Refresh in this hot spring village with secluded outdoor hot baths that even include a mixed-gender bath.
Naturally steaming in the middle of a forest and enclosed by Mount Myoko, Tsubame Onsen is the ultimate Japanese onsen (hot spring) experience. Tucked away a few hours by bullet train from Tokyo in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture, the onsen village is mostly visited by locals and a few tourists. It survives off of its ryokan culture, as many of the traditional inns are family owned.
Expect top-quality rice (you can seriously taste the difference) which also contributes to Niigata’s famed rice wine, or as it is called in the West, sake. Tsubame Onsen includes wonderous nature, milky-white hidden outdoor hot springs you have to take a brisk hike to and, most of all, the feeling of pure escape.
At the trailhead of Mount Myoko in southern Niigata, Tsubame Onsen has two secluded outdoor natural hot spring baths: Kawara-no-yu and Ogon-no-yu. The baths are a 15-minute walk from the quaint onsen village located about 1,000 meters above sea level in Myoko Togakushi Renzan National Park. Because these baths are outside, they are maintained by the local townspeople and they do not require a charge. Because they are public, they are also tattoo-friendly. In fact, Tsubame made the list of GaijinPot Travel’s list of Top 30 Tattoo Friendly Onsen in Japan.
The walk is made up of a street of hot spring inns and local shops. As you get closer to the hot springs, it gets quite steep. This popular area of Japan is blanketed by heavy snow in the winter is an hour’s drive from Nagano’s Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, where monkeys are famously seen bathing in spring baths.
About the baths
There is no such thing as a free lunch, but there are free hot springs in Japan! Tsubame Onsen doesn’t charge an entry fee, but visitors are encouraged to make a donation at the entrance. The baths — each sized for about five people — are naturally off-white, some might even say milky, in color from the healing minerals contained.
At Ogon-no-yu, the onsen has designated areas for male and female. However, the two zones are right next to each other, divided only by thin bamboo mats. Those who are shy beware of this! Not much separates you from the opposite sex. The other bath, Kawara-no-yu, is a mixed gender one.
Bring a bath towel for this one. Unlike other hot spring facilities, there are no pre-bath showers available at Tsubame, but there is a small changing hut next to each bath.
Know before you go
You can visit the 43.5-degree Celsius bath in summer and fall, but it is recommended to visit Tsubame Onsen in winter when snow is flurrying. The path leading to the Tsubame baths is closed from December to June due to heavy snowfall. Good footwear is recommended as the path gets narrow and wet at times.
The spring waters are rich in sulfur, sulfate, and chloride, which contain great healing properties for rheumatism, neuralgia, and various skin ailments. It may take a while for the body to adjust to the high temperature of the onsen, but once the temperature becomes manageable, remember to take breaks every 5-10 minutes to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion.
The heat of the onsen certainly warms up your blood and relaxes the body, but the peaceful ambiance makes it an otherworldly spot off the beaten track.