July 31, 2018

South Hokkaido for Cherry Blossoms

I visited Hokkaido again in Spring 2018 (Golden Week), this time for cherry blossoms.

Chasing Sakura in Hokkaido is not easy, as the locations are rather spread out (which means long traveling time), and it can be quite cold (around 10 degrees celsius) even though it is already May!

Thankfully most of the top cherry blossom spots in Hokkaido are located at the southern part of the prefecture and not too inaccessible, so I could visit them using JR nationwide pass since I do not know how to drive.

1 of the 2 places in Hokkaido which made it to the "Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots in Japan" is Matsumae Park(松前公園), a former castle town located at the southernmost tip of Hokkaido.

From Kikonai(木古内)station on the Hokkaido Shinkansen (bullet train) line, transfer to a bus heading for Matsumae(松前). Journey takes around 90 minutes, departures are quite infrequent. It is advisable to get a map at the tourist information counter before boarding the bus, in order to have a better idea of how to go around the park later.

Matsumae Castle within the park is the only feudal castle in Hokkaido, built by the Matsumae clan in 1854 and rebuilt in 1959 after being burned down by fire. The view from the top floor of the castle keep is especially impressive. (refer to 1st photo)

Matsumae Park is covered by 10,000 cherry trees (250 varieties), with most of them being the uncommon Naden(南殿). There are many other rare varieties here, such as the 200-year-old Kechimyaku Sakura 血脈桜 (bloodline cherry) . Due to the large variety of Sakura trees, this place has a long blooming season from late April to late May.

There is also Matsumaehan Yashiki(松前藩屋敷)at the western edge of the park. It is a small open-air museum that recreates Matsumae town in the Edo Period. I spent nearly 4 hours covering the whole park including the museum, which was barely sufficient. 

On another day, I went to Hakodate(函館)for cherry blossoms. Also located in south Hokkaido, it is famous for Goryokaku Park(五稜郭公園), which used to be a fort during the Edo Period. It has 1600 cherry trees, mostly being the Somei Yoshino(染井吉野)variety.

Many domestic and foreign tourists visit Hakodate during the Golden Week to enjoy the spectacular view of the star-shaped fort covered by Sakura from Goryokaku Tower.

I also went to Hakodate Park by tram, a simple park which offers cherry blossom with sea views. 

The other place in Hokkaido which is ranked as "Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots in Japan" is Shizunai Nijukken Road Cherry Blossoms(二十間道路桜並木), with 7 km stretch of mainly Oyamazakura (Sargent cherry) trees lining both sides of the road. However this place is best accessed by car, and traffic jams are common when the flowers are in full bloom.

Although the most common type of cherry tree in Japan is Somei Yoshino, Oyamazakura with darker pink blossoms is more prevalent in Hokkaido.

Other notable cherry blossom viewing spots in Hokkaido include:
-Noboribetsu Onsen Flower Tunnel (Noboribetsu)
-Maruyama Park, Moerenuma Park, Makomanai Park and Nakajima Park (Sapporo)
-Asahikawa Park (Asahikawa)

June 02, 2018

Tips for Using the JR Pass

The JR nationwide pass is a very cost effective transport pass for foreigners to travel around Japan, especially for those making multiple/long trips on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Below are some tips for travelers who already plan to get JR pass for their Japan trip.

1. Where best to exchange for the JR pass

The JR pass has to be purchased outside of Japan. However, what you are given is not the pass itself, but an exchange order for you to exchange for the pass upon reaching Japan.

(From now until March 2019, it is possible to buy the pass itself at designated stations in Japan at a higher price.)

The major airports have ticket offices to do the exchange, however queues can be quite long and opening hours are limited. For those who do not need to use it on the first day, or arrive in Japan too early/late, the exchange can be done at other train stations which are also convenient. In fact, some of them have much longer opening hours than ticket offices at the airport/Tokyo station etc.

2. Whether to make seat reservations or not

Seat reservation using the JR pass is free of charge. It is advisable to collate a list of all the Shinkansen and Limited Express train journeys for the entire trip, and make the seat reservations at one go, to save the trouble of queuing at the ticket offices multiple times. 

