Nestled in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo, Hakone has been one of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts for centuries. With over twenty natural onsen sources supplying hot mineral water to ryokan inns and public baths across the region, a trip to Hakone promises relaxation, breathtaking scenery, and a uniquely Japanese spa experience.
A Long History of Healing Waters
The Hakone area has been revered for its natural hot springs since the 8th century. According to legend, a Buddhist monk opened the first onsen in 738 during Japan’s Nara Period. The monk used the springs’ healing waters to help care for the sick.
Over the following centuries, Hakone’s reputation as a therapeutic retreat grew. During the turbulent Sengoku period, warlords would rest and recuperate in Hakone’s springs between battles. When the great unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi conquered Odawara Castle after a long siege, he rewarded his exhausted soldiers with a rejuvenating soak in Hakone’s onsen.
The healing waters of Hakone continued to serve Japan’s elite through the Edo Period. The area prospered as a resort town along the Tokaido Road connecting Edo (Tokyo) with Kyoto. The shoguns regularly received shipments of onsen water from Hakone’s springs. Wealthy merchants and samurai frequented the growing number of ryokan inns and public baths.
Hakone’s popularity exploded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as railways opened the area to tourists from Tokyo, Yokohama, and beyond. Today, Hakone remains one of Japan’s top destinations for relaxing hot spring getaways.
Therapeutic Benefits of Hakone’s Onsen
Hakone owes its onsen to the active volcanism of the area. Mount Hakone looms over the region, providing a dramatic backdrop for many hot spring resorts. The mountain’s ongoing hydrothermal activity heats groundwater which emerges from the earth as hot spring water.
The mineral composition of Hakone’s onsen provides therapeutic health benefits. Hakone has springs ranging from strongly alkaline to acidic. Some contain high levels of sodium chloride, sulfur, calcium, and iron. Bathing in these mineral-rich waters is believed to treat ailments like arthritis, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, and skin conditions.
The Japanese government legally defines onsen as natural hot springs containing one of 19 designated minerals and reaching at least 77°F. Hakone exceeds this criteria, with spring temperatures from 86°F to over 175°F. The relaxing warmth soothes sore muscles and stimulates circulation.
In 2015, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment designated the Ashinoyu area of Hakone as a National Onsen Resort. This recognizes Ashinoyu’s long history and high-quality natural spring water.
Hakone’s Hot Springs
While Hakone has over twenty onsen facilities today, seven major springs defined the region’s early development. Known as the Hakone Ju-nana-yu (“Hakone’s 17 Hot Springs”), these historic spas remain among the area’s best places to experience traditional hot spring culture.
Hakone Yumoto Onsen
The largest and oldest hot spring area in Hakone is Hakone Yumoto Onsen. Nestled at the foot of forested hills, Yumoto has been welcoming bathers since the 8th century. Considered the gateway to Hakone, it is the first stop for visitors arriving by train or bus.
With countless ryokan inns and public bathhouses clustered around the train station, Yumoto offers easy access to excellent hot spring facilities. Both indoor and outdoor bathing options feature Hakone’s iconic steaming, mineral-rich waters.
A short train ride up the valley from Yumoto lies the peaceful retreat of Tonosawa Onsen. Set along the Hayakawa River and surrounded by mountains, Tonosawa charmed literary greats like Ernest Hemingway with its tranquil atmosphere. Public baths allow a relaxing soak in historic wooden tubs fed by Tonosawa’s springs.
Another early hot spring destination in Hakone, Miyanoshita Onsen is just a couple of train stops from Tonosawa. Two classic inns, the Fujiya Hotel and the Ginyu Ryokan, have welcomed guests to Miyanoshita’s therapeutic waters since the late 19th century. Some of Miyanoshita’s springs produce slightly salty water said to relieve neuralgia and joint inflammation.
A short hike from Miyanoshita Station sits Sokokurayu Onsen, known for its alkaline waters. Its large communal stone bath may have been used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself. Sokokurayu also offers modern amenities like private family baths.
According to legend, Minamoto no Yoritomo discovered Kiga Onsen after being led there by a white fox to heal his battle wounds. First opened in the 12th century, Kiga Onsen has served many historical figures. Though destroyed by fire in the 1890s, Kiga was later revived and continues to welcome bathers today.
Accessed via scenic cable car overlooking forests and rice fields, Dogashima Onsen was found at the bottom of a valley by a Buddhist monk in the 14th century. Its high-altitude location provides panoramic views of the Hakone mountains from relaxing, secluded hot spring pools.
