Japan’s winter is one of its most beautiful yet overlooked aspects.
From December to March, try traveling to a snowy and secluded onsen (hot springs) getaway. Some of our favorite wintery onsen towns include tattoo-friendly and mixed gender baths, plus “yukimi-buro,” where you can take in the scenic snowfall from an open-air outdoor bath.
Yubara Onsen was created to treat a beloved concubine of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great Japanese general and samurai. Today, it lies in a natural, remote setting in the shadow of a massive dam.
Its stunning outdoor onsen bath, Sunayu, is open 24-hours-a-day and located in the riverbed of the Asahi River. This unique bath is a konyoku, or mixed-gender, and free! Bathers can go fully nude or cover up in a towel or sarong and tattoos are totally acceptable, as this is open to the public and not a facility per se. Every Valentine’s Day, over 600 candles are lit along the outdoor baths, illuminating the snowy scenery and creating a warm and romantic atmosphere for lovers who bathe together.
It is surreal in snow, however, the winter snowfall isn’t constant, so check the weather before you go.
On the coast of the Sea of Japan lies a charming and old-fashioned onsen town called Kinosaki. Here, guests stroll along the river wearing yukata (a light kimono), marveling at the historic buildings and — in winter — the immaculate snow enveloping the town. In the colder months, you’ll want to put on your winter kimono and embrace the snowscape.
Visitors staying at any local ryokan (Japanese inn) can use Kinosaki’s seven public bathhouses for free. Even better, all of these public onsen facilities allow tattoos. In winter, the famous local crab is at its freshest, so don’t leave without giving some a try!
In the Japan Alps mountain range lies Shirahone, a remote hot spring town that is known as a “secret spa.” Located in a gorgeous river valley, Shirahone is a majestic area surrounded by lush nature.
The name Shirahone means “white bone” and refers to the cream-colored onsen water that characterizes the area. Awanoyu is the town’s most iconic bath. Both genders are allowed to bathe together in one of the three outdoor baths, as the spring’s blueish milky waters match the hue of the powdery snow. The area is rich in nature, with famous ski fields Norikura Highlands and another onsen village called Hirayu. In the warmer months, it is also a perfect location to stay and do hiking at Kamikochi.
You’ve probably heard of this area even if you don’t realize it. Shibu Onsen is super famous for its proximity to the sightseeing spot where cute snow monkeys bathe like humans, Jigokudani Monkey Park. In fact, this onsen town is the gateway to that very attraction.
In winter, the cobblestone lanes and traditional ryokan that make up the town become a scenic snowscape. Nine public baths span the 1300-year-old town. The largest of these is Oyu, a centrally located facility with hot, relaxing spring water and is the only onsen open to day visitors. If you’re short on time, just dip your cold feet in the town’s free foot bath.
Located on Mount Shirane, this onsen is renowned for its healing qualities and is one of the best areas near Tokyo for a scenic outdoor bath in winter. In the warmer months, it offers supreme views from its walking trails, but that’s swapped out for snow sports and below-freezing temps starting in mid-December through April.
Manza Onsen’s sulfuric water is very acidic and a distinct turquoise color, providing therapeutic benefits like improving metabolism and blood circulation. Manza Onsen Nisshinkan is a large inn and bathing facility with nine unique baths, all of which are separated by gender. Traveling to the outdoor baths requires a short walk — a serene journey during the snowy months. The mountain scenery is particularly beautiful in winter, and at night countless stars stretch across the heavens.
While most winter visitors flock to the foothills of the popular Minakami mountains in search of the area’s well-known powder snow, it’s the secret assort of rustic hot springs that end up being the real draw. Beyond the area’s rugged peaks — and any cell phone reception to speak of — several lone hot spring ryokan lie secluded in the woods. In particular, Osenkaku in Takaragawa Onsen and Chojukan in Hoshi Onsen are both Ghibli-esque inns in which twisting wooden walkways lead to outdoor baths overlooking the river. The snow falling and the steam rising from the baths creates a mystic atmosphere, especially at night.
Both places are tattoo-friendly and have mixed-gender (konyoku) baths. Osenkaku’s konyoku is outdoors, lets bathers wear towels and drink beer in the bath. Chojukan has no beer and requires full nudity but its konyoku, Hoshi no Yu, is one of Japan’s oldest wooden indoor baths, built during the Meiji period and registered as a tangible cultural property.
Matsunoyama Onsen is one of the Top 3 great medicinal hot springs in Japan. The water is said to keep skin looking beautiful, heal wounds like cuts and burns, and prevent ailments like hemorrhoids and nerve damage. Whether or not you believe the hype, it’s hard to argue against the serene ambiance of the place when it’s totally blanketed deep in pristine, white snow. Ski and snowboarding lessons are available nearby, making Matsunoyama a little-known but extremely cozy spot for a winter excursion.
Some of the ryokan provide pure spring water baths, such as Izumiya, a lovely local inn with public and private baths. If it is an exceptional scene winter scene you seek and a pampered visit, try the Hinanoyado Chitose ryokan in the heart of Matsunoyama Onsen, with its outdoor “moon bath.”
Takayu Onsen is a small resort town that sits atop a plateau not all that far from Fukushima City. Its hot spring source is used by nine inns and one public bath.
