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.



  1. There are so many great onsens in Japan.

    1. The onsens are what keep my mind and body sound. They provide a myriad of benefits


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