To dip or not to dip: That is the question that proves easy to answer in Oita—where bubbling thermal baths birthed from volcanic activity take center stage at every turn. The prefecture’s mineral-rich onsen create a symphony of steam in mountainsides, on cliffs, and at street corners. With the highest number of hot spring sources in all of Japan, it’s a region that’s always been a wellness retreat for residents who believe in the water’s therapeutic properties—but remains relatively less frequented by international tourists.
I learned about Oita many years ago from a friend, and as one who has never shied away from the opportunity to commune with water, I decided to take a weeklong trip into Japan’s historical onsen culture. It would include two stops: the charming town of Yufuin, followed by the coastal city of Beppu.
If you have little knowledge of the region, mapping out how to arrive in Yufuin from another part of Japan can be quite a heavy lift. Fortunately, the team at the hotel I stayed in before departure—the Ritz-Carlton, Nikko, in another onsen hot spot two hours north of Tokyo—provided helpful bullet train directions.
Opting for land over air travel to Oita allows you to watch the beauty of Kyushu unfold; vignettes of forested mountains dotted with cedar and waterfalls flashed before me. Cottages sitting on golden rice fields veiled in bamboo stalks were a considerable contrast from the sky-high structures of Tokyo.
A spring-filled retreat in the shadow of Mount Yufu
A few train transfers and six hours later, I arrived in Yufuin. Rows of boutique shops selling sweets and souvenirs surround the main town square, with the twin-peaked Mount Yufu—a site for both hiking and onsen—towering above some 5,200 feet. A 10-minute drive up a winding road shrouded in cypress trees led to the hot spring ryokan Kai Yufuin.
The bamboo-clad property, designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates as part of the Hoshino hospitality brand, is a mirror of its surroundings. It’s rooted in careful craftsmanship that blends in with its idyllic countryside location in a terraced rice paddy. Low-rise gray and black gable-roofed buildings are situated around the budding rice fields, including 45 guest rooms and farmhouse-style villas with tatami flooring, plus a sleek onsen bathhouse open to guests. The dining room serves meticulously presented kaiseki meals that include a tower of sashimi on handcrafted ceramics shaped like bamboo stalks and wagyu beef that sizzles on a mini grill left tableside.
Kai Yufuin is a few minutes’ drive from a number of onsen locations that welcome daytime visitors. Visits typically include a towel, yukata (traditional robe) to wear around the facilities, and multiple, gender-specific pools. General onsen etiquette, such as pre-washing and limiting loud speaking, is also important to remember.
Tsukanoma (admission 800 yen, approximately US$6), is located on Yufuin’s flat river basin. The large outdoor hot spring here is replenished kakenagashi style—meaning directly from a hot spring source that never employs recycled water. Visitors can purchase a meal plan with dishes made from the steam of the onsen, including boiled eggs and a variety of meats.
At Musoen (admission 1,000 yen, approximately US$8), panoramic views of Mount Yufu from its nutrient-rich waters are the main attraction. The large open-air bath is situated on a hilltop in the Yufuin basin. One of Musoen’s male baths, called Kobo no Yu, is sourced from a hot spring that dates back 600 years.
Of all my hot spring visits in Yufuin, it was Kai Yufuin’s minimalist gray-scale bathhouse that remained my favorite. A black pebble floor trailed to a steaming outdoor onsen with unobstructed views of Mount Yufu. The most magical time to visit was right before dinner, when the sun hinged between budding cherry blossoms and the mountain’s peak it would soon hide behind. My stand-alone villa had its own private onsen as well, situated on a wooden deck that faced a forest full of native sawtooth oak trees. Amid the gurgling sound of my bath’s water and whistling trees, I peacefully spent my last night in Yufuin.
A resort town with thousands of onsen
The next morning, an hour-long bus ride east landed me in Oita’s most popular onsen resort town: Beppu. The city has over 3,000 hot springs—many visible via plumes of steam that spring up from the ground on streets and mountainsides.
It’s also famous for its 7 Hells of Beppu, hot springs (or jigoku, which means hells) that vary in color from turquoise to blood red, with some dating back 2,000 years. All are available for viewing, but bathing is prohibited due to the extreme temperature of the waters. The entry fee for one hell is 400 yen, or 2,000 yen for all seven hells. Five of them are located in a neighborhood called Kannawa, where I spent a day roaming the sulfur-scented streets. My favorite was Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell)—set in spacious gardens with lily ponds, red tori gate temples, and a cobalt blue onsen lined with palm trees. Here, you can also try a popular snack, an egg that’s been cooked in the hot spring steam and water called onsen tamago.
Beppu has no shortage of onsen to take a plunge into either. For a less traditional experience, at Beppu Beach Sand Bath (admission 1,500 yen, about US$12), attendants mold sand that’s rich in sodium chloride spring water around the body to open up pores and promote relaxation. Takegawara (admission 100 yen, US$7) is one of Beppu’s most famous and oldest onsen. The architecture still reflects its original gable-roofed structure built in 1879—reminiscent of structures in Hayao Miyazaki’s famous Spirited Away film. At Myoban Yunosato Kazokuyu (admission 600 yen, about US$5), silky blue thermal waters bubble around thatch-roofed huts on a mountainside 1,000 feet above the city. Yunosato also features four private onsen situated in huts with bamboo walls that can accommodate up to three people (admission 2,000 yen, US$15 per bath for one hour).
Just down the road, Okamatoya is a hillside restaurant full of eager crowds who line up for its jigoku-mushi pudding—a custard dessert that gets its slightly bitter caramel sauce flavor from the hot spring steam it’s cooked in. Another specialty to try here is toriten, a light and crispy tempura-style fried chicken that originated in Oita.
After a five-minute drive up the road from Okamatoya, I checked into a misty mountainside retreat, ANA InterContinental Beppu Resort & Spa. From the lobby’s two-story glass wall, the sheer number of Beppu’s hot springs around the city couldn’t be more evident. At night, it almost looks as though the city might be on fire, as swirls of smoke spiral into the inky sky. The 89-room property’s design combines natural elements with a contemporary aesthetic. Bamboo artwork and handmade pottery made by Beppu artisans accent the lobby.
Club level and suite rooms offer terraces with open-air baths and views of Beppu Bay, and the Panorama two-bedroom suite includes its own onsen and tearoom. The luxury Thai spa brand Harnn provides wellness treatments like body brushing and a soothing foot massage. At the property’s 21-seat Atelier, French cuisine is executed with Kyushu local ingredients like juicy tomatoes and tender wagyu bungo beef paired with wines from regions as far as Sonoma and Oregon.
My trip ended cliffside, at ANA’s stunning outdoor onsen, set against massive layered stones that cascade down a mountainside. Suspended above the city in this steam-filled moment, my muscles and jawline relaxed in a way that I now long for, serving as a reminder that I must return to Oita’s restorative waters one day.
How to get to Oita
United Airlines offers nonstop flights to Tokyo’s Haneda airport from Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as nonstop flights from San Francisco to Osaka’s Kansai airport.
Oita is a 90-minute flight from Tokyo or 60 minutes from Osaka. For train travel, coordinate with your hotel’s concierge for best train routes and times from your starting location in the country. The Yufuin No Mori is a limited express sightseeing train that travels from Fukuoka’s Hakata station in Kyushu to both Yufuin and Beppu. Learn how to get tickets. For more information on the region, Visit Kyushu has a host of information.
If you’re interested in visiting other hot springs across the country, check out Japan-based writer Burcu Basar’s guide to the best onsen in Japan.