Lifestyle shops, indie boutiques and beauty salons of Aoyoma, Tokyo. Tea houses, wagashi workshops and pottery kilns in Kyoto. Café hopping along Osaka’s Tachibana-dori. Onsen ryokans (Japanese hot springs inns) in Hokkaido’s Lake Toya.
Checked all the above and looking for the next place to explore in Japan?
What about exploring Japan a little further and experience a secluded onsen nestled in nature?
Back in the 1970s when Japan experienced an economic boom, many traditional inns transitioned into larger, flashier facilities and re-branded themselves as modern hotels to attract more visitors.
Against this backdrop of rapid growth and transformation, some inns saw a need to preserve the experience of a natural ambience and the warmth of the human touch. Many of these secluded inns, or hitou (translating to “hidden hot springs”), were located so deep in the mountains that their vicinities were not even served by buses. However, it was exactly this serenity and genuineness that they sought to protect and conserve.
So over the years, I’ve come to pair my trips to Japan’s metropolises with a visit to their beautiful countryside. Some of the inns still stand solitarily in the mountains today, keeping to age-old traditions of preserving food through winters. Some owners have fought off temptations to rebuild the inns for greater comfort and convenience, instead of taking the decision to painstakingly maintain the way of life passed down through generations – the same way of life that their ancestors and past guests have come to experience through the long passage of time.
I’ve shortlisted here three hidden onsens that are relatively easier to visit for foreign tourists – not only do they have experience in welcoming international guests, they are also accessible by train and other public transport from Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. But before I go on, I must say that majority of these traditional onsens only have communal baths. However, don’t let this deter you. In Japan, it is perfectly normal to soak in communal baths and enjoy a conversation or two with your friends.
Akita Prefecture - Tsurunoyu, Nyuutou Onsen
Located in the mountains of Akita Prefecture in Northeast Japan, Tsurunoyu is famous for its milky open-air baths set against vibrant maples in autumn and thick caps of snow in winter. An ancient spring with history dating back to the 1600s, it got its name from the legend of a hunter witnessing an injured tsuru (crane) healing its wounds with the spring waters, hence the name “Tsurunoyu” which literally means “springs of the crane”.
Although the inn had introduced newer annexes over the years, we chose to experience a stay at the preserved honjin (headhouse) , which hosted the region’s lords back in Tsurunoyu’s early days of history. Unlike a room in any typical Japanese ryokan, the honjin did not offer a bathroom nor modern services (guests will shower at the communal bathing area attached to the onsens). The room was lit by kerosene lamps and heated through the night with an irori (fireplace). It was also by the same irori where they served grilled river trouts and piping miso-based soups in a thick cast iron pot.
The next morning at 5am, we indulged in a long, undisturbed soak in the onsen while other guests were still asleep. Watching the day break in minus 21 degrees weather was an unforgettable experience. All was great, until we had to put on our boots that had turned ice cold while we were feeling warm and fuzzy in the onsen!
For those who are interested in the history of Japanese samurai, Kakunodate city in Akita Prefecture is famous for its Bukeyashiki District that features many well-preserved samurai residences. It is also a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms in spring.
Address: 50 Kokuyurin Sendatsuizawa Tazawa Aza Senboku-shi Akita-ken
Phone: +81 187-46-2139
How to get there: Tsurunoyu is accessible via a 3-hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Tazawa Lake, followed by a 30-minute ride on a public bus, and then a 20 minute car ride provided by the inn.
Types of onsens available: Only public (communal) onsens available. The main onsen is a mixed bath for both males and females, however smaller female-only baths are also available.
Nagano Prefecture - Awanoyu, Shirahone Onsen
Nagano Prefecture is an understated treasure trove for tourists – you can choose to escape the summer heat at the Karuizawa highlands or visit its ski resorts and infamous monkey park in winter. My visit to Awanoyu coincided with the peak of the maple season; mountains ablaze in tones of yellow, orange and red kept me company through the 2.5-hour bus ride there.
Awanoyu has been delighting visitors with its milky spring waters since 1912. Its flagship open-air onsen is designated a mixed-gender bath so that all visitors can enjoy its goodness. Fret not, however, as Awanoyu has thoughtfully provided thick towels for female guests to protect your modesty (the guys get to be at one with nature). There was even a hidden entrance for the ladies to wade discreetly into the hot spring. The outdoor onsen was not overly hot, which made it suitable for relaxing long soaks. Those who prefer hotter onsens would find the indoor cypress tubs very comfortable.
