Enjoying Onsen Hot Springs in Nagano

June 10th, 2016 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs)

An outdoor bath with beautiful views of the Yatsugatake mountain range in Komi city[1].

Japan is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, blessing it with thousands of naturally heated mineral springs. These hot springs, or Onsen, have served an important role in Japanese daily life for hundreds of years. Locals came to the baths to cleanse themselves and socialize, and others came from far and wide to soak in springs that would cure their ills. Now, soaking in hot springs is an popular pastime attracting visitors from around the world.

Among Japan’s 47 prefectures, Nagano has the second highest number of hot spring areas (over 200) and the most day-use hot spring facilities in the country (over 700!). You can find hot springs of all shapes, sizes, colors and styles here. While your first hot spring experience may be somewhat daunting, you quickly learn to love this Japanese past-time.

Onsen Tips and Etiquette

Most bathing facilities include shower stations to wash at before entering the baths. (Kajika no Yu in Anan-machi[2])

Soaking in a hot spring is a great way to relax after a long day of hiking or playing outside, as well as getting in touch with the locals or enjoying a leisurely chat with friends. But stepping into an onsen for the first time can be an intimidating experience. Not only are you naked in front of complete strangers, but you’re also alone in a new culture with customs that you may not fully understand. But Onsen etiquette is pretty simple, just remember the following tips:


Tattoos in Onsen

People with tattoos have been prohibited from using Onsen facilities for a long time. Originally this was to keep troublesome Yakuza from scaring away their regular customers, but the rule often extends to innocent butterflies and “I Heart Mom” tattoos as well. Onsen operators are becoming more lenient over time, and according to the Japanese National Tourism Agency, around 30% of facility and hotel managers wouldn’t turn tattooed guests away. If your tattoo is small enough to cover up, a bit of tape or bandage should get you into the hot spring smoothly. If you’re the illustrated man (or woman), you may have better luck renting a private onsen bath at your hotel.

Types of Baths

A large footbath and hot spring located just behind Yudanaka station.

One of the most enjoyable ways to experience Onsen is to travel to an Onsen town where you can leisurely walk from bath to bath in comfortable yukata robes. In these areas you’ll be able to find Ashi-yu foot baths and Soto-yu public baths . Foot baths are free and Soto-yu usually are as well, but only cost between 100 to 300 yen when they aren’t. These baths often have a traditional atmosphere that Japanophiles will love, but make sure to bring your own towels and soap because there won’t be any provided for you!

In areas like Nozawa Onsen and Shibu Onsen, there are special stamps at each Soto-yu. You can collect them all for a special souvenir of your holiday. Each area has quite a few of these baths, so remember to take your time and drink plenty of water along the way!

The rustic interior of one of Nozawa’s free use bathing facilities.

If you’re traveling as a couple or family, it can be somewhat lonely being separated from one another while bathing. Trying a family bath or Konyoku mixed bath may be a more enjoyable experience. Mixed baths are open to both men and women, and allow guests to wear towels in the bath to preserve their modesty. Women can use full bath towels while men can only use small onsen towels. There are also some facilities where guests are allowed to wear swimsuits[4].

Family baths (or Kashikiriburo) are usually found in hotels and Japanese-style inns. They can be rented out to guests for private use so that families or couples can enjoy quality time with one another. Some family baths are free to rent and others aren’t, so check with your hotel in advance!

An example of an outdoor private bath.

Rotenburo outdoor baths are my personal favorite. While indoor baths can become somewhat stuffy and hot, the refreshing outside air allows you to stay in the hot spring for much longer. You can also enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, often with picturesque views or carefully manicured gardens. In winter, nothing beats sitting in a steamy outdoor bath as the snow gently falls on your shoulders.

A large Rotenburo bath at Iiyama’s Yutaki Onsen[5].

Additional Info

Thanks for reading! I hope this article has been useful for those who are thinking about visiting Japan’s hot springs for the first time. You can find more information about Nagano’s Onsen areas here or learn more about some of Nagano’s most unique hot springs here. And stay tuned for future blogs about unique hot springs to visit!

Onsen Jargon Glossary

Junkan-shiki (循環式): A bath where water is circulated and reused. Bleaching agents are often added to keep the bath water clean.

Kakenagashi (掛け流し): A bath constantly refilled by fresh spring water, never recycled. The gold standard of Onsen.

Kashikiri-buro (貸切風呂): A private bath that can be rented, usually only at hotels or ryokan inns.

