Kyushu’s Top 10 Onsen Areas Chosen by Users of a Popular Hotel Booking Site in Japan
Japan’s open-air baths seem even more appealing today now that much of our time is spent at home. Japan is the land of hot springs (“onsen” in Japanese), and Kyushu in particular is full of famous onsen areas irresistible to hot spring lovers. This article delves deep into the ten top onsen areas of 2021, chosen by users of the popular hotel booking site, Jalan. Take a look and go and enjoy the wide selection of hot springs in Kyushu, including open-air baths surrounded by magnificent natural views of the ocean and mountains.
Feb 24 2021 (Mar 01 2021)
Why Are There So Many Famous Onsen Areas in Kyushu?
Kyushu is sometimes referred to as a “hot spring heaven,” as it has three of the top five onsen areas in Japan in terms of number of hot spring water sources and the amount of hot spring water. This is said to be due to the large number of active volcanoes in Kyushu. These volcanoes warm the underground water and give the spring water in each area unique characteristics. The abundant hot spring water produces steam that envelops towns and attracts many visitors, who travel to enjoy the unique qualities of the spring water in each locale. Another factor in the popularity of many of Kyushu’s hot spring areas is the unique yet consistent hot spring culture of each locality, created with the group effort of the local residents.
The sheer number of hot springs in Kyushu may make it difficult to decide which one to visit, so this article takes an in-depth look at the most popular onsen areas in Kyushu based on the 2021 ranking by users of the hotel booking site, Jalan, which had the most visitors of any travel-related website in Japan in 2020.
No. 1: Japan’s Best Onsen City—The World-Famous Beppu Onsen (Oita)
Beppu Onsen is said to be by far the No. 1 onsen area in Japan: it has 2,848 spring water sources (compared to 804 in the No. 2 area) producing 83,058 liters of hot spring water every minute (44,486 liters at the No. 2 area) and more than 300 facilities within Beppu City alone to enjoy bathing in.
The “hells” of Beppu, which have been recognized by the government for their cultural value, are particularly famous. This name is applied to a number of hot spring sources with unique colors and views, including the Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell), Chi-no-Ike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell), and Shira-ike Jigoku (White Pond Hell). Umi Jigoku, which is the largest, has a bright, azure color that is created by the iron sulfate in the hot spring water dissolving. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden that changes with the seasons, which is why it gives off a heavenly—rather than hellish—visage. It is not possible to bathe directly in the Umi Jigoku, but there are foot baths filled with its water and bath powder called “Enman-no-Yu” made from it, so visitors can still enjoy the benefits its waters impart.
Beppu is so famous that it is said that “The best of Japan is found at Mount Fuji, the Seto Inland Sea, and Beppu Onsen,” and many famous people from the West, including American author Hellen Keller, have paid a visit. The mineral-filled hot springs are not just a tourist attraction, but also used in a variety of industries including geothermal energy, floriculture, and fish farming. Just stepping foot in Beppu will give you the sense of a city that lives in harmony with its hot springs.
No. 2: Gain Access to 28 Open-Air Baths by Staying at One Inn at Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto)
Kurokawa Onsen is a hot spring area designed so that 30 ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and the surrounding woodland area combine to create the semblance of one large resort. Thus, each inn is like a detached room, while the paths connecting them are passageways within the resort. To further strengthen this concept, all the signage is standardized, the landscape is carefully managed through actions such as tree planting and pruning, and the popular open-air baths at each ryokan are built in a way that best brings out their natural surroundings. There are a variety of different baths here, such as a “standing bath” that you can stand in with the water up to your neck and a cave-like bath that one of the inn owners dug themselves. There are also seven different types of hot spring water, so guests can go to multiple baths without getting bored.
The Onsen-Hopping Pass with which you can visit three different baths is just 1,300 yen and is accepted at almost all the open-air baths in Kurokawa Onsen. This means that you can stay at any ryokan and still enjoy all that Kurokawa Onsen has to offer.
This hot spring town is also great to stroll around in, with many stores offering specialty foods and souvenir shops selling all kinds of unique items. In addition, an illumination event called “Yu-Akari,” in which approximately 500 spherical lanterns called “Mari Toro” and 2-meter-high tubular lanterns called “Tsutu Toro” are lit up, is held for a limited time every year (it is currently being held between Saturday, December 19, 2020 and Sunday, May 30, 2021). There is so much to see and do in Kurokawa Onsen, you may want to stay for more than a night.