The town’s Tamago-Yu (“Egg Spring”) is named after the water’s magical properties — it’s said to give bathers skin as smooth as an egg. The milky water also smells faintly like boiled eggs due to the healing minerals within. Located inside a traditional thatched roof hut, there are both segregated and mixed baths, as well as indoor and outdoor facilities. Similar to the baths in Matsunoyama Onsen, 100 percent of the natural spring water flows directly from the source without added water to the baths, a rare occurrence.
You can stay the night at Tamago-Yu or daytrippers can do a 1-hour bath there. If this bath is closed for winter cleaning, typically on Mondy and Friday, take a dip in the town’s public bath is Attayu — it even has some private rotenburo ones you can rent by reservation only.
Ginzan Onsen is a secluded hot spring town that looks like something straight out of a storybook, especially when it snows. The town that has become a popular winter attraction lined with atmospheric ryokan, with its pedestrian-only streets and old wooden buildings lining the Ginzan River.
At night, the main street is lit by gas lamps and guests wander in traditional robes. Adventurers can hike a nature trail past the town’s towering waterfall to a historic silver mine and explore some of the caverns within. Shirogane Yu is the best public bathing facility, with triangle shaped baths and lovely views of the town below from the upper stories.
This ski resort is all about enjoying winter to the fullest. Positioned on the slopes of a volcano, Zao Onsen is known for its highly acidic onsen water and is one of the most high-quality onsen in Japan. This may sound dangerous, but it’s actually a lot safer than the winter sports the spot is also known for — the sulfuric content of the water is good for rejuvenating skin and blood vessels.
Shinzaemon no Yu is a day spa with the Zao acidic baths, with indoor and scenic outdoor baths, as well as a restaurant. While in Zao, don’t miss out on a rare phenomenon here along the mountainside known as “Snow Monsters,” trees so heavily coated in snow they take on a bizarre form.
With its lush green scenery draped in snow, Hanamaki Onsen is connected by three adjacent hotels; guests staying at any are granted full access to the other two’s baths, giving visitors a wide range of relaxation options. But if you’re just visiting for a day, non-hotel guests can enter the onsen, as well. There’s also a free show every evening that’s always different, so you never know if you’re going to witness a skit or a traditional dance. This is truly one of the most family-friendly winter onsen getaways in Japan.
Also worth exploring is Hanamaki Onsen Rose Park, complete with a shrine, waterfall, and snowy landscapes all winter. If that wasn’t enough, located in the Hanamaki area are more than nine other onsen including Osawa Onsen, which has a more rustic vibe, scenic rotenburo and Osawa-no-Yu open-air bath that faces the river and allows for mixed-gender bathing.
The breathtaking winter scenery is what draws visitors to this secluded onsen. Hidden deep in the mountains, Magoroku Onsen – one of the inns located in Nyuto Onsen Town — requires a short hike to get to, but it’s worth the trip.
The most isolated of Nyuto’s onsen, Magoroku is quiet and peaceful in the winter. The outdoor, women-only bath provides a relaxing and breathtaking view of the snow-covered scenery up close. Magoroku’s baths have medicinal properties and one is even said to forecast the weather – clear water signals a clear day and muddy water predicts clouds.
Truly get away into the deep secluded wilderness of the traditional Sukayu Onsen. Located in the Hakkoda Mountains, this retreat is one of the snowiest places on earth and is a skier’s paradise from December through February.
Where better for snow bunnies to relax after a long day than in the hyperbolic Senninburo (“Bath of 1,000 Bathers”) is the main attraction, a traditional konyoku bath made of cypress wood so big it can fit…well, not quite a thousand people but about 150. Thankfully it’s not usually that crowded, but this gigantic, wooden bath is truly something to behold.
Situated in Japan’s northernmost and coldest prefecture is Noboribetsu. Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort is as beautiful as it is surreal. Overlooking a landscape known as Jigokudani, “Hell Valley”, this volcanic valley is a patchwork of rust-colored hills, bubbling pits, smoking craters, and — best of all — piping hot onsen.
Noboribetsu transforms into an even more spectacular destination in winter, when snow blankets the harsh landscape. Marvel at it from the warm comfort of Dai-ichi Takimotokan, Noboribetsu’s most superb public onsen, with seven different types of baths and views overlooking the valley.
From January to March the town of Sounkyo hosts the incredible Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival, featuring an intricate complex of caverns made from ice. A skiing and snowboarding hot spot, the onsen resort is located in Sounkyo Valley and takes about 5-and-a-half hours to get to via highway bus from Hokkaido’s main airport, New Chitose Airport. Yet, the dramatic soundings — hanging cliffs and rushing waterfalls — make this trip completely worth the haul. The popular onsen resort has one public bathhouse, Kurodake-no-Yu, with indoor and outdoor options but go to one of the ryokan onsen for the best views.
Sounkyo Kanko Hotel offers baths that use 100 percent hot spring water, with no outside water used to cool it down, that is 60 degrees Celsius at the source. Try the rocky rotenburo called “Utari” among many other large indoor and outdoor baths for a relaxing dip. However, not all baths nor the sauna are open to day-trippers, so you may just want to get cozy and stay the night cuz, baby, it’ll be cold outside.
Tattoo-friendly onsen disclaimer
At the time of publication (December 2018), the onsen we have regarded as “tattoo friendly” have been verified as so. Any onsen which is public technically must admit tattooed visitors. However, since there is yet to be regulation against private establishments discriminating against those with tattoos in Japan, technically the final word is up to these establishments on a case-by-case basis. If you want to be 100 percent sure, please contact the individual facility to confirm.