Ka-on (加温): Spring water is heated before entering the bath.

Ka-sui (加水): Tap water is added to the hot spring water, either to lower the temperature or increase water volume.

Konyoku (混浴): A mixed bath for both men and women.

Notenburo, or Yatenburo (野天風呂): An outdoor bath in a particularly remote or spectacular location.

Rotenburo (露天風呂): An outdoor bath.

Sento (銭湯): A bathing facility that uses heated tap water in its baths.

Soto-yu (外湯): A publicly-managed bath that is often free or quite cheap.

Uchi-yu (内湯): An indoor bath found in a hotel, ryokan or other private establishment.


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Kita-Yatsugatake Yahho no Yu

A spa in the town of Koumi in eastern Nagano with beautiful views of the Yatsugatake mountain range. They have 100% Kakenagashi indoor baths and a variety of outdoor baths, as well as a rock sauna. See their Japanese website for more information.

Entrance fee: Adults/500 yen Children/200 yen
Hours: 10:00 – 21:00
Holidays: –
Contact: 0267-93-2288
Address: 〒384-1103長野県南佐久郡小海町大字豊里5918-2八峰の湯


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Kajika no Yu

Kajika no Yu in Anan-machi features Nagano’s largest indoor baths, with Rotenburo outdoor baths and saunas as well. See their Japanese website for more details.

Entrance fee: Adults/500 yen Children/200 yen
Hours: 10:00 – 21:00
Holidays: Wednesdays
Contact: 0260-22-2000
Address: 〒399-1505長野県下伊那郡阿南町富草4923かじかの湯


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Swimsuit-friendly Onsen Baths

Nozawa Sparena
A large spa complex near the Nozawa Onsen Ski resort with indoor and outdoor baths, Sauna and relaxation rooms. In summer families can also enjoy using the outdoor pool. Read more here.

Entrance fee: Adults/700 yen Children/500 yen
Rental Swimsuit: 300 yen
Hours: Onsen/ 13:00-20:30 (WINTER), 13:00-20:30 (GREEN)
Holidays: 5/16-5/27, 11/9-11/20 closed for maintenance
Contact: 0269-85-4567

Ikenotaira
A hotel resort on lake Shirakaba near the Suwa area of Nagano. It has plenty of activities for families and couples, with a large-scale spa featuring gender-separated and mixed bathing areas. Find out more about them on their English website.


Entrance fee (non-guests): Adults/1,000 yen Children/700 yen
Rental Swimsuit: 300 yen
Hours: 10:00-20:00
Contact: 0266-68-2100


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Yutaki Onsen

A hot spring alongside the Chikuma river outside of Nozawa Onsen village. It has indoor and outdoor baths with lovely views of the countryside. Their Japanese website has more information.

Entrance fee: Adults/510 yen Children/250 yen
Hours: 10:00 – 21:00
Holidays: Tuesdays
Contact: 0269-65-3454
Address: 〒389-2602長野県飯山市一山1898

21 Responses to “Enjoying Onsen Hot Springs in Nagano

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  4. Thanks for the post. Can you name, specifically, which onsen bath houses have private baths that can be hired by the hour? I am visiting for the day with my children and want to use a private bath, like we have in Hakone and Kawaguchiko.
    Thanks in advance.

  5. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for your comment! Nagano is quite large so it is hard to list every bath house that has private baths available, but here are some that may interest you:

    • Uruoikan
      Location: Nagano City
      Nearest Station: Nagano
      Price: 1,500 yen +670 yen per person (1 hour)
    • Shichimi Onsen Hotel Keizantei
      Location: Takayama Village
      Nearest Station: Suzaka
      Price; 1,000 yen (40 min.)
      *Only with lunch or for overnight guests; Reservations required
    • Yudanaka Shibu Onsenkyo Tsuruya Ryokan
      Location: Yamanouchi
      Nearest Station: Yudanaka
      Price: 700 yen per person (30-50 min.)
    • Hotel Selan Toomi no Yu
      Location: Yamanouchi
      Nearest Station: Yomase
      Price: 2,500 yen (50 min.)
      *Reservations Required
    • Zuisho Matsumotokan
      Location: Matsumoto City
      Nearest Station: Matsumoto
      Price: 2,500 yen (1.5 hours) or 3,100 yen (2 hours)
      *A maximum of 3 people; Reservations required

    I recommend making reservations in advance for any of these facilities as the number of private baths are limited. If you have any other questions, please let me know.