No. 3: A Museum-Like Town Out of Dreams—Yufuin Onsen (Oita)
Yufuin Onsen is a hot spring area with approximately 900 springs producing 38,600 liters of hot spring water every minute. It has been designated as a hot spring health resort by the Japanese government. A relaxing soak in one of its hot springs while enjoying the beautiful cone-shaped Mt. Yufu—sometimes referred to as the Mt. Fuji of the Echigo Province—will make anyone forget about their busy daily life. At the foot of Mt. Yufu is Lake Kinrin, a lovely area to take a walk in. Below the lake sits hot and cold water springs that together produce fog when the temperature drops on winter mornings, creating an enchanting, mystic scene. You also can't miss the view during sunset, when the waters sparkle as bright as a goldfish.
Yufuin doesn't have any areas with bars or other night entertainment venues. However, there are many cultural facilities such as an “art hall” at Yufuin Station and privately-owned galleries. In addition, a group of three luxury ryokan within the hot spring village exude a sense of sophistication that, paired together with the cultural facilities, give the town a beauty that can be compared to what you'd find in an art museum. Yufuin, which is surrounded by the peaceful nature of Mt. Yufu and distinguished by a refined ambience, has long held the unassailable position of the place that many Japanese dream of visiting.
No. 4: Gain Triple the Hot Spring Benefits! The Photogenic Sand Baths of Ibusuki Onsen (Kagoshima)
Ibusuki Onsen is in a location with fantastic views of the sea and mountains, giving it the moniker of “Hawaii of the East.” Among the many hot springs in the area, not to be missed are the natural sand baths. This is a unique style of bathing wherein you are buried in sand that has been warmed by the underground hot spring water flowing to the ocean. It is said to help with nerve pain and muscle pain and that it also has benefits for the skin. Recently, medical research found that its benefits are three to four times that of the average hot spring, making this a popular destination for visitors from all around Japan.
At the sand baths, all you have to do is lie down and several staff members will cover you with sand. It is an unusual experience and fun to watch families and friends being buried together. Some facilities even have signage you can use to take photos with, so you can get a lot of interesting pictures. You won’t be able to take the photos yourself as your hands will be buried, but the staff will take the photos for you.
No. 5: Cleanse Your Body with Hot Spring Water and Tea at One of Japan’s Top 3 Beauty Hot Springs—Ureshino Onsen (Saga)
Once upon a time, the legendary Empress Jingu witnessed a white crane soak its tired wings in a river. Seeing the crane fly away with renewed energy, she had a wounded soldier soak in the same water, and discovered that it was a hot spring that healed wounds. This is the legend of Ureshino Onsen. The name is said to come from the empress uttering “ana, ureshino” (“I'm glad”) on seeing the soldier recover. The viscous hot spring water, which has been chosen as one of Japan’s three top spring waters for beautiful skin, is high-quality alkaline water with salt and sodium carbonate mixed in, and maintains a temperature of about 100°C when pumped up.
Ureshino Onsen boasts a variety of attractive hot spring facilities including a “chaburo” (tea bath) of the area’s specialty Ureshino tea; Siebold-no-Yu, a public bath with a 1,200-year history that the famous German physician, Philipp Franz von Siebold, bathed in; and a “ceramic bath” that was specially ordered from an Arita porcelain producer. Soak in the hot spring and enjoy Ureshino tea that is packed with antioxidants such as vitamin C and catechin to cleanse and renew your body from both the inside and out.
No. 6: Dive into Another World Through the 30 Hells at Japan’s First Hot Spring in a National Park—Unzen Onsen (Nagasaki)
Mt. Unzen in the center of the Shimabara Peninsula is actually a hot spring resort located within Japan’s first national park. Unzen was once written with the kanji characters for “onsen” but pronounced “’unzen.” The hot spring water is highly acidic and contains sulfur, which gives it sterilizing properties and makes it good for skin ailments, such as rashes and frostbites. In addition, it is said to have beauty benefits for the skin.
A popular tourist destination, Unzen Jigoku is an area with steam pouring out of its rock surface that carries a strong smell of sulfur. It was the site of Christian martyrdom during the Edo Period and has 30+ “hells,” including the Daikyokan (the fifth of eight hot hells in Buddhism). There is a 60-minute nighttime guided tour (reservation required) that is popular among enthusiasts and features different ways to feel the “hell," such as a rest area where you can feel the heat and steam on your feet and eggs cooked in the steam of the hells. Experiencing a hellish world that is so out of the ordinary may turn out to be quite refreshing!
