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-claw-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, which is 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.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Free Public Outdoor Hot Springs in Myoko, Niigata

Kawaranoyu in Tsubame Onsen, Myoko, NiigataAdd caption
 My wife and I, with another couple, bathed in a free outdoor hot spring at night. Rain clouds and the sun setting on the other sides of craggy peaks were darkening the walking path to Ougonnoyu (name of the bath) as we arrived in the mountainous village of Tsubame Onsen. Rockslides had closed one of the winding roads on the way, so we had to detour. My friends were ready to turn back: thick fog and heavy rains were discouraging, but having experienced the incredible hot springs in the past, I assured them that they would be pleased and astounded. In the dark, we found the walking path leading uphill from the backside of the village.

Several years beforehand, Ogonoyu had been a mixed-sex bath. But since my last visit, the local community expanded the bathing area and created a male and a female section. I found the separation of sexes disturbing. Japanese social mores are changing for the worse. Why should humans be afraid of or embarrassed about our bodies? 

Ogonoyu was still beautiful in the darkness. In our flashlights' beams, we saw huge stones arranged to form concave walls surrounding the rock-lined soaking areas. Steam with a slight odor of sulfur wafted off the surface of the thermal water. Tall trees stood over the baths. Though the rains had stopped, the cloudy sky was blocking starlight and moonlight. 

Hot Spring Addict bathing in the stream near Kawaranoyu

Hearing no sounds of conversation and seeing no shoes at the entrance, we assumed that we were alone and decided to bathe together in the male section, which was straight ahead. We have been friends for many years and have bathed together in locations from Tohoku to Kagoshima.
With the flashlights off, all we could see was the essence of a pitch-black night. The hot mineral water's heat embracing my body was a perfect match for the cold air. The tight muscles in my body were melting like ice cream in the sun. In the night's silence, I recalled soaking in an isolation chamber in the early 1990s, when they were trendy. That night's experience was similar until an owl hooted, and my mind returned to the present forested environment. 

Ten minutes later, we heard the voices of two men speaking and saw the beams of their light shining. The ladies decided to move into the female bathing area. The two men politely greeted us. My friend, who does not soak for as long as I do, decided he had reached his limit. I chose to join my wife and my friend's wife in the female section. Usually, I would have remained. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, I don't want to risk inhaling the exhalations of strangers. No one wears a mask in a hot spring. 

We had a fantastic fifteen minutes or so of privacy and relaxation until a lady called to us from the bath entrance. She said that she was afraid to bathe alone in the dark and wished to bathe in the female section with her husband instead of soaking apart. By that time, we were satisfied, so we departed, allowing them to enjoy the privacy of a private bath. 

The next day, we returned to enjoy another free outdoor bath called Kawaranoyu. Getting there requires a ten-minute walk on a path above a deep gorge where a mighty river churns, jumps, swirls, and pushes boulders and fallen trees downstream. 

After crossing a footbridge, the trail turns and travels along the edge of a smaller stream cutting through mountain greenery. Insect sounds and frog calls stopped as we came close and continued after our passing. 

Walking bridge to Kawaranoyu

The trail ends at one of the prettiest little hot springs imaginable. The water is blueish white. It continuously enters from the side of a fern-covered slope and exits through cracks in the rocks, flowing into the stream below. The only building is a rustic hut in which men and women leave their clothing before entering the same-sex bath. 

The air holds the aroma of a fresh forest mixed with a tinge of sulfur. The spring provides relaxing music. And, often, dragonflies hover in the air. Kawanoyu is one of my favorite outdoor springs in Myoko, Niigata. After heating up, I like to carefully climb down the short slippery cliff to a spring pool to submerge myself in the mountain's coldness. Then, I climb up and repeat this heavenly healing process

To read more about Tsubame Onsen, click on the following stories:

Return to the Hot Springs for Swallows

Hot Springs for Swallows:Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉)


Monday, July 13, 2020

Bathing in a Japanese Onsen and Car Camping During a Pandemic

To bathe or not to bathe in an onsen these days, that is the question.  After Japan's state of emergency was lifted, I decided I would soak if I could find an environment that seemed safe. For several months, this hot spring addict abstained from entering the sacred waters of Japanese onsens out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Finally, though, the beautiful Arctic-blue mineral water of Manza Onsen in Gunma lured me into a bath—an outdoor one with a view of alpine greenery.
Gokuraku, the name of this bath, is also the Japanese word for the Buddhist heaven
As I stepped naked from the rustic wooden building housing the changing room, the beauty of the bath named Gokurakuyu and the surroundings caused me to take a deep breath and stand motionless. I saw the sky and bushes reflected on the still water. A jigoku, or "hot spring hell," appeared on the other side of the valley in front. Thermal water from deep underground was rising to the earth's surface. The steam, heat, and minerals prevented plants from growing on the slope near the jigoku. Above me, clouds lazily swam across the sky. The aroma of sulfur touched my nose. Manza's thermal springs reportedly have the highest concentration of sulfur of all Japanese hot springs.

For several months, fear of contracting CORVID-19 had me forsaking my most relaxing pleasure, which is melting within Japanese onsens. But I decided in June that I would bathe if I could find a facility in a location that was unique and appeared safe. Along the way, I would camp, maintain social distancing, wear masks when near others, spray and wash frequently. (If you are considering traveling in Japan now, you should study the Japan COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker.)

