Japan was just recently named our Destination of the Year, and the reality is that many travelers only visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and – if you’re into winter sports – the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s so much more to see, though, and if you happen to love hot springs (and free hot springs at that) there’s a little village you’ll want to add to your itinerary.
Nozawa Onsen is around two-and-a-half hours from Tokyo via bullet train. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, and as the city’s name implies, this is a destination known for its hot springs.
There are 14 free hot springs scattered throughout the tiny village, most located in wooden bath houses reminiscent of the Edo period. However, before you barge in and embarrass yourself, there are specific Japanese bathing rules to consider.
For starters, the hot springs are all segregated by sex and everyone bathes in the nude; swimsuits are not allowed. The hot springs are a place to relax, but they’re also used as a bath. Locals bring their own shower caddies, and you’ll be expected to bring your own towel and soap. After you strip down and before you hop in, grab one of the provided buckets, fill it with water, and give yourself a full scrub down. It’s considered unhygienic to hop in the tub without washing first.
Once you’re clean, it’s time to soak, but keep in mind the natural spring water is hot, with some bath houses boasting temperatures as high as 194 degrees, according to an online onsen guide.
The most popular and quaint of Nozawa Onsen’s 14 hot springs is the Oyu Onsen located right in the center of town on the main pedestrian street. It’s a good place for first-timers, as it’s frequented by tourists and you can observe your fellow bathers until you’re familiar with the rules.