Train timings can be obtained in advance using the Hyperdia website. (JR pass holders can take Hayabusa, but not Nozomi and Mizuho.) Although there are non-reserved carriages on most trains, such that you can simply arrive at the platform earlier to queue for boarding, reservation is still recommended for the reasons below:

-Some trains DO NOT have free-seating carriages (not indicated by Hyperdia at the moment), such as Narita Express and most of the Hokuriku/Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen. You will still be able to board the train without seat reservation, but seats cannot be guaranteed.
-Some trains split up in the middle of the journey and head towards different directions, such as the Tohoku Shinkansen. By making seat reservations, you can be sure that you are in the right carriage.
-Travel during peak periods such as Golden Week, Obon etc. During such periods, it is difficult to get a seat especially if you do not board at the starting station.
-Travel in big group or with elderly. Please do not expect others to give up their seats for you, whatever the reason may be. They paid/made the effort to reserve a seat, which is as expensive as an airplane ticket.

Although there is no penalty for no-show, please try to stick to the scheduled time. In the event that you miss the train, you can still board the next train etc., just that you will need to make seat reservations again. Please cancel the original seat reservation as early as possible, so that JR can sell/allocate the seat to others.

3. How to make seat reservations

Currently, it is usually not possible to make seat reservations at the same time when exchanging for the pass, due to the long queue waiting for pass exchange. You will have to queue again at another counter/ticket office nearby.

When making seat reservations, the best way is to list the date, departing station and time, arrival station and time, for every Shinkansen and Limited Express journey during the trip. Best in Kanji, if not English is good enough. Example:

日付      出発        到着
4月27日  東京(16:33)       新大阪(19:26)
4月28日      新大阪(16:08)  博多(18:41)

Date     Departure                  Arrival
4/27     Tokyo (16:33)            Shin-Osaka (19:26)
4/28     Shin-Osaka (16:08)   Hakata (18:41)

For journeys that require transfer, list them separately so the officer knows which connection you prefer to take.

For those who are taking Shinkansen under JR East such as Hokuriku/Tohoku/Hokkaido, it is possible to reserve seats online before arriving in Japan. (Refer here for more information). However, ticket collection has to be done at JR East stations.

4. What if all seats have been reserved

Sometimes all seats in the reserved(指定席)carriages may have been taken if you try to reserve seats too late. Go for another timing if your schedule allows. If not, check if the Shinkansen has non-reserved(自由席)carriages. If it does, chance of getting a seat is very high if you board at the starting station (Tokyo/Shin-Osaka etc.) and queue at the platform (in front of the non-reserved carriages) about 20 minutes before departure.

If the Shinkansen you are boarding do not have non-reserved carriages, you will be issued a standing ticket in a particular carriage. Often, there will be empty seats due to no-show, and it is okay to take them. However, the seat may be reserved by someone who is coming on board later, so please keep a look out and give up the seat to the rightful owner if there is.

5. Use a transparent B5 holder

This is simply my personal recommendation from the many times of using JR passes. As the pass is made of paper, inserting it into a transparent B5 holder can protect it from rain. There is no need to take it out when showing to train officers. You can also keep all the seat reservation tickets, maps etc. in it. Be careful not to lose your JR pass as it will not be reissued.

6. Find out in advance the timing for the last Shinkansen for the day and avoid aiming for it

The last Shinkansen for the day that JR pass holders can take can actually be quite early (7+pm) for long journeys. If you were to miss that train for one reason or another, you may not be able to return to your hotel. Worse still if it is the last day of your pass because you will have to pay for the Shinkansen trip to go back the next day, on top of the extra hotel stay.

Also, although the Shinkansen is almost always on time, the Local/Limited Express train that connects to it may be late due to reasons like maintenance and rail suicides. I have encountered such situations a few times, thankfully not for the last Shinkansen for the day.

Last but not least, some train etiquette to take note:

-Queue up when boarding, regardless of whether seat has been reserved. 
-Let others alight before boarding. 
-Do not chat loudly in the train.
-Avoid eating food with strong smell.
-Do not dirty the seats or leave litter behind.
-When alighting, please get ready and be in line BEFORE the train arrives at the station. 

Most of the tips above are also applicable to the regional train passes. Hope they make using the JR pass easier and everyone enjoys the Shinkansen as much as I do :)

April 15, 2018

Popular hot spring towns near Fukuoka

Fukuoka(福岡)is located at the tip of Kyushu island(九州), which is known for volcanoes and hot springs. Majority of the most popular hot spring towns on Kyushu are easily accessible from Fukuoka, the main transportation hub.

