There are few things on earth more sublime than relaxing in a Japanese onsen (hot spring). Combining that heavenly experience with a stay at a ryokan (a Japanese style inn) is the ultimate getaway.
While all the primeval geological and geothermal rumblings under Japan have set off volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes, they have created 20,000 hot springs. These places have become meccas, a place for the 127 million inhabitants of the island nation on the Ring of Fire to bathe not only the body but the soul as well. It’s also something that visitors from around the globe can enjoy.
While most people go to hot springs for relaxation, physical issues can benefit from immersion in hot springs with specific mineral properties in the water. The Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan, used hot springs for healing purposes. In Hokkaido, the recreated Ainu village of Porotokotan (meaning large lakeside village in the Ainu language), also known as the Shiraoi Ainu Museum, is well worth a visit to get a glimpse into the Ainu’s unique culture. Shiraoi is a neighboring town of Noboribetsu, the most popular onsen town in Hokkaido in part because of its variety of waters with medicinal benefits.
Scientific research continues to be conducted on the medicinal benefits of hot spring water. For instance, radioactive water is reported to help those suffering from gout, diabetes, chronic digestive problems, gallstones, and fatigue. Sulfur content in the water is considered a remedy for metallic poisoning and is said to clear up a bad complexion. Kawayu Kinkiyu Hotel in Kawayu has such a powerful acidic spring that it can dissolve a nail in a matter of weeks. Bathing in it for far shorter durations is great natural remedy for fatigue. Most hot spring water however is classified as simple thermal and most onsen visitors come for simple relaxation. People often shed their city clothes for the duration of their visits and stroll the streets of onsen towns dressed in yukata – bath (yu) garment (kata).
Bathing etiquette begins in the changing room. Slippers and shoes are removed and left at its entrance. Baskets or lockers are provided to put clothes or yukata. A standard towel or a small towel known as a tenugui is usually found in ryokan and hotel closets. Carrying the towel in front of your privates is optional as you head into the bathing area. After sitting on a small stool, soaping up then rinsing off, you immerse yourself deep in the tub and Japanese tradition. Washing is done before going into the bath for a soak and then often followed by a thorough rinsing and shampooing after the bath depending on the mineral content of the water. Bathing for cleaning is not practiced in Japan. Soap is never brought into a bath either at a communal bath or at home.
Hot springs can be found throughout Hokkaido from Raiden on the west coast to Toyotomi in the north, Hakodate in the south, to a cluster of springs including Rausu, Seseki, Iwaobetsu, Kamuiwakka, and Utoro on the Shiretoko Peninsula in the far northeastern corner of the island.
Even those with limited time in Hokkaido can access its magical waters. Noboribetsu, with its dramatic Jigokudani (Hell Valley), is an onsen town with eleven kinds of hot spring sources and is located only 40 minutes by a JR Limited Express bus from New Chitose Airport or an hour by a Limited Express train from Sapporo.
Noboribetsu’s waters range from a sulfur spring and a reddish-brown ferruginous spring full of iron oxides to an acid-aluminum sulphate spring which is said to help produce beautiful skin. Jigokudani is designated as one of Hokkaido’s most important heritage sites, and definitely worth exploring on foot as you make your way through the surreal landscape spewing water vapor and volcanic gas with the omnipresent and distinctive smell of sulfur a constant companion.
Dai-ichi Takimotokan is Noboribetsu’s most well-known accommodation with its original structure dating back to 1858. A year earlier Takimoto Kinzo had found the thermal waters there in a search to alleviate his wife’s pains caused by rheumatoid arthritis. The hot springs did the job and a year later they built the original ryokan which is now a modern inn offering seven types of baths in its 5000 square meter grand bathing area.
Next to the Dai-ichi Takimotokan is the Noboribetsu Grand Hotel, boasting a variety of springs and tubs including a hinoki (Japanese cypress) and a rock bath situated in a garden with a waterfall and another in a classic Roman bath motif complete with marble statues.
