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As though any of us need another reason to visit Japan, other than the very fact that it is one of the best destinations in the world, we’ve got another one for you: the country’s storied onsen culture. Onsens are naturally-fed hot springs, with mineral-rich water known to be particularly good for skin, muscles, and general wellness. They’re often surrounded by some kind of facility (like a spa) and may be located within a hotel property, called ryokans.
I recently jetted off to Tokyo, and some of the surrounding towns, to experience hot spring hotels owned by Hoshino, a Japanese resort management brand that has been in operation since 1914 and is currently operated by a fourth-generation family member. Needless to say, at both Hoshinoya and Kai, the brand’s luxury boutique hot spring ryokans, they really know how to elevate a hot water soak. (Prepare to come back glowing from head to toe, and ready to move to Japan.)
Below, the Japanese onsen experiences worth planning a trip around.
Opened in 2016, Hoshinoya Tokyo is by far one of the most luxurious onsen experiences you can have in Japan. Just steps from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo Station, the 17-floor hotel may look like a towering skyscraper from the exterior, but inside guests will find a zen paradise. Like most traditional ryokans, you’ll be asked to replace your shoes with sandals when you enter the tatami-mat lobby. Rooms are at once elegant and contemporary, designed with natural-wood accents and soft off-white hues. The crown jewel of the bedrooms is most certainly the mattresses, made especially for Hoshinoya. (The only reason you’ll want to leave this bed is for the just-as-soothing hot spring). At the very top of the hotel, traditional bath halls (one for men, one for women) flank either side of the 17th floor. After a healing soak in the saline-rich water, you can enjoy a hydrating glass of milk in the modern and comfortable locker room or guest lounge. Pro tip: don’t miss out on the Nippon cuisine at the restaurant, where Chef Noriyuki Hamada blends nutrient-rich ingredients from Japan’s surrounding forests and sea.
Located under two hours by train from Tokyo proper, Kai Ito is a sweet little ryokan in the seaside town of Ito. Don’t expect to find many native English speakers here, as Ito is a bit off-the-beaten-path, and not nearly as touristy as Tokyo. However, the Kai properties here make the trip worth it, and with an extremely attentive staff, you’ll have a hard time leaving. This ryokan is an excellent choice for families, as there are activities daily (like making your own Camellia oil) and fresh Japanese shaved ice is served each afternoon. With a stunning Zen garden outside and indoor-outdoor baths fed from the mineral-packed Ito hot spring (one of the largest in Japan), this ryokan is the perfect place to relax.
Kai Hakone, aptly nicknamed a woodland paradise, is snuggled next to Mount Yusaka above the rushing Sukumo River, around 90 minutes by train from Tokyo. Just as intimate as they are therapeutic, both the accommodations and the river-facing hot springs offer unparalleled views of the stunning surrounding landscape, yielding one of the most relaxing onsen experiences in Japan. You can enjoy the sounds of wind in the trees and the river below from the deep wooden tub on your balcony if you book the Western-style room with outdoor bath (which you absolutely should); in the evening, cozy up in a private space of the property’s restaurant for some traditional hot pot, and enjoy soaking in the onsen (fed by Yumoto hot spring) both day and night.
Also located in the seaside town of Ito, Kai Anjin offers hot spring baths with stellar ocean views — pretty hard to beat. Every single room on the property faces the ocean, and each is designed with an elegant maritime theme that incorporates local Japanese craftsmanship. The hot springs, located on the property’s top floor, boast panoramic views of the Pacific and can be enjoyed both indoor (granite) and outdoor (rock). Don’t miss the restaurant, which puts an emphasis on British-inspired fare and dishes made from seasonal and local ingredients (i.e. lots and lots of fresh seafood).
Just a quick ninety minutes from Tokyo, there is a flourishing wild bird sanctuary at the foot of Mount Asama. It is here that the Hoshino brand has established Hoshinoya Karuizawa, one of the finest luxury mountainside ryokans. The environment is readily reflected in the design of each guest room, mirroring the peaks and dips of the forested landscape. Inhaling the crisp mountain air is just the cherry on top of soaking in the healing springs, dug over 100 years ago by Kunitsugu Hoshino himself.