On the northern part of Kyushu, the more well-known hot spring towns would be Beppu, Yufuin and Kurokawa Onsen. For hot spring enthusiasts, it is possible to cover all 3 of them in 3D2N or 3D3N comfortably, as they are quite near and well-connected to one another. It would definitely not be a waste of time as the vibe and experience are very different. (More information on recommended route below)

For those who do not intend to spend so much time on onsen, you may want to choose 1 or 2 places depending on interest. If you like artsy vibes and cafes (think Otaru and Karuizawa), Yufuin will be a good bet. For traditional hot spring (ie Kusatsu Onsen and Kinosaki Onsen) experience, Kurokawa Onsen will be an ideal choice. Beppu has more sights to see and more types of baths to try.

1. Beppu(別府)

Beppu in Oita prefecture(大分県)adjacent to Fukuoka prefecture has 8 hot springs, altogether producing the most amount of hot spring water compared to other hot spring towns in Japan. It is known for the Hells of Beppu "Jigoku 地獄" (8 special hot springs for viewing, 7 of which are covered by the combination ticket). They can be covered on foot, after taking a 15-minute bus ride from Beppu station.

Hot spring lovers will also be pleased to know that there are several public bath houses here that offer the more uncommon types of baths, such as sand baths, mud baths and steam baths.

Famous ones include Kannawa Onsen Resort's steam bath (mushi-yu), where you lie down on medicinal herbs in a stone chamber filled with onsen steam, and Takegawara Hot Spring's sand bath which has been around for more than a century!

A trip to Beppu is often combined with Yufuin nearby, another popular hot spring town in the region. Usuki(臼杵), known for stone Buddhas which have been designated as national treasures, is also popular with visitors to the vicinity, especially domestic tourists. It also has a preserved samurai district.

Access from Fukuoka:

1. JR limited express train from Hakata station in Fukuoka to Beppu station (2 hours)
2. Nishitetsu bus from Hakata/Tenjin station to Beppu Kitahama bus stop (2.5 hours)

2. Yufuin(湯布院)

Yufuin is an attractive hot spring town with small boutiques, cafes and art museums lining both sides of the street (approximately 1.5 km) directly in front of the train station. The vibe is somewhat like Karuizawa(軽井沢)in Nagano and Otaru(小樽)in Hokkaido. Especially for those who like zakka 雑貨 (lifestyle goods) and confectioneries such as fresh cream roll cakes, you are in for a treat~ Some of the cakes are so popular they are sold out by noon!

As for hot springs, there are several ryokan 旅館 (Japanese inns) scattered across the area, away from the main street. Some of them are opened to non-staying guests. There is only one public bath facility visitors can use called Shitanyu(下ん湯), located at the end of the main street where Lake Kinrinko(金鱗湖)is.

For those who want to experience Yufuin's hot spring, staying 1 night is recommended due to the lack of public baths, and that most of the ryokan with notable onsen facility are quite a distance from the main street. Some of them provide pick-up service from the station for staying guests, if not they should be accessible by taxi or rental car within 10 to 15 minutes from the station. For non-staying visitors, rental bicycles can be considered too.

A trip to Yufuin is often combined with Beppu in the same prefecture.

Access from Beppu:

1. Kamenoi Bus from Beppu station (50 minutes)
2. Kyusanko Kyushu Odan Bus from Beppu station (1 hour, low frequency)
3. JR train from Beppu station via Oita station (80 minutes)

Access from Fukuoka:
1. Bus from Hakata station/Tenjin bus center/Fukuoka airport (2 hours)
2. Train from Hakata station, currently only via the Kokura + Oita route (3 hours) (Passes through Beppu)

3. Kurokawa Onsen(黒川温泉)

Kurokawa Onsen, located in Kumamoto prefecture(熊本県)in the middle of Kyushu, is a traditional hot spring town similar to Kusatsu Onsen(草津温泉)and Kinosaki Onsen(城崎温泉). It has a compact town centre dotted with public bath houses, shops, cafes and ryokan.

