Fourteen days may sound like a lot of time to explore all the different onsen in Japan. However, considering the vast amount there is, in reality, it is not a lot of time if you are planning on doing other stuff. Luckily, with the JR Pass, you have unlimited access to almost all train lines, including the bullet train, which will save you a lot of time and money in the long run. The Japan Rail Pass, better known as the JR Pass, can seem quite expensive at first. Still, the cost of travel for individual tickets can add up to an excessive amount before you know it, so you are better off using the JR Pass for long-distance travel around Japan. With the incredible technological feat of bullet trains that connects the entire country seamlessly, you can reach places up and down the nation in a matter of hours. So, it is always a good idea to take full advantage of the rapid transport available with the JR Pass by visiting as many places as possible. Hopefully, this itinerary can give you a good idea of what can be possible with some planning and coordination.
The JR Pass is only available to foreign visitors, to the dismay of locals, and there are two different types to pick from. There is the ‘Standard’ version that roughly costs around ¥50,000 for fourteen days, and there is the ‘Green Pass’ version that comes with the added benefit of being able to sit in first class which offers more comfortable and spacious seats. That costs roughly ¥70,000 for fourteen days as of writing. Time lengths of seven days and twenty-one days are also for sale, but the fourteen-day pass will be used as an example for this two-week itinerary.
Before we delve into the deep and rich adventure of onsen in Japan, it is probably necessary to explain precisely what onsen is to people unaware. Onsen is essentially a natural hot water spring used by many Japanese to bathe in, but for other reasons than just a simple wash as you would in a shower. As onsen are hot springs that the Earth naturally heats, it contains a whole slew of minerals that many people believed to contribute to healthier skin, blood circulation and healing properties. Visiting an onsen to unwind physically and mentally is such an integral part of Japanese culture and is a tradition that has been preserved for generations. With Japan’s placement on the globe, it lands on top of and closes to four tectonic plates, making it a paradise for geothermal activity. The country has onsen dotted around the nation, including volcanoes such as the iconic Mount Fuji.
Table of contents
- Day 1 – Arriving in Tokyo
- Day 2 – Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura
- Day 3 – Exploring Tokyo
- Day 4 – Relaxed day in Tokyo
- Day 5 – Kusatsu Onsen
- Day 6 – Tenzan Onsen
- Day 7 – Hakone Onsen
- Day 8 – Osaka
- Day 9 – Dogo Onsen
- Day 10 – Beppu
- Day 11 – Ibusuki Onsen
- Day 12 – Lazy day in Beppu Onsen
- Day 13 – Journey back to Tokyo
- Day 14 – Sad farewell
This guide will be an itinerary designed for the ultimate Japanese onsen experience, and there will be a modest amount of travelling. Still, because of the rapid technology of the bullet train that conveniently connects the country, it will only be a few hours’ journeys at most. However, constant travelling will be tiring for anyone, so a couple of cities will be used as ‘homebases’ to stay at, while short day trip excursions can be made to nearby places to visit and explore. The JR pass will cover most of the travelling in the initial cost, so that is one less worry off your shoulders when embarking on this adventure. Also, this itinerary has been created with Tokyo; specifically, the area of Shinjuku being the starting point as that is the best area and most common city to arrive at in Japan. However, if you enter the country in a different city like Osaka, the itinerary can still be helpful from the point where you will visit that city.
Day 1 – Arriving in Tokyo
After arriving at Narita Airport after a long time sitting on a plane and on transport to reach your accommodation, there is nothing better to do than rest your legs. Therefore, please relax and hold your onsen trip in Japan for the first day. However, if there are any public bath facilities at your accommodation or even a ‘sentō’ bathhouse nearby, that will be a great choice. A sentō and an onsen are pretty similar, but the difference is that the latter uses hot spring water heated by the Earth, while the former is man-made and artificially heated by a boiler.
Day 2 – Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura
Waking up bright and early for your first morning in Japan, take a 13-minute train ride from Shinjuku Station, take the Yamanote Line and get off at Sugamo Station. A short walk from the station, stroll your way towards the ‘Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street’. You can spend the day wandering this bustling shopping street where they sell everything from traditional Japanese snacks and classic street food to clothes and charms. There are also some temples to discover close to the surrounding neighbourhood, such as ‘Shinshōji Temple’ and ‘Togenuki Jizoson Koganji Temple’.
