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.


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