The onsen trail- sotoyu meguri
“SOTO-YU MEGURI”- Wander the hot spring trail
Nozawa Onsen flourished as a hot spring town during the Edo period (1603–1868), when drinking from and soaking in the alkaline mineral-rich water was said to heal various illnesses. The town is particularly proud of its Soto Yu- the thirteen communal bath houses dotted around the neighbourhood and run by local families of the “Yunakama” community.
Soto-yu means “outside bathhouse” and Onsen means “hotspring”. In many places of Japan there are Sotoyu which are not Onsen but in Nozawa Onsen the terms are inter-changeable when referring to the 13 free bath houses.
Most of the Onsen are easily recognizable due to their wooden structures, with architectural designs typical of the Edo period, but some are a little trickier to spot.
All of the Soto-yu are located within easy walking distance of most accommodation in the main village area.
The facilities combine a calm atmosphere with rustic, simple structures; there is one room for each gender, containing a bathtub surrounded by tiles where you sit to wash, and a slightly elevated changing area with wooden slats or tiles.
All the baths are served by a continuous hot spring flow from its local natural source called gensen kakenagashi (ranging between 40–90 degrees Celsius). The water in the bathtubs is typically 45–49 degrees Celsius.
For first-timers the hot water can be a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth accepting because your body will benefit from the silk-like, mineral-rich water, which boasts anti-aging effects and smooths your skin. Take your time when washing and pour the water over your body to get used to it before taking the plunge.
If it’s too hot, don’t worry—you can add cold water to adjust the temperature, but check with other guests that they are comfortable with the change. Some like it hot.
Keep in mind that swimwear is not worn in onsen facilities. And remember- before you enter the bath you must wash while seated. (Don’t forget to bring a towel and soap).
There is no entrance fee to the thirteen Soto Yu, but contributions towards its upkeep are appreciated. Donation boxes are placed next to the entrance of each bath. You may also encounter single indoor pools next to some Soto Yu facilities. These are used by villagers for daily tasks such as laundry or vegetable washing.
To give your onsen-hopping even more of a local flavor, wander around this picturesque, nostalgic town dressed in a yukata (light cotton kimono), and explore the many narrow lanes with their tiny canals.
Even if you may not feel comfortable entering a Soto Yu, it is worth visiting each of them. Gaze at their unique architecture, or collect stamps at the checkpoints in front of each bath.
|Opening days and hours||Open all year-round. May–Nov 5am–11pm, Dec–Mar 6am–11pm.|
|Charge||Entry is free but there are small donation boxes located at all entries- please show your appreciation but adding some coins to the boxes.|
Located in the centre of the town and the symbol of Nozawa-onsen village. O-yu bathhouse is the largest and grandest bathhouse building among the Soto-yu.
This is a must-try bathhouse for visitors to Nozawa-onsen.
Though small, this bathhouse has a typical bathhouse style building with a traditional atmosphere. The water here is said to be good for skin diseases. The water is very hot, but it is still a popular onsen in summer, when bathing in the early morning is a good idea. Located just below Oyu onsen.
This bathhouse is located further up the hill toward the ski resort and short walk from the center of the Onsen district.
The changing area in this onsen is a separate enclosed room- perfect for very cold and snowy days!
The spring water is a milky blue colour.
A very tiny onsen down the hill from the Ogama hotspring kitchen. This onsen also has communal laundry room so be sure to go into the right door!
It is said that hot water at this bathhouse is especially good for healing cuts, burns, and boils. The water here has a slightly greenish transparent hue.
An old bathhouse- but recently re-built. It is said that Nozawa-onsen originated in this place. According to legend an injured bear led a hunter to this spring.
This onsen has a stone lower level with a laundry room. The upstairs section is where the bathing rooms are and are built in a temple-like fashion.
This massive bathhouse is the largest of Nozawa-onsen’s Soto-yu. The communal bathhouse is in a building constructed in a temple style.
This onsen was recently moved from its former location, and has been re-built in a different style. Located just in front of the Nishinomiya shrine and above the Shinden bus terminal.
This public bathhouse is located near the entrance to Tsutsujiyama Park, at the north end of town. People say that the water here is good for diseases cured by warming.
With its traditional style building, this public bathhouse has a relaxing atmosphere. The water at this bathhouse is good for those recovering from serious illnesses.
This bathhouse is located in the basement of a building below the Yokochi traffic lights, and the stone wall of the building serves as a landmark. The water at this bathhouse is especially good for skin diseases.
With its concrete construction, at first glance this Soto-yu doesn’t look like an an onsen, – but it is one of the larger and popular bath houses in Nozawa, and is worth a visit. The first floor is for women next to the laundry room, and the second floor is for men.