Another classic onsen town with quick access from Hokkaido’s main gateways is Jozankei located in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. It was founded in the 1860s by a monk from Okayama Prefecture named Jozan, hence the name. Only an hour’s bus ride southwest from Sapporo and equally accessible from New Chitose Airport with direct bus service, those living in Sapporo find Jozankei an ideal quick escape from city life. The Jozankei Grand Hotel is home to the Uchu Saidai, proclaimed by its management to be “the biggest bath in the cosmos.” The town is located in a valley along the Toyohira River and has beautiful views of the surrounding snow covered mountains in winter. A day of skiing at the nearby Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort followed by a hot spring bath then capped off by a kaiseki meal is a great way to experience Hokkaido at its best. Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner sourced from seasonal local products and artistically presented and incredibly delicious. It’s the Japanese version of haute cuisine.
Also located within an hour from New Chitose Airport is Lake Shikotsu Onsen. Next to the lake is the Shikotsuko Daiichi Hotel Suizantei, with a number of guest rooms equipped with private open-air baths. The three-story modern Marukoma Onsen Ryokan also on the shores of Lake Shikotsu at Marukoma Onsen has spectacular views of the surrounding lake and mountains. The inn has two indoor hot spring baths and two outdoor hot spring baths with outdoor baths.
Many popular onsen areas throughout Hokkaido have emerged on lakesides. Toyako is an onsen town on Lake Toya surrounded by beautiful mountains at the base of Mt. Usu with its baths being famous for their views of the lake and the surrounding majestic landscape. Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort for example has a panoramic view of the lake from its open-air infinity bath. Lake Toya has a number of top hotels lining its shores with Japanese and Western style rooms, the main difference being sleeping on a futon on a tatami floor versus a bed in a normally carpeted room. From New Chitose Airport, the most convenient way to get to Toyako is by train to Toya Station while a direct bus from Sapporo to the resort is often the preferred method of transportation.
While most hot springs have separate bathing areas for men and women, Osarugawa-no-yu near the town of Sobetsu on the eastern side of Lake Toya is a mixed (konyoku) open-air (rotenburo) hot spring situated alongside the Osaru River. Its rustic bath is surrounded by stones and facing the river. This is a great way to experience nature, listening to the natural music of a peaceful river stream from a hot spring. The view of the river a few meters away and the sound of the water making its way over rocks is meditative. This is truly live streaming music years before the Internet was invented. For those who want to turn a day trip into an overnight experience, the modest Ito Ryokan Hikari Onsen, established in 1884, is a good, inexpensive choice.
The resort town of Akan Kohan in Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido on the southern shores of Lake Akan is a great location for exploring nature and Ainu culture between baths. A boat trip to the islands in the center of the lake followed by a visit to the town’s Ainu village is a day well spent. Also in the national park but on the southern side of Lake Kussharo is Kotan Onsen, another great area for those who want to do extended hikes between baths.
A variation of experiencing a hot spring lakeside is to take an open-air bath on a lake itself. This unique experience is available in the winter on Lake Shikaribetsu in Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido when its waters turn to ice. At 800 meters above sea level, it’s Hokkaido’s highest lake, and is accessible by car or a 1 hour and 40 minute bus ride north from Obihiro Station.
The island of Hokkaido has approximately 2,600 miles (4,183 kilometers) of coastline. A number of onsens dot the coastal map, with many of its ryokans such as Heisei-kan Shiosai-tei Hakodate Yunokawa Onsen having commanding views of the sea from the baths. Heisei-kan Shiosai-tei has 22 guest rooms with open-air baths and is located less than a 10-minute taxi ride from Hakodate Airport, another main gateway into Hokkaido by air. Yunokawa, established in 1653, is the oldest onsen on record in Hokkaido.
La Vista Hakodate Bay, located near the port of Hakodate with its morning fish market stalls offering up some of the best crab (kani) in the world, has an outdoor bath on its top floor with a dramatic view of Tsugaru Strait and Mt. Hakodate as well as a spectacular view of Hakodate at night. The Imagine Hotel & Resort Hakodate has views of the Tsugaru Strait as well from its open-air bath. Its water is said to have a moisturizing effect on the skin.