No. 7: A Famous Hot Spring Where Ryoma Sakamoto Honeymooned—Kirishima Onsen (Kagoshima)
Kirishima Onsen is the general term for all the hot springs within Kirishima City, but it largely refers to Kirishima Onsenkyo, Kirishima Jingu Onsenkyo, Myoken-Anraku Onsenkyo, and Hinatayama Onsenkyo. Iodani Onsen within Kirishima Onsenkyo is a particularly famous hot spring known as the place the revolutionary samurai, Ryoma Sakamoto, went to with his wife Oryo for their honeymoon and to heal his wounds from a failed assassination attempt at Teradaya Inn in Fushimi, Kyoto. Today, Iodani Onsen features a large theme park-like open-air bath complex with four different types of hot spring water from 14 sources.
A popular itinerary for seeing the sights is to follow Ryoma’s honeymoon by going to Kirishima Jingu, which is the largest Shinto shrine in southern Kyushu; Inukai Falls, which is said to be an incredibly spiritual spot; and other locations. What a wonderful way for today’s "warriors" to experience the healing powers of Kirishima!
No. 8: A Source of Natural, Top-Quality Mineral Water—Minamiaso Onsenkyo (Kumamoto)
Minamiaso Onsenkyo is a hot spring area on the south side of Mt. Aso, known for one of the largest calderas in the world, and consists of Tochinoki Onsen, Tarutama Onsen, Jigoku Onsen, Oaso Hinoyama Onsen, and Hakusui Onsen. Each hot spring has its unique charms. For example, Tochinoki Onsen is where the virgin forests create a serene space to heal in, Tarutama Onsen was beloved by famous poets including Hakushu Kitahara and Tekkan Yosano, and Jigoku Onsen has long flourished as a hot spring spa.
The area is also blessed with an abundance of hot spring water due to the existence of the caldera and a central cone group, with a total of 11 water sources supplying Minamiaso Village with spring water. These are made up of Shirakawa Suigen, one of Japan's top 100 spring water sources, as well as the Minamiaso-mura Yusui-gun, the collective name for the rest of the spring sources that are said to have one of the top 100 spring waters of the Heisei era. These hot spring sources with crystal clear water are also famous as sources for Japan's natural mineral water. Tofu and ciders made with this special water are referred to as “wakisui gourmet” (spring water gourmet) and are introduced in guidebooks. Minamiaso Onsenkyo is an area where you can thoroughly enjoy the blessings of water though its hot springs and spring water.
No. 9: Hot Springs for Beautiful Skin That Heal Both Humans and Deer—Yamaga Onsen & Hirayama Onsen (Kumamoto)
Yamaga Onsen is one of Kumamoto Prefecture’s oldest hot spring areas and is said to have been discovered in the 12th century when injured deer were seen to be bathing in its waters. The hot spring town has approximately 20 overnight accommodations, as well as a variety of historical tourist attractions including the stone gate at Kongojo-ji Temple, which the Buddhist monk, Kukai, is said to have established during the 9th century; Yachiyo-za, a playhouse built during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) that has been designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government; and Yamaga Lanterns Folk Crafts Museum, built during the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926). With guided tours by locals and rickshaw rides on offer, this is an onsen town where you can feel the warmth of the people and experience a sweet sense of nostalgia.
Slightly deeper into Yamaga is Hirayama Onsen. Legend has it that the outbreak of a skin disease was quelled by the hot spring waters of this region that welled as a result of prayers made to the Shinto deity, Aso Daimyojin. Both Yamaga Onsen and Hirayama Onsen have simple thermal hot springs with alkaline water that is gentle on the skin. Both have long been loved as hot springs for beauty.
No. 10: Blessed by Mt. Aso and an Inspiration to Soseki Natsume—Aso Uchimaki Onsen (Kumamoto)
The caldera in Aso City, Kumamoto Prefecture, is one of Kyushu’s most famous tourist destinations. The caldera spans approx. 18 km east to west and 25 km north to south, making it one of the world’s biggest. Aso Uchimaki Onsen is the largest of the onsen areas around Mt. Aso.
Aso Uchimaki Onsen has an abundance of hot spring water derived from the volcano. The water is hot, colorless, transparent, and fit for consumption. The onsen town which has about 80 hot springs and almost 30 accommodations is popular as one of the best in Aso. The seven “machiyu” (public baths) that are used by the locals as well as visitors are particularly popular. Each of them come from different sources and have unique characteristics, and can be enjoyed for a fee as low as 100 yen.
Aso Uchimaki Onsen was visited by many of Japan’s famous writers, including Soseki Natsume and Akiko Yosano. See what inspiration you may get surrounded by the beautiful nature of this charming hot spring area!
The best way to enjoy the “onsen heaven” of Kyushu is to visit its many hot springs. All the hot spring areas have various appeals and show off the charms of the local people, the town atmosphere, and the local cuisine in addition to the hot springs themselves. Why not make a list of the hot springs that have captured your eyes so that you can visit them when it is time to travel?
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.