onsen towns”, where a main street and a handful of ryokan is all you’re likely to find. At the risk of alerting too many of you to these gems ( 🙂 ), here are my favorites in no particular order:
1. Ginzan Onsen (Yamagata Prefecture) – Ginzan is the poster child of crumbling Showa era glory, with tall inns built in the style of the 1920s and 1930s lining its main street. It was used as the movie set of one of NHK’s most popular TV dramas (Oshin) and fans of the show still flock here for photos and mementos. In winter, however, the scene turns truly magical as snow blankets the ryokan and the surrounding mountains. There’s nothing better than bathing outdoors with the flakes falling down.
2. Shuzen-ji Onsen (Kanagawa Prefecture) – The Izu Peninsula is the playground for many Tokyoites but most bathers come to take the waters at coastal resorts like Atami and Ito. Shuzen-ji is located in the middle of the peninsula and offers quiet temples and paths through bamboo forests rather than coastal views. You can spend the day hopping between the public baths and the hotel hot springs or simply soak your feet in the 1200-year-old footbath in the center of town (a spring discovered by famed priest Kobo Daishi) before tucking into local delicacies like wild boar.
3. Yunomine Onsen (Wakayama Prefecture) – This tiny onsen town lies in the middle of Wakayama’s mountains, a short hike from the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. An unassuming shack in the middle of the village’s river houses the UNESCO World Heritage recognized Tsuboyu Onsen. Considered Japan’s oldest onsen it also allegedly saved 15th century prince Oguri Hangan, who bathed in its waters after being poisoned and survived. Getting in can be a challenge here. With room for 2-3 only, an occasional ineffectual reservation system has been implemented, allowing bathers 30 minutes in the famed springs. If you can’t score a slot, the onsen of the town’s ryokan are just as enjoyable.
4. Yunohira Onsen (Oita Prefecture) – Yufuin is Oita’s most prestigious onsen town but nearby Yunohira offers an escape from the tour buses. With a Showa-era stone pavement still in situ and a collection of ryokan that line the river, this tiny town goes eerily quiet at night. The most you’re likely to hear is the clip-clop of wooden geta (sandals) as visitors head off to the local public baths. The ryokan here get high marks for food and access to private or unique baths.
5. Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto Prefecture) – I’ve raved about this place often enough to friends and family, I might as well do it publicly here. Kurokawa to me defines the perfect onsen town. A secluded location, ryokans that all must confine to a certain style to fit the landscape, beautiful outdoor baths and stunning displays of both spring greenery and fall foliage. With the waters heated by nearby volcanic Mt Aso and the food coming fresh from the mountainsides or the cattle farms of the Oguni area, this town has been a highlight for everyone I have spoken to about it. It’s absolutely worth detouring all the way to Kyushu for a soak in a Kurokawa rotemburo (outdoor bath).