Mizunashi Kaihin Onsen in Hakodate is a rare natural hot spring bath by the beach, while further up the coast Misaki-no-yu between Capes Kamui and Shakotan offers dramatic sunsets over the Sea of Japan from its open-air bath. A variation of the same theme can be experienced from the modern Kokorono Resort on a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean where sunsets can be experienced from its outdoor bath. The resort offers free shuttle service upon request from the JR Noboribetsu and JR Kojohama stations. On the other side of the island, Utoro Onsen, with its popular brownish hot spring water high in iron and sodium content, is the largest hot spring resort area on the Shiretoko Peninsula. The area has a large selection of accommodations with open-air baths with views of sunset over the Sea of Okhotsk. Yuuhidai-no-yu is a particularly popular open-air onsen to be emerged in as day turns into night.
For sun worshippers that are early raisers, Ginrinso Ryokan has views of spectacular sunrises over Ishikari Bay and the Sea of Japan as well as a beautiful view of the port city of Otaru. Otaru is known for glassworks, music boxes and sake distilleries and its famous canal, lined with cafes and shops converted from old warehouses. Ginrinso, originally a private residence built in 1873 but converted into a ryokan in 1938, is a 10-minute walk from Otaru Chikko Station.
Seseki Onsen in Rausu is a simple man-made rock pool by the sea. The hot spring water is authentic of course and has sufficient mineral content to be classified as an onsen. The combination of relaxing in a hot spring with a breathtaking view of the ocean is a must for hot spring aficionados.
Hokkaido also has a spectacular inland, known for fantastic skiing opportunities in winter and endless miles of hiking trails the rest of the year. A few kilometers inland from the coastal town of Rausu is Kuma-no-yu, with two open-air hot springs accessed by parking off the road and crossing a small bridge.
Many ryokans and hot spring resorts boast great mountain views from their baths such as Makkari Onsen with its famous view of Mt. Yotei in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, nicknamed the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido.
At 1000 meters above sea level in the middle of the Tokachi Mountain Range two kilometers from Tokachidake Onsen, bathers in the konyoku at Fukiage Roten-no-yu are immersed not only in water but in nature. Higher up at the end of a mountain road is Tokachidake Onsen Ryounkaku, which has the unique distinction of being the highest altitude onsen in Hokkaido. Its calcium and sodium sulfate waters can be enjoyed at 1280 meters above sea level, more than halfway up the slopes of Mt. Tokachidake, an active volcano in Daisetsuzan National Park. The view in late September and early October with its autumn colors, and in winter when everything is blanketed with snow are particularly breathtaking.
Hiking opportunities in the area include ascending to the peak of Tokachidake, an eight hour journey round trip, and an exploration of Ansei Crater, a volcanically active valley similar to Noboribetsu’s Jigokudani (Hell Valley).
For another opportunity for spectacular scenery in central Hokkaido, from May to October, visitors take a 13-minute gondola ride up Mt. Tomamu to Unkai Terrace. When atmospheric conditions cooperate, a sea of clouds greets visitors at the 1,088 meters above sea level platform.
Skiing in winter, golf in summer, and world class resorts such as the all-inclusive Club Med Tomamu and Hoshino’s Tomamu The Tower and Risonare Tomamu properties, each with modern hot springs, assure a memorable vacation.
The area is reached by JR limited express trains from Sapporo to Tomamu Station in about an hour and a half, while those coming from New Chitose Airport need to transfer trains at Minami-Chitose Station. Free shuttle buses operate between Tomamu Station and the ski resort. During most of the ski season, ski buses connect Tomamu directly with New Chitose Airport.
Another area which has gained distinction for the meeting of landscapes with clouds is Sounkyo, located in a valley in the northern section of Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido. “Soun” translates as layers of clouds and this gorge area when its surrounding towering cliffs and peaks are partially nestled in clouds becomes one of the most sought after views in Hokkaido and Japan itself. In winter, skiing in the area becomes another major attraction. A train from Sapporo to Kamikawa Station, then a bus to Sounkyo Onsen is the most convenient way to reach the area for those not renting cars.
