One of the best ways to enjoy hot springs in Japan is to spend a day in an onsen town. There are a lot of picturesque and famous hot spring towns all over Japan, but today I want to introduce you to the hidden gems: 10 extremely beautiful but small onsen towns.
I’m pretty sure that you have never heard of most of these towns before. In contrast to other more famous hot spring resorts, you will be able to enjoy an authentic onsen experience in a less touristy and more serene environment.
As usual, I tried to come up with a nice mix of small onsen towns suitable for all kinds of travel plans in Japan.
Small Onsen Towns in Japan
Nyuto Onsen Kyo (Hachimantai)
Location: Nyuto Onsen, Near Morioka, Akita Prefecture
General Information: Nyuto Onsen Kyo (乳頭温泉郷) isn’t only the onsen town with the quirkiest name ever, but also one of the most traditional, rustic and picturesque hot spring resorts you will find in Japan. One of my Japanese students loves this onsen town so much that she stopped visiting any other hot spring resort. Nyuto Onsen is located in the mountains of Towada Hachimantai National Park just above Japan’s deepest caldera lake Tazawako.
Onsen Hopping: This onsen is a collection of 7 onsen ryokan that are also available to non-staying guests. One caveat though, most of the beautiful outdoor baths here are mixed gender baths, so nothing for the shy. Ogama Onsen and Magoroku Onsen are your best options if you are looking for gender-separated baths. But my personal recommendation is Taenoyu Onsen, because of the waterfall.
If you are staying at one of the ryokans you can get Nyuto Onsen’s Yu Meguri Pass for 1,800円 (about $18 or 18€). With this pass, you can try out all of the 7 onsens and soak in all the health and beauty benefits.
Access: From the nearest station, Tazawako Station (JR), take a bus and get off at your preferred onsen. The bus ride takes about 1 hour. From Tokyo, the whole trip will take about 4 hours, while from Morioka, Akita, and Sendai you can get there in about 2 hours.
Website: www.nyuto-onsenkyo.jp (Japanese, but external English page available)
Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto)
Location: Kurokawa Onsen, Near Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture
General Information: Kurokawa Onsen (黒川温泉) is a cute and charming hot spring village in the middle of Kyushu near Mt. Aso. It was already popular in the middle of the Edo period and in contrast to a lot of other well-known hot spring resorts, it kept its traditional atmosphere. No concrete onsen hotels, just authentic onsen ryokan, wooden bridges, stone stairs, and nature. Since only a few of the onsens are a longer walk away, you can easily explore the onsen town on foot.
Onsen Hopping: The best way to enjoy Kuruokawa is to get a Nyuto Tegata (Onsen Hopping Pass). It costs 1,300円 (about $13 or 13€) and enables you to try out 3 different onsens. In total Kurokawa has about 25 different onsen ryokans with beautiful outdoor baths. Most of them are gender-separated, but a few are also mixed.
Access: The nearest station is Aso Station (JR). From Aso, it is a 1-hour bus ride to the onsen town. Day trips to Kurokawa Onsen are possible from Kumamoto, the famous hot spring towns Beppu and Yufuin, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, and many other cities in Kyushu.
Yunomine Onsen (Wakayama)
Location: Yunomine Onsen, Near Shirahama & Kumano, Wakayama Prefecture
General Information: Yunomine Onsen (湯の峰温泉) is a sweet little collection of onsen ryokans nestled deep in Wakayama’s sacred mountains. The onsen town lies about half-way along the ancient pilgrimage trail Kumano Kodo that connects the 3 Kumano shrines with Shirahama. Yunomine Onsen is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan and people say that over the course of a day its spring water changes its color 7 times.
About the Onsen: The onsen town features a couple of hot spring ryokans and one public bath. The fee for each bath varies but it is something between 300円 – 1,000円 (about $3 – $10 or 3€ – 10€). Here you can also bathe in the only hot spring that is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage. It is a private bath in a small stone called Tsuboyu. No reservations can be made. The tickets are sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. If you get a ticket you can bathe alone or with your partner/a friend for 30 minutes.
Access: Public access to the onsen town isn’t the easiest. Shingu Station (JR) in the south-east of Wakayama is the closest station. From there you will have to ride a bus for about 1 hour to Yunomine Onsen. On the west side of Wakayama, Kii-Shinjo Station (JR) is the closest. From there it is a 1.5-hour bus ride. I wouldn’t recommend it as a day trip but just as orientation: Osaka to Yunomine Onsen takes about 5 hours.
Oku-Nikko Yumoto Onsen (Near Tokyo)
Location: Yumoto Onsen, Near Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture
General Information: Oku-Nikko Yumoto Onsen (奥日光 湯元温泉) is another onsen town with a very long history. It became a hot spring resort more than a thousand years ago in 788. Yumoto Onsen is located deeper inside the Nikko National Park and right next to a lake called Lake Yunoko – the “Hot Water Lake. Another special feature of the town is the Yunodaira Marsh. You can walk across it and see the hot water bubbling right below your feet and the blanks. As the rest of the Nikko National Park, Yumoto Onsen town is a real nature paradise!
