Onsens in Tokyo – Bathing in Tokyo Hot Springs with Kids

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No visit to Japan would be complete without going to the onsens in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country. A visit to hot springs in Tokyo is a great window into Japanese culture for kids…and for yourself. In my Japan Times column, we’ve covered Osaka onsens and onsens near Tokyo. In this week’s piece, I cover hot springs in Tokyo city, and the best Tokyo onsen to go with children.

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Onsens in Tokyo: Bathing in Tokyo Hot Springs with Kids

There are plenty of onsens in Tokyo, and deciding which to recommend to families took some thinking. To be honest, most typical Tokyo hot springs are family-friendly. Yet in recent years there has been some Tokyo onsen designed as adults-only spaces away from kids. That said, public bathing has a long history in Japan. In fact, less than a century ago, few people had private baths, especially in major cities. Most people went to the local sento (public bathhouse) to wash up. And if they were lucky, there was a natural hot spring nearby.

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Types of Tokyo Hot Springs

There are two main public bathing options in Japan: the onsen and the sento. I could write multiple posts on both, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll explain them like this:

The Onsen

These are natural hot springs that are almost always with geothermally-heated water. The onsen water comes pumped from deep underground. Yet in many places, the water just pours out of the ground or into a nearby river. This onsen water usually has one or more of a variety of minerals in it. Different minerals purportedly have different health benefits. Onsens can be private businesses, where you pay to enter beautifully designed tubs. They can also be in public places, such as naturally occurring or hastily-made tubs on the riverbank or ocean shore. The ryokan (Japanese-style inn) is often built around an onsen. If you’ve never been to a ryokan, do yourself a favor and go.

The Sento

A sento is a public or neighborhood bathhouse. Many look just like an onsen, but most are more utilitarian and less zen. They don’t have hot spring water. Instead, the water comes from public utilities just like a bathtub at home. There are usually multiple tubs of varying temperatures. There may be some different style tubs, like one with onsen water, or steeped in tea. I’ve even sat in tubs that have a slight charge of electricity! I’m not kidding! Sento used to be very common, with at least one in every neighborhood. Nowadays, the sento are dying out. After all, almost everyone has a tub at home. But for many, the public bath is still a community meeting place.

How to Use Onsens in Tokyo & Beyond

oedo onsen monogatari Odaiba 2

If you visit a Tokyo hot springs or any onsen in Japan, it’s very important to remember that Japan has its own bathing rules and rituals. The most important rule on onsen etiquette is to shower first and be clean when you get in the tubs. In other words, shower before you soak in the tubs. The actual onsens in Tokyo and all of Japan are for relaxing, not washing. There will be shower stalls near the tubs. Use them first.

Excerpt from this week’s Child’s Play column:

One of our family’s favorite winter activities is visiting onsens in Tokyo. An onsen is a Japanese-style hote springs. To many Japan newbies, the thought of bathing with strangers in a Tokyo hot springs may seem off-putting — especially with kids. Yet for us and millions of other residents, a Tokyo onsen is the ideal way to warm up and spend time together on a winter afternoon.

Family Onsen Etiquitte

For those new to the Tokyo hot springs 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. Onsens in Tokyo always have space for you 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 onsens in Tokyo and all of Japan are divided into male and female sections. In most cases, however, kids under 7 can accompany a parent or guardian of either gender. Most onsens in Tokyo have soap, shampoo and towels available, but quality, price and availability vary. We tend to bring our own (small) towels and visit Tokyo hot springs that provide the suds for free. We also usually bring an extra set of clothes for our kids, as they 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.

Long-time Onsen Fans

We’ve written about a few of the more family-friendly onsens in Tokyo and elsewhere in the past. For example, the Japanese hot spring hotel Oedo-Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo’s Odaiba district is an exceptional place or a soak. In addition, the 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 Spa World, Osaka’s onsen spa/amusement park. Traditional onsen spa 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. We’ve also covered Hakone’s Kowakien Yunessun — one of the most interesting and unique onsens near Tokyo. Here you’ll find a different kind of Tokyo hot springs experience, complete with bathing tubs infused with coffee, red wine and sake.

Another great onsen near Tokyo is the Ryugujo Spa Hotel Mikazuki in Chiba Prefecture. Like Osaka’s Spa World, kids can enjoy hot spring 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 an onsen near Tokyo for a day trip.

Onsens in Tokyo

While not as extravagant as those mentioned, there are other onsens in Tokyo to have a relaxing family soak that don’t require an all-day excursion. One of our favorite onsens in Tokyo is Spa LaQua. This modern onsen spa is 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 onsen in Tokyo is for adults only after 6 in the evening. The last entry for kids is at 3. The timing works well to hit a few rides in the morning, then break for lunch. After that, enter LaQua for a Tokyo hot springs experience in the early afternoon.

Since 2013, I’ve covered family activities in Japan. Visiting onsens in Tokyo is just one example. But I’ve written for the Japan Times since 2002. Dig deeper and you’ll find music reviews/interviews, contemporary art criticism, and then travel, food, parenting, and more.

Have You Soaked in Hot Springs in Tokyo?

If you have experience with onsens in Tokyo then I’d love to hear about it. Which Tokyo hot springs did you visit? Or did you visit onsens near Tokyo like in Hakone onsen or onsen in Chiba? Which Japanese onsen would you recommend?

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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This costs you nothing, but when you use our links, we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book a hotel in Japan using our links. My opinions are my own and I only recommend onsens in Tokyo that I think you will enjoy. Do you know other Tokyo onsen spa we should write about? Let us know!

Image Credits thanks to Flickr Creative Commons: #1, #2, #3, #4