Awanoyu’s rooms were relatively new and well-appointed as compared to that of other hitou ryokans. Despite being nestled deep in the mountains, we were served very fresh sashimi and local Shinshu kuroge wagyu for dinner. Shinshu black cows are said to be fed apples that Nagano Prefecture is famous for and are therefore known for a special sweetness in their marbled meat.
The next morning, look forward to the local specialty served at breakfast – onsen porridge made with spring waters so pure that you could choose to drink it, cook with it, or bathe in it. With a visit to Awanoyu, you would have done it all.
On the way back to Tokyo, you can consider visiting Kumano Shrine that is home to the boundary between Nagano and Gunma Prefecture. While you are there, do also stop by the nearby food huts for their homemade mochi.
Address: Shirahone-onsen Azumi Matsumoto Nagano 390-1515
Phone: +81 263 93 2101
How to get there: Awanoyu is accessible via a 3-hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo to JR Matsumoto Station, followed by a 2.5-hour bus ride.
Types of onsens available: Only public (communal) onsens available. The main onsen is a mixed bath for both males and females, however smaller female-only baths are also available. Female visitors can choose to wrap a towel around themselves when soaking in the mixed-gender bath.
Yamagata Prefecture - Fukushimaya, Namegawa Onsen
Despite its name, Fukushimaya is not actually located in Fukushima Prefecture. It is instead situated in Yonezawa City of the adjacent Yamagata Prefecture, which is also home to the famous Yonezawa wagyu. As seen from the following picture featured on the inn’s website, Fukushimaya is what the Japanese call an ikkenya – a house which has no neighbours in its vicinity.
We arrived at Toge station and with only six services and less than 20 passengers a day, the station was not even manned and we alighted by depositing our tickets with the train master. Interestingly, we noticed that staff from the nearby Toge Teahouse would wait at the platform according to the train’s schedule and offer some local mochi for sale through the train windows. I later read that this has been a tradition for decades, and the current fifth-generation owner of Toge Teahouse had insisted on maintaining this practice despite dwindling sales. Each sales opportunity lasts only 30 seconds when the train makes a brief stop, and they had therefore limited the menu to only one single product, priced at 1,000 yen, for ease and speed of transaction.
Heading out of the station, I quickly spotted the staff from Fukushimaya as he was the only person around. He was equally quick to recognise us, as we were the only passengers who had alighted the train. We got on his wagon and soon made our way to the inn.
Fukushimaya features a notenburo (a rustic outdoor bath that is well blended with its surroundings in a natural way, like as if the hot spring was dug right at its source), which is a variation of the usual rotenburo (outdoor hot springs). Many inns boast about their rotenburos, but good notenburos are increasingly hard to come by these days. Fukshimaya’s notenburo was modest in size, but that wasn’t a problem as there was only one other group of visitors during our stay, and we managed to have the onsen all to ourselves the whole time we were there.
The seclusion of Fukushimaya leads to several areas of supposed inconvenience for the guests, but I personally felt these points also added much to its natural appeal:-
- As the onsen is fully natural and pumped straight from the source, it is difficult to maintain a consistent temperature – there are times when the water is too hot for bathing, and also times during monsoon season when the water turns lukewarm.
- The inn is not covered by newspaper delivery, so newspapers are brought in by employees when they report to work. As such, guests will not be able to get their hard copy updates first thing in the morning.
- With no establishment within a 4km radius (and that applies to gas stations and convenience stores too), guests must ensure sufficient supplies to last the journey to and fro Fukushimaya.
If reading all of the above leaves you undeterred, you are ready to experience Fukushimaya and its 200 years of history. As a last note, the inn is located in an area that experiences heavy snowfall, and the 4km stretch of road leading up to it is typically closed in winter. As a result, Fukushimaya operates only between late April and early November each year. Do check its schedule when planning your trip.
Address: 15 Osawa Yonezawa City Yamagata Prefecture
Website: http://www.namegawa-fukushimaya.com (Japanese only)
How to get there: Fukushimaya is accessible via a 1.5 hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Fukushima, followed by a 30 minute ride on a local train to Toge Station.
