Home TravelAsia Onsen experience in Japan: relax at a traditional ryokan with hot spring

Onsen experience in Japan: relax at a traditional ryokan with hot spring

by Flitter Fever
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There is so much to see in Japan, for sure you will walk for miles and miles, running around from one beautiful temple to another gorgeous shrine. Traveling is exciting but can also be exhausting. Japanese Inns (ryokan) have been offering hot spring (onsen) as part of their service since the eight century A.D. A very relaxed cultural experience that will make you sleep like a baby. Sounds good, right? It is. I love it and would highly recommend it! Read all about onsen in this article.

Ryokan Nanaeyae in Nikko with autumn colors
Ryokan Nanaeyae in Nikko with autumn colors

Onsen near Snow Monkey Park

The owner of the ryokan, a short Japanese man in his late 60s, is already waiting for me when I step out of the local train in Yudanaka. By email he offered to pick me up from Yudanaka Station. Sure, why not? After a long flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo and another four hours by train via Nagano, I am totally up for a good dose of Japanese friendliness. I have got the van all to myself. Mr. drops me off at the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park and we agree what time he will pick me up again.  

Monkey enjoying the hot water at Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park Japan
Monkey enjoying the hot water at Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park Japan
Scratch my butt oh yeah Snow Monkey Park Japan
Oh yeah there is that spot! Scratch!!

The owner is waiting for me at the parking lot of the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park at the agreed time and he drives us back to Yudanaka. I barely notice that we have arrived at the ryokan; I cannot read the signs and it looks like a relatively normal traditional Japanese house to me. It looks old but at least it fits with the other buildings in the street. But it is a special place; built during the Edo Period, ryokan Yudanaka Yumoto is the oldest Japanese-style inn in the Yudanaka area.

Yudanaka Yumoto entrance
Yudanaka Yumoto entrance
Reception room at Yudanaka Yumoto ryokan japan
Reception room at Yudanaka Yumoto

First steps into a ryokan

Stepping inside, the row of shoes on the shelf speaks for itself. I take my hiking boots off and put a pair of house slippers on. Two ladies, assuming the owner’s wife and daughter, bow deeply once they see me. The wife gestures to follow her and so I do. We walk through several tatami-matted rooms, past Shoji paper and wood room dividers and sliding doors, and I notice the big Japanese style garden outside.

Hall way of ryokan with room dividers of paper and wood at Yudanaka Yumoto Japan
Hall way of ryokan with room dividers of paper and wood at Yudanaka Yumoto (booking.com)
Western style room at Yudanaka Yumoto
Western style room at Yudanaka Yumoto (booking.com)

The lady of the house shows me my room, which is divided into two parts. One part is the tatami area with two Japanese zaizu chairs on the ground and a low salon table. The other space includes two Western style beds. Not bad at all!

Room dividers open at Yudanaka Yumoto  Japan ryokan
Room dividers open at Yudanaka Yumoto (booking.com)
Having a cup of tea in my tatami room at Yudanaka Yumoto
Having a cup of tea in my tatami room at Yudanaka Yumoto

Kaiseki dinner

My stomach is growling. 18:00h, dinner time!! The lady of the house shows me the dinner room. One by one various little dishes are being served. A traditional Kaiseki multi-course meal, featuring regional specialties made from fresh seasonal ingredients. Tasty sashimi, sushi, shrimp, beef, tempura (fried vegetables), green tea ice cream and many other, unfamiliar ingredients and flavors are put in front of me. I try them all. Wow, I lost counting, but I am convinced I had at least ten different dishes, one even prettier than the other.

Salmon sushi at Yudanaka Yumoto
Salmon sushi at Yudanaka Yumoto
Kaiseki multi-course dinner at Yudanaka Yumoto
Kaiseki multi-course dinner at Yudanaka Yumoto

Due to the lack of carbs, never an after dinner dip in Japan!

Onsen first-timer

Walking back to my room, I notice it got dark outside already. Determined to get my first onsen experience, I put on my yukata (robe) and head to the onsen inside the house. I run into a red flag with a Japanese sign on it, no idea what it says, but I decide to enter and luckily I find a changing room. I take the yukata off, rinse myself clean and step into one of the indoor baths. Very nice and warm!