Once you are done and tired out, take a short 8-minute walk towards ‘Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura’ for soothing relaxation. This modern onsen provides plenty of opportunities and facilities to help soak in hot water and unwind. As the name subtly suggests, the experience of the onsen is only heightened in the spring when the sakura cherry blossoms are blooming, surrounding the area in a pink paradise.
Day 3 – Exploring Tokyo
Even though onsen is the main priority for this travel plan, going to an onsen every day can quickly become laborious, so it is important to sprinkle in a few days of rest and non-onsen exploration. On top of that, it just would not be a trip to Japan without visiting some of the iconic spots and places.
From Shinjuku Station, board the train and head down to Akihabara Station. Roam the streets of this electric technological paradise and prepare to be amazed. You could easily spend hours here popping in and out of each store, but if you prefer something closer to nature, head back to Akihabara Station and follow the line to Ueno Station.
Directly outside, you will be greeted to the extensive stomping grounds of ‘Ueno Park’, which even hosts a zoo and a shrine. Another place you could sink hours of your day into. After your park wandering, you can head back to the same station and take a 7-minute train to Asakusa Station to arrive at ‘Sensō-ji Temple’. However, the JR Pass does not cover this station, so it will cost ¥170 to use. If you want to avoid spending the extra yen, you can walk it instead for 23 minutes.
As the day winds down and the sun sets, you can take a 17-minute walk across the river towards ‘Tokyo Skytree’ or a 3-minute train ride on the Kita-Senju Line with some walking for ¥150. Once you reach the observation deck, you will be awed by the beautiful city skyline lit up in the evening sky.
Day 4 – Relaxed day in Tokyo
After a long day of exploring, this will be a more relaxed day where you can sleep in a bit and head out to the ‘Meiji Jingu’ shrine nearby in the afternoon. Hop on at Shinjuku Station, get off at Yoyogi Station and take a 15-minute walk before reaching your destination. Head down the avenue of towering trees as you are engulfed in peace and tranquillity.
Head back to Yoyogi Station and travel down the line to Shibuya Station so that you can witness the insanity of ‘Shibuya Crossing’ yourself. There is also the famous ‘Statue of Hachikō’ there, so you can take a selfie with the monument of the nicest pet doggy.
Day 5 – Kusatsu Onsen
A full day of relaxation is on the schedule, but a train journey to get there is needed first. From Shinjuku Station, head to Ōmiya Station, to Takasaki Station, and then Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station. Finally, you will need to take a bus from outside the final station and get off at the Kusatsu Onsen stop. Unfortunately, the JR Pass does not cover the last bus ride, so you must pay ¥710.
Iconic across Japan as one of the top must-visit hot spring resorts, the geothermically heated onsen water is believed to be some of the best quality in terms of healing properties. Due to where the place is located geographically, it is encircled by stunning mountains that provide hiking and skiing routes depending on the season.
Day 6 – Tenzan Onsen
Today the ‘homebase’ in Tokyo will be moving to the beautiful hot spring town of Hakone, so pack all your things as you head on down to Shinjuku Station. Starting there, get to Tokyo Station and then Odawara Station. Unfortunately, from this point, the JR Pass is not applicable where you need to take the Hakonetozan Line to Hakone-Yumoto Station and then take the bus from there, getting off at the Okuyumoto Bus Stop. It will cost ¥550 for this final portion of the journey.
After settling into your accommodation, head towards ‘Tenzan Onsen’ for pure relaxation. Architecturally designed in an old-fashioned traditional style, it perfectly matches the calm, stoic energy in the area. As you walk through the sliding doors with the soft tatami beneath your feet, you will eventually find yourself by the various onsen they offer in this part of Japan. They have an indoor bath and outdoor bath, where you will be able to gaze at the gorgeous natural backdrop. There is even one that goes into a cave, so you are spoilt for choice here.
Day 7 – Hakone Onsen
On this day, you can take it slow and explore the area of Hakone. If the weather is not too bad or cloudy, you should be rewarded with a grand view of the almighty Mount Fuji. You could even take a scenic railway ride meandering through wooded valleys and rivers, finishing off with a ropeway that gives you overhead views of the surrounding area.
Day 8 – Osaka
On the move again, Osaka will be the next temporary home until tomorrow. From the Okuyumoto Bus Stop, take the bus to Sammaibashi. Get off and take a bus from the Sammaibashi bus stop across the street, moving opposite. Get off once you reach Odawara Station. This part will cost ¥610, which the JR Pass does not cover. Luckily, the remainder of this journey is included as part of the JR Pass. Take the bullet train from Odawara Station to Shin-Osaka Station in 2 hours and 20 minutes.