Types of onsens available: The main outdoor onsen is generally a mixed-gender bath, but will be designated female-only at specific times of the day (0900-1100 and 1600-1730 at time of print). Guests can also reserve a smaller outdoor onsen for private use between 1730-0900 the next morning. Female-only indoor baths available.
A little note about onsen etiquette…
First of all, it is important to note that onsens had been prized for their healing properties back in the olden days, more so than being simply a form of enjoyment. As such, as uncomfortable as it may be for first timers, it is a norm to strip fully before entering the onsen. Some quick notes to guide your onsen experience:-
- Towels are usually found in your room (although some ryokans may provide spare towels at the bathing area). Bring along a large bath towel and a small face towel to the bathing area. Leave the large bath towel at the changing/ locker area at the onsen, and bring the small face towel along with you. Strip down (fully – no underwear or swim suits!) and place your clothes in the lockers, bringing nothing with you except for the small face towel.
- Always take a shower before you enter the onsen so that the communal onsen remains clean for all users. There are shower stalls provided at the bathing area, and they are usually equipped with shower gel and shampoo. As a general rule of thumb, do not stand while showering. Instead, take the shower while seated on the stools so that your soapy water does not splash to your fellow bathers.
- Ladies with long hair should tie your hair up before entering the onsen.
While in the onsen
- Place the small face towel on your head or by the ledge of the onsen. The small towel should not be placed in the onsen at all times.
- Always keep your head above the water – even if you have already shampooed, it is a faux pas to put your head underwater.
- Enjoy the conversations with your friends and families, or with the other fellow visitors. But take note to keep volumes down so as not to disturb other guests.
- Most people usually keep each soak to 10-15 minutes. Unless the onsen is lukewarm, it is not advisable to soak for prolonged periods.
- Enjoy the view and the experience!
- Some people do a quick rinse at the bathing area after getting up from the onsen. For onsens with healing properties, people may choose not the rinse the onsen off. Regardless, always dry your hair and body with the small face towel before entering the changing room/ locker area.
- Be sure to stay hydrated after visiting the onsen.
Although it is now very common to find private onsens attached to guest rooms, many traditional ryokans do not have this feature. Some smaller-scale ryokans that do not have multiple onsens also keep to mixed-gender baths so that all visitors can enjoy the onsen and the outdoor view throughout the day. In fact, ryokans that keep true to tradition may not provide towels for female visitors even in mixed baths – this has been the way the Japanese people bathed and co-enjoyed the onsens’ healing properties since centuries ago. If this is too much of a barrier, you may wish to choose an onsen with milky waters – no one can see anything once you are inside! Otherwise, opt for a modern ryokan that has gender-specific onsens or in-room private onsens.
Every time we left a hitou ryokan, each bend along the winding mountain road seemed to want to slow down our journey back to civilisation. Occasionally we see a car approach from the opposite direction, and we would quietly wish him or her a similarly enjoyable experience in the mountain inn.
About the writer
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, Samantha Yuan.
About Samantha: Always seeking a retreat deep in the mountains for a quiet escapade. Always torn between exploring the world and returning to the comfort and familiarity that Japan offers. Always over-ordering and over-eating. Always struggling to keep her latergram @mangopuddings updated.
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Best Time to Visit
Whilst Japan is beautiful all year round, onsens are most enjoyable in the cooler seasons of spring, autumn and winter. Depending on the locality, you can also try to catch the cherry blossoms (March-April), autumn foliage (October-November) and snow-capped scenery (Jan-Feb) for the best experience.
All the onsens featured in this article can be accessed from Tokyo by train and other modes of public transport. If you have several shinkansen rides on your travel itinerary, you can consider one of the many variants of the Japan Rail (JR) Pass for cost savings. Do note that taxis can be pricey in Japan – when travelling to rural areas where public transport may not operate at high frequencies, be sure to check out the time schedules beforehand.
The Japanese Yen. ATMs may not be conveniently available in the mountains so be sure to visit the foreign exchange converters in Tokyo city or before you travel.
Access the secret onsens via Tokyo. You can now fly directly to Tokyo via multiple airlines from Changi Airport. Search for airfare deals and book your tickets now!