Indoor onsen space at Yudanaka Yumoto
Indoor onsen space at Yudanaka Yumoto
Bathing in the onsen outdoor bath at night
Bathing in the onsen outdoor bath at night

After a while I step into the garden to go into the other outdoor bath. My muscles relax in the warm water. Time to think about my life.

Here I am in Japan, all by myself, watching the night sky. Soaking in serenity.

That night I slept like a baby, all rosy. Good night!

Tatami area with two zaizu chairs and low salon table at Yudanaka Yumoto ryokan with onsen Japan
Tatami area with two zaizu chairs and low salon table at Yudanaka Yumoto
Showing off my pretty yukata on tatami mat and paper room dividers
Showing off my pretty yukata in my Japanese room

Want to experience this traditional ryokan with onsen yourself? Go for it!

Ryokan Yudanaka Yumoto

  • Yudanaka, Nagano Prefecture
  • Twin room ¥ 8700 per night (app. EUR 64)
  • Breakfast ¥ 1080, diner ¥ 4500
  • Including pick up and drop off from/to train station and Snow Monkey Park

Onsen near Nakasendo trail

Long story short: I wanted to walk this Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago, an old post route between two villages from Edo time (17-19th Century) I wrote about in an earlier article. Based on my prior accommodation search I knew that especially Tsumago must be beautiful as all ancient ryokans with onsen were already sold out more than four months ahead. Alternatively, there are Magome and Nagiso. The three villages are all part of the Kiso Valley, which is on the border of two prefectures: Magome in Gifu Prefecture and Tsumago and Nagiso in Nagano Prefecture (Azuma area).

At the beginning of the trail I luckily run into this super nice couple from Israel, who offer to store my luggage in their car in Magome, walk the trail together and drop me off at my hotel. Well, done and done, then! Eventually it turned out the friendly couple is staying at the same place! My angels in disguise.

Deserted main street of Tusmago late afternoon
Tsumago
My angels in disguise from Israel that I met in Magome
My angels in disguise from Israel that I met in Magome

Nagiso onsen

In Nagiso there are two places you should consider staying, located opposite of each other:

Tokonamiso ryokan Japan Magome Tsumago
Tokonamiso front
Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori from the outside
Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori from the outside

I check in with Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori, the more luxurious big bother of the two. I booked at room at Tokonamiso, the budget baby brother across the street. When I open the door, I already notice the shelves with rows of shoes. I know what to do! So as if I have never done anything else, I take my shoes off and put on the wooden house slippers that are already waiting for me. An older man walks up to me and bows deeply. He gestures to follow him to my room.

The door opens, an empty space. The man starts talking in Japanese to me, I have no clue what he says so all I can do is politely smile. By now he is bowing so deeply right in front of me, it starts to feel slightly embarrassing! I have never experienced anything like it. Once the man is out of sight, I wander the closets, where I find a bunch of futons, duvets and a yukata. Good!

Bento box dinner at Hotel Fuki no Mori in Nagiso near Tsumago
Bento box dinner at Hotel Fuki no Mori in Nagiso near Tsumago
Dried fish for dinner at Hotel Fuki no Mori Japan
Dried fish for dinner at Hotel Fuki no Mori

Bathing time

After my bento box meal at the restaurant of Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori, I decide it is bathing time. My muscles are soar from the trail. So here we go; I put on my yukata, wooden slippers, special toe-socks and walk across the street to the onsen. Again I run into flags with Japanese signs on it, but now I understand the blue flag is for the men and the red flag is for the ladies. At this onsen, the side where the men and the side where the women have to go (left or right) switches every 12 hours so everybody can enjoy the best if both worlds. 

Flags at the entrance of the onsen of Fuki no Mori (left = blue = men, right = red = ladies)
Entrance of Fuki no Mori onsen (blue = men, red = ladies)
Indoor onsen bath at Hotel Fuki no Mori Japan
Indoor onsen bath at Hotel Fuki no Mori Japan

This Fuki no Mori onsen is significantly bigger than the one I visited near the Snow Monkey Park. While soaking in the outdoor bath, looking up to the stars above, I chat a bit with this nice lady, a doctor from Sweden who is visiting Japan with her family. Now this is what I love about traveling solo. Running into interesting people you have never met before, realizing I am proud of myself doing all of this on my own and enjoying the silence in between.

