One of the great pleasures of Japan is soaking in the mineral waters of an onsen, a hot spring bath. Japan has thousands. Visiting onsen is a popular weekend activity for Japanese families, and it’s definitely something to try while you’re here. The water in an onsen can be fairly hot depending on its source, but most establishments have several pools of varying temperatures. You can stay in hotels offering onsen baths, in ryokans (Japanese inns) or minshukus (family-run lodging houses.) Or you can visit the public baths. Most onsen hotels offer day use, but often reserve the evening hours for their overnight guests. There are many places in Japan to enjoy the baths, including two just minutes from Yokota’s gates. One more distant area is Beppu, located on the northern coast of Kyushu, which has about 3,700 hot springs. When traveling to Beppu many visitors do a “hot springs circuit” or onsen meguri, trying a dozen or so baths on one trip. The Izu Peninsula is another area famous for its many hot springs. On maps and road signs, onsen are usually marked by a symbol: ♨. (Spas that use heated tap water, sometimes with added minerals, are more properly called “sentos” but sometimes the distinction is not that clear.)
Many Americans feel funny getting naked with strangers. There are a few major onsen, more like water parks really, where you can wear swimsuits. But the vast majority of onsen are gender-segregated and no clothing is allowed in the water. It’s considered dirty. Shy people might find the oblong Japanese towels useful. You can hold them in front of your body until you actually step into the water. But once you see how relaxed the onsen are, you’ll probably shed your inhibitions and get on with the relaxing.
A note about tattoos: Many onsen ban tattoos as a way of banning the Japanese mob, or yakuza, who are prone to massive displays of body art. No one is all that concerned about an American mom with a little daisy inked on her ankle. If you’re a man with sleeve-style tattoos, on the other hand, you should ask ahead.
How to take a Japanese bath
1) Bring toiletries and a towel, or rent a towel from the front desk. You might also want a washcloth or a skinny Japanese onsen towels to bring into the wet area.
2) Head for the appropriate locker room – red curtains for the women’s side, blue for men. Put your big towel and clothes in a basket or locker. (Typically, lockers require a ¥100 coin.)
3) Enter the washing area with your washcloth or skinny towel. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided, but you might want to bring your own. Take a bucket and stool over to an available faucet. Sit and use the handheld attachment to rinse yourself. Do not stand.
4) Wash like crazy. Scrub from head to toe. Every inch. Wash your hair. Rinse thoroughly. Wrap long hair in a towel or use an elastic band to keep it out of the pool.
5) Once clean, step into the common tub for a long, hot soak. Just be careful not to let your hair or small towel get in the water. Leave your washcloth on the edge of the pool, or stash it on top of your head for safekeeping.
Yuranosato bathhouse feels like a modern remake of a traditional resort onsen, even though it’s practically sitting on the southern tip of Yokota’s runway. It has several pools, indoors and out, including a couple of wooden vats outside that are small enough to have to yourself, or share with a friend. The outdoor area is especially nice. Inside there are several hot tubs with jets and two saunas. In the smaller of the two saunas you’ll find a large bowl of salt that you can use to exfoliate your skin. Cost is about ¥700. You can also buy special services, such as a thorough skin scrub that leaves you smooth as a baby. This is an excellent place for a beginner to the onsen world. One oddity: The larger indoor pool has an “electric chair” feature. Sit in it for a mild electrical stimulation that is said to heal ailments. (Alternatively, it’ll train you not to sit there ever again. You might also lose your appetite for kibble and renounce barking.) Don’t let this put you off. The chair is easily avoided. Opens daily at 9am. GPS: 35.722166,139.3560.
Comment by Sarah Homrig, August 2103: We visited Yuranosato, Akishima for the first time and I wanted to include a few specifics. We paid ¥5,700 and received onsen entry for free and a 60 minute massage. At first I was weary because it was a room with 6 massage beds, my masseuse was male and we dressed in shorts/top provided which we stayed in the whole time. But after a few minutes I was almost asleep, they were very professional and it was one of the best massages I have ever had!
Comment by Laura Nelson, September 2015: They don’t allow tattoo’s under any circumstances (even if it’s a flower on an obvious foreign female). FYI
View East Gate to onsen in Akishima (Sento) in a larger map
DIRECTIONS: Turn right out of the East Gate (0km.) Turn right onto Rt. 7 at the traffic light at 1.2km, an intersection with a blue street sign on the far right corner, identifying the road as Itsukaichi Kaido. You’ll soon arrive at a “Y” intersection with a traffic light (1.4km). Bear left here to stay on Rt. 7. Turn left at the traffic signal at 2.4km. (There’s not much to mark this intersection but all four corners are fenced by chain-link, with woods inside. If you were to turn right here you’d soon be at Yokota’s south gate, which isn’t open.) Turn right into the parking lot at 3km. The onsen is set back a bit, past the large parking lot. The sign for it is right on the street. It’s a tall, skinny rectangle, capped by a little sloped roof. It has a red and white hiragana letter at the top: ゆ.