    -Blair

  6. Hi! Looks great!
    Do you have advice for mixed, outdoor baths, where we can find these?
    Thanks a lot!

  7. Hi, we are staying at Yudanaka but would like to visit an onsen. However, we want to wear our swimsuits. Is there a swimsuit friendly onsen in reasonable distance from Yudanaka?

  8. Hi Lisa,

    The closest place where you could wear a swimsuit to bathe would be Nozawa Onsen’s Sparina bathhouse. It’s about a 45-minute drive by car (public transportation between the two is somewhat difficult). If you are planning to visit Iiyama or Nozawa sometime during your trip, then I recommend checking it out then. Otherwise, I’d see if your hotel has a kashikiri-buro, a private rental bath. You can’t wear a bathing suit in it, but you won’t have to worry about being over-exposed.

    Let me know if I can help with anything else!

    -Blair

  9. Hi,
    Thanks for your nice and helpful article! Will be having my 1st ever Japan trip with my family (husband + 2 boys age 3 & 6)by early Dec, and planning to just visit Disneyland (2nights) – Nagano (specific area undecided yet) – Tokyo City (2 nights). I am still browsing around and got even more confused of where to go/ stay in Nagano. My highlighted things to do is Onsen, snow monkey forest, and any possibility for snow -non skiing activity e.g. taking gondola up to the hill for snow playing or sightseeing (not sure if it would already be snowing around 8-12 dec). Would love your input or recommendation for the best area to do those with middle range budget for accommodation with own onsen. One more question, are toddlers (age 3&6 )allowed to join the onsen?

    Any feedback is much appreciated 🙂

    Thanks & rgrds,
    Dini

  10. Hi Dini,

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad that this article could be of use to you in your trip planning!

    Weather can be unpredictable in early December, so it is hard to say whether there will be much snow already, and therefore hard to guess if there will be many snow activities available at the time. Most snow activities tend to begin from mid-December. Depending on winter conditions in early December this year, Ryuoo Ski Park outside of Yamanouchi may have snow activities (sledding, tubing, snow buggies) available during your visit.

    Other activities that you can try any time of year include:

    For accommodations, some place in Shibu Onsen or Yudanaka Onsen in Yamanouchi would be closest to the Snow Monkey Park. Shibu Onsen is particularly picturesque with cobblestone streets and traditional wooden inns and buildings. If you stay in one of Shibu Onsen’s ryokan inns, you also have access to the nine sotoyu baths around town. I’ve included some possible ryokan/hotels below:

    Finally, about onsen, your 3- and 6-year-old sons should be able to use the onsen. Each hotel/facility has its own rules, so you may want to confirm in advance that they will allow small children.

    Let me know if you have any other questions about visiting Nagano!

    -Blair

  11. Thank you very much for the info! I am always trying to find places that allow tattoos so this was nice to read. Thanks!

  12. Hi! We’ll be in Tokyo for 6 days & will try to go Nagano for 1 day. Any recommendations for a private onsen for a couple. Thanks.

  13. Dear Blair, Thank you for the information.
    We are planing to Japan this 25-31 December. Our 7 nights plan is from Nagoya to Hida Takayama ( 2 N) Hirayu onsen (1N) Shibu onsen, kiso, mogume and back to Nagoya. We are interested in outdoor bath with nice scenic view. Would love to hear your recommendations for the itinerary. Thanks.

  14. My wife and I will be visiting Nagano Oct 31st to Nov 2. We’ll be staying at the Nagano Metropolitan. Can you help us locating the closest onsen to our hotel?
    Thank you

  15. Hi Tu D. Ngo,

    The closest bath house to the Hotel Metropolitan is Uruoikan. A free shuttle bus runs daily between the Hotel Metropolitan (ホテルメトロポリタン) and Uruoikan (うるおい館) (timetable is here; white table is weekdays, red is weekend). They have natural hot spring baths, both indoor and outdoor, as well as private baths that can be rented for couples or families. Details below:

    Uruoikan
    Hours: 10:00 to 23:00
    Price:

    • Regular Bath: 670 yen per person
    • Private Bath: 1,500 yen +670 yen per person (1 hour)

    Access: Take the free shuttle bus from Hotel Metropolitan to Uruoikan. Or, take a bus (#30, 37, 41, 102 or 103) to the Kencho-mae bus stop and walk for 15 minutes.

    I hope that helps!

