20 Best Onsen Towns in Nagano & Central Japan
Japan is blessed with countless natural hot springs and many historic ‘onsen’ towns, some of which have drawn visitors to them for more than one thousand years. You can find onsen in all areas of the country with some of the very best located in our home region of Nagano and Central Japan. On this page you will find the following information:
As stated below, we have not ranked our suggestion of the twenty best towns in terms of which is best as different towns will appeal to different travellers. We have simply tried to include our favourites with a description of each, where they are located and links to accommodation listings. One of the most enjoyable aspects of life in Japan, we strongly recommend you make time to visit at least while hot spring town while here.
BEST ONSEN TOWNS IN NAGANO & CENTRAL JAPAN
The following list includes our recommendation of the best onsen towns in our home region of Nagano and Central Japan. It is not intended as a ranked order starting with the best but instead, provides information about the towns that stand-out to us starting with Kanbayashi Onsen, where you will also find the Jigokudani Monkey Park. On the list you will find the following towns:
Kanbayashi Onsen, Nagano — Shibu Onsen, Nagano — Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano — Nozawa Onsen, Nagano — Akakura Onsen, Niigata — Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma — Manza Onsen, Gunma — Minakami Onsen, Gunma — Shima Onsen, Gunma — Ikaho Onsen, Gunma — Hotaka Onsen-kyo, Nagano — Bessho Onsen, Nagano — Hirugami Onsen, Nagano — Shirahone Onsen, Nagano — Okuhida Onsen, Gifu — Gero Onsen, Gifu — Unazuki Onsen, Toyama — Kaga Onsen, Ishikawa — Yuzawa Onsen, Niigata — Hakone Onsen, Kanagawa
We have attempted to place the towns in a logical order based around their proximity to each other but at times, the sequence jumps between regions. To help you navigate your way to each town, we have therefore also include a map and links to help you find your way to the necessary information. With that said, let’s get into our recommendations of the best onsen towns in the region:
1 / KANBAYASHI 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, 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. For full accommodation listings, see our ‘Kanbayashi Onsen Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what to do once there, see our ’25 Things to Do Around the Jigokundai Monkey Park & Where to Stay’ page.
2 / SHIBU ONSEN, NAGANO
Only 30 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 nine 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 accommodation listings, see our ‘Shibu Onsen Area’ hotel page.
3 / 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Yudanaka Onsen Area’ hotel page.
4 / NOZAWA ONSEN, NAGANO
As the main village of Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort – 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 accommodation listings, see our ‘Nozawa Onsen Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what’s on offer once there, see our ’25 Things to Do Around Nozawa Onsen & Where to Stay’ page.
5 / AKAKURA ONSEN, NIIGATA
Connected to the joint ski resorts of Akakura Onsen and Akakura Kanko, the hot spring town of Akakura Onsen is considered the main village of the Myoko Kogen ski resorts, and as such, is at its most popular in winter. The town itself is showing its age and doesn’t have the charm of Nozawa Onsen, but for visitors wanting to enjoy some of the deepest powder in Japan, Akakura Onsen entices you to visit with the allure of some great onsen and great snow. The nearby resorts of Sugniohara and Ikenotaira also have their share of onsen dotted around the base areas. Outside of winter, staying in Akakura Onsen is a good option for anyone wanting to hike Mount Myoko and explore Myoko-Togakushi Renzan National Park. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Myoko Kogen: Akakura Onsen Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what to do while there, see our ’25 Things to Do Around Myoko Kogen & Where to Stay’ page.
6 / 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Kusatsu Onsen Area’ hotel page and suggestions of why you should visit, see our ’25 Things to Do Around Kusatsu Onsen & Where to Stay’ page.
7 / 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Manza Onsen Area’ hotel page.
8 / MINAKAMI ONSEN, GUNMA
Along with Kusatsu Onsen, Shima Onsen and Ikaho Onsen, 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Minakami Onsen Area’ hotel page.
9 / 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Shima Onsen Area’ hotel page.
10 / IKAHO ONSEN, GUNMA
Another great hot spring town, Ikaho Onsen is located on Mount 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. Either side of the street, traditional guesthouses, shops, restaurants and old-fashioned games parlours create a quaint atmosphere typical of an old hot spring town. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Ikaho Onsen Area’ hotel page.
11 / HOTAKA ONSEN-KYO, NAGANO
Only a short drive from Ogizawa Station and the iconic Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, Hotaka Onsen-kyo is a small hot spring town with many ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses) located in the quiet rural enclave of Azumino. 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’. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Hotaka Onsen-kyo Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what’s on offer nearby, see our ’20 Things to Do in Azumino & Where to Stay’ page.
12 / 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.
13 / 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.
14 / SHIRAHONE ONSEN, NAGANO
Lying nearby Mount Norikura – a popular summer hiking destination – 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Shirahone Onsen Area’ hotel page.