Katakurinoyu onsen, located near Noyama Kita, is a relaxing little place 4km from the East Gate. There is both a family/exercise area and traditional onsen. With a bathing suit and swim cap you can enjoy the exercise pool, hot tubs and a childrens pool. There is also a gender separated hot tub and sauna section. The onsen/bath includes an outdoor hot tub as well as four indoor tubs that have varying heat levels from very hot to very cold. To enjoy the facilities, enter through the main doors and head left to take off your shoes. Each person will need their own shoe key – ¥100 that will be returned when you pick up your shoes. Pay the ¥700 ticket price at the vending machine and turn in both your shoe key and entry ticket at the front counter in return for a locker key. Women head through the red curtain, men through the blue curtain. Once inside the locker room, locate your locker. On the women’s side, the door to the right of the bathrooms is where you enter if you are wearing your swimming suit and swim cap. The hot tubs/baths are through the door just down from the vending machine, next to the water fountain. There is also a place to have a massage here as well as a restaurant that serves basic noodle and curry dishes. Tel: 042-520-1026. Hours 10am – 10pm daily, closed on the third Thursday of each month. Onsen webpage with photos of the different pools: http://www.nissan-nics.co.jp/katakurinoyu/index.html. The first time we went to this onsen we ran the 7 mile loop around Tama Lake first. The run + hot tubs + lunch made for a very enjoyable morning. GPS: 35.7626, 139.3877
DIRECTIONS: Turn left out the East Gate. Turn right at the first light (0.3km). Follow this road until it comes to a four-way intersection with a light 1.3km. Turn left. You will pass Aeon Mall (Diamond City) on your right. Keep going. You will go through about 10 stoplights. The road will veer right at 2.2km, then cross Shin Ome Kaido at 2.4. Next the road will begin to climb a hill and curve. The onsen complex is on the left at 3.6km. It has a distinctive round roof. Look for a series of red stripes on the road, warning of a sharp right curve ahead. The parking lot entrance is right where these stripes begin. If it’s full, overflow parking is down the small road leading to Noyama Kita park. Sarah Straus and Michelle Nexon, March 2013
Tsuru Tsuru Bath House
This onsen is in the town of Hinode. It’s about a 35-minute drive. It also houses a circular restaurant with reasonably priced yakitori, yakisoba and other noodles and rice dishes. If you take the train to the onsen, there is a blue trolley that will pick you up at the train. The cost to get into the onsen is ¥800 for three hours. You can bring your own towels or purchase a hand towel for ¥100 yen, ¥500 for a back towel. There’s a hot bath, cold bath, sauna, therapeutic bath, and outdoor Japanese bath, which is alternates between women’s use and men’s use. There’s a calendar posted outside and inside the onsen indicating which gender gets the outside bath. Red hearts are for ladies, blue upside-down hearts for gents. Generally, women have it on even-numbered days. This bathhouse is regionally famous for making your skin smooth. Tsurutsuru is the Japanese word meaning to make smooth. 10am-8pm. Always closed Tuesdays, and sometimes other days as well. Call to confirm: Tel. 042- 597-1126. (“ash-ta aite mas-ka?” = “Are you open tomorrow?” ) 4718 Oguno, Hinodemachi, Nishi-Tama-gun, Tokyo. www.gws.ne.jp/home/onsen/. GPS: 35.7800, 139.1921.
DIRECTIONS: Turn left out the Fussa Gate (0 km) and immediately get into the right hand lane. Turn right at the next light onto Tambashi-Dori, which crosses the Tama River (2km) and turns into Itsukaichi Kaido. (You’ll see Tambashi-dori just after a motorcycle shop, on the right side of Rt. 16.) Stay on Itsukaichi Kaido, past the Farmer’s Market and the Tokyu Department Store (6km) until the road ends at Musahi Itsukaichi Station, about 25 minutes (~11.6 km from Fussa Gate). Turn right at this “T” intersection. Proceed underneath train tracks and up towards the mountains. Keep going about 5 minutes and make a left at the second stop light (~13.4 km). At this stop light, you will see a sign that says, “Tsuru Tsuru Onsen Iriguchi.” Approximately 1.8 km before the onsen is a small parking lot where you can park the car and take a red trolley-type car up to the onsen. This red trolley leaves the onsen every 15 & 45 minutes after the hour and will take you back to your car. Or you can drive your own car up past a round wood building on the left (~20 km), turn left, then right into the parking lot of the onsen. The information desk at the Yujo has detailed directions.
TRAIN DIRECTIONS: From either Fussa or Higashi-Fussa, take the train toward Tokyo and get off at Haijima. Transfer to the Itsukaichi Line and get off at Musashi-Itsukaichi Station. The blue and cream onsen bus is gussied up to look like a locomotive pulling a train car. (If you zoom to street view on the Google Map of the station, you can often see the bus out front, next to the taxis.) It will take you to the onsen, leaving once an hour. You can see the schedule here. It’s in Japanese. From the station to the onsen is on the left side of the graph. The white column is weekdays.
Walking: Avid hikers may want to make an adventure of it by hiking from Mt. Mitake to Hinodeyama. From there, continue heading downhill and to the east, as if heading to the Hinatawada train station. Eventually you will cross a road with a small sign pointing you to the Tsuru Tsuru bathhouse. You’ll definitely want a trail map to try this. Kathleen Vactor, 2000, photo Michelle Nexon, May 2013
Spa at the Forest Inn Resort -see separate entry.