Visit the Best Onsen Towns in Central Japan
Located in the mountainous heart of Japan’s main island, Honshu, it is no surprise that Nagano lays claim to having one of the highest concentrations of hot springs in the country. Indeed, the broader region of Central Japan including Nagano, Niigata, Gunma, Gifu and Toyama are blessed with countless onsen including some of the most famous onsen towns in Japan.
Planning your visit to the region around onsen towns, whether as day-trips or places to stay, is an excellent way to get the most of your time here and in doing so, capture the true essence of Japan’s onsen culture.
It is worth noting that individual onsen – both guesthouses with hot springs for the exclusive use of guests and day-spas open to the public – are found throughout the region, including in Nagano City, and are by no means limited to the following towns. These however are some of the best:
Kanbabayashi Onsen, Nagano
Home to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, Kanbayashi has several ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses) using the same source of thermal water as the monkeys. But don’t worry, the water isn’t literally shared rather the water is piped from the source in the monkey park down to the guesthouses in the village.
On its way down it feeds into Korakukan (pictured above), the guesthouse at which the monkeys first learned the behaviour of bathing in an onsen. Still popular with the monkeys, this is the only guesthouse where you can bathe with them should it take their fancy.
For guests looking for something a little less wild, we recommend Hotel Senjukaku in Kanbayashi (pictured above & below).
Long popular with members of the Japanese Royal Family, the hotel’s pedigree is renowned, famous for its fantastic hot spring and ‘kaisekei’ (traditional multi-course) meal service.
Shibu Onsen, Nagano
Only 20 minutes walk from the monkey park, Shibu Onsen has a 1300 year history as place of healing. Blessed with numerous onsen sources, the town is home to almost 40 guesthouses with their own hot springs, including Kanaguya.
More than 250 years old, the hotel has multiple onsen sources and a traditional aesthetic which is claimed to have inspired the bathhouse featured in Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’.
Shibu Onsen also has 9 public onsen dotted throughout the quaint town. Though referred to as public, all but one bath is for the exclusive use of guests staying at any of the town’s many guesthouses.
Upon check-in, guests are given a key that opens all 9 bathhouses – each with its own distinctive water and claimed health properties – which form the ‘kyu-to-meguri’ or ‘nine bathhouse tour’.
For further information please refer to our ‘How to Get to Yudanaka & Shibu Onsen‘ page.
Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano
Another 15 minutes on foot from Shibu, Yudanaka Onsen is another convenient hot spring destination. Directly accessible from Nagano Station using the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) train line to Yudanaka Station, this is the gateway to the Jigokudani Monkey Park and Joshinetsu National Park including Shiga Kogen Ski Resort.
Although the town is somewhat rundown, it offers some good accommodation options with excellent hot springs.
Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma
Regularly listed as one of the most famous hot springs towns in Japan, Kusatsu Onsen is located 1200 meters above sea level on Mt Shirane – an active volcano. The water source, known as the ‘yubatake’ or ‘hot water field’ is an amazing sight from which the water feeds the towns guesthouses.
Naturally spilling-out between 51 to 95°C, the yubatake is essential in cooling the water to a temperature which can be used safely, a process aided by the tradition of ‘yumomi’ or ‘water beating’ by local women.
Manza Onsen, Gunma
Located in the mountains of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Manza Onsen and Kusatsu Onsen are two of the regions most distinctive hot spring towns. The highly sulfuric water of these towns carries a strong smell and stunning colours of bright blue, green and milky white.
The sulphuric gas emanating from Manza is said to counteract ailments including bronchitis while the milky water protects against heart disease and skin ailments. Somewhat off the beaten track and small, Manza lives in shadow of its famous neighbour but for that reason, holds its own appeal and character.
Yamada Onsen, Nagano
Sitting in the foothills of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park and edge of the beautiful Matsukawa Valley, Yamada Onsen is a quiet and quaint hot spring town with some excellent accommodation options. While pleasant, the town itself is too small to entertain you for long and is best used as a base from which to access nearby Yamaboku Wild Snow Park in winter and explore the stunning valley, including its famous cherry blossom trees in spring and colourful leaves in autumn, and its many secluded onsen including a rare mixed gender onsen – called Shofu-so – nearby the town.
