Immerse yourself in the nature and culture of Miyagi by soaking in some of the prefecture’s world-class onsen (natural hot springs). The different water sources produce baths of different temperatures, mineral content, acidity, color, and texture. Just as the waters vary, so do the surroundings. Onsen range from simple communal bathhouses, to luxurious spa-like facilities, to rustic outdoor baths hewn from boulders.
Onsen culture in Miyagi dates back more than one thousand years. Historically, everyone from humble farmers to samurai rulers have sought out hot springs here for relaxation and recuperation. More than just a place of leisure, onsen are also prized for their curative properties. The countryside is home to the tradition of toji, extended stays at an onsen to recuperate from illness or after a period of intense physical exertion. To this day, some onsen accommodations still offer no-frills lodging at low prices to cater to guests who stay for a week or longer.
Miyagi has onsen areas dotted across its diverse terrain: in the mountains, by the ocean, nestled in forests. Visit in spring, summer, autumn, and winter, as each season offers a different experience.
Akiu Onsen is a well-developed hot spring town tucked away in the low mountains of western Sendai. It features about a dozen hot spring hotels located along Akiu Highway and the scenic Natori River, running the gamut from elegant to easy-going. Many offer day use of their hot spring baths, a great way to experience Akiu for those not staying overnight. Locals claim the waters of Akiu can improve quality of sleep, circulation, and reduce stress levels. No wonder this area is known as the “living room of Sendai.”
The train ride to Sakunami Onsen passes through a landscape of lush pine and maple forests hugging jagged mountains, with intermittent views of the Hirose River below. Sakunami Onsen, with many of its baths situated on the rocky banks of the Hirose, is home to hot springs said to treat a variety of illnesses, from rheumatism to beriberi. In ancient times, weary monks and the shogun alike visited Sakunami to heal both mind and body. In addition to hot springs, the Sakunami area has hiking trails and is home to the Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Distillery.
Naruko Onsen is hidden away in the hills of northwestern Miyagi. The effort it takes to get there is rewarded with one of the richest, most immersive onsen experiences available anywhere. Out of the ten types of hot spring water found in Japan, Naruko boasts a whopping eight. The more than four hundred different springs here provide water with different sensations. The almost endless variety of waters is coupled with a wide range of bathing facilities packed in the Naruko Onsen villages, from traditional inns with an old-Japan feel, to luxurious private baths, to an open-air bath fed by a natural onsen waterfall. If you are an onsen enthusiast or are even slightly curious about onsen, a visit to Naruko is a must.
Matsushima’s beautiful landscape, with its countless small islands, is revered as one of the Three Views of Japan and has been the inspiration of poets as renowned as Matsuo Basho. There are seven hotels near the bay here with natural onsen facilities. Staying the night is recommended for a truly relaxing Matsushima experience. The open-air baths with views are ideal for watching the sun or moon rise over the rippling waters of Matsushima Bay.
Togatta Onsen is located in the foothills of Mount Zao. The central area is compact and has a pleasant small town–like feel. There are two public bathing facilities here, well trafficked by locals and day trippers from Sendai. The town is also making a name for itself as a foodie hotspot, boasting a number of casual establishments serving best-in-class fare, from tofu at Hasegawaya to Taiwanese teas at Manyocha. The Sunday farmers’ market in the Kami no Yu square doesn’t hurt this reputation, either. Accommodations range from modest guesthouses located near the public hot springs to luxurious resorts. In winter, complimentary shuttle buses transport skiers and snowboarders to nearby ski resorts.
General bathing tips
Wash your body thoroughly with soap and rinse well before entering an onsen bath. Onsen are generally gender-separated, communal environments with no swimwear allowed. Store jewelry and watches in a locker in the changing area, as these items can be tarnished by the minerals found in some types of onsen water. For more on the fundamentals of onsen bathing, see the Japan National Tourism Organization’s (JNTO) Guide to Bathing in Japan.
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