Daisetsu Kogen Onsen is another of the multiple bases from where Daisetsuzan National Park can be explored. Located at 1260 meters above sea level, this remote area on the eastern side of the national park consists of a single accommodation with hot spring baths and is connected to the main road by a ten kilometer, unpaved road. Daisetsu Kogen is the trailhead of a popular, circular hiking trail that has some of the most spectacular autumn colors in Japan – usually best in the second half of September. Because the area is densely populated by brown bears, hikers need to attend a short lecture at the bear information center before setting off. Walking the entire trail takes about five hours and requires proper hiking shoes.
Tenninkyo Onsen is another good location for exploring Daisetsuzan National Park including visits to the Hagoromo and Shikishima waterfalls. Hotel Tenninkaku in Tenninkyo gives patrons the opportunity to observe the surrounding landscape from its hot spring while listening to the water of the Chubetsu River down below.
Hokkaido is a year round destination and its numerous hot springs can be enjoyed in any season. While the beautiful views change, the mentally and physically healing waters stay the same.
My first Japanese hot spring experience converted me into a furo-aholic (bath-aholic) in the early 1990s. Two and a half decades later I still find the magical waters an endless source of both visual and visceral pleasure.
Mark Edward Harris
Mark Edward Harris’ photography assignments have taken him to 97 countries on six continents. His award-winning books include Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work, Wanderlust, The Way of the Japanese Bath, North Korea, South Korea, Inside Iran, and The Travel Photo Essay: Describing A Journey Through Images.
Mark Edward Harris's
BEST of Nature in Hokkaido
Noboribetsu Hot Springs
Hokkaido's most famous hot spring resort, with 9 different kinds of water and unspoiled forest all around.
About 15 minutes from JR Noboribetsu Station by a bus bound for "Noboribetsu/ Onsen".
Kawayu Hot Springs
Dipping in it for a far shorter duration is great natural remedy for fatigue.
Take the JR "Senmo Line" from JR Abashiri Station or JR Kushiro Station, and get off at the "Kawayu Onsen" or the "Mashu" bus stop. It is about 20 minutes between "Kawayu Onsen" and "Mashu".
Jozankei Hot Springs
Around an hour from downtown Sapporo, these hot springs have salt water that warms you up. Located in a valley along the Toyohira River and has beautiful views of surrounding snow covered mountains in winter.
A direct bus is available from New Chitose Airport and JR Sapporo Station, and you can get off at each of the main facilities.
Marukoma Hot Springs (Shikotsuko Hot Springs)
A hot spring in the picturesque Shikotsu-Toya National Park with a stunning lake view.
Take a Chuo bus on the "Shikotsuko route" from JR New Chitose Airport, and get off at "Shikotsuko" bus stop. It is 12.3 km to Marukoma Onsen. In the winter season, a shuttle bus also runs from Sapporo to Marukoma Onsen.
Toyako Hot Springs
A hot spring by the Toya caldera lake, with sodium and calcium chlorides. Surrounded by beautiful mountains at the base of Mt. Usu with its baths famous for their views of lake and the surrounding majestic landscape.
Take a Donan bus from JR Toya Station, and get off at "Toyako Onsen".
Akanko Hot Springs
Great location for exploring nature and Ainu culture between baths.
About 2 hours from JR Kushiro Station by an Akan bus on the "Akan route" to the "Akanko Onsen" bus stop.
Yunokawa Hot Springs
These hot springs are said to have cured the lord of the Matsumae clan when he fell gravely ill in 1653. Has commanding views of the sea from its baths.
Around 30 minutes from JR Hakodate Station by bus or tram to "Yunokawa Onsen".
Utoro Hot Springs
Largest hot spring resort area on the Shiretoko Peninsula with views of the sunset over the Sea of Okhotsk.
Makkari Hot Springs
Great mountain views of Mt. Yotei in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, nicknamed the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido.
Tokachidake Hot Springs
Has the unique distinction of having the highest altitude onsen in Hokkaido.
Sounkyo Hot Springs
Located in a steep gorge, this secluded hot spring village looks like something from a fairy tale.
About 2 hours from JR Asahikawa Station by a Dohoku bus on the "Sounkyo/ Kamikawa route".
Tenninkyo Hot Springs
Good location for exploring Daisetsuzan National Park including visits to the Hagoromo and Shikishima waterfalls.