With Tokyo Fashion Week coming to a close, there is much to see and do outside of the collections—from the gardens to the shrines and the obligatory (and adorable) stationery store romps. However, few visitors know that across the volcanically active country lie thousands of natural hot springs known as onsen. The baths are a centuries-old ritual, oftentimes practiced daily and distinct for their healing mineral-rich waters, which range in temperature between 77 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, the springs can get that hot naturally, which is why most dip in and out when needed, customarily taking to the tatami mats of a traditional Japanese inn, known as a ryokan, which are set in woods surrounding the pools. There, in between soaks, local cuisine is offered along with the common uniform of a yukata, or a lightweight kimono. Minimal talking is encouraged.
While bath therapy, or balneotherapy, is cherished in many parts of the world, from Europe to the Middle East, the heated waters in Japan are unique in that they have a vast array of mineral concentrations (sulfur and calcium, magnesium, iron) that offer everything from antiaging and detoxifying benefits to the ability to cure ailments such as skin disease and chronic pain. In fact, this writer once waded in a chloride hot spring surrounded by a bamboo forest in Japan’s Kyushu region, nude but for a headdress made of a single white towel—proper onsen etiquette—and witnessed one elderly Japanese woman walk in with a cane, and leave without it.
For the fashion set, schedule-sensitive and prone to stress, a day trip to Hakone Onsen, roughly an hour outside Tokyo by car, is the option to try. The outdoor baths are lined with cedar trees and scattered across the hills, making for a view that even the most frenzied front row fixture couldn’t pass up. For those with more time on their hands, traveling west to the onsen village of Kurokawa in Kumamoto is a must: the moss-covered haven, near Mount Aso, has not one single high-rise or street sign in sight. No matter which you choose, the inner zen that can be found in these secret wells are long-lasting—and glow-inducing. Here, the best hot springs to visit while in Japan.
This small hot springs town is nestled in the Kumamoto prefecture, past Mount Aso on the westernmost tip of Japan. If you are looking for refuge from the bustling cities, the Kurokawa Onsen has a total of 24 hot springs to choose from; some tunnel through dim-lit caves and others sit under the canopy of green bamboo shoots. All have a different mix of elements in the water. If you are looking for an extra boost of moisture, the chloride springs help with water retention. If you have chronic pain, try the iron-abundant pools for relief from muscle aches.
Outside Tokyo lies the hilly town of Hakone, a popular getaway to catch views of the serene Lake Ashi surrounded by Mount Fuji’s snow-capped tip. Along the rocky banks of the Haya River is one Bansuiro Fukuzumi Onsen, which was first established in 1625. It’s known for having silky, magnesium- and sulfur-filled pools, the alkaline waters of which are thought to have the answer to more vibrant, youthful skin. Note to readers with tattoos: Make sure to stop by the front desk (or call ahead) to alert the staff of your ink as many traditional establishments within the Hakone region do not allow them.
In the northern region of Japan, the Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido produces over 10,000 tons of water every day. With nine different types of spring water to choose from, all of which are flourishing with minerals such as aluminum (good for digestion), make sure to try the salt pool. Its nickname in English is “fever water” because the sodium- and chloride-heavy waters will have you sweating out all of your toxins while serenely floating on your back.
Across from the Kaimondake volcano, the Ibusuki Onsen is famous for its charcoal-color sand baths called sunamushi. The volcanic sand—which guests are buried under, with only their heads left to peek through—is said to help with nerve pain and muscle aches, not to mention acting as a great exfoliator. The heat from the sun and the weight of the sand can feel intense, which is why this onsen offers cold baths in addition to their natural hot pools. A refreshing plunge is likely in order.
One of the oldest hot springs in Japan, with roots dating back to the 600s, the Arima Onsen is located 30 minutes outside of Osaka—and, unlike many other pools in Japan, is not set within a volcano. Meaning its hot springs, some of which appear a muddy red color, called kinsen (golden water), don’t materialize from heated groundwater or rainwater, but rather from ancient seawater that emerged above ground millions of years ago. In addition to the many common minerals found in Japanese pools, radium, which promotes cell activation and boosts immunity, can be absorbed here. It is said that if inhaled, the bubbling waters can cure bronchial disease; if ingested, gastrointestinal discomfort. The latter is a daring play, perhaps best made on the second onsen visit.
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