A Guide to Choosing the Right Onsen

The famous Dogo Onsen inspired Mizayaki Hayao's film "Spirited Away" (2001).

The famous Dogo Onsen inspired Mizayaki Hayao’s film “Spirited Away” (2001).

Come October, the air turns cool and thoughts turn to the warm pleasures of onsen (hot springs) once more.

There is a foolproof set of criteria for rating the onsen that one has tried or wants to try. Onsen may be great, good, so-so, or bad depending on the following basic features:

  1. The room

How big is the room and what kind (western type or Japanese)? A twelve- to fourteen-tatami-mat room is considered big. Does it have a view of the garden, of mountains, the sea? Does it come with its own toilet and bathroom and is the toilet equipped with a washlet? Do the rooms have their own private open-air baths (rotenburo), or do people have to go to the public baths? Some onsen have special rooms for private dining that are reserved for each family or couple or group of friends, but having meals served inside the room where one is sleeping is the ultimate luxury.

  1. The baths

Are there open-air baths attached to individual rooms or are there only public baths (segregated by sexes)? Are there baths (kashikiri-buro) that families or friends can rent for forty-five minutes or an hour? Some onsen places have one or two or all of these types of baths. How spacious are these baths, and what kind of baths are they? The waters vary according to mineral content and the ailments they are supposed to alleviate. Some public baths are indoors, and some have both outdoor/open-air and indoor baths. Are meals served inside the room or in public areas like restaurants? The view is also important: are bathers able to bask in the greenery or waterscape or mountain scenery or snow-country whiteness outside or surrounding the bath? Many public baths are made of stone and tile, but there are some that are encased in Japanese cypress, the texture and warmth of which make soaking and sitting on the edge of the bath a special treat. Some places deliberately leave the calcified deposits on the rim of the bath to prove that the water they are using is indeed mineral-rich and not just tap water.

  1. The food

Soaking not only relaxes; it also whips the appetite. Increasing numbers of foreign tourists are becoming addicted to the type of pampering that the Japanese onsen offers. Some onsen even offer spa treatment and foot and body massages. But the highlight, apart from the baths themselves, is the food, carefully prepared, beautifully laid out, and served with the ritual courtesy that Japanese are famous for, and in plentiful amounts. People will often choose onsen on the basis of what kind of food will be served. In winter, there are onsen that specialize in serving crabs from their region. Others tempt customers with high-end offerings like abalone, branded beef, kaiseki courses, and fish and vegetables in season. The point is that eating is as important as bathing, the pure indulgence of the first complementing the solid virtue of the other, both appealing to different sets of sensory experience.

To these three basic categories two more should be added. One is price. There is a wide range of onsen available in Japan, depending on one’s budget. Staying in an onsen hotel or inn (ryokan) and eating two meals (dinner and breakfast) may cost anywhere from 10,000 yen a person (children get discounted rates) to as high as 50,000 yen or more a person. The price tends to go up if one opts to have bigger rooms, or private open-air baths attached to rooms, or special menus of seasonal food. Many onsen hotels offer “day plans” that allow clients to use their public baths and order lunch or dinner meals without staying overnight.

In the sixteen years that I have lived in Japan, I have tried all sorts of hot springs: walk-in sento public baths with no accommodations, on one hand, and rooms with their own gardens and open-air baths, on the other; hotels with peeling wallpapers and those with exquisite antique paintings and pottery; hearty food served on vinyl tablecloth and all-crab dinners, kaiseki haute cuisine, abalone of all sizes, and “Viking” all-you-can-eat; tiny rooms good only for two people to lie down in and sixteen-tatami-mat rooms that include living rooms and balcony; public baths that are no larger than two public toilet stalls and palatial ones with six different kinds of baths (open-air, waterfall, back-massage jet, bubbly jacuzzi, still-water, lukewarm water). Each was memorable, and left me with a strong preference for onsen over beaches.

The second additional category is distance. How far is the onsen and how much would transportation cost (by plane, train, automobile, or bus)? Most onsen are easily accessible by train. Others are tucked away deep in the mountains and can be traversed only by bus after getting off the train station. Some onsen have their own shuttle buses to meet and drop off clients at the train station. In other cases, people take the train, and then take a taxi, which adds to the cost.

It also helps if the onsen is not isolated, but located nicely in a town where one can walk around, sample the regional cuisine, and do some shopping. My husband and I love pottery, so we have often gone to onsen that are near the great pottery towns. Saga Prefecture, northwest of Kyushu, is famous for its Karatsu, Arita, and Imari ceramics (and also for its high-grade beef, which is comparable to Kobe and Matsusaka). Reddish brown Bizen ware is produced in Okayama Prefecture, where Kurashiki also has good onsen. Kyoto City has a few onsen places worth the visit: the oldest, Funaoka Onsen, dates back to the late Edo period; Kurama is noted for its outdoor baths; and Ohara has good foot paths for seeing the temples nearby.

Onsen experts advise people to pay closer attention to the kind of onsen and the type of food they try. Just because the meals include beef does not make the meal better. Look, instead, for seasonal vegetables and fish–in other words, food that are fresh, not frozen. Listen also to the sound of onsen water pouring from the pipes. The steady but gentle gurgle of water is better than a roaring torrent, because this signifies that the water comes from a single (and genuine) hot spring source. Moreover, onsen should not be too deep. The water should remain below the chin when the bather sits down and stretches her legs, and bathers should not have to squat in the water. Whether the bath is constructed of wood or stone also makes a difference–wood, preferably cypress, is superior.

Famous onsens are of interest because of their long history or their patronage by the emperor or by noted personages. The Jinpyokaku Honten in Nagano Prefecture, for example, boasts a clientele that included leading writers like Natsume Soseki and Kawabata Yasunari. Matsuo Basho immortalized the Yamanaka Onsen with a haiku extolling the spring water as superior to the dew of immortality made by fairies from the essence of chrysanthemums. The Yamanaka Onsen area in Ishikawa Prefecture is also known for its red lacquerware and colorful Kutani ware.

Many onsen are taking advantage of the surge in foreign tourists visiting Japan to redesign their websites to include multiple-language menus. Some Thai travel agencies can book high-end onsen for Thais traveling to Japan, and Thai customers can even persuade onsen chefs to give them larger cuts of sashimi! Reservations can be made directly on websites like Agoda. Or one can ask the concierge in the Japanese hotel where one is staying to book one-night accommodations in an onsen lodging of choice. The Kyoto Tourist Information Bureau, which has a branch along Kawaramachi Street between Sanjo and Shijo Streets, can also make reservations.

Onsen are crowded and often fully booked during the Golden Week in late April and early May, and during the year-end week in late December and early January, when Japanese take their long holidays. But there are more than three thousand onsen to choose from, and an overnight stay is rejuvenating enough. There are Japanese who sometimes stay more than one night, even up to a week or more, to take the waters. (Soseki and Kawabata worked on their novels in between soaking, eating and drinking. If this isn’t the sweet life [amai seikatsu], I don’t know what is!)  Going to onsen is a good way of taking a break, spending time with the family, and enjoying retirement. On second thoughts, better not wait for autumn to try one.

Originally posted in Letters to Narcissus.

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