Sunday, March 26, 2023

Best Outdoor Hot Spring of 2022-2023 Winter

Peaceful Bathing

Bathing in a Japanese onsen on the side of a mountain is a soothing experience, but when surrounded on almost all sides by vast expanses of idyllic snowy forests, the experience is transcendental. The view and the hot water melt concrete walls of urban stress from your pores, and waves of relaxation and pure joy splash inward. This is what I experienced at a rustic cabin named Apple Pension in Zao Onsen, Yamagata, Japan. 

Relaxing and healing
Snow monster habitat

Driving to Zao took several hours from my home in Niigata. Upon arrival, we went straight to the Zao Onsen Ski Resort to visit the icy jewels of Zao Resort, nicknamed "snow monsters." These are giant trees that have acquired mysterious shapes after repeated freezing and exposure to tons of snow and crafty winds. A storm blew in soon after we reached the top, temperatures dropped to minus eight degrees Celsius, and my hands were numbed to the bone. 

An emergency immersion into the local thermal waters was required. My body sent the following message to my brain: "Urgent soaking in hot mineral water required. Quick! Direct the car immediately to our accommodation and head to the outdoor bath." 

Perfect for couples and close friends
My mind responded accordingly. Within five minutes from one of the Zao Ski Resort parking lots, we arrived at Pension Apple, a quaint wooden cabin perched on a plateau encircled by white trees and white mountains. Apple has an indoor bath (uchiyu in Japanese) and an outdoor bath (rotenburo in Japanese). We checked in, reserved the rotenburo, grabbed our towels, and headed for the outdoor bath.

Guests can reserve the bath, so one can be alone or with friends and family. My wife and I shared the bath with a trusted friend from England. This was his first experience bathing outdoors in a snowy region. He was amazed, and I, although I have bathed in more onsens than I can count, thought the location and scenery were superb. 

Evening view from our room

This small, reasonably-priced accommodation is run by Masayuki Sato, an enthusiastic Zao native, and his wife, Michiko, who prepares hearty meals in a dining room with wide windows for savoring the scenery. They also encourage friendly conversations between different guests through the abundant sharing of wine, cheese, and sake. Guests who choose to eat Michiko's sumptuous breakfast and dinner will pay about US $100 per night. 

The evening soak was so good that we decided to wake up early and watch the morning light spread across the sky from the vantage point of the rotenburo. 
Morning onsen

Zao has a wealth of outdoor pleasures to choose from depending on the season: skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing, snowshoeing, hot spring bathing, fishing, flower viewing, hiking, wild mountain vegetable picking, bicycling, outdoor meditation, and yoga, among many others. 

After our morning bath, we snowshoed in a nearby park and observed ice fishers catching wakasagi (Hypomesus nipponensis--Japanese smelt), and followed that up with another bath in a local public bath. Zao is sprinkled with hot springs. Many are free although it is hoped that bathers will place 200 yen into a box outside of each facility to help pay for upkeep. Follow the smell of sulfur or whisps of steam to find them.

For more on beautiful winter hot springs in Japan, here are links to other posts about winter bathing spots in Japan: The Cloud Sea BathHot Springs for SwallowsZao OnsenIntercultural Bathing in HokkaidoVarious Winter SpringsBlack Onsen Water in Myoko Kogen, and Tainai, Niigata. 

The hot spring addict did not receive any cash or services for this favorable review. 

If you have comments about Zao or other hot spring areas in Japan, please write them below. 



Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Japan's Geothermal Farms Revitalising Communities

Echelon Magazine, based in Hong Kong, published my article titled "Japan's Geothermal Farms Revitalising Communities." The reaction has been amazing. Within a very short time, the article has been shared repeatedly worldwide. 

Please click on the link and read the article. Japan's Geothermal Farms Revitalising Communities

Your comments on the article and recommendations for Japanese onsens are always welcome. 

Thank you very much. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Australian Magazine Publishes My Article about Onsens in Akita

 Dear Readers, 

I stepped out of this onsen blog for a while to concentrate on writing for international magazines and regional travel organizations in Japan. As a result, I have not updated this blog recently, which I apologize for. For now, please read my article about hot springs that Escape, an Australian-based travel magazine published. 

Kawarage Jigoku: Japan’s best hidden hot springs |

Sincerely yours, 


Friday, November 12, 2021

First-Class Private Riverside Baths for Kanreki and other Extraordinary Occasions

Special occasions deserve celebration at a Japanese ryokan. Think private indoor and outdoor baths and meals of exquisite locally foraged mountain vegetables and freshly caught fish that you savor within view of the meandering Arakawa River. This is Takanosukan in Sekigawa Town, Niigata.
The service was impeccable. Staff artfully placed gourmet dishes on a solid wooden table in the dining area of our exclusive onsen bungalow. They arrived and departed with deep polite bows. We listened to the river sing while eating. I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate turning sixty than this splendid and romantic night alone with my wife.

