You’ve likely heard of Japan’s famous hot springs and unique bathing culture. There are thousands of hot spring inns (or onsen ryokan in Japanese) in Japan located away from bustling cities, boasting decades- or centuries-old heritage, delicious cuisine and healing geothermal baths. But where should one go? Here is a list of stunning onsen ryokan lodgings to check out that can be conveniently reached by public transport from major cities in Japan.
Bettei Senjuan is an award-winning Japanese ryokan located in the town of Minakami in Gunma Prefecture. Thanks to the fantastic Shinkansen train network, it takes less than 2 hours to get to from Tokyo. Built on a large piece of land with lush natural scenery, Bettei Senjuan features an outstanding blend of modern and traditional design. Its signature floor-to-ceiling curved windows boast an incredible view of Mount Tanigawa, the sacred mountain of Minakami.
The ryokan has spacious rooms and public area, and many of the guest rooms come with private in-room bath pools. Communal baths are also available, offering both indoor and outdoor hot springs overlooking the surrounding forest. Minakami’s onsen water originates from the melted snow on Mount Tanigawa. Guests can enjoy the exquisite kaiseki (a series of dinner courses) in private dining rooms. The chef makes use of both Japanese and western cooking methods to create delicious and artistic dishes. Bettei Senjuan has been a member of Relais et Chateaux since 2012.
How to get there: The fastest Shinkansen Joetsu Line train from Tokyo Station to Jomo-Kogen Station (the closest train station) takes only 66 minutes, and another 25-minute taxi ride from the Jomo-Kogen Station will get you to Bettei Senjuan. The ryokan also offers free shuttle pick-up at the Minakami Station.
A family-run historic ryokan since the Edo Period, Yoroduya is located in the Yudanaka Onsen town in Nagano Prefecture. With a long-established history of over 200 years, this traditional hot spring inn takes pride in its family heritage and traditions. One of the buildings, Shoraiso, and the indoor Momoyama onsen bath are both gorgeous wooden structures registered as Cultural Tangible Properties by the Japanese government. The hot spring at Yudanaka Onsen town was discovered by a monk in 1350, and it became very popular in the Edo Period. Soaking in the Momoyama indoor onsen is not only soothing to the body, it feels extraordinary and spiritually awakening.
Traditional kaiseki dinner is served either in the room or in the dining hall, and dishes include premium local Shinshu wagyu beef and vegetables from the region. All rooms are traditional Japanese-style and comfortable futons are prepared on top of the tatami-matted floor for guests to sleep on at night. A visit to the nearby Snow Monkey Park is a must.
How to get there: Take the Shinkansen Hokuriku Line train from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station for about 1 hour 20 minutes, then get on the local train run by the Nagano Electric Railway to the Yudanaka Station for 45 minutes. Yoroduya is just few minutes walk away.
Takinoya is a family-run luxurious ryokan established in 1917 in the famous hot spring town of Norboribetsu in Hokkaido Prefecture. Noboribetsu is well known for its spectacular active geothermal activities and landscapes. It is mind-blowing to see the abundance of natural forces like large bubbling sulfur crater lakes, geysers bursting and hot steam venting from the ground.
Takinoya was rebuilt in 2008: the new building has a soothing ambience and is tastefully designed by blending both contemporary and traditional Japanese elements equipped with modern amenities. At Takinoya, guests can pamper themselves with 6 different kinds of hot springs sourced from the “Hell Valley” (Jigokudani in Japanese) and other water sources nearby. Most rooms come with a private in-room hot spring tub and are upgraded with modern comforts. The head chef makes an elegant and delicious kaiseki dinner with Hokkaido’s superior seafood and produce (think sea urchin and snow crabs). There is also a beautiful Kyoto-style Japanese garden at Takinoya with a 500-year old tree at the center of the garden.
How to get there: From the New Chitose Airport, take the express bus to Noboribetsu Onsen operated by the Donan Bus Company running once a day (approximately 1 hour ride). From Sapporo Station, there is also a bus run by the Donan Bus Company to Noboribetsu Onsen (approximately 1 hour and 40 minute ride).
In the popular onsen town of Kurokawa in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Kyushu, Ryokan Sanga is a traditional Japanese onsen ryokan located in a secluded lush forest near the active volcano Mount Aso. Kurokawa Onsen is a picturesque old town where the architecture and bathing culture have been well preserved since the Edo Period. Ryokan Sanga was founded in 1977 and is a member of the Japan Association of Secluded Spring Inns. It has stunning outdoor baths in the middle of a serene forest by the river, with water feeding from the original source. There are also a few indoor baths, some of which can be reserved for private use.
The Ryokan Sanga building is gorgeous: the structure is supported by dark wood pillars and beams, giving it a rustic charm and a cozy atmosphere. Rooms are all traditional Japanese-style with paper screen doors and tatami-matted floors. The Kaiseki dinner is served using local ingredients when possible. Dishes are mainly mountain vegetables and meat from the Kyushu region. At Kurokawa Onsen, visitors can also have fun experiencing authentic bathing traditions dressed in yukata (cotton robe) and geta sandals with an onsen-hopping pass at a price of JPY1,300 for accessing 3 hot springs of their choice. Passes can be purchased at the participating ryokan lodgings or tourist center.
How to get there: From the Fukuoka Airport, take the direct highway bus to Kurokawa Onsen Station for about 2.5 hours. Ryokan Sanga can arrange free shuttle pick up from the bus station.
Famous for its impeccable hospitality and well-preserved traditional Kyoto aesthetics, Suisen is a traditional Japanese ryokan in the onsen town of Yunohana, just about 35 minutes from the Kyoto Station — which makes it a perfect excursion destination while visiting Kyoto. Upon arrival, guests are welcomed by attentive staff and are taken to a lounge facing a zen Japanese garden offering charming seasonal views. Legend has it that the hot spring at Yunohana was used by warriors of the olden days to heal themselves. There are both indoor and outdoor hot spring communal baths available to guests at Suisen, and some rooms have private in-room hot spring baths installed with the same thermal spring flowing into the cypress-lined tubs. Dining at Suisen is a memorable experience: the head chef is both a culinary expert and an artist. Sourcing his ingredients from top local farmers and producers, he and his team create mouth-watering kaiseki dishes that are almost too beautiful to eat.
How to get there: From the Kyoto Station, take the JR Sagano Line to Kameoka Station for about 20 minutes, then take the ryokan’s free shuttle (reservation required in advance) and arrive at Suisen in 15 minutes.
For first-timers, if you are unsure of the the dos and don’ts while in a Japanese bathhouse, here are some tips from our previous article Japanese Onsen Etiquette Tips Every Traveler Should Know.