Nagano Onsen Hot Springs
A Japan Onsen Guide
Welcome to our Nagano Onsen guide. 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 socialise, and others came from far and wide to soak in springs that would cure their ills. Now, soaking in Japan onsen hot springs is an popular pastime attracting visitors from around the world. You can click on the following links to find specific Nagano onsen information on Nozawa Onsen, Madarao Onsen and Hakuba Onsen plus neighboring Joetsu-Myoko.
Nagano Onsen Information
A must do activity when visiting Nagano is a natural Japan onsen (hotsprings). Nagano onsen are the second highest number of hot spring areas (over 200) in Japan. Additionally it has the most day-use hot spring facilities in the country (over 700!). Scattered right across Nagano prefecture many local Nagano onsen belong to ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), some are community-run local hot spring houses, whilst others are public bathhouses.
You can find hot springs of all shapes, sizes, colors and styles here. Hot spring baths come in different varieties from baths made of rocks and cypress wood, to tiny city sento bathhouses. The best baths are outside (called rotemburo) and nothing could be more relaxing than feeling the fresh air on your face, the mineral water on your skin while you soak up the many views of Nagano – open skies, rivers, mountains, forests and sunsets. While your first hot spring experience may be somewhat daunting, you quickly learn to love this Japanese past-time. For many, Japan onsen in Nagano are the thing they miss most when they return home.
Find out what an onsen is
Onsen (温泉) is the Japanese word for hot springs; quite literally, at that, since 温 on is “warm” and 泉 sen is “spring”. Japan is a very volcanically active country, resulting not only in frequent earthquakes, but also an abundance of hot springs throughout the archipelago. Traditionally, onsen were located outdoors, although a large number of inns have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. Onsen by definition use naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs.
Onsen should be differentiated from sentō, indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with heated tap water. Major onsen resort hotels often feature a wide variety of themed spa baths and artificial waterfalls in the bathing area (打たせ湯).
Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. A particular onsen may feature several different baths, each with water with a different mineral composition. The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, marble or granite, while indoor tubs may be made with tile, acrylic glass or stainless steel. Many bathers come for only an hour or so to soak in the waters. Food also plays an important part in the attraction of a particular inn. While other services like massages may be offered, the main reason most people visit the onsen is to enjoy the baths.
Gender separation in an onsen
Traditionally, men (right kanji) and women (left kanji) bathed together at the onsen, as they did at the sentō. However single-sex bathing has steadily become the established custom since the opening of Japan to the West during the 19C Meiji period. Mixed-sex bathing persists at some onsen in the rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate “women-only” baths or different hours for the two sexes, although young children of either sex may be seen in both the men’s and the women’s baths.
People often travel to onsen with work colleagues, as the relaxed and open atmosphere helps to break down some of the hierarchical stiffness inherent in Japanese work life. However, most visitors to onsen are not work groups but friends, couples and families.
Japan Onsen Tours
From the volcanic lushness of southern Kyushu island to the soaring rural landscapes of snowy northern Hokkaido, there are over three thousand hot spring towns across Japan. The Japan Onsen site is happy to bring a selected range of the finest onsen hotels and ryokan at some of Japan’s most famous spring areas.
Let us help you plan all the details of your special Japan onsen tour, and save some money as well. Japan Onsen Experience Tours include travel on the shinkansen bullet train, delicious gourmet meals and a totally relaxing stay at an onsen inn, ryokan or hotel of your choice.
Getting ready for the onsen
Onsen are usually divided into separate male and female baths with separate changing rooms, though you may find the odd exception. Identify your bath by using the handy kanji key (pictured above) on the noren curtains hanging in front of the door. Men’s baths are also usually colorcoded blue, while women are red. Guests remove their clothes and leave them in either a locker or baskets (as per photo right). If there are only baskets, you may want to leave your valuables with the management. However many facilities also provide secure lockers.
Upon entering the onsen guests are expected to wash their bodies and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water. The indoor baths have faucets with removable shower heads and stools to sit on, for showering and shampooing. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is considered unacceptable. Guests are not normally allowed to wear swimsuits in the baths. However, some modern onsen having more of a waterpark atmosphere (such as Nozawa Spa Arena) require their guests to wear a swimming suit in their mixed baths/pools.
Getting into the onsen
Get slowly into the bath so as not to disturb fellow bathers. It may be very hot, so it’s wise to test the water first. If it’s very hot, ease yourself in slowly and keep as still as possible once immersed, this way you don’t feel the heat so much. Onsen guests generally bring a small towel with them to use as a wash cloth. The towel can also provide a modicum of modesty when walking between the washing area and the baths.
Some onsen allow one to wear the towel into the baths, while others have posted signs prohibiting this, saying that it makes it harder to clean the bath. In this latter case, people normally set their towels off to the side of the water when enjoying the baths, or place their folded towels on top of their heads. Onsen are generally considered a respite from the hectic pace of life and consequently they are usually fairly quiet. However, sometimes bathers will engage in quiet conversation in this relaxed situation.
After the onsen
Don’t stay in too long if you feel a little light headed, get out and relax for a few minutes before getting back in. After the onsen there may be no need to shower as the mineral content can be good for the skin. This is especially in places like Kamiyamada where the pH is high. But with more acidic onsens like Norikura or Kusatsu, if you don’t shower afterwards you may feel itchy.
Post-onsen, make sure to drink a good amount of water first, then beer. From there you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyûkeishitsu). These are inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby. *Note: beer might dehydrate you more if you haven’t had some water first. Sprawl out in your yukata, sip on a beer , talk with friends, take a nap. That’s what it’s there for!
Tattoos in the onsen
If you have tattoos there may be a problem gaining entrance. As with many aspects the locals will often take an easier line with foreigners and allow you in if the tattoos are not terribly obvious. However, that will not always be the case. Onsen that are municipally owned should not present a problem as they have a duty to let all tax-paying citizens in.
The original reason for this ban was to keep out ヤクザ (yakuza), or members of other 暴力団体 (violence groups). Bottom line: some places will make accommodation for you, others won’t. Be prepared to be denied and please don’t get offended if you do. Example of tattoos banned signs are as follows. The text on the left says 入れ墨禁止 (irezumi kinshi, or tattoos forbidden).
Women’s period in onsen
A special note for women: it’s regrettable and annoying, but if you happen to be on your period, don’t bother even going into an onsen bathing area. Blood plays a significant role in what is considered taboo in Japan, so it’s simply it will just not your time for an onsen experience.
Foreign visitors to an onsen
Also, in very rare cases elsewhere in Japan, some onsen just deny entry to foreigners full stop. This is actually illegal – but one must decide whether it’s worth the hassle of arguing or simply moving onto the next place instead. Note: no cases of such discrimination are known of in Joetsu-Myoko, Madarao, Kamiyamada, Nozawa Onsen, Hakuba, etc. so please enjoy the local onsen.
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.
Descriptor: Japan-Onsen.com was the The English Onsen Guide. However it’s now been relocated elsewhere to here and other sites. On this page you will find Onsen FAQ, Onsen Etiquette, Onsen Warnings and Hassles & Onsen Jargon
Tags: Japan Onsen, Nagano Onsen, Rotemburo, Sento, Hot Springs, Onsen FAQ, Onsen Etiquette, Onsen Warnings, Onsen Hassles, Tattoos in onsen, women period onsen