About the Onsen: The 23 onsens here are mostly ryokans with hot spring baths indoors and outdoors. You can stay overnight, of course, but a lot of them also welcome day visitors. The bathing fee ranges from 500円 – 1,000円 (about $5 – $10 or 5€ – 10€). A very unique onsen here is Nikkosan Hot Spring Temple. Yes, this is a temple with an onsen bath. Probably the only one in Japan.
Access: You can reach Yumoto Onsen via bus from central Nikko in about 80 minutes. From central Tokyo, the whole journey to the onsen town will take about 3 hours. For JR Pass holders the best way is to take the Shinkansen to Utsunomiya and then transfer to the JR Nikko Line.
Website: www.nikkoyumoto.com (Japanese)
Shibu Onsen (Near Nagano)
Location: Shibu Onsen, Yamanouchi, Nagano Prefecture
General Information: Shibu Onsen (渋温泉) is an old-fashioned hot spring town in the north of Nagano near Jigokudani Monkey Park – the place where you can see the wild monkeys soaking in a hot spring. The cobblestone streets are lined by traditional wooden ryokan, souvenir shops, shooting galleries, and restaurants. To fully enjoy the traditional atmosphere of this attractive 1,300-year-old onsen town, you should stroll around in your yukata robe and geta sandals.
Onsen Hopping: In this town, you will find 9 different onsens. The baths are extremely simple but their Onsen Meguri is kinda special. You can only try it if you stay for one night, though. It is called Kyu-to Meguri (Nine Onsen Baths Hopping Tour). Overnight guests get a special key from their ryokan that can open all of the gender-separated bathhouses. If you take a bath in all 9 onsens you will be blessed with good fortune, perpetual youth, and longevity. At least that’s what an ancient tale says. Doesn’t that feel like a quest right out of Final Fantasy or Zelda? Saddle my Chocobo and let’s go already!
One of the baths can also be visited as a non-staying guest. The entrance fee is 500円 (about $5 or 5€).
Access: The nearest station is Yudanaka Station from where it takes 30 minutes on foot or 7 minutes by bus. Take one of the buses bound for Kanbayashi and get off at “Shibu Onsen Iriguchi”. From Nagano, it will take about 1-hour to Shibu Onsen. From Tokyo, it will take about 2 – 3 hours by Nagano Shinkansen Bullet Train.
Tsuetate Onsen (Kumamoto)
Location: Tsuetate Onsen, Near Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture
General Information: Tsuetate Onsen (杖立温泉) is another onsen town with a nostalgic and quiet ambiance in Kumamoto Prefecture. It is located right next to a river about 1 hour further north of Kurokawa Onsen. The area around the hot spring is famous for its own culture, so distinctive that you might think you are in another country.
There are many mysterious legends and magical stories about the town’s hot springs and their benefits. Even the town name itself is short for “tsue o tateru” which means “leaving one’s cane behind” suggesting that after your soak you won’t need your walking stick anymore.
Onsen Hopping: Around 24 onsen baths and a free hot spring foot bath can be found in the small town. The onsens are insanely cheap. A lot of them just cost 200円 (about $2 or 2€). Even for family onsen and private onsen you only have to pay around 1,000円 (about $10 or 10€) and you can soak for up to 1 hour. Usually, you have to pay two or three times as much for just 45 minutes.
There is so much to write about this fairly unknown little hot spring town gem that I am going to write a separate post about it. Once it is done I’m going to link it here, so stay tuned.
Access: The nearest station is actually Hita Station, but maybe because of the earthquake in 2016 the route to the onsen is still damaged. So currently you can only access the onsen town via Aso Station (JR). It takes 90 minutes to the onsen town by bus. In total, it will take you about 3 hours from Kumamoto city. From Fukuoka (Hakata Station) it currently takes about 5 hours but usually only about 2 hours.
Oosawa Onsen (Near Sendai)
Location: Oosawa Onsen, Near Hiraizumi & Sendai, Iwate Prefecture
General Information: Oosawa Onsen (大沢温泉) is the smallest onsen town in this list. Located in the north of Morioka it is actually not too far from Nyuto Onsen town. Kitakami, famous for its 10,000 cherry blossom trees, and Hiraizumi’s temple, featuring a spectacular golden pavilion similar to Kinkakuji in Kyoto, are also just around the corner. In this small onsen town, there is nothing much to do besides soaking in its mildly alkaline hot springs.
About the Onsen: You will find 3 different onsen ryokans with 6 different onsen baths. All of them are located next to a river with lush green in summer, colorful autumn colors in autumn, and snow in winter. If you stay here overnight at one of the roughly 200-year-old ryokans you can stroll around the small picturesque hot spring town in your Yukata robe. The bathing fee for day visitors is 600円 (about $6 or 6€) or 1,000円 (about $10 or 10€)
Access: To get to the onsen town get off at Hanamaki Station (JR) and continue by bus. The bus ride takes about 25 minutes. From Tokyo, you can come here in about 4 hours if you travel by Shinkansen. Sendai is about 3 hours away and from Morioka it takes about 1 hour.