There are 2 public bath houses, however those belonging to ryokan are larger and have rotenburo 露天風呂 (outdoor baths). Many ryokan guests stroll around the town in yukata (Japanese summer kimono provided by the ryokan) and enjoy "onsen-hopping" among ryokans opened to non-staying guests. Visit to 1 bath costs 500+ yen and a pass for 3 baths over a 6 month period can be purchased for 1300 yen.

Access from Fukuoka:
1. Highway bus from Fukuoka to Kurokawa Onsen (2.5 hours)

Note: Kurokawa Onsen does not have a train station. JR pass holders may want to save money by taking JR train from Hakata station to Hita station, then transfer to the bus above. (75 + 70 minutes)

Kurokawa Onsen can also be accessed by Kyusanko Kyushu Odan Bus from Beppu (2.5 hours), Yufuin (1.5 hours), Aso (50 minutes) and Kumamoto (3 hours). However frequency for this bus is low.

3D2N Itinerary for Beppu + Yufuin + Kurokawa Onsen:

For those who are using public transport and thinking of going to all 3 hot springs, here's one route you may consider:

Day 1:

Morning: Take the JR train/highway bus (depending on transportation pass used, reservation required for bus) from Hakata station to Beppu station (2 hours)

Afternoon: Beppu's Hells (2 to 3 hours, can take bus) + Public Sand/Steam Bath (1 to 2 hours)

Evening: Travel to Yufuin by Kamenoi bus (1 bus per hour, latest around 6 pm) (1 hour)

Night: Stay in a ryokan in Yufuin.

Day 2: 

Morning: Walk around Yufuin.

Afternoon: Take the bus to Kurokawa Onsen (Kyushu Odan Bus at 2.50 pm, reservation required) (1.5 hours)

Evening: Walk around Kurokawa Onsen's town center.

Night: Stay in a ryokan in Kurokawa Onsen.

Day 3:

Morning: More onsen at Kurokawa Onsen.

Then take the bus to Aso (Kyushu Odan Bus at around 10+ am, reservation required) (1 hour)

And the trip continues. Either spend time in Aso or head straight to Kumamoto.

I followed this itinerary when I visited the region, pace was comfortable for me. Personally, I feel that Beppu is worth visiting because of the attractions, but Yufuin is the one I'd want to return next time :)

For traveling around the region, Kyushu Rail Pass is recommended for those taking trains often, while Sun Q Pass covers almost all buses (inclusive of highway buses) in Kyushu. For those going to Kurokawa Onsen which is not on the rail road, you may want to consider getting the Sun Q Pass and maximise it by taking bus instead of train for the longer journeys such as from Hakata to Beppu. For just the above itinerary, getting the 3D pass for Northern Kyushu (7000 yen if purchased outside of Japan) would be worthwhile for those heading straight to Kumamoto from Kurokawa Onsen.

4. Ibusuki Onsen(指宿温泉)

Ibusuki is in Kagoshima prefecture(鹿児島県)at the southern end of Kyushu, most famous for its sand baths. One of the most popular/larger facilities is Saraku Sand Bath Hall(砂むし会館砂楽)which many ryokan/hotel in the area partner with. Guests change into yukata provided and get buried under naturally heated sand, followed by the usual hot spring bath after showering.

Sand bath can also be experienced in other parts of Kyushu such as in Beppu, hence it would only make sense for visitors to Kyushu to come here if they are covering Southern Kyushu. Of course, Southern Kyushu has many places worth visiting too, such as Chiran Tokko Museum(知覧特攻平和会館)on kamikaze pilots, Senganen Garden(仙厳園)and Yakushima island(屋久島)in Kagoshima prefecture, to name a few.

Access from Fukuoka:
JR shinkansen to Kagoshima-chuo station, then transfer to JR local train to Ibusuki station (3 hours)

For more information on what else to do in the same prefecture:
Beppu/Yufuin: Oita Prefecture
Kurokawa Onsen: Kumamoto Prefecture
Ibusuki Onsen: Kagoshima Prefecture

First post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Tokyo.
Second post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Osaka.

January 23, 2018

Popular hot spring towns near Osaka

This second post of the onsen (hot spring) series will be on onsen towns in the Kansai region~

1. Kinosaki Onsen(城崎温泉)

Kinosaki Onsen is located at the northern end of Hyogo prefecture(兵庫県), which is not exactly near Osaka/Kobe city, but many visitors to the Kansai region still make their way there for the fun of going around the traditional hot spring town in yukata (summer kimono) and trying the various public baths. The town is also picturesque with willow trees lining both sides of a river.

