TOPTravel4 of Japan’s Most Exclusive Hot Spring Inns

4 of Japan’s Most Exclusive Hot Spring Inns

Bask in ultimate Japanese luxury at these ultra-fab onsen resorts

By Lisa Wallin

Once travel is in the cards again, escape the daily grind with an isolation vacation somewhere that is remote, private and oozes with decadence. Experience near solitude as you indulge in the finest Japanese cuisine and pamper yourself with spa treatments and mineral-rich baths at one of these four serene sanctuaries across Japan.

1. A Slice of Heaven on Earth in Southern Japan: Tenku-no-Mori, Kagoshima Prefecture

With just five spacious open-planned villas on a verdant expanse of 60 hectares, Tenku-no-Mori may be the closest thing to paradise on Earth. Twenty-five years in the making, this place is a textbook example of ultimate luxury. Here, guests can escape the outside world to such an extent that the inn’s website jokingly suggests that the dress code is… naked. Surrounded by the deep forests of the Kirishima Mountains, waterfalls and nothing else, this serene location is as private as it gets. Two of the villas don’t allow overnight guests. Instead, they are reserved exclusively for day trippers and passengers of the luxury sleeper train Seven Stars of Kyushu, who stop for spa treatments and relaxing hot spring soaks.

Guests staying the night are spoiled with exquisite local fare, much of it harvested from the Tenku-no-Mori’s own terraced organic garden. The inn even has its own free-range chicken farm, taking the concept of farm-to-table to new heights. Spa treatments use oil squeezed from sesame seeds on-site, and health-conscious guests can explore the nearby Ishizaka River and venture into the surrounding woods. The inn can also organize Cessna charters and helicopter tours for those who want a taste of adventure. The same family runs nearby Wasure no Sato Gajoen, a rustic inn-meets-hamlet with traditional thatched roof buildings and baths carved from solid rock.

Essential Info

Tenku-no-Mori
3389 Shukukubota, Makizono-cho, Kirishima city, Kagoshima Prefecture

Wasure no Sato Gajoen
4230 Shukukubota, Makizono-cho, Kirishima city, Kagoshima Prefecture

2. Compact Tradition and Charm in an Ancient Onsen Town: Kaiseki Yado Suihouen, Gifu Prefecture

One of Japan’s three famous onsen areas (together with Arima and Kusatsu), Gero Onsen has been a hot spring destination for almost a thousand years. The mineral-rich waters are dubbed bijin no yu, or “hot springs of beauties” and are purported to leave the skin feeling exceptionally soft and supple. Kaiseki Yado Suihoen is a charming inn with just 17 rooms – nine of them with their own private open-air bath – located a 12-minute walk up a hill to the northeast of the main town area. Guests of two or three requesting pickup from Gero Station can board the inn’s exclusive Toyota Classic – one of only 100 in existence – while larger groups of four or five are ferried in a genuine London black cab, directly imported from England.

While Suihoen’s many baths are a major draw, so are its sumptuous multi-course meals. Dine on melt-in-the-mouth Hida beef wagyu and Gero Onsen-brand rice Gin no Mikazuki, paired with a rich selection of locally sourced vegetables. UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakawago Village is only an hour away – perfect for a day trip – but guests at Suihoen can get a taste of what it’s like there much closer to home. Gero Onsen Gassho-mura, an open-air museum with 10 thatched-roof houses (some relocated from Shirakawago) is only a 6-minute walk away.

Essential Info

Kaiseki Yado Suihoen
2519-1 Mori, Gero city, Gifu Prefecture

3. A License to Indulge Near Tokyo: Hakone NICA, Kanagawa Prefecture

Opened in November 2020, Hakone NICA (an acronym for Nature, Ideal, Celebrate and Anniversary) is a new onsen retreat close to home for tired Tokyoites. As its name suggests, this stylish and custom-friendly venue is the perfect destination for celebrating special occasions like intimate weddings and romantic anniversaries. Its sleek structure houses only eight guest rooms, making it feel more like a large private villa than a hotel. Each room comes with its own hot spring bath, ensuring privacy every guest. To maintain the space’s serenity, this decadent destination doesn’t allow children under the age of 11.
Drinks – a curated selection of champagne, wine and more – are served in a free-flow style from check-in to check-out. Guests are also encouraged to bring their own tipples (there is no bottle fee) with them. Let the hotel know in advance what wine, sake or Champagne you’re planning to bring and rising star chef Mitsunobu Yamamoto will create a tantalizing personalized Japanese-Italian fusion pairing menu.

Essential Info

Hakone NICA
1358 Miyagino, Hakone-cho Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture

4. Steeped in Samurai History: Kakunodate Sanso Wabizakura, Akita Prefecture

Just 10 minutes from Akita Prefecture’s samurai town of Kakunodate, this chalet seamlessly combines the best of traditional historic and modern Western influences. The 200-year-old main structure – brought down from Iwate Prefecture – is furnished with antiques from the Aoyagi samurai clan. It serves as an entrance to a private world separated from the outside. Kakunodate Sansao Wabizakura has just 10 suites, each with a free-flowing hot spring bath and adjoining terrace. The royal suites have their own dining rooms, and guests who book lunch on top of dinner and breakfast can enjoy a stay without having to see another soul except for staff.

Hiromitsu Nozaki, executive chef at Michelin-starred Waketokuyama in Minami-Azabu, oversees the inn’s cuisine. The menu changes monthly, to make the most of Akita Prefecture’s over 700 seasonal ingredients. Guests also receive complimentary admission to Aoyagi Samurai Manor Museum – notify hotel staff in advance to ensure placement on the facility’s guest list.

Essential Info

Kakunodate Sanso Wabizakura
2-8 Aza-sasayama Kadoya, Nishiki-cho, Senboku city, Akita Prefecture


This article was published in the Sep-Oct 2021 issue of Tokyo Weekender. To flip through the issue, click the image below.