Living in one of the most volcanically active countries in the world can have its perks, not least the abundance of natural hot springs or onsen. Tokyo included, the Nippon Onsen Research Association counts over 3,000 onsen spread around Japan, in locations ranging from Hokkaido to the southernmost islands of Okinawa. Traditionally, the citizens of Edo had to trek to spa towns like Hakone and Atami if they wanted to get their fix, but today's Tokyoites have it easier: they just drill a few kilometres underground to tap their own source of geothermal goodness. You can now find a diverse range of onsen in Tokyo, from old-school public baths that are practically indistinguishable from your average (or not so average) sento, to massive, theme park-style complexes such as Oedo Onsen Monogatari. There's never been a better time to check out some of Tokyo's best hot-spring baths – and we've got something for every taste and budget right here...
Don't let the fact that it's located next to the dreary Toshimaen amusement park put you off: this is the nicest of Tokyo's mega-onsen bathing complexes. Housed in a Japanese garden designed by leading landscape architect Kenzo Kosugi, Niwa no Yu is divided into male and female onsen bathing areas, with a central pool, outdoor jacuzzis and Finnish-style sauna where couples can hang out together (bathing suits required, natch).
Though it's best visited during cherry blossom season, when the somei-yoshino trees on the premises are at their finest, this onsen bathhouse has enough going for it to be worth a look any time of year. The sodium chloride-rich waters may not be much different to what you'd find at many other baths in the city, but at Sakura they're filtered to remove the colour and smell.
More like a 'super sento' than a traditional onsen, this sprawling complex inside Tokyo Dome City boasts a dizzying array of facilities: once you've finished soaking in the open-air rotenburo and bubbly massage baths, you can go and sample one of the multitude of beauty treatments on offer, or check out the high-tech saunas in the separate Healing Baden zone. Open all night.
The atmosphere of Tokyo's traditional shitamachi (downtown) area lives on at this compact onsen bathhouse, a brisk ten-minute walk from Kinshicho Station. They've managed to cram a lot into the bathing area ('cosy' would be an understatement), where the tubs range in temperature from chilly to a scalding heat that's likely to appeal most to wizened old gits with skin like leather.
Though it's located right in the centre of Asakusa, Jakotsuyu tends not to get much tourist traffic – which is all the more surprising when you consider that it's been going since the Edo period. The owners have given the place a few overhauls since then, and hardcore shitamachi geeks may be disappointed by the functional, modern interior.
Whatever your ailment, it can probably be treated at Myoji no Yu, an attractive, traditionally styled bathhouse whose salty, iron-rich 'netsu no yu' (literally, hot waters) are believed to improve circulation and offer relief for neuralgia, muscle pain, sore joints, sensitivity to cold and just about any other complaint you care to mention.
It's a bit of a hike to get there, but this functionally decorated onsen complex in Shin-Koiwa is one of Tokyo's biggest, not to mention one of the few that stays open all night long. The facilities at the three-floor Kodai no Yu include outdoor rotenburo and hinoki cypress tubs, as well as family rooms that can be rented out.
Up on the 9th floor of the Rakutenchi entertainment complex in Kinshicho, this 24-hour, men-only spa seems aimed mainly at office workers who've missed their last train home. There's an onsen bath and a pair of saunas, plus three relaxation rooms equipped with reclining chairs – the quietest of which comes with an optional wake-up call from the staff.
In addition to housing natural hot spring baths, open-air baths, saunas and more, this Edo-era onsen theme park also does a line in festivals, fortune telling, places to drink and dine, shopping, and even overnight accommodation. It's particularly worth visiting at the moment, as the prices are currently lower than usual.
A 2011 renovation at this long-running Azabu-Juban bathhouse brought Take no Yu into the modern era, just shy of its centennial. The chief attraction here is the mineral-rich, black-brown onsen water, which is so prized that customers can even pay ¥20 per litre to bottle the stuff up and take it home.
There aren't many Tokyo spas with a location as convenient as this, right outside the west exit of Ogikubo Station. Only the outdoor rotenburo at Nagomi no Yu use hot-spring water, but there's a range of other baths and saunas too. If you want to go all-out with the pampering, it's worth paying an extra ¥300 to get access to the various stone saunas and 'healing' zones, on the third and fifth floors.