Morning coffee after a night of car camping with the hot spring addict.
In search of a famous-among-Japan-based-hot-spring-nuts onsen named Manza Onsen, my wife and I drove our van from our home in Niigata into the neighboring mountainous prefecture of Gunma. While driving, we passed many shuttered hotels, restaurants, ryokan, victims of pandemic economics. We kept climbing, trusting the Google navigation system, which screwed up big time. 

Late at night, we came to a four-way intersection in the middle of a forest near the top of a remote mountain. A metal gate blocked us from descending a road leading to Manza Onsen. Signage indicated that the road was closed because of a landslide. Leaf debris and plants bending over the road meant the road had been closed for a long time. One alternative was to return the way we had come and drive in the dark for several hours.

Instead, we decided to park our van under trees, heat up a package of instant Japanese curry with a gas stove, and sleep in the back. A breeze carrying sweet vanilla-like aroma cooled us. The Big Dipper and other constellations watched over us. A stream soothed us to a deep and pleasant sleep. After savoring our outdoor breakfast of cereal, fruit, fresh coffee, and a seemingly endless view, we washed with towels that we soaked in a tiny waterfall slipping down a nearby cliff, a superb way to start a day. Then we called a hotel in Manza and asked for directions. 

The correct route led us on roads that curved by serene green and blue ponds and waterfalls as high as skyscrapers.
Tiny hot springs, like Hotaru Onsen, which was puffing thick clouds of mineral-thick steam, diverted my attention, causing me to pull over, gape in wonder, and take a ridiculous number of photographs.
Steam naturally issues from the earth.

The hot spring addict taking a steam bath.

One of the most photographed spots along the route known as Shiga-Kusatsu Kogen Route Kokudo 292 is where a rock sculpture informs passersby that they are at the highest peak on the highest road in  Japan. Though the view at an elevation of 2,172 meters was breathtaking, I gave in to my impulse to climb the monument for a better vantage point. 
From there, the road spiraled downward into the tiny, quiet village of Manza Onsen (elevation 1,800 meters). Few cars were on the streets of the quiet hamlet. Hotels and ryokan were separated by plenty of space. Some of the few hotels and ryokan were closed. I stopped to ask a walker dressed in hiking garb for a recommendation. She said that the outdoor bath (rotenburo in Japanese) at the Nishinkan Hotel (also called Manza Hotel) had a spectacular view. The location on the edge of a hill and next to a forest was promising. I decided to enter the hotel and scope out the hygiene. If I felt uncomfortable, I would go somewhere else. 

Bottles of hand spray were at the doors and in the hallways and at the front desk. The few guests that I saw were wearing facemasks. I peaked into the dining room, which I noticed had a buffet. The staff in the dining room and at the hotel check-in area wore masks and plastic face covers. A front desk clerk asked if I would mind if he took my temperature. If I had a fever, I would have to leave. These precautions comforted me. I said to my wife, "Wow, these people are as cautious or as paranoid as I am. I can bathe here, but let's eat lunch first."

The healthy Japanese buffet lunch was delicious, hygienic, and only 1,000 yen (around US $9). Management asked the guests to wear disposable plastic gloves when taking food from the buffet. The dining room was spacious, so we could distance ourselves from others. Through opened windows, I could see tall trees and hear bird cries. Comfortably full, it was time for a bath. 

Day-trippers can partake of the pleasures of both the indoor and outdoor bathing facilities, also for just 1,000 yen. The indoor bathing area named Choujunoyu has five different varieties of baths containing various herbs and mineral concentrations. Be sure to click on the link and read the descriptions. 

Perhaps, I was overly cautious, but I reasoned that if any guests were positive for COVID-19, the outdoor bath would be the safest because of the exposure to breezes. So I decided to save Choujunoyu for a return trip after the pandemic. 

Bathing in Gokurakunoyu, the outdoor bath, was such a splendid experience. Most of the time, I was alone. Two other bathers came for a short time. The bath was big enough for us to separate ourselves by several meters. Being extra-cautious, I  moved upwind from the others. My wife was alone in a bath in the women's section on the other side of a fence. 
Looking down on Manza Onsen

We lazed in our healthy environments for almost two hours. Sitting in the bath, I could look down on the jigoku. Walking trails and small shrines were alongside the hells. The trails around the hells take around an hour for physically fit people who are likely to stop and take many photographs.
After bathing, we found hiking trails leading up into nearby mountains. We ended up enjoying several hours of walking along streams, through patches of snow, and up ridges with views that encompassed great distances. While walking, we surprised two rabbits that hopped away at an amazingly fast pace. The next morning, we strolled around Ushike Pond. Reflections of green trees, blue sky, and white clouds lay on the surface of the clear water.
The hiking hot spring addict crossing a field of snow in June.
As night approached, we slept  in our van under trees off to the side of a road in Manza Onsen. In the morning, we visited the Manza Onsen Nature Center, which has educational exhibits and information about the local ecosystem, including hot springs and local wildlife. As we were driving away, we spotted one tanuki (raccoon dog) and several deer. The nature center staff has a map showing the dates and locations of recent bear sightings.
Ushike Pond with its incredibly clear water and reflections. The water is too acidic for fish.

Information for car campers: Be sure to bring enough food and water. When we visited, we did not see any convenience stores or supermarkets. Also, fill your car with fuel way before heading up. There are no gas stations within or close to Manza Onsen.

Caution: Follow the advice on signs around hot spring areas, especially jigoku. A few hot springs release poisonous gases in addition to thermal water. Bathe and hike safely!

To read more posts about Japanese onsen in Gunma, click the links below:

Music, Singing and Kusatsu Onsen

Sainokawara Onsen, One of the Best Japanese Hot Springs

If you love Japanese hot springs or have questions, please leave comments.