After all, turning sixty is a once-in-a-lifetime event that the Japanese call kanreki. Reaching sixty means that a person has gone through five cycles of the Chinese Zodiac. Some view kanreki as a rebirth. That is a fitting idea for my life.  For me, a hot spring bath is a healing womb that refreshes, revitalizes, and restores me to a younger and more positive being. 

Being reborn

Others think of kanreki as a return to being an infant. Typical gifts for those celebrating kanreki include red clothes to symbolize the red skin of a baby. My wife gifted me with an opportunity to turn my skin red through immersion in mineral-infused hot water. Whether I am becoming a child again or becoming senile, a great bath is a moment to treasure.

The name of the onsen,Takanosu, translates as eagle's nest. A local legend says a hunter spotted an eagle soaking an injured wing in a natural hot spring at this location. While soaking, we did hear the screeches of raptors and spotted two eagles flying above us. Perhaps, this picture, taken from the top of a nearby mountain, shows what the eagles saw as they flew by. The onsen bungalow that we rented is the second from the left. Do you see the suspension bridge? Guests cross that bridge to enter the secluded property, adding to the atmosphere of being separated from the rest of the world.

Before, after, or between soaks, one can stroll trails that lead along the river's edge and some that encircle a nearby campground. I spotted fishers in mid-river. We gathered mountain vegetables (called sansai in Japanese) to take home. Some of the dishes included mushrooms and vegetables that the workers collect each day.

For me, though, the greatest pleasure was bathing, soaking, bathing, soaking, and repeating the process while switching between the indoor and the outdoor bath. Every time was different. As day shifted into night and morning woke us up, the sounds of the river changed, the lighting differed, and I was both older and reborn.

This glorious birthday celebration cost approximately three hundred dollars, which included two gourmet meals. This was a special price offered during the pandemic. I do not know what the price would be during normal years. I was more than satisfied by the perfect service, the mouth-watering dishes prepared with the best local ingredients, the size and quality of the rooms and furnishings, and the private atmosphere. 

Another wonderful hot spring ryokan in Niigata that also offers river views, hiking, luxury, and gourmet meals prepared with mountain vegetables is Rankeisou.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Japan's Best Natural Hot Spring Waterfall

The plunging cascades of a thermally heated twenty-meter-high waterfall provide a powerful warm massage. Kawarageoyu-taki is the name of this remote natural entry-free onsen in Takamatsu National Forest, Yuzawa City, Akita, that soothes the body and the soul. To experience idyllic forest bathing, come here.

Thermal waterfalls are rare even for Japan, which boasts over 3,000 onsen areas and approximately 27,000 individual bathing locations. In my quest for the perfect bath, I have found only four such waterfalls. Kawarageoyu-taki is definitely the best.
Kawarageoyu-taki is special for many reasons. Located in Takamatsu National Forest, Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture, admission is free to anyone willing to take the 10-15 minute hike from the parking space. The lovely path will introduce you to sights that you have probably never seen before. 

First, you'll see a stream of hot water and steam wafting in the air. The sweet smell of sulfur also arrives. Proceed down the hiking trail and you'll cross over the stream on a small wooden bridge. Unfortunately, the trail is not accessible for wheelchair travelers.
As you walk over the stream of hot water, notice its clarity and green color, which could be from alkaline minerals or algae or a combination. Depending on the season and weather, the temperature of the stream leading to the waterfall and water will vary. At the time of my summer visit, the stream temperature was about 50 Celsius or 122 Fahrenheit.
If you are lucky, the trees will cooperate by framing the waterfall with their branches.

Soon, you'll be at the pool, marveling at the color, the aroma, and the bathing opportunities. Choose from standing or sitting under two of the main cascades or settle yourself into a number of naturally formed pools. The hot water is chest-high in the deepest pools. My suggestion is to try them all! When we visited, there were only two other people, and they soon left. Most people wear clothes while bathing here, but one old man who arrived just before I left bathed naked except for the traditional tiny towel for covering his privates. The wooden stairs seen in the photograph above lead to basic changing rooms.