Squeezed between a fitness club upstairs and a branch of Uniqlo on the ground floor, this spa complex draws hot spring water from 1,200 metres underground to supply its indoor and outdoor baths. The Spa Seijo also has a range of beauty treatments on offer, from pedicures to Ayurveda massages.
While most of Tokyo's inner-city onsen are either glorified sento or pricey theme parks, Utsukushi no Yu is a real gem, offering attractive outdoor rotenburo and a range of indoor tubs and saunas for under ¥1,000. Located in the western neighbourhood of Takaido, the complex is run by a local swimming club, and at weekends bathers are also given free run of the 25m indoor pool (hence the higher price).
This Fuchu spa complex was the priciest onsen in all of Tokyo when it first opened in 2006, charging bathers a gobsmacking ¥4,300 for a dip, though the admission fees have since been reduced to (slightly) more sensible levels since then. Expensiveness breeds exclusivity, of course, and you won't have to jostle people aside for a space in the baths here.
While other onsen in Tokyo are inclined to be conservative with their precious hot spring water, that isn't the case at this dowdy public bath. Even the taps and showers at Sakaeyu dispense pure onsen water – a generous profligacy that goes some way to compensating for the cramped dinginess of the place.
Sitting not far from the border with Kanagawa Prefecture, this Zoshiki bathhouse boasts a restaurant, karaoke room, massage service, relaxation chairs and small rooftop garden. If you're just looking to take a long soak, there's a range of tubs to choose from, including a rotenburo and an indoor onsen bath that uses Ota-ku's distinctive black kuroyu water.
In a savvy move, this 24-hour bathhouse has started offering a free shuttle bus service to nearby Haneda Airport every morning – perfect if you've got an early flight and would rather wait in a hottub than the departure lobby. The baths at Heiwajima Natural Hot Spring are designed to treat a range of ailments, from insomnia to lower back pain, and – as the name suggests – all of them use bona fide onsen water.
Get the full onsen experience at sento prices in this neighbourhood bathhouse in south-west Tokyo. Shimizuyu used to offer only the inky black kuroyu water that's typical in this part of the city, but they tapped into a deeper spring during an extensive overhaul in 2007, meaning that you can now also bathe in iron-rich 'gold' water in the outdoor rotenburo.
This modern-looking bathhouse is actually the reincarnation of a 40-year-old sento that closed its doors in 2006. Reborn as Togoshi Ginza Onsen, it now has a few baths supplied with authentic hot-spring water, as well as boasting a unique wall mural that blends a traditional depiction of Mt Fuji (by veteran sento artist Morio Nakajima) with a garishly modern rendering of the same peak.
Housed next to a laundromat on the ground floor of an apartment building, the Teru no Yu bathhouse couldn't look much shabbier from the outside. The inside isn't much better, either, although your money goes a long way here: the indoor bathtubs include one fashioned from cypress wood, and there's also a small rotenburo.
Out of town
Convenient it ain't, but this onsen complex on the outskirts of Tokyo offers attractive rotenburo baths, indoor tubs and saunas at a fair price. Roten Garden bills itself as Machida's first authentic onsen, drawing its sodium- and chloride-rich hot-spring water – said to be good for muscle pain and achy joints – from a depth of nearly 1,400m underground.
10 minutes' walk from Okutama Station on the JR Ome line, this onsen offers some welcome respite after a day spent hiking in the local mountains. The facilities include indoor and outdoor rotenburo baths, as well as a communal foot bath – though remember to bring your own towel, as it isn't included in the price.
Its location at the end of the hiking trail from Mt Hinode has made this onsen a popular stop for local ramblers, and you can expect it to get fairly busy on weekends and national holidays. Depending on which day you visit, male and female bathers will be assigned either to the traditional Japanese-style baths or a more ersatz 'Western' selection of tubs, all of which use alkaline hot spring waters drawn from 1,500m underground.
An hour's bus ride from the nearest train station, on the border between Tokyo and Yamanashi Prefecture, Kazuma no Yu is likely to appeal most to hikers exploring the local trails. The facilities certainly don't merit a special trip, but the alkaline hot-spring waters should provide relief to aching limbs (not to mention a bewildering list of other ailments).