Is visiting the onsen one of your favourite pastimes in Japan? If you’re anything like me, you’ll try out any sort of hot spring available, from the poshest onsen resorts to the lowliest local onsens which are visited on a daily basis by the ancient regulars. If so, which type do you prefer? Obviously, the luxury and pampering element of the swankiest hot springs have a wonderfully calming atmosphere, but there is something charming and cozy about the down-to-earth local onsens that have been cleansing generations of bathers.
Kagoshima is littered with onsens because of the nearby volcano on Sakurajima, and the waters in that area are famous. During a recent trip there, I visited two local onsens – one of the down-to-earth type, and the other a step above – not even nearly a swanky onsen resort, but certainly a facility built for relaxation as well as functionality. Let’s take a look at these two hot springs – I wonder which one you would prefer to visit?
Located on the island at the foot of the volcano, the Sakurajima Magma Onsen is only a ten-minute walk from the port, so you can pretty much step right off the ferry and into gloriously hot water. Or maybe your onsen visit will come at the end of the day – just picture the scene: you’ve spent hours traipsing around the dusty lava fields and climbing up and down the twisting footpaths. You’re tired and dirty and need to relax. Lo and behold, a public bath house set right next to the shore with views across to Kagoshima city – what a wonderful view to have while relaxing in the naturally heated waters and letting your aches ebb away.
The onsen is joined to the Kokumin Shukusha Hotel, right next to the visitors centre. Popular with both locals and tourists, an adult ticket is 300 yen (or if you’ve taken one of the Sakurajima Tour Buses that day, some tickets include a discount to be used at the Magma Onsen). Purchase your ticket at the machine and hand it to the person behind the counter. The ladies’ bath is to the left and the men’s is to the right.
Through the changing room, the bathing area is not huge but the high ceiling gives it an airy feeling. In the women’s section, there are rows of showers (seated and standing type) and beyond that, two large hot baths, a cold plunge pool and a sauna room. The sauna was an L-shape which I haven’t seen before, and the traditional wooden walls gave the room a lovely smell. The large baths were hot but not scalding. You could certainly tell that the water was completely natural. First of all, the colour was like copper, with little bits floating in it (mineral elements) that made it look like a giant bowl of miso soup. Also, the tell-tale farty smell lets you know that this water is going to be good for you! Best of all: the view. Floor to ceiling misty windows present a view straight out to the sparkling waters and Kagoshima city beyond. Time your visit correctly and you can watch the sun setting from your watery viewpoint and see the lights on the ferries become brighter and brighter as the evening closes in and cloaks the sky.
The Sakurajima Magma Onsen was good value for money (especially seeing as I only paid 250 yen!) and the water felt very cleansing indeed. It was holiday season at the time of my visit which resulted in a bit of a queue to use the showers, but at quieter times of day and in quieter seasons I’m sure this onsen isn’t nearly so busy. In the reception is a lounge area where you can relax after your soak and there is a small shop where you can buy local snacks and gifts. A great way to finish off your day-trip to Sakurajima.
Sakurajima Magma Hot Spring website (Japanese only).
Located in the Health Building (ヘルスビル) near the Shiyakusho-Mae tram stop, I didn’t actually know the name of this onsen but recognised the ♨ symbol at the top of the building and the ゆ sign at the door. As usual, the women’s section was through the red curtains to the left and the men’s section through the blue curtains to the right. From the street, you take one step into the building, one step through the correct curtain to the tiny counter area (double-sided) and then one more step and you’re through to the changing room. A particularly powerful gust of wind at the right angle would give a pedestrian on the street quite an eyeful!
This onsen was one of the most down-to-earth local onsens I have been to in Japan. There were a couple of coin lockers in the changing room, but most people just threw their belongings into the baskets on the shelves. You can always tell which local onsens have regulars who visit daily by the personal bottles of shampoo and soap that they leave there – for them, the onsen is like their own bathroom and it’s where they take their daily soak.
The bathing room was small and slightly grimy with age, but it wasn’t dirty so much as being marked by the natural minerals of the water. To save on space, stools to use at the showers were piled up by the door rather than kept in front of the showers – you just took what you needed as you needed it. As is usually the case, soap and shampoo are provided at each showering station.
The main bath was really hot and quite deep in the middle, but with seating around the edges if you can’t take the heat of full submersion. Piping hot water gushed into the pool through a spout shaped like a lion’s head, his features worn down over time. In the corner, a smaller pool that could just about fit one person in was milder temperature, and like the big pool it was deep enough to lie down and be submerged.
The best pool was the coldest one, although not actually a cold plunge pool, just cold compared to the intense heat of the big pool! In an old wooden box on the wall was a pile of salt, which you could use to scrub yourself down with for a really good exfoliate before washing it all off in the water, which smelt great and had a really soft, clean feel to it because of all the salt in it. Finally, in the changing room there was a door leading into the little sauna – something I was surprised to see in so small an onsen.
This public onsen has obviously seen a lot of use, but to my great surprise I was the only person there when I arrived. Despite it being a holiday season, despite it being Sunday night (a time which is usually quite busy) when I arrived I had the whole place to myself. As the evening drew on, other customers came and went, most of them just having a quick dip before washing themselves off and leaving again – a sign that they probably use the onsen on a daily basis rather than as a luxurious treat.
Out of the two onsens, I think I would probably choose the little down-to-earth one as my favourite. But both are worth a visit and there are plenty more besides in Kagoshima, as well as free public foot baths scattered about the place. I wonder which onsen you’ll choose to go to when you visit Kagoshima?