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Tohoku's Hinabita Onsen
The Tohoku region has some 650 onsen (thermal spas) that are mostly located or "hidden" in remote mountain villages. Traveling here (particularly in winter) is not always easy, but soaking in a relaxing onsen while you are surrounded by snow will remind you why it was worth the trouble to visit.
When you hear Japanese talk about Tohoku’s onsen, there is one word you cannot miss: hinabita. The word means rustic, redolent of a simpler past, and for many it's this simple charm that makes the onsen here so enjoyable. Tohoku’s hinabita onsen are a magnet for connoisseurs. To enjoy it fully, an overnight stay is recommended. Nearly all onsen have adjoining lodgings, and most will pick you up at a nearby train station or bus stop. Many ryokan in the region welcome not only visitors but also long-term guests, who stay for months for toji (therapeutic purposes). Toji has been practiced since the 17th century and is still popular, particularly among cancer patients as an alternative medicine.
How to Onsen
Sit on a small stool and scrub thoroughly with liquid soap from head to toe as if you haven’t bathed for years. This is no joke. Just as taking your shoes off at the door prevents dirt from coming into a house, bathing first helps keep the onsen clean. This isn't as much about meticulous hygiene (though the Japanese are known to be obsessive in that regard), but about keeping dirt and bacteria out of the onsen.
Sukayu Onsen. Milky, highly acidic water floods into the large cedar bathhouse known as a sennin-buro, a 1,000-person bath. Designated as a national health resort, Sukayu draws many tōji travelers to its curative waters. It has a reputation for the best mixed-bathing in the nation—yes, men and women wearing nothing but towels. If you are a woman who prefers otherwise, take advantage of the hours that are reserved for women; men, you'll just have to deal with female onlookers. The trip one hour from Oirase Gorge and 70 minutes from Aomori. From JR Aomori Station, take the bus bound for Towada-ko. From Oirase Gorge, take the bus bound for JR Aomori Station and get off at the Sukayu Onsen stop. O-aza Arakawa Yama, Aomori, 030-0111. 017/738–6400. www.sukayu.jp.
Hanamaki Onsenkyo. Among 14 onsen that collectively make up these gorges of hot water gushers, Osawa and Namari stand out for their quality and well-kept ryokans, offering comfort and long-cherished histories. Osawa is known as poet Miyazawa Kenji's favorite, and Namari is famous for Japan's 600-year-old deepest standing bath. Osawa is 40 minutes by bus from Iwate's Hanamaki Airport, Namari 50 minutes. From Morioka, Osawa is 70 minutes, Namari 80 minutes. Arrange for a shuttle from the bus station to your ryokan. Yuguchi Aza Osawa 181, Hanamaki, Iwate-ken, 025-0244. 0198/25–2021 Ōsawa Onsen; 0198/25–2311 Namari Onsen Fujisan Ryokan. www.kanko-hanamaki.ne.jp/en/spa/index.html. ￥600 for Osawa, ￥700 for Namari. Daily 7:30–8.
Nyuto. Inside Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Nyuto actually consists of seven different onsen and represents the most charming hinabita onsen in Tohoku. Each onsen has well-managed ryokan, and you can purchase a pass (¥1,500) that allows you to ride free shuttles operating among the seven and to use almost all facilities. Nyuto is 47 minutes from Tazawa-ko, 35 minutes from Tsurunoyu. From JR Tazawa-ko Station, take the Ugokotsu bus bound for Nyuto Onsen. From Tsurunoyu, get off at Alpa Komakusa Station where you can get a free pickup or walk 5 km (3 miles). Tazawako Komagatake 2–1, Senboku, Akita-ken. 0187/46–2244. www.nyuto-onsenkyo.com/english. ￥500. Daily 11–5.
Tamagawa Onsen. The highlight is the strong, acidic water (which has a minor amount of radium) gushing out at almost 2,400 gallons per minute, making it Japan's swiftest flow from a single spring. In the vicinity is another geothermal area in a national park where many enjoy a hot-rock bath. Take your worn-out T-shirts and towels because they will get stained by the waters (be careful also of reactive jewelry, such as copper or silver). From JR Tazawa-ko Station in Akita, take Ugokotsu bus bound for Tamagawa Onsen. The trip takes 80 minutes. Tazawako Tamagawa, Senboku, Akita-ken, 014-1205. 0187/58–3000. 0187/58–3005. www.tamagawa-onsen.jp. ￥600. Daily 7:30–7:30.
Ginzan. Ginzan is known for its unique landscape and distinguished Taisho Era (1912–26) architectural design. A flood once destroyed the village in the valley, but it sprung back up with 14 ryokans. A magnificent wooden four-story ryokan from there is depicted in Miyazaki's animated film Spirited Away. The Hanagasa dance shows take place Saturday evening from May to October. From JR Oishida Station, take the Hanagasa-Go bus bound for Ginzan Onsen. The trip takes 45 minutes. For the hour-long journey from Sendai, hop on the Yamako bus leaving Platform 22 for Shinjo and get off at Obanazawa Machi-Aijo Station, where you switch to the Hanagasa-Go bus to Ginzan Onsen stop. Ginzan Onsen, Obanazawa, Yamagata-ken, 999-4333. 0237/28–2322 Ginzansō Hotel. 0237/28–2959. www.ginzanonsen.jp. ￥600–￥1,000. Depends on ryokan.Updated: 02-2014
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