Most visitors stay here for one night, not simply due to the rather long journey from the city, but also because the ryokan (Japanese inns) here offer delectable local specialties such as crab (seasonal) and Tajima beef. Moreover, most ryokan provide passes to visit the 7 public baths for free. For those who do not stay here for the night, the pass would cost 1200 yen.

As Kinosaki Onsen is located on the coast of the Sea of Japan, visitors can consider combining the trip with other attractions at this end of Honshu, such as Tottori's sand dunes on the left, and Kyoto's Amanohashidate 天橋立 (1 of the 3 best views of Japan which also has hot spring facilities) on the right, instead of making separate trips from the city. Both are about 2-hour train journey away from Kinosaki Onsen. Ine(伊根), known for its boat houses, can also be accessed by a 1-hour bus ride from Amanohashidate.

Another attraction is Takeda Castle(竹田城跡)aka Japan's Machu Picchu, which is on the way to/from Osaka.

Access from Osaka/Kyoto:

1. JR limited express train from Osaka/Shin-Osaka/Kyoto station (2.5 hours)
2. Zentan bus from Osaka (3 hours, low frequency)

The train journey is covered by JR pass (nationwide) and JR West Kansai Wide Area Pass.

2. Arima Onsen(有馬温泉)

Arima Onsen is probably the most accessible hot spring town from Osaka/Kobe city. It is 1 of the 3 oldest hot springs in Japan (日本三古湯), frequently visited by Japan's second great unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century.

Arima Onsen is well-known for its brown-colored Kinsen 金泉 (gold water) and clear Ginsen 銀泉 (silver water). The former has iron deposits believed to be good for the skin and muscle aches, while the latter has radium and carbonate for relieving muscle and joint pains.

Due to its accessibility and compact size, many visitors come here as a day trip. Several onsen ryokan are opened to non-staying visitors. There are also 2 public baths, one with Kinsen and the other with Ginsen.

One of the most famous/popular facilities is Taiko no Yu(太閤の湯), which I have been to twice. It has over 20 types of baths (both Kinsen and Ginsen), massage services and restaurant. Admission fee is slightly pricey at around 2500 yen, but discount packages are often launched with the Kobe subway, reducing total cost of traveling here for hot spring. Discounted admission tickets are also available at discount ticket shops in Kobe.

Many visitors to Arima Onsen also combine the trip with Mount Rokko, the highest peak in the mountain range near Kobe city. It has a few small attractions such as music box museum, botanical garden, pasture with flowers & sheep, and art exhibits in autumn. It is also one of the places to see Kobe's night view, known as 1 of the top 3 in Japan.

Access from Osaka:

Hankyu/JR bus from Hankyu Umeda/JR Osaka station (1 hour), via Shin-Osaka station (50 minutes)

Access from Kobe:

1. Subway from Sannomiya/Shin-Kobe station to Tanigami station, transfer to Shintetsu Arima-Sanda Line and alight at Arima-guchi station, transfer again to Arima Line and alight at Arima Onsen station (40 minutes)
2. Hankyu/Shinki bus from Sannomiya station (50 minutes), via Shin-Kobe station (35 minutes)
3. JR bus from Shin-Kobe station (50 minutes), via Sannomiya station (30 minutes)

Access from top of Mount Rokko:

Bus from top station of Rokko Cablecar to top station of Rokko Arima Ropeway (10 minutes), take the ropeway to Arima Onsen (12 minutes)

The "Rokko Arima Katamichi Joshaken"(六甲有馬片道乗車券)ticket consists of one-way ride on the cablecar and ropeway, plus unlimited bus rides on Mount Rokko.

For Taiko no Yu, shuttle bus services are provided from Arima Onsen station and Ropeway Arima Onsen station.

3. Shirahama Onsen(白浜温泉)

Shirahama Onsen located at the southern end of Wakayama prefecture(和歌山県), south of Osaka, is also 1 of the 3 oldest hot springs in Japan. Many ryokan dot the coastline and offer baths with panoramic sea view, similar to Atami Onsen(熱海温泉)at the other side of Japan.

