One of the must-have Japan holiday experiences is a therapeutic soak in a relaxing onsen (hot spring bath). It is common knowledge that the onsen is an important part of Japanese culture, and they have various curative benefits for the body. But other than enjoying the healing benefits of the hot spring water, there are many unique onsens in the country offering the wacky experience for extraordinary travel memories. Let’s discover these quirky onsens in the Land of the Rising Sun together!
1. Jigokudani Onsen in Nagano
Yes, many onsens in Japan are made for human beings. But in the Yamanouchi municipality in northern Nagano Prefecture, there is a special hot spring bath made for the Japanese Macaques. Also known as Snow Monkeys, these adorable wild creatures enjoy their relaxing bath in the man-made pool located in the forests of the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Although the park is open all year round, the best season to watch the monkeys is in winter, when large numbers descend from the mountains to dip in the warm 41 degree Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) hot spring in chilly weather.
It can be quite entertaining to watch the monkeys interact with one another in their large group, especially when you can observe them up close given there are no fences in the park. Like humans, the younger monkeys are typically more energetic and play freely in the bath, while the adult monkeys usually rest and enjoy the soak with their eyes closed. After watching the Snow Monkeys enjoy their onsen, warm yourselves up in the only Japanese onsen ryokan in Jigokudani just across the river at Korakukan. Who knows, the monkeys may just come to the inn’s open air bath and join you in your relaxing dip!
Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑)
Address: 6845 Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano Prefecture
Price: 500 JPY (4.80 USD) per adult, 250 JPY (2.40 USD) per child.
Opening Hours: 8.30 am - 5pm daily from April to October. 9 am - 4 pm daily from November to March.
Duration: 1 to 2 hours required.
Access: please refer to the official website for details.
Contact: +81 269-33-4379
2. Hottarakashi Onsen in Yamanashi
The Yamanashi Prefecture is near the centre of Honshu, the main island of Japan. 78% of the prefecture is covered by forests, and the southern part is home to the famous Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. At Hottarakashi Onsen in this landlocked prefecture, you can find the only hot spring in Japan where one can catch the spectacular sunrise and night scenery overlooking Mount Fuji! The name “Hottarakashi” means “to be left alone” in English, which is indeed a befitting name for the bath. About 20 years ago, the large wooden handmade bathtub was left out in the open by its unknown owner due to lack of funds to maintain it. Word spread that the onsen was open to the public for free and soon it became a famous hot spring.
Although it is no longer a free public bath, Hottarakashi Onsen has retained much of its original charm with the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine in Japan. Besides its strategic location atop Kofu Basin opposite from Mount Fuji, it is awesome that Hottarakashi is open daily one hour before sunrise, and only closes late at night. Not only does this allow you ample time to enjoy the hot spring, you should also go there early to admire the stunning sunrise. After that, you may enjoy a good breakfast in one of the on-site restaurants, explore the region for its picturesque scenery or go fruit-picking. Finally, return to the rustic onsen for the amazing night scenery. This is certainly one onsen that you feel like soaking in forever!
Here is our recommended itinerary around Hottarakashi Onsen
Hottarakashi Onsen (ほったらかし温泉)
Address: 1669-18 Yatsubo, Yamanashi city, Yamanashi Prefecture
Price: 800 JPY (7.70 USD) per adult, 400 JPY (3.80 USD) per child.
Opening Hours: 1 hour before sunrise - 10 pm daily. Last admission at 9 pm.
Access: 10-minute taxi ride (about 2,500 JPY or 24 USD) from Yamanashi Station.
Contact: +81 553-23-1526
3. Kawayu Onsen in Wakayama
Kawayu Onsen literally means “hot water river” in English. It is a hot spring town where you will find highly acidic spring water from the Kii Mountain Range in Hongu area of Wakayama Prefecture. What is special about the onsen in this town is you may dig anywhere along the Oto River to enjoy a hot spring bath.