To have the best experience, which to me means fewer people, go in the morning and on weekdays. Avoid holidays. I took a photograph of an image on a sign at the entrance to the waterfall. Compare that image below with mine. Also, you might think that soaking in this hot spring during winter or early spring while the surrounding environment is snowy or cold would be a wonderful experience, but that is a mistake. I once visited during the spring season and was disappointed because the waterfall's temperature was cool. That was because the melting snows had released cold water that flowed into the thermally heated stream. My visit in early September was heavenly. I estimated the water temperature at slightly above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). The Japanese autumn, with its exploding golden foliage, must be fantastic.  Winter might prevent challenges as Akita receives heavy snowfall.

Kawarageoyu-taki is one of many extraordinary attractions located in Akita prefecture's Yuzawa Geopark.  Click on the link and see what else interests you. 




Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Hottest Video on Hot Springs: The Earthy Facts about Japanese Onsens

Beppu The Onsen Journey is an outstanding video that explains the geology, history, and culture of Japanese onsens, especially those in Beppu. Beppu, Oita, is where thermal water gushes to the earth's surface in greater quantities than anywhere else in Japan, possibly the world. With eight different onsen areas and over 2,300 onsens within this small seaside city, you are always just a hop, skip, or a short walk to a hot spring. That is why Beppu is affectionately called the Onsen City. 

I have bathed in more than six hundred hot springs in Japan and have read more books and articles on onsens than I can count. Yet, I learned a tremendous amount from this short, entertaining video on hot springs. So my hat and towel are off to the creators of this fantastic video. Abundantly rich with various textures, colors, and minerals in its springs, Beppu provides an enjoyable, relaxing, and educational experience for everyone curious about hot springs and Japanese culture. 

If you are planning a visit to Japan, see this video before departure. If you have already enjoyed Japanese hot springs, this video, Beppu The Onsen Journey, will introduce you to surprising facts about your bathing experiences. 

After viewing, please read my posts about hot springs in Beppu.

To Become a Master Bather in Beppu 

World Peace Via a Hot Spring Named Mugennosato (夢幻の里)

Onsen Hotel with Hellishly Good Hot Spring Hell Images

Four of Japan's Premier Muddy Hot Springs

Bathe and Dine Like a King in Beppu While on a Middle-class Budget



Saturday, April 17, 2021

Elegant Niigata Ryokan with Riverside and Mountainside Baths

The windows are closed in winter but open in other seasons.

If you read Japanese and search for unique hot springs, you might know Rankeisou Onsen. Japanese guidebooks to unusual and remote onsens often include this inn. Far from major cities, not many foreigners know about Rankeisou, and even fewer have the joy of staying there.

Rankeisou stands out for its heartfelt customer service.

I was lucky enough to visit this past March and March of the previous year. In 2021, snow, even though it was spring, surrounded Rankeisou like a white Cashmere scarf on the shoulders of a beautiful woman. At night, candles burning outside the hotel flickered like jewelry. 

Japanese Inn with candles in snow lighting the walkways
View of candlelit Rankeisou.

The Rankeisou garden without snow in spring

In March of 2020, while on a press tour of ateliers and galleries in the nearby artistic twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjo, I stayed one night at Rankeisou. 

Public outdoor bath by the river

When the time came to choose a romantic location for our twenty-fifth anniversary, I decided to treat my wife to the exquisite service, baths, meals, and service that the current owners offer guests. The great-great-grandson and his wife are maintaining the high standards set by the founder.

Guests enjoy feasts in private rooms. On my first trip, I ate fish, meat, and local vegetables. But on my second visit, the owners and chef served vegetarian dishes to my wife and me. They do their best to accommodate special requests. 

Tasty and culturally rich Japanese vegetarian feast
During my second visit, my wife and I walked with snowshoes around the inn and a nearby dam. Depending on the seasons and weather conditions, fishing, hiking, river rafting, bird watching, or just relaxing inside and outside are all doable. 

The hallways are like Japanese art museums.
I recommend spending at least one night to enjoy the outstanding facilities and location. Still, day visits are possible for baths and meals. Check the inn's website for prices and other specific details. 