Another draw of Shirahama Onsen is the many attractions in the vicinity, sufficient for 2D1N at least. It is especially suitable for families with young children, because of the amusement parks and zoo such as Energy Land and Adventure World. There are also rock formations and public baths, including Sakinoyu, an outdoor hot spring right on the shore!

Nanki Shirahama Toretore Market sells fresh seafood and local specialties. Most of the attractions in Shirahama can be accessed by a bus that runs from Shirahama station.

If these are still insufficient, take the train southwards to Kumano Kodo(熊野古道), pilgrimage routes designated as UNESCO heritage site. Enjoy hiking through the forests to the 3 sacred shrines (Kumano Sanzan), with nice views of waterfall, valleys and mountains on the way.

Access from Osaka:

JR limited express train from Shin-Osaka station (2.5 hours)

4. Awaji Island(淡路島)

Awaji island at the south of Kobe, is the largest of the Seto Inland Sea islands. This laid-back island is home to a few hot springs such as Sumoto Onsen(洲本温泉), Minami Awaji Onsen(南あわじ温泉)and Iwaya Onsen(岩屋温泉).

Attractions on/near the island include famous architect Tadao Ando's Yumebutai Gardens(淡路夢舞台), Naruto whirlpools, monkey center, parks with seasonal flowers (daffodils, sunflowers, rape blossom, tulips etc.) and activities such as horse-riding and blueberry picking. Food is also something to look forward to, as Awaji island is known for high-quality onions, dairy products, beef and seafood.

The island can be accessed by ferry or bus from the mainland, though the most convenient way to explore the attractions on the island is by car.

Access by ferry:

Akashi Port (near JR Akashi station in Hyogo prefecture) to Iwaya on Awaji island (13 minutes)

Access by bus:

From bus terminal at JR Maiko station in Hyogo prefecture (14 minutes to about 1 hour, depending on alighting point)

There are also buses that run from JR Osaka, Shin-Kobe and Sannomiya stations, but the frequency is lower and journey is much longer than taking the train to Maiko station and transferring to the bus.

Other notable hot springs in Kansai include:

Yumura Onsen(湯村温泉):

Traditional hot spring town located higher up in the Hyogo prefecture. It is slightly less accessible compared to Kinosaki Onsen, requiring a bus transfer from the nearest train station. Direct buses (3 hours) from Osaka and Kobe are also available.

Kasumi Onsen(香住温泉):

Situated along the Sea of Japan in Hyogo prefecture, near Kinosaki Onsen. Known for delicious crabs, food offered by ryokan in the vicinity is as sumptuous as those in Kinosaki Onsen. There is nothing much to do in this tranquil seaside town, but the beautiful sea views (especially during sunset) pretty much made up for it.

Kurama Onsen(鞍馬温泉):

For those who can only afford a day-trip from Kyoto city, the most viable option would be Kurama Onsen, a ryokan in a rural town in the northern mountains of Kyoto city. It has an attractive rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) offering greenery/snow views depending on season. Other than onsen, visitors can also take the cable car up to Kurama-dera (temple) for mountain views.

Arashiyama Onsen(嵐山温泉):

Unknown to most people, the scenic Arashiyama region is also a place to enjoy hot spring. There are a few ryokan offering natural hot spring baths, though most of their accommodation plans are rather pricey.

For more information on what else to do in the same prefecture:

Arima Onsen/Kinosaki Onsen/Awaji Island/Yumura Onsen/Kasumi Onsen: Hyogo Prefecture
Shirahama Onsen: Wakayama Prefecture
Kurama Onsen/Arashiyama Onsen: Kyoto Prefecture

First post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Tokyo.
Third post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Fukuoka.

September 10, 2017

Popular hot spring towns near Tokyo

Being an onsen (hot spring) fanatic, I always add an onsen town to my itinerary every time I visit Japan, regardless of the season. I enjoy exploring what each onsen town has to offer, learn about their differences and list down those I like most.

However, from what I gather from friends around me, choosing which onsen to go can be a little daunting, especially for first-time visitors to Japan. Most people are keen to visit one that is not so far from the city they are flying to, but do not know what are the options, or even if they do, not sure which would be more suitable for them. So instead of just listing all the famous onsen towns, I will be grouping and comparing the more popular/famous ones based on their access from the main cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka etc.)