    -Blair

  16. Hello,

    This is a fantastic informative article.
    I am travelling with my husband and 2 other couples.
    What places do you recommend we visit so we can all Onsen/ hot tub together?
    We are staying in Nowaza Onsen at Lodge Matsuya.

    And on a side note… do you have any favourite restaurants?

    Thank you kindly

    Bridgid

  17. Hi Bridgid,

    I’m glad to hear that you found it useful!

    The best hot spring where you can all bathe together would be Nozawa Sparina near the ski resort. At this mixed hot spring, everyone wears bathing suits. They also have separate areas for men and women as well. Also, I highly recommend trying the soto-yu baths around Nozawa while you’re here (although you’ll have to bathe separately in those).

    I found a guide on restaurants in Nozawa provided by Nozawa Holidays. I’ve personally been to the okonomiyaki restaurant and it’s delicious.

    I hope that helps in your trip planning. Let me know if you have any other questions!

    -Blair

  18. Hi Blair,
    Your posts are so informative and helpful! Do you know of any outdoor onsen in Nagano region that are mixed bathing + tattoo friendly?

    Thank you!
    Cherie

  19. Hi Cherie,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!

    Regarding your question, it’s difficult to advertise places as tattoo-friendly as most don’t have a clear policy. If your tattoo is small, I recommend bringing a bandage or gauze that can cover it. Then you can bathe anywhere you want without incident.

    Your best bet is a foreigner-friendly bath like Nozawa Onsen’s Sparena or Ikenotaira Hotel and Resorts. They both offer mixed bathing while wearing swimsuits and are accustomed to international guests.

    Other mixed baths in Nagano include Matsukawa Keikoku Onsen Taki no Yu, Shirahone Onsen Awa no Yu, and Kagai Onsen Ichiyoukan in Matsushiro. (I cannot guarantee that these baths will be tattoo-friendly.)

    Matsukawa Keikoku Onsen Taki no Yu
    A wild outdoor bath in the Matsukawa Ravine. Women can bathe while wearing towels, which you can purchase at the onsen or bring your own.

    Location: Matsukawa Keikoku, Takayama Village, Northern Nagano
    Hours: 10:00 to 18:00 (last entrance at 17:30)
    Holidays: None
    Price: 500 Yen
    Access: From Nagano Station, take the Nagano Dentetsu train line to Suzaka Station, then take the Yamada Onsen bus to Yamada Onsen. From there, a 7-minute taxi ride.

    Shirahone Onsen Awa no Yu
    Shirahone’s most famous bath, Awa no Yu is milky blue in color and quite large. The surrounding natural landscape and large chutes that carry the onsen water to the bath make this bath both charming and rustic. Since Shirahone Onsen is quite isolated, it is recommended to stay in the area for the night.

    Location: Shirahone Onsen, Matsumoto/Northern Alps Area
    Hours: 14:00 to 17:00
    Holidays: irregular; closed on most Weekdays (call to confirm before your visit)
    Phone: 0263-93-2101
    Price: 630 yen
    Access: From Matsumoto Station, take the Kamikochi line train to Shinshimashima Station, then take the Shirahone line bus to Shirahone Onsen. From there, an 18-minute walk to the hot spring.

    Kagai Onsen Ichiyoukan
    Ichiyoukan is a Showa Era bathhouse in the outskirts of Matsushiro Town, Nagano City. The water is a rare mix of carbonated and iron-rich waters which warm you to the bone. The indoor baths are separated while the outdoor bath is mixed. Bring a towel that you don’t mind getting dirty, as the iron-rich water will soon turn it brown.

    Location: Matsushiro Town, Northern Nagano
    Hours: 8:00 to 20:00
    Holidays: None
    Price: 300 Yen
    Access: From Nagano Station, take the Kanaiyama bus (#48, 85) to Matsushiro Onsen or Matsushiro Onsen Iriguchi bus stop. It’s a 7 or 11-minute walk respectively.

    I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions!

    -Blair

  20. Hi Blair,

    Thanks for this post – it is very helpful. My family and it will be visiting Kyoto for a couple days in February. We’re thinking of doing a trip to Jigokudani Monkey Park. Do you know of any onsen around that area that allows clothing/swimsuit?

    Thanks!

  21. Hi Blair,

    Your post is really helpful. I will be visitting Nagano next month and planning to stop by in Yudanaka to experience onsen after visitting snow monkey park. Do you know any place to rent a private bath without staying in the hotel/ryokan? I will be staying in nagano city.

    Thanks!

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