For more information on snowshoeing in Sanjo and our experience at Rankeisou, please click on the next link to read a story that I wrote for Snowshoe Magazine

Note: I stayed once at Rankeisou as a nonpaying guest, but I was treated by a travel company, not this inn. The second time that I visited, I paid the full rate. My positive recommendation is an honest one. I have never received free services from the owners of this inn.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Snowshoe Trails and Hot Springs around Japan’s Nozawa Onsen

Bear-scratched towering trees, an ice-cloaked lake peering at a pure blue sky, the whooshing sounds made by passing off-piste snowboarders cutting fresh powder trails, crisp air, and soothing hot springs are just some of the sensory pleasures you’ll experience while snowshoeing in Nozawa Onsen. That is how I started my article in Snowshoe Magazine:

The photographs show Maguse Onsen, just a twenty-minute drive from Nozawa Onsen. I will write a detailed post later. For now, please read the magazine article above. Thank you.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Great Hot Springs In Japan's Snowy Regions

Snow Macaques of Jigokudani Onsen live in the moment. Photo by Peter Locke.
The contrasting actions of walking barefoot on ice in subzero temperatures and submerging one's body into hot mineral  water stimulate mindfulness through immersion in physicality. Shocking sensations awaken the slumbering neurons drained by living in a digital world. Rub your body with snow, watch the steam drift off your skin, and soak again: This is healthy living in Japan's snow country!

My recommendations for hot springs surrounded by snow

Fukiage Onsen

Fukiage Onsen in Tokachidake, Hokkaido, is one of my favorite outdoor hot springs in Japan. Disrobe by the snowbanks. Men and women bathe together in the two mixed-sex, konyokuburo, stone baths on the side of a mountainous forest. Meters of snow surround  the small baths in winter. The air is crisp and clean. In spring, summer, and fall, sunlight filters through layers of colorful leaves. Distant vistas appear between gaps in branches or spaces between trees. Breezes carry earthy forest aromas.


Ryuounkaku, Hokkaido

Though the water in the outdoor bath is 40, icicles descend within inches of the iron-rich mineral water in this bath on the side of a mountain inn. At an elevation of approximately 1,300 meters above sea level, Ryuounkaku is a  ryokan for addicts of extreme winter sports. This Japanese inn has many positive points: The family that owns the hotel is friendly, and the Japanese meals are hearty and delicious. The windows from each room and the outdoor hot springs offer unbeatable winter vistas. Almost immediately after exiting, you can feel isolated in nature. The downside was that the rooms were not as clean as those of most Japanese ryokans. But the guests are usually not fastidious travelers; they're winter enthusiasts. For more information, read this article. Fukiage Onsen, mentioned above, is a short drive away. 

 Unkai Hotel

The photograph above shows a small section of the bathing area at Unkai, a hotel with an outdoor bath that faces mountains, valleys, and the stars above Tokamachi, Niigata. Unkai, written 雲海 in kanji, means cloud sea. When weather conditions are just right, the hotel seemingly floats on a sea of clouds (click on the link above to see photographs). When I visited, the sky was cloudless; instead, I was treated to a daytime panoramic view of snow-capped peaks, snow-decorated villages, and ski resorts, and a nighttime sea of stars.    

The Tokamachi Snow Festival is one of Japan's best winter festivals, yet few people outside of Niigata know about this celebration of snow. If visiting Japan in winter, you should not miss this extraordinary festival that combines art, food, winter sports, and much more. Come and enjoy the nearby ski resorts, snowshoe trails, and (most importantly) Japanese hot springs!

 Kusatsu Onsen


Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture is consistently ranked as one of Japan's top traditional hot spring areas. Within this hot spring village, my favorite outdoor bath is at Sainokawara Onsen. The hair on your head freezes while you are comfortably soaking in the natural thermal waters. The sensation is amazing. Temperatures were close to ten below zero Celsius during my last winter visit.

Shirahone Onsen

Bone-white is the color of the hot thermal water, and White Bone Hot Spring is the translation of Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), one of Japan's best small hot spring villages. Located deep in a ravine that cuts through the Japanese Alps, Shirahone requires high-level driving skills to reach in mid-winter, when the one snakelike route from Matsumoto, Nagano, is slick with ice and snow. But, God, is it ever worth it.

Outdoor bathing with friends
For twenty-five years, I have been bathing my way around Japan in search of the ultimate hot spring experience. The renowned hotel, remote location, unique mineral water, and abundant snow pushed my winter trip to the village of Shirahone Onsen into the ranks of my top onsen experiences. I stayed at the remote but luxurious Japanese inn named Awanoyu. Photographs of this outdoor bath are often published in magazines and books, extolling the beauty of Nagano onsens. Within Japan, this bath is famous, but few foreigners know about Awanoyu. Now, you do.

Aoni Inn

When people learn that I have bathed in about 600 hot springs in Japan, they usually ask about my favorites. At the end of March, 2019, I stayed at Aoni Onsen.  Now, my answer is that this onsen is one of Japan's most unique. It has everything that I want in an onsen. Significantly, it also lacks something that almost all hotels provide and that most people cannot imagine being without. A part of the allure of Aoni Onsen is that guest rooms lack electricity and WiFi. Disconnection from SNS, email, and other internet options elicits a calmness you may have forgotten that you once knew.