I will not be going into too much detail about the onsen quality, since most of us will only be there for a day or two, so there wouldn't be much health benefits.

In this first post of the onsen series, I will focus on onsen towns near Tokyo~

1. Kusatsu Onsen(草津温泉)

Kusatsu is arguably the most famous hot spring town in Gunma prefecture 群馬県 (northwest of Tokyo), often topping nationwide onsen rankings. It has the largest flow of hot spring water in Japan, and the quality of the water is also known to be good.

Kusatsu has the vibe of a traditional hot spring town, with shops surrounding Yubatake(湯畑), one of the town's main sources of hot spring water, also the symbol of Kusatsu. It is common for visitors to walk around the town in yukata (summer kimono provided by the Japanese inn) and enjoy soaking in the public baths. Visitors can also go to Netsunoyu Bath House to watch Yumomi performances, a traditional way of cooling down hot spring water by using long wooden paddles, and even try it themselves!

1D1N is sufficient for Kusatsu as it is a rather small onsen town. Book a night's stay in one of the Japanese inns there, then move on to Karuizawa(軽井沢)by bus, where there are plenty of things to do such as outlet mall shopping, art museum and cafe-hopping. Nature lovers can also check out separately Mount Shirane's(白根山)baby blue Yugama crater lake by bus from Kusatsu bus terminal. From Karuizawa, there is direct Shinkansen train back to Tokyo in 2 hours.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Direct bus from Shinjuku in Tokyo (4 hours)
2. Limited Express train from Ueno station in Tokyo to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station + bus (3 hours)
3. Shinkansen train from Ueno/Tokyo station to Takasaki station + local train to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station + bus (3 hours)

Many of the JR East passes cover the train journeys above, some inclusive of Karuizawa.

Other hot springs in the region include Manza(万座温泉), Shima(四万温泉), Ikaho(伊香保温泉)and Minakami(水上温泉).

2. Kinugawa Onsen(鬼怒川温泉)

On their east, and also to the north of Tokyo, is Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi prefecture(栃木県). This onsen town did not leave a deep impression on me, but for visitors to Nikko(日光)who want to experience onsen in the same trip, it is a highly convenient option.

Sightseeing places include Nikko Edomura (theme park about feudal Japan), Tobu World Square (world landmarks in mini size) and Grand Maze (large-scale maze). There are also more remote hot springs such as Okukinu Onsen(奥鬼怒温泉)for those who prefer to go off the beaten path.

Kinugawa Onsen can be a one-night stopover after visiting Nikko (known for its grand temples and shrines), or 1N1D inclusive of the attractions listed above.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Tobu Railways' Rapid train from Tobu Asakusa station to Kinugawa Onsen station (140 minutes) Note that the train decouples and go separate ways at Shimo-Imaichi station, so make sure to be in the correct car.
2. Tobu Railways' Limited Express train from Tobu Asakusa station to Kinugawa Onsen station (2 hours)
3. JR Limited Express train from Shinjuku station to Kinugawa Onsen station (2 hours, low frequency)

Options 1 & 2 are covered by some Tobu Railway passes. Most JR East passes cover the whole journey for Option 3, but not the Japan Rail Pass (nationwide pass) as part of the tracks are owned by Tobu Railways.

3. Hakone Onsen(箱根温泉)

There are also several onsen options to the west of Tokyo. The nearest would be Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa prefecture(神奈川県).

There are MANY activities to do in Hakone, and much effort for planning is necessary, as the attractions are accessed by different modes of transportation, such as ropeway, bus, train and ship.

Notable places include:

-Owakudani(大涌谷): crater of Mount Hakone that emits sulfurous fumes, known for "black" egg and views of the top half of Mount Fuji when weather is good
-Hakone Glass no Mori: Venetian glass theme park
-Kowakien Yunessun: hot spring amusement park with coffee, green tea, red wine etc. mixed in the tubs
-Gora Park (botanical garden)
-Art museums
-Odawara castle, on the way from Tokyo to Hakone
-Gotemba premium outlet mall, accessible by bus from Hakone

I do not think it is possible/necessary to cover everything in one trip. Day onsen packages are available but visitors to Hakone should at least stay a night there.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Odakyu Railway from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Hakone-Yumoto station (85 minutes for Limited Express train, 2 hours for Express train)
2. JR train (Shinkansen or Rapid/Local train depending on the type of JR pass you have) from Tokyo to Odawara station + Odakyu Railway or bus to Hakone-Yumoto station
3. Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus from Shinjuku to Lake Ashi area in Hakone (2 hours)

Purchasing the 2D or 3D Hakone Free Pass by Odakyu Railway which covers the different modes of transportation in Hakone is advisable for Option 1. There is also a cheaper version of the pass for visitors who opt for Option 2, starting and ending the trip at Odawara station.