Kaga Onsen (Near Kanazawa & Kyoto)
Location: Kaga Onsen, Near Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture
General Information: Kaga Onsen (加賀温泉郷) is a collection of 4 smaller hot spring towns not far from Kanazawa city and Mount Hakusan, one of Japan’s Sacred Mountains: Awazu Onsen, Katayamazu Onsen, Yamashiro Onsen, and Yamanaka Onsen. All of them are nice and each onsen town has its own charm. Yamanaka Onsen has a pretty town center, for example, while in Katayamazu Onsen you can soak in hot spring baths next to a lake.
Onsen Hopping: You can easily visit and explore 2 or even 3 of the onsen towns. The admission fee for the different hot spring baths ranges from 500円 – 1,000円 (about $5 – $10 or 5€ – 10€). So I would choose the towns depending on your other interests: In Awazu Onsen you can see the oldest hotel in the world, in Katayamazu you have lake views, Yamanaka Onsen is in the mountains, and Yamashiro Onsen is also famous for pottery.
Access: The central station is Kagaonsen Station (JR). From there you can access all 4 onsen towns by public transportation in less than 1 hour. Katayamazu Onsen and Yamashiro Onsen are the closest to Kaga Station. Awazu Onsen is a bit closer to Kanazawa. To get to Kaga Onsen from Kanazawa take the JR Thunderbird towards Kyoto and Osaka or the JR Shirasagi towards Nagoya (about 30 minutes covered by the JR Pass). Kaga Onsen also makes for a nice day trip from Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya (2 – 3 hours).
Website: www.kaga410.com (Japanese)
Toyako Onsen (Hokkaido)
Location: Kurokawa Onsen, Near Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture
General Information: Toyako Onsen (洞爺湖温泉), also known as Lake Toya Hot Spring, is a hot spring town located in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park right next to the shores of Lake Toya. In comparison to the other onsen towns in my list, this one is definitely less charming. Instead of wooden ryokan inns, you will only find big luxury hotels.
However, the nature surrounding the hot spring town really makes up for it! Besides the lake, you can explore Japan’s youngest mountain Showa Shinzan. It is a volcanic lava dome that was created from 1943 – 1945 due to a series of earthquakes. Or you can follow the trails that lead through the abandoned part of the city that was destroyed during Mount Usu’s last eruption in 2000 up to its craters. Zombie apocalypse like Walking Dead feeling guaranteed!
About the Onsen: There are about 10 different onsen hotels and ryokan that welcome non-staying guests to their baths. Some of them feature an infinity pool with amazing views of Lake Toya. My recommendations are Toya Sun Palace Resort&Spa, The lake view Toya Nonokaze Resort, and Toya Kohan Tei. Bathing fee in the onsen town ranges between 500円 – 1,000円 (about $5 – $10 or 5€ – 10€).
Access: You can reach Toyako Onsen in about 15 minutes by bus from Toyako Station (JR). The train ride with the JR Super Hokuto is covered by the JR pass, but the bus ride isn’t. From Hakodate, Onuma, and Sapporo it will take about 2 hours to get to the onsen town. From nearby Noboribetsu, Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort, it takes less than 1 hour.
Wakura Onsen (Kumamoto)
Location: Wajima Onsen, Noto Peninsula Near Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture
General Information: Wakura Onsen (和倉温泉) is a town with beautiful onsen along the beach located on the Noto Peninsula north of Kanazawa. It is also referred to as the “Hot Spring of Healing” because of a legend that a white heron cured its leg in the waters of the spring. The small onsen town with a history of over 1,200 years has become so popular that even members of the Imperial Family often drop by for a visit.
About the Onsen: The best way to enjoy the hot spring baths in Wajima is to stay for one night at a hot spring inn. One of the town’s ryokans, Kagaya, is considered one of the best ryokans in Japan. But there are also some Japanese inns that you can enter as a non-staying guest. The average bathing fee is 500円 – 1,000円 (about $5 – $10 or 5€ – 10€). Wakaru Onsen Soyu, the public bath, and the free foot baths around the town are popular attractions, too.
Access: The nearest station is Wakuraonsen Station (JR) from where you can walk to the public bath and its beach onsen in less than 30 minutes. You could also rent a bicycle to explore the city. From Kanazawa, you can travel to Wakura Onsen in about 2 hours. The whole trip is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. However, only if you ride one of the 3 limited express train Thunderbird, Noto Kagaribi, or Hanayome Noren, and not the IR Ishikawa Railway Line.
Bonus: More Famous But Small Onsen Towns
I mostly focused on less famous small onsen towns, because I wanted to introduce you to new hot spring resorts. Kinosaki Onsen, Arima Onsen, Ginzan Onsen, Gero Onsen, and Dogo Onsen are also really beautiful small onsen towns, though. You will find more information about them in a future post about the most famous onsen towns in Japan.
Yugawara Onsen could also be an option for you if you are looking for a smaller hot spring resort near Tokyo. It is very close to the popular onsen resorts Hakone and Atami, but smaller. While the town isn’t so attractive the onsen baths look kinda nice.