One of our family’s favorite winter activities is visiting an onsen (hot-spring bath). To many Japan newbies, the thought of bathing with strangers at a public bath seems off-putting — especially with kids. Yet for us and millions of other residents, it’s an ideal way to warm up and spend time together on a winter afternoon.
For those new to the ritual, here are a few rules involved in family onsen etiquette. Make sure that both you and the kids properly bathe before stepping into the tubs. There’s always ample space to wash up before a soak, and it’s crucial that you do, too. Babies and toddlers wearing diapers are not allowed in the tubs. Most onsen are divided into male and female sections. In most cases, however, kids under 7 can accompany a parent or guardian of either gender. Most establishments have soap, shampoo and towels available, but quality, price and availability vary. We tend to bring our own (small) towels and visit places that provide the suds for free. We also usually bring an extra set of clothes for our kids, as our kids often arrive caked in dirt or sweat from the day. It’s nice to put on dry, clean clothes before stepping back out into the cold.
We’ve written about a few of Japan’s more family-friendly onsen attractions in the past. For example, Oedo-Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo’s Odaiba district is an exceptional place to visit with children. Not only is it great for a soak, but the Edo Period (1603-1868)theme gives kids a chance to wear yukata (lightweight kimono) and experience a version of the past, however sanitized and cliched it may be.
I have also expressed a fondness for Osaka’s Spa World. Traditional it is not. Expect grand, international-themed bathing rooms and a life-size replica of Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Yet it makes for a fantastic day of laughs and splashing around with my brood. By the same token, this column has covered Hakone’s Kowakien Yunessun amusement park and spa resort. Here you’ll find a different kind of onsen experience, complete with bathing tubs infused with coffee, red wine and sake. Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki in Chiba Prefecture should also be added to the list. Like Spa World, kids can enjoy heated waterslides and a lazy river, but Ryugujo Spa is on the sea with outdoor pools in the summer. You don’t have to stay at the hotel to visit the hot-spring area, so it’s great for those looking for a day trip from Tokyo.
While not as extravagant as those mentioned, there are other places in Tokyo to have a relaxing family soak that don’t require an all-day excursion. One of our favorites is Spa LaQua, a modern spa located near the baseball stadium and Tokyo Dome City’s amusement park in Bunkyo Ward. It’s a great way to warm up after riding the Thunder Dolphin roller coaster. I should note that LaQua is for adults only after 6 p.m., with the last entry for kids at 3 p.m. The timing works well to hit a few rides in the morning, break for lunch, and then enter LaQua early afternoon.
For those looking for a more intimate and traditional bathing experience, there are dozens of places worth visiting. I’ve listed up a few that are within the Yamanote Line or walking distance from it.
Jakotsuyu in Asakusa is tattoo-friendly and only a few minutes from the famous Sensoji temple complex. The main tub is usually around 40 degrees, which is quite hot for newbies, but there is a cold tub to cool down, if you dare. Tucked into the tiny Azabu neighborhood, the Take no Yu onsen is known for its dark, mineral-rich water. Unlike Jakotsuyu, here the tubs have a more moderate temperature. Kohmeisen, minutes from Nakameguro Station, is fairly small, but worth a dip into. Just remember that there’s only one rotenburo (outdoor tub) and it rotates between men and women weekly. If you’re looking for a spot to soak after a chilly afternoon in Yoyogi Park, Daikokuyu, a small bathhouse tucked away in a shopping street, is just four minutes from Yoyogi-Uehara Station. Don’t confuse this with another onsen called Daikokuya, which is six minutes from Oshiage Station in Sumida Ward’s Honjo area; though this, too, is worth a visit. Finally, there’s Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura in Sugamo. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the station, but there is a shuttle bus making regular rounds to and from JR Sugamo Station. You can find the schedule on the English page of its website.
Wherever you visit, savor that time and enjoy the conversations that start at an onsen. There’s something about hot water that relaxes the muscles and loosens the tongue. In fact, some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with my kids have started in the tub. That said, be ready for them to crash in the car or on the train home.
Tokyo has a wealth of child-friendly onsen spas
Oedo-Onsen Monogatari (Odaiba)
Spa LaQua (Kasuga)
jakotsuyu.co.jp (Japanese only)
Take no Yu (Minamiazabu)
bit.ly/daikokuyu (Japanese only)
Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura (Sugamo)
Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki (Chiba)
For trips out of Tokyo Spa World (Osaka)
Kowakien Yunessun (Hakone/Kanagawa)
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5