Bathing in a warm onsen bath is great for soar muscles
Bathing in a warm onsen bath is great for soar muscles
Outdoor onsen bath right side Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori
Outdoor onsen bath right side Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori

Bathe, sleep, repeat

Again, I sleep like a baby that night, right on top of my big pile of futons. Like the Japanese version of the Princess and the Pea LOL The next morning I went again to the onsen, to see it also by day light.

Walking the beautiful Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago? Reward yourself with an onsen bath after the hike!

Tokonamiso

  • Nagiso, Nagano Prefecture
  • Traditional Japanese room with shared bathroom starting from ¥ 7000 per night for single (app. EUR 60) or ¥ 12,000 for double (app. EUR 100)
  • Including use of onsen at sister hotel across the street
  • Free shuttle service to/from Tsumago village and Nagiso train station

Japanese style room at Tokonamiso in Nagiso, Kiso Valley

Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori

  • Japanese and Western style rooms with private bathroom starting at EUR 178 per night (¥21,000)
  • Breakfast ¥ 2000, basic diner option ¥ 3000 per person
  • Onsen open daily 08:00h – 23:00h
  • Free shuttle service to/from Tsumago village and Nagiso train station

PS: These accommodations seem to submit their availability a bit late, around 3-6 months ahead.

Onsen with a view at Hotel Fuki no Mori
Onsen with a view at Hotel Fuki no Mori (photo credits booking.com)
Outdoor onsen bath of Hotel Fuki no Mori during day time
Outdoor onsen bath of Hotel Fuki no Mori during day time (photo credits booking.com)

Other ryokans with onsen

As you may have noticed I wrote many other articles about Japan, this is actually Japan article #11! In earlier articles I have mentioned a bunch of other recommendations for ryokans and hotels with onsen throughout Japan, such as:

  1. Fuji Onsenji Yumedono in Kawaguchiko next to Mount Fuji
  2. Ryokan Iwaso on Miyajima Island (near Hiroshima)
  3. Nikko Senhime Monogatari in Nikko
  4. Ryokan Nanaeyae in Nikko
  5. Kanaya Hotel Kinugawa in Nikko
  6. Ryokan Sugimoto in Matsumoto
  7. Takayama Ouan in Takayama
  8. Oyado Koto No Yume in Takayama
  9. Ryokan Shiroyamakan in Shirakawa
Ladies bathing at Takayama Ouan Japan
Ladies bathing at Takayama Ouan
Outdoor onsen bath at Kanaya Hotel Kinugawa in Nikko Japan
Outdoor onsen bath at Kanaya Hotel Kinugawa in Nikko

These ryokans with onsens are also very suitable for autumn and winter time! Several are near a ski slope too, like Fuki no Mori.

Onsen Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: What is a ryokan?

A:Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that are still in use, some are centuries old. Nowadays ryokans range from simple, pretty basic ryokans to fancy, luxurious ryokans, located all over Japan. Staying at a ryokan is usually a bit more expensive than a regular hotel room, but definitely worth the extra money. You will get a very special experience in return. The rooms in a ryokan are decorated in a minimalistic, typical Japanese style. Ryokans are often run by families, who are extremely polite towards their guests. Most ryokans offer food as well.

Q: What is a futon?

A: A futon is the Japanese traditional style of bedding, consisting of a thin mattress and a duvet. Both are usually stored away in a large closet during the day, so that the room can be used for other purposes. Traditionally, futons are used on tatami mat, which softens harder flooring types like wood and stone.

Q: Is swimwear allowed at an onsen?

A: No, you should undress completely before entering the onsen bathing space (unless signs tell otherwise). Who knows there is one, but traditionally it is not allowed and Japan likes its traditions.

Q: Where can I find an onsen in Tokyo?

A: Ryokan are difficult to find in Tokyo and other large cities because many are usually much more expensive compared to modern hotels and hostels. Traditional ryokan are more commonly found in rural areas (villages). Take a train out of the city and explore! Read more about ryokans in/near Kyoto.

A: What is the difference between private and public onsen?

