Best Kyoto Onsens
by Jordan Mounteer
Because Japan finds itself geographically located right on the perimeter of the Ring of Fire, it should come as no surprise that hot springs have become an important part of the culture. So much so that traditional onsens are a staple feature on any tourist’s bucket list, and locals often devote their precious holidays to residing in special spas where they can relax in hot volcanically heated water. Although Beppu on Kyushu is by far the most famous spot in Japan for onsens, they can be found across the country, and the old capital of Kyoto has a whole range, from modern contemporary hot spring baths to older more traditionally styled ones. We take a look at the top hot springs you definitely need to check out if you’re in the Kansai area.
Kurama Onsen – 20 Kurama Honmachi, Sakyo-ku, Kurama
Although not explicitly within the city limits of Kyoto, this onsen is a short 30 minute train ride away in the village of Kurama. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, there is an undeniable charm to Kurama, and it’s an ideal example of what small-town Japanese life looks like. Like many onsens in Japan, this one is actually part of a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese hotel. Often these are standalone facilities, but they have all the feel of a being invited into someone’s home, and Kurama’s is no exception. Tucked in against a forested mountain, the onsen features a sulfur-rich outdoor bath where you can be surrounded by nature. And like most hot spring baths, they are divided by gender, so there is a women’s only and a men’s only section. One of the reasons Kurama has become so popular is undeniably in part because of its location, which makes it a bit more difficult to reach, but as a result there isn’t any reservation needed for a day trip – on top of that, though, is the sheer aesthetic. A small open-air gazebo over one of the baths, the elegant Japanese maples that surround the outdoor area – all of it contributes to an experience that feels very ‘back to nature’
Tenzan-no-yu – 55−4−7, Saganomiyanomotocho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
Unlike Beppu, for instance, Kyoto doesn’t have a huge number of onsens in the middle of town, but those they do have tend to be well worth the trouble it takes to root them out. Tenzan-no-yu, located on the far western side of Kyoto, can be tricky to get to if you don’t know your way around Japanese trains. The best way is to take the train that would get you to Arashiyama and get off Arisugawa Station. Tenzan-no-yu is definitely more popular than Kurama, so if you’re a social butterfly, you’ll feel right at home. The natural hot spring, which gets its steaming hot water from a 1200 meter well, is a good blend of both modern and traditional – on one hand, it comes with everything you could possibly imagine from a spa, including massage rooms and two types of foot baths (a hot water one and a ceramic one, where you can sink your feet into hundreds of tiny heated ceramic balls). But the real selling point for me was the outdoor area, which is lit up at night with the mellow glow of lights and makes it feel as if you’ve actually gone back in time. They also have a gigantic sauna where occasionally staff members will put on a traditional manzai comedy routine!
Hanaikada – 57 Arashiyama Nakaoshitacho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto
Another great onsen that is centrally located in Kyoto is Hanaikada, and like so many on our list it is also a part of a hotel-cum-spa. Being so close to the famous Togetsukyo Bridge (one of the few bridges in Japan that is still maintained in the traditional way), it is also an ideal place for tourists who want to see as much of Kyoto as they can, but still want to have a relaxing place to come back to at the end of the day. The guest rooms are very traditional as well, with paper walls and tatami mats, and the kyo-kaiseki is iconic of the same kind of multi-dish meals that were designed specifically to represent the old capital prior to the Meiji Restoration (and often include seasonal items, including eel). But the highlight is definitely the hot spring baths – comprising both in and outdoor features built from natural materials like stone and cypress, there is a central area for washing and cleaning one’s self prior to entering the communal baths, which is itself an open-air hot spring. It’s ideal for when you want to laze back and let the worries of the day slide off you while leaning back and staring at the stars. If you really want some privacy, there are even some elegant and gorgeously crafted private baths available that offer great views of Mt. Atago and Toketsukyo Bridge. Really, if you want to pamper yourself, there’s little that compares to Hanaikada.
Fufu-no-yu – 1 Kamikawaracho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto
A bit of a smaller onsen in comparison to some of the bigger and more popular options out there, many people might consider Fufu-no-yu to be classified as more of a ‘public bath’. But don’t let that throw you off or discourage you – what it may lack in prestige or size it more than makes up for in atmosphere and aesthetic. The facility is lit up at night with lanterns, and features both an indoor and outdoor component. At the entrance you can pick and choose what sorts of amenities or experience you want via a vending machine (such as an extra towel, etc.). After that you pass into the actual bathing area, which is very clean and has a natural feel to it with stone floors and several pools to choose from. The milky white mineral hot spring is by far my favorite, and the viscous nature of the water is said to have curative properties and to be good for the skin. The somewhat smaller outdoor pool is surrounded by ferns and high walls, but again it’s ideal if you want to gaze at the stars and listen to the crickets by soaking. And while almost all the onsens are open year-long, Fufu-no-yu is a personal favorite when new fallen snow encircles the enclosure, and makes you feel as if you are truly in a winter paradise.
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