When staying in Yamada Onsen, we recommend Fujiiso. Known of its stylish blend of Japanese and Western design and outstanding meal service. The hotel’s elegant design is reflected in its equally stylish timber and granite hot springs, with both indoor and outdoor pools to enjoy.
Known for its medicinal and healing properties, the water of Yamada Onsen has been drawing visitors to the town for almost 200 years.
Nozawa Onsen, Nagano
As the main village at one of Nagano’s most popular ski resort, Nozawa Onsen is now mostly known as a winter destination. However like nearby Shibu Onsen, Nozawa has a long drawn people seeking healing and solace in its abundant thermal water for around 1300 years.
The town’s 13 public onsen are indeed public and free to use by anyone visiting Nozawa. Readily accessible from Tokyo – take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Iiyama Station and from there, it’s a 15 to 20 bus ride to the village – Nozawa is an ideal onsen getaway any time of year.
For further information, please refer to our ‘How to Get to Nozawa Onsen‘ page.
Hotaka Onsen-kyo, Nagano
Only a short drive from Ogisawa Station and the iconic Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, Hotaka Onsen-kyo is a small hot spring town with many ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses). Most guesthouses have their own hot springs for the exclusive use of guests.
Foot spas are also found in town for use by anyone who happens to be strolling past. Overall, this is a quiet and pleasant little town with the largest concentration of accommodation on the Nagano-side of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route – a great place to base yourself when heading high above to the ‘Roof of Japan’.
Bessho Onsen, Nagano
With a history stretching back 1400 years, Bessho Onsen lays claim to being the oldest hot spring town in Nagano. During the Kamakura Period (12th-14th century), Bessho was an important administrative, educational, and religious centre and today this day retains several interesting temples including Anrakuji – the oldest Zen temple in the region.
The town’s sulphuric water feeds many ryokan and 6 public baths and foot spas. Easily accessible from Ueda – which is connected to Nagano and Tokyo by the Hokuriku Shinkansen – Bessho Onsen is one of the most well-known hot spring towns in Central Japan.
Hirugami Onsen, Nagano
Sitting at the southern tip of Nagano Prefecture, Hirugami Onsen is only 1.5 hours from Nagoya and approximately 3 hours from Tokyo. Whereas other hot springs towns in Nagano such as Shibu Onsen and Nozawa Onsen are renowned for their age, Hirugami is remarkable for its relative infancy. Only discovered in 1973, the town’s onsen water is highly alkaline (9.6pH) and beneficial for the skin which is left smooth and moisturized after soaking in the pools. Often referred to ‘bijin-no-yu’ or ‘onsen of beautiful ladies’, the town’s water draws visitors from all over Japan for its beauty and anti-ageing properties.
Shirahone Onsen, Nagano
Lying nearby the popular destinations of Mount Norikura and Kamikochi, Shirahone Onsen is a small hot spring enclave deep within the Chubu Sangaku National Park. The area is home to a number of guesthouses and public baths, known for the naturally milky-white water.
Rich in magnesium and calcium, these waters are said to relieve gastrointestinal ailments or at the very least, are excellent for soaking and relaxing after a long day of walking on Norikura.
Okuhida Onsen, Gifu
Ideally located between the stunning alpine valley of Kamikochi and the historic town of Takayama, the region often referred to as Okuhida Onsen is actually made-up of five onsen towns: Hirayu-Onsen, Shin-Hirayu Onsen, Shin-Hotaka Onsen, Fukuji Onsen and Tochio Onsen.
Of those towns, Hirayu Onsen is the closest to Kamikochi and offers an excellent range of accommodation options. Said to have been discovered in the mid-16th century, it is a picturesque town nestled high in the North Japan Alps. The other towns making-up the Okuhida Onsen area are spaced-out and equally beautiful in their setting and relaxation stemming from the natural surroundings.