Photograph courtesy of Aomori prefecture

 Sukayu Onsen

Everyone should bathe at Sukayu Onsen at least once in their lives. The experience is an interactive history and culture lesson that leaves your body feeling as relaxed as a noodle. Sukayu Onsen is a hot and wet time machine. You'll float back to an era when people were more comfortable with their bodies. Staying in this onsen hotel, I remembered what I had learned about Japanese customs in the years before indoor plumbing became ubiquitous. Neighbors would bathe together, and vacations in Japan used to center around trips to hot springs with distinctive characteristics. Like Aoni Inn (above), Sukayu is located in Aomori prefecture. Although the bath in the photograph is indoors, the snow depth outside was around seven meters. One can snowshoe out the front door, or ski at the nearby Hakkoda Ski Resort.

Safe and Warm Mixed-Sex Bathing in Japan      Photograph Courtesy of Sukayu Onsen             

Japanese hot spring addicts who want to combine bathing with snowshoeing and other winter sports may want to read posts about Tainai, Myoko, Hokkaido, Tsukioka, Renge, Zao, and Jidokudani.


Friday, October 23, 2020

Waterfalls, Autumn Leaves, and the Beautiful Baths of Oigami Onsen, Gunma

We are entering the season of fiery colors, powerful waterfalls, and hot baths with spectacular views. Grab your towel and make travel plans for the gorgeous mountains if you're in Japan. Those outside Japan will have to wait and salivate.

A friend told me that he wanted to enjoy fall in a relaxing and rustic area of Japan, where mass tourism had not changed the locals. I recommended Oigami Onsen in Numata, Gunma. Even before the pandemic, Oigami did not get much traffic despite the presence of one of the most unique and graceful waterfalls in Japan, small markets where you can meet the artists and vegetable growers, and rare festivals.  

Fukiware Falls is the name of this unusual waterfall. Ware means crack in Japanese. The river suddenly plunges into a 7-meter-deep and 30-meter-wide crack in the riverbed.  This river, bursting with colors in fall, was designated as a natural heritage spot for its beauty, and the waterfall is listed as one of Japan's one hundred top waterfalls.     

Walking and hiking trails of various difficulty levels (nothing particularly strenuous) and a small bridge take visitors to numerous breathtaking viewpoints. The river changes color depending on the angle of your view, sunlight, and water depth.
The path to the the trail heading to the falls leads through a small market evocative of Japan's countryside fifty years or so ago. The aromas of roasted salted and bamboo-skewered river fish, baked sweet potatoes, and hot amazake waft along the walkway. Traditional woven baskets, wooden dolls, and antiques are on sale, as are various wild mushrooms that might have been gathered that morning in the nearby mountains.


The main street (it is tiny) with hotels and ryokans in Oigami Onsen is a six-minute drive from Fukiware Falls. One can walk, as well. The accommodations in Oigami tend to be along the side of the river. Some are closed. Sleepy Oigami Onsen is far off the golden route of tourism in Japan. Walking along the small-town streets and the riverside are cures for stress. You'll discover another small market, tiny shrines and temples, and a mischievous supernatural being with a giant nose. His name is Tengu.

During our short sojourn in Oigami, we stayed at the mid-range Yamaguchiya Hotel. Built on the rim of a high riverbank, views from the public hot bath and most of the rooms were picturesque. Ingredients for dinner and breakfast meals were mostly locally procured fish, mushrooms, pickles, and vegetables. The building could use a bit more maintenance, but since this area of Japan does not get many tourists, probably a large number of businesses in the area are just holding on. The hotel's highlights were soaking in the bath while enjoying a wide view of rivers, cliffs, and autumn leaves. And the service provided in this mid-range hotel was as fine as that shown to guests at first-class hotels.

During one of our walks through the small town, we discovered a 108.22 m (355 ft) snake. It was holding bottles of local sake in its mouth. This snake is the one that the Guinness Book of World Records had certified as the longest festival snake in the world.

Legend has it that the waterfall was discovered by someone who saw a giant snake in the river. One of Nemuta city's webpages gives the following information:

"On May 3rd, a giant snake float weighing two tons and stretching to a length of 108 meters is brought out from its holding place at the Akagi shrine. On the 7th and 8th, 200 participants in the festival hoist the snake into the air and parade it around the streets. Adventurous souls are always welcome to join in."

I recommend Oigami Onsen to all readers seeking a relaxing time in a sleepy town surrounded by the earthy fiery colors of the Japanese autumn.