After dropping your luggage off at the accommodation, you are free to explore the city of Osaka. Sadly, it is not as much time as this city deserves, but you will still be able to visit the legendary ‘Dotonbori’ district with all the neon lights radiating the night.
Day 9 – Dogo Onsen
Back on the road, head to the starting point of Shin-Osaka Station, travelling to Okayama Station. From there, get off at Matsuyama Station. Check into your place of accommodation and head to the JR Matsuyama Ekimae bus stop, hopping off at Dogo Onsen Station. This bus route does not apply to the JR Pass, which costs ¥300.
Dogo Onsen is an alluring onsen in Japan built in 1894 and is the centrepiece of this area. Boasting lavish and opulent details, it partially served as inspiration for the esteemed bathhouse that appears in the admired Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away”.
Day 10 – Beppu
Heading to the final ‘homebase’ of the trip, go to Matsuyama Station and get off at Imabari Station. You will take a non-JR Pass bus from the front of the station, getting off at the Fukuyama Ekimae bus stop costing ¥2,600. The rest of this journey is free due to the JR Pass, first boarding at Fukuyama Station to Kokura Station, and then finally arriving at Beppu Station.
The city of Beppu has seven essential geothermal hot springs, often referred to as the ‘Hells of Beppu’. These natural wonders are unique onsen in Japan, and some even have red boiling water. What sets these hot springs apart from others is that they are for viewing rather than bathing. The scorching temperatures can rise to make it a hazard for anyone to bathe in it safely, hence the name ‘Hells of Beppu’.
However, if you are looking to bathe in an actual hot spring, the ‘Takegawara Onsen’ not only offers regular hot spring baths but also sand ones.
Day 11 – Ibusuki Onsen
We will be heading down to the south of the country for the final day trip. Get on at Beppu Station, travel to Kokura Station, towards Kagoshimachuo Station, and end at Ibusuki Station.
In the almost tropical area of Ibusuki Kagoshima, where palm trees pattern the coastline and the sun blazes over the beaches, what is interesting here are their unique hot sand baths called ‘sunamushi’. Sunamushi is a form of onsen in Japan where you lay into a slightly dug area in the sand and can immediately feel the heat from the Earth. The staff then begin to shovel sand on your body until only your head is exposed, allowing your body to soak in the heat and pressure from the sand. The geothermal activity in this area is so present that the sand itself is naturally being heated, causing it to turn a darker colour than the usual golden-white most are used to.
Day 12 – Lazy day in Beppu Onsen
The final day to lay in and take it a bit slower before a lot of travelling back to Tokyo and the airport. You can spend this day discovering all the exciting and fun looking areas of Beppu Onsen, with possibly a final session at a local onsen or sentō (communal bathhouse in Japan) to detox one last time.
Day 13 – Journey back to Tokyo
The 6 hour and 40-minute travel back to Tokyo begins at Beppu Station to Kokura Station, then to Shinagawa Station, finally reaching Shinjuku Station. With a distance of over 1,120 kilometres between the starting and ending stations, 6 hours and 40 minutes is honestly quite impressive and is a testament to the feat of the bullet train.
You could either spend the extra few hours in Tokyo before getting ready for the morning by exploring some more, doing some last-minute shopping, or getting in a couple more hours of sleep. Whatever works for you is fine, but make sure you do not miss your flight tomorrow!
Day 14 – Sad farewell
The ultimate onsen in Japan adventure comes to a close. You make your way towards Shinjuku Station, switching from Hamamatsuchō Station to the Tokyo Monorail, riding towards Haneda Airport. Having spent the last two weeks travelling up and down the country experiencing all different types of onsen, you will wear even some of the biggest onsen lovers. But as soon as that feeling fades away and the itch to jump into a Japanese onsen comes back again, you can always go and do it all again.
After adding together, the cost of all the individual JR Pass valid tickets used for transport with this itinerary, it roughly comes out to ¥115,720. With the price of a standard 14-day JR Pass being ¥50,000, it comes down to a saving of ¥65,720!
The above saving does not consider any extra travel you could do on any day, especially for those where you were free to plan the day however you wanted. In reality, the saving could be even more significant. While the JR Pass can seem like a high starting price, if you can use it as much as possible, taking full advantage of it, this is proof that you can make some massive savings.