Gero Onsen, Gifu
Another historically referenced and thus popular hot spring town, Gero Onsen is regularly listed as one of Japan’s best. The town centre is highly developed and has lost much of its traditional feel however walking a little distance along the river or into the forested hills reveals a very different atmosphere and some outstanding ryokan.
Gero Onsen is another town with highly alkaline water which benefits the skin and is said to slow ageing. Only 1.5 hours from Nagoya and 1 hour from Takayama, Gero Onsen is hugely popular.
Minakami Onsen, Gunma
Along with Kusatsu Onsen, Ikaho Onsen and Shima Onsen (described below), Minakami Onsen is considered one of Gunma’s four best hot spring towns. Accommodation ranges from large hotels to family-run ryokan, catering to all tastes and needs. Most accommodation reserve their hot springs for the exclusive use of guests however, much like Kusatsu, some do allow use by day-visitors for between JPY500 to JPY1500.
Another quaint town set amongst a beautiful natural setting, visitors to Minakami will quickly feel refreshed and relieved to be away the hustle and hassle of daily life.
Shima Onsen, Gunma
Believed to be one of the oldest hot spring towns in Japan, Shima Onsen is blessed with more than forty water courses and is home to many excellent ryokan. Nestled in a beautiful valley, visitors can enjoy a tranquil getaway in this quaint, traditional town.
Spread along the Shima River Valley, it’s a pleasant town to explore on-foot before retiring to your guesthouse for dinner and evening hot spring.
Ikaho Onsen, Gunma
Another great hot spring town, Ikaho Onsen is located on Mt. Haruna and is known for its iron-rich waters.
Home to many guesthouses and onsen, Ikaho is known for its 300-metre long stone path leading through the town.
Unazuki Onsen, Toyama
Situated at the entrance of the beautiful Kurobe Gorge, Unazuki Onsen is the largest hot spring town in Toyama Prefecture. Home to many guesthouses including traditional ‘ryokan’ and large hotels, the hot springs of Unazuki Onsen are known for the clarity of their water, known to aid healthy and vibrant skin.
Located close the coast, the guesthouses of Unazuki Onsen are also known for the quality of their seafood and with a local craft beer brewery nearby, this is a great place to stay when wanting to enjoy the best of Toyama.
Kaga Onsen, Ishikawa
Located to the south-west of Kanazawa, Kaga Onsen consists of four hot spring towns – Yamashiro, Yamanaka, Amazu and Katayamazu. Said to have been discovered 1300 years by monks on pilgrimage to nearby Mount Haku, Kaga Onsen is one of Central Japan’s most popular hot spring areas. Each town has many ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses), most of which have their own in-house hot spring, and a central ‘soyu’ (public bath).
The entire Kaga Onsen area is quite spread out however a convenient shuttle bus service called ‘Canbus’ connects each of the onsen towns, costing JPY1000 for a 1-day pass or JPY1200 for a 2-day pass.
Kaga Onsen can be easily reached from Kanazawa Station using a local train to Kaga Onsen Station – 50 min / JPY770 – or take the Thunderbird from Kanazawa to Komatsu Station and switch onto the Hokuriku Line (local line, not the shinkansen) and head to Kaga Onsen Station. From there, visitors can use the Canbus to reach their desired hot spring town.
Finally… a convenient option in Nagano City
In addition to these towns, Central Japan is home to many, many onsen – we recommend you try as many as you can! Many visitors travel to and from the region via Nagano City, using the Hokuriku Shinkansen to reach Nagano Station from Tokyo. While Nagano City is not known as an onsen town, it has one very good natural onsen worth visiting.
Located approximately 20 to 25 minutes walk from Nagano Station, or less than 10 minutes using their shuttle bus or private taxi, Uruoikan is the only natural onsen in the city. Offering a range of large indoor baths, called ‘uchiyu’, and spacious outdoor bath, called ‘rotenburo’, Uruoikan is a great option for anyone looking to enjoy an onsen while in Nagano City.
Want to visit any of these destinations on a private charter or tour? Feel free to contact us at email@example.com and let’s get planning together!