At over 3000 feet elevation, Ashinoyu Onsen is Hakone’s highest hot spring. Its use as an onsen dates to the Kamakura Period. Ashinoyu’s cloudy, alkaline waters remain highly valued today for their unique mineral composition. Ashinoyu offers beautiful mountain landscapes alongside its therapeutic baths.
Top 10 Hakone Onsen Experiences
With so many hot springs to choose from, here are some of the best ways to enjoy Hakone’s famous onsen:
Stay at a ryokan inn – For the true Japanese onsen experience, spend a night or two at a traditional ryokan. Many feature Design traditionally styled guest rooms, multi-course dinners, and relaxing private hot spring baths.
Try a public bath – Day trippers can sample Hakone’s hot springs at public bathhouses called sotoyu. These communal facilities offer a more affordable way to experience Hakone’s therapeutic waters.
Bathe outdoors – Soak in the fresh mountain air at one of Hakone’s many rotemburo outdoor baths. Being surrounded by forests or steaming mineral water add to the magic.
Visit the Yunessun Spa – At this unique resort, bathers can relax in wine, green tea, or coffee-flavored therapeutic spas for a truly unconventional hot spring experience.
See the springs’ origins – Watch onsen tamago (onsen-boiled eggs) cooking in the boiling mineral waters of the Owakudani geothermal valley.
Ride the Hakone Ropeway – Enjoy aerial views of Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji as you ride above the onsen resorts of the valley.
Relax after sightseeing – Soothe tired muscles after a day of exploring Hakone‘s winding trails and mountain shrines by soaking in an onsen at your hotel.
Cure hangovers – Hakone’s hot mineral water is said to relieve headaches and nausea, making it the perfect place to recover the morning after a big night out.
Bond with family – Many ryokan and public baths allow visitors to reserve private family baths for a memorable bonding experience.
Detox in minerals – Hakone’s therapeutic waters purport to draw out toxins, improve metabolism, and leave skin clear and revitalized.
With so many onsen facilities from quiet ryokan to large resorts, Hakone offers something for every hot spring lover. For the quintessential Japanese spa treatment, Hakone’s historic waters can’t be beaten. After centuries of bringing healing and relaxation to bathers, Hakone remains one of Japan’s top hot spring destinations.
Another famous onsen that you should visit is Beppu Onsen in Oita. It is a must-visit hot spring paradise for any fan of soaking in the thermal waters of Japan.
1. What is Hakone Onsen?
Hakone Onsen refers to the collection of hot springs located in the Hakone region of Japan. It is a popular destination for visitors seeking to experience traditional Japanese onsen bathing and take in the natural beauty of the area.
2. How can I reach Hakone Onsen?
Hakone Onsen is easily accessible from Tokyo. You can take the Hakone Tozan Railway from Hakone-Yumoto Station, which offers stunning views as it winds through the mountains. Alternatively, you can also take a day trip to Hakone Onsen using the Hakone Tozan Railway.
3. Are there any specific onsen baths I should visit in Hakone?
Yes, there are several renowned onsen baths in Hakone that are worth visiting. Some of the top recommendations include Hakone Yuryo, Sengokuhara Onsen, Ubako Onsen, Kowakudani Onsen, and Miyagino Onsen. Each of these onsen baths offers a unique experience for visitors.
4. What is the best way to experience the natural beauty of Hakone Onsen?
To experience the natural beauty of Hakone Onsen, you can visit the Hakone Open-Air Museum. This museum features art installations set against the backdrop of the beautiful Hakone landscape. Additionally, taking a boat ride on Lake Ashinoko offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
5. Can I visit Hakone Onsen as a day trip?
Yes, many visitors choose to visit Hakone Onsen as a day trip from Tokyo. The Hakone Tozan Railway and other transportation options make it easy to reach Hakone and spend a day enjoying the hot springs and exploring the area. However, staying overnight in a hot spring inn is recommended to fully immerse yourself in the onsen experience.
6. What are the best onsen in Hakone?
There are numerous onsen in Hakone, but some of the best ones known for their quality and ambiance include Hakone Yumoto Onsen, Ashinoko Onsen, and Ohiradai Onsen. These establishments offer a variety of bathing experiences and often have beautiful surroundings.
7. Is Hakone Onsen easily accessible from Tokyo?
Yes, Hakone Onsen is easily accessible from Tokyo. It takes approximately 90 minutes to reach Hakone-Yumoto Station