A; Public onsen means also non-hotel guests are welcome. A private onsen is for hotel guests only. Public onsen are usually bigger and busier, not rarely offering additional things like sauna and steam room. Private does not necessarily mean you have the bath all to yourself. The onsen of Yudanaka Yumoto and Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori should be considered private onsen.

Q: Do I get slippers from the ryokan or should I bring my own?

A: Slippers can seem a bit of a challenge at ryokans. The slippers are provided, made of plastic, fabric or wood. There are different slippers for indoors, outdoors and the toilet. It takes some effort to move around a ryokan wearing the right slippers. But you will manage, no worries!

Japanese toilet slippers
Japanese toilet slippers
Wooden slippers and special toe socks at Hotel Fuki no Mori, Nagiso
Wooden slippers and special toe socks at Hotel Fuki no Mori, Nagiso

Q: Can I enjoy the onsen together with my wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc.?

A: Often men and women are separated in different areas of the onsen, with different entrances. You may want to check in advance. If not mentioned, assume the standard rule; men and women are not mixed together.

Q: Are dinners served at ryokans?

A: Yes, and those are the most fantastic, authentic, traditional Japanese means I ever had! Highly recommendable, there is nothing like it. Not necessarily the cheapest option, and you might not like one or two dishes, but you get a very special experience, excellent service and many beautiful courses in return. Try before you die! Contact the ryokan in advance to ask about the price and availability of dinner options, book in advance. At Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori the extensive (and pretty pricey) dinner menu is only available for direct hotel guests. Guests of the neighboring Tokonamiso are welcome for a more basic, bento box dinner (upon request). Expect mainly cold dishes like sea food, some rice, veggies, etc. all served beautifully in little containers or on little plates.

Dinner room for Hotel Fuki no Mori guests
Dinner room for Hotel Fuki no Mori guests (booking.com)
Traditional Kaiseki multi-course meal at Hotel Fuki no Mori
Traditional Kaiseki meal at Hotel Fuki no Mori (booking.com)

Q: I have tattoos. Can I enter an onsen?

A: You may have heard about the fact that in Japan, people with tattoos are seen as members of the Japanese mafia called Yakuza. Try to cover up. I have a small tattoo on my back and brought nude colored tape to Japan; just in case I had to cover it, but eventually I did not have to use it. The onsen of Yudanaka Yumoto near the Snow Monkey Park is pretty small and felt very private, no problems with tattoos there at all. The onsen of Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori in Nagiso is bigger yet mainly visited by hotel guests, who are mostly foreign; no problems with tattoos there either. However, if your body is full of tattoos, it may result in at least some looks, possibly comments or in worst case scenario access prohibition. Hard to tell in advance but something to keep in mind.

Once upon a time…

The first time I started to think about Japan as an interesting holiday destination was about 15 years ago. While traveling back and forward between our internships in Amsterdam and our hometown Alkmaar, a friend told me about his experiences while studying abroad in Japan for a year. I strongly remember this story about his host family bathing every night.

First the father went into the bath, then the mother, followed by the oldest son, etc. One by one after each other, in the same bath water! At that time it sounded like a strange yet fascinating story to me, from a faraway country I was hoping to visit one day. Now, having been in Japan myself, I can put this more into perspective. That was home-based, traditional Japanese onsen culture. 

Going to Japan? I wrote 13 other, detailed articles about it full of tips! Check all my Japan articles in the Japan Blog Archives.

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Wooden sign to onsen Japan
Wooden sign to onsen

I hope this article was helpful for you. Have you ever been to an onsen? Or would you like to? Is there a similar bathing/wellness culture in your country? Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.

Last Updated on 09/07/2020 by Flitter Fever

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2 comments

Leslie 09/07/2019 - 21:52

This sounds magical! Japan is one of the top must-see countries on my list. I’d love to go long enough to see Tokyo, see the mountains, and see the beaches. Sounds like for the mountain portion of my dream voyage, I should try a ryokan. Japan is such a small country, with so much to see and to do!

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Flitter Fever 09/09/2019 - 22:17

Great plan Lesie! There is definitely a lot to do/see in Japan! Just looking at the pictures already makes me want to go back. I would not say Japan is a particular small country though. Not sure where you are from? And yes, the trains run fast in Japan, but would not underestimate the distances/size. Happy travels! Kind regards, Elisa from Flitter Fever travel blog

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