4. Lake Kawaguchiko(河口湖)

Further west, there is Kawaguchiko (Yamanashi prefecture) and Atami (Shizuoka prefecture). The former is at the north of Mount Fuji while the latter is at the south. Kawaguchiko, the most developed/accessible of Fuji Five Lakes, is not exactly a hot spring town, but it has many Japanese inns with onsen facilities. Spring would be a good time to come here because there are several places to appreciate cherry blossoms + Mount Fuji up close (depending on weather) + lake view together.

The area is also packed with attractions. 2D1N is feasible, but for visitors who want to cover the area more comprehensively, especially those combining attractions around nearby Lake Saiko(西湖), 3D2N is highly recommended.

Notable attractions in the vicinity include:

-*Kubota Museum: museum featuring kimono artist Kubota Itchiku's works
-*Kachi Kachi Ropeway: offer nice view of Mount Fuji and lake
-*Music Forest: small theme park about music box
-*Herb Hall, Gem Museum
-*Iyashi no Sato: open air museum and traditional craft village with weeping cherry blossoms in spring
-*Bat Cave, Ice Cave, Wind Cave
-Fuji Shibazakura Festival: famous for its pink moss with Mount Fuji in the backdrop in May
-Fuji Q Highland: amusement park famous for crazy roller coasters
-Oshino Hakkai: small village with traditional houses and ponds fed by snow melt
-Chureito Pagoda: famous for its pagoda + Mount Fuji + cherry blossom view

*Accessible by Retro (loop) buses that run from Kawaguchiko station. 2-day pass (unlimited rides) is available.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Bus from Shinjuku or Shibuya station (2 hours)
2. Bus from Tokyo station (low frequency)
3. JR train from Shinjuku station to Otsuki station + Fujikyu Railway train to Kawaguchiko station (around 2.5 hours)

There are also several special passes available depending on place of interest, such as Fuji Hakone Pass which also covers Hakone, Fujigoko Enjoy Ticket which combines round-trip bus from Tokyo and retro buses, Fuji Q Highland Plans for those who intent to go to the amusement park and Fujisan Fujigoko Passport which provides unlimited rides on retro buses and Fujikko bus that connects Lake Yamanakako.

5. Atami Onsen(熱海温泉)

Atami, often listed on nationwide onsen rankings, is a seaside resort town with many hotels/Japanese inns with onsen facilities. It does not offer many activities to do (art museum, Atami castle museum, old shopping arcades). However, many onsen facilities here provide panoramic views of the sea, and on one day a month (more days in summer), fireworks shows lasting for approximately 30 minutes are held. During such weekends, there is a need to book accommodations early due to limited lodgings in the area (especially for those on a budget). In the case that you are too late, fret not, many hotels/Japanese inns provide day packages for their onsen facilities. Enjoy sightseeing and onsen in the day, fireworks at around 8+ pm, then head back to Tokyo or stay in a nearby city in the same prefecture such as Numazu and Shimizu.

Access from Tokyo:
1. JR Tokaido Shinkansen (45 minutes)
2. JR Tokaido Rapid/Local train (2 hours)

JR East passes only cover Option 2 but not Option 1. For visitors without Japan Rail Pass (nationwide pass) and still want to go by Option 1, purchasing tickets from discount ticket shops will provide around 10-20% savings.

More information about these onsen towns and what else to do in the same prefecture:
1. Kusatsu Onsen: Gunma Prefecture
2. Kinugawa Onsen: Tochigi Prefecture
3. Hakone Yumoto Onsen: Kanagawa Prefecture
4. Lake Kawaguchiko: Yamanashi Prefecture
5. Atami Onsen: Shizuoka Prefecture

Second post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns Near Osaka.
Third post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns Near Fukuoka.