The pure spring water at Kawayu Onsen has a high temperature of about 73 degree Celsius (about 163 Fahrenheit). Due to its strong acidic nature, it is said to be good for the skin because of its bactericidal effect. But because of this, the water is unfit for circulation pipes as it will corrode the metal, hence all the hot springs in the town are flowing freely. If you happen to pass by the town, don’t miss the chance to enjoy a free quick soak! Kawayu Onsen is good to visit any time of the year. If you visit during the winter months, join in the fun at the Sennin-buro River Bath, a giant outdoor bath that literally means 1,000 people can bathe at the same time in the steamy onsen.
Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉)
Address: Kawayu, Hongu Town, Wakayama Prefecture
Price: Free for baths in the river. 250 JPY (2.40 USD) for Kawayu Onsen public bath.
Opening Hours: River bath is always open. Kawayu Onsen public bath is open from 8 am - 9 pm daily.
Access: 10-minute bus ride from Hongu Taisha-mae bus stop.
Contact: +81 735-42-0735
4. Shyosenkaku Onsen in Nagano
Besides the unique made-for-monkey onsen in Nagano Prefecture, there is another amusing onsen in the prefecture - Shyosenkaku Onsen (中尾山温泉 松仙閣). This is an open-air bath with a matchmaking facility, a novel concept in Japan. There is a matchmaking shrine surrounded by a window, separating the male and female bath. The window can only be opened from the female bath using a string attached to the window. Once a lady guest who is game to try this facility pulls the string, she will be able to see a little bit of the other bath and get to chat with her “match” if she likes who she sees.
It is said that there have been three couples who have walked down the isle since they got to know each other through this quirky matchmaking concept. Of course, whether you are really successfully match-made in the end depends on your luck. Nonetheless, this can be a fun way to add some spice to your orthodox hot spring bath in Japan. You never know if this could be your golden opportunity to meet the right one!
Shyosenkaku Onsen (中尾山温泉 松仙閣)
Address: 2475 Shinonoi Komatsubara, Nagano Prefecture
Price: 650 JPY (6.20 USD) per adult.
Opening Hours: 12 pm - 8 pm from Sunday to Friday, 11 am - 8 pm on Saturdays and national holidays.
Access: short taxi ride from Shinonoi Station.
Contact: +81 262-92-2343
5. Ice onsen in Lake Shikaribetsu, Hokkaido
Every year in winter, the annual Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan event will be held in the highest-elevation lake of 801 metres (2,657 feet) in Hokkaido’s Shikaoi City. Kotan means “village” in the local language, and the awesome village on the frozen lake includes overnight ice lodges with cool ice bars, igloos, and the world’s only outdoor ice onsen! In fact, there are two such onsens, with gender-specific admissions only at certain points in the day. Unlike most onsens, visitors may wear swimsuits and onsen robes into the baths.
Experience a unique experience of bathing in a hot spring made of ice. The outdoor temperature may be freezing at -20 degree Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), but dip in the 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) hot spring, and you will instantly be warmed. Such unforgettable onsen experience is only available for a limited three-month period each year from January to March, so plan and book ahead fast!
Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan (しかりべつ湖コタン)
Address: Shikaribetsu Lakeside, Shikaoi cho, Kato-gun, Hokkaido
Price: Ice Bar (free tour, one drink for 500 JPY/ 4.80 USD), open-air bath (free), Ice Theater (free).
Opening Hours: January - March each year.
Access: 100-minute bus ride from JR Obihiro station to Shikaribetsu lake (4 buses daily)
Contact: +81 156-69-8181
So which is your favourite offbeat onsen?
After reading recommendations of the above six unique onsens in Japan, have you found your favourite yet? Regardless of whether you have a soft spot for monkeys, mountain views, mud or even hoping for The One to appear when enjoying the therapeutic hot spring, you will be able to create some exceptional holiday memories at these unconventional onsens. Visit at least one of them each time you travel to Japan!
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