15 / OKUHIDA ONSEN, GIFU
Ideally located between the beautiful alpine valley of Kamikochi and historic 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. For acommodation listings, see our ‘Okuhida Onsen Area’ page and ‘Hirayu Onsen Area’ page.
16 / 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Gero Onsen Area’ hotel page.
17 / 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. In addition to its renowned water, Unazuki Onsen is the nearest accomodation area to the beautiful Kurobe Gorge and its famous scenic railway. 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Unazuki Onsen / Kurobe Gorge Area’ hotel page and what’s on offer in the area, see our ’25 Things to Do Around Toyama & Where to Stay’ page.
18 / 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. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Kaga Onsen Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what to do while in the area, see our ’25 Things to Do Around Kanazawa & Where to Stay’ page.
19 / YUZAWA ONSEN, NIIGATA
Yuzawa is one of Japan’s best-known hot spring towns thanks to the famous novel ‘Yukiguni’ (Snow Country), by Nobel Prize-winning author Kawabata Yasunari. Located on the boundary of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Yuzawa provides access to some fantastic hiking in summer and multiple nearby ski resorts in winter. Quick and easy to reach from Tokyo using the Joetsu Shinkansen, Yuzawa offers visitors a large range for accommodation options including large hotels and high-end, smaller guesthouses. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Yuzawa Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what do to when there, see our ’15 Things to Do Around Yuzawa & Where to Stay’ page.
20 / HAKONE ONSEN, KANAGAWA
Another of Japan’s most famous hot spring towns, Hakone Onsen is easily accessible from Tokyo. Set amongst the beautiful landscape of the national park and often enjoying outstanding views of Mount Fuji, the numerous onsen of the region have long been visited by those seeking beauty and relaxation. Hakone-Yumoto Station is the gateway to the area Hakone and boasts a large range of accommodation and dining options. There are numerous hotels and ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses) in the area, catering to all tastes and budgets. A short distance from the station, Tonosawa is a riverside area with multiple large hotels and traditional guesthouses offering a sense of seclusion away from the main area of town. Popular at all times of year, Hakone is at its most spectacular in late-October to November as the area is awash with beautiful autumn leaves. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Hakone Onsen: Hakone-Yumoto Station Area’ hotel page and for suggestions of what’s on offer once you’re there, see our ’10 Things to Do in Hakone & Where to Stay’ page.
RECOMMENDED ONSEN IN NAGANO CITY
Visitors staying in Nagano City and looking for a natural hot spring within the city itself should head to Uruiokan. Located within walking distance of Nagano Station and positioned next to the Susobana River, Uruoikan is the only 100% natural onsen in the city offering visitors a choice of indoor and outdoor public baths, private onsen, restaurant and aesthetic treatments including massages, facials, steam treatments, and more! As is standard, the onsen is segregated by gender. Two outdoor onsen – called ‘Shiroiwa-no-Yu’ and ‘Ryusen-no-Yu’ – have different facilities attached to them and are rotated for use, allowing men and women to enjoy them on different days of the week.
It’s important to note that Uruoikan has a strict policy of no tattoos therefore if you are inked, you will need to cover your tattoos with bandages to enter the onsen. If you aren’t willing to do that or your tattoos are too large to cover, you won’t be able to use the public baths. If you prefer a little privacy or you if you have a tattoo that cannot be covered up by the tattoo seal, you have the option of booking Uruoikan’s private onsen. Use of the private indoor onsen for 60 minutes costs JPY1500 and is available from 10:30 and 23:00. To avoid being disappointed, it’s a good idea to have your accommodation to call ahead and book it for you.
Uruoikan is open daily from 06:00 to 09:00 and again from 10:00 and 23:00. From Nagano Station, you can reach Uruoikan on-foot in around 25-minutes or alternatively, a free shuttle bus also operates from in front of Hotel Metropolitan every morning at 10:05, 11:05 and 12:05 along with afternoons at 15:05, 16:05, 17:05, 18:05 and 19:05. A taxi from the station to Uruoikan takes approximately 7-minutes and will cost around JPY1500 one-way.
‘ONSEN’ IN JAPAN: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
Japan boasts more than 25,000 hot springs and over 3000 designated ‘onsen’ areas making it something of a must-do activity when visiting this beautiful country. Our ‘Onsen in Japan’ main page has everything you need to know starting with the important question of what qualifies as an ‘onsen’, how to identify one, onsen etiquette, where to find some great ones and more! One of the most enjoyable aspects of life in Japan, we recommend trying it for yourself – you’ll probably fall in love with it!
BOOK AN ONSEN GUESTHOUSE IN NAGANO
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are the region’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator. As a registered travel agent, we can arrange accommodation at the best onsen guesthouses in Nagano and Central Japan while also offering a full suite of services including tours, transport, ski packages and more! Our ‘Book an Onsen Guesthouse in Nagano’ page is a great place to start when choosing where to stay once you’re here. We hope to see you soon in Nagano!