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Hikers doing Japan’s Kumano Kodo walk, a network of trails that follow a pilgrimage route going back over 1000 years in Wakayama prefecture south of Osaka and Nagoya, are rewarded with a plethora of hot spring baths along the trail.
After tramping up and down forested trails all day long, one of the best things to do in Wakayama is relieving your sore muscles in one of the piping hot, mineral infused Wakayama hot springs, especially if you are visiting Japan in winter.
Wakayama onsens are ancient and secluded, and the tiny hot spring village of Yunomine onsen, an important stop on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, is the world’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site hot spring. After tramping up and down forested trails all day long, nothing could be better than relieving sore muscles in a pool of piping hot, mineral infused water.
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The Wakayama hot springs I list below are conveniently located towards the end of the hike, at least for those doing the main Kumano Kodo trail from west to east, starting near Tanabe on the west coast of the peninsula and ending in either Hongu, Shingu, or Katsuura on the east coast, usually taking 3 or 4 days in total.
Even if you don’t hike the Kumano Kodo, you can catch a bus into the area like I did and visit most or all of the hot springs on this list in 2-4 days. Wakayama’s onsens and the Kumano Sanzan temples are worth the trip, and there are plenty of day hike options in the area.
Personally, I prefer staying in one spot and doing short day hikes from there. Tiny, traditional Yunomine onsen provided the perfect base, from which I visited the first four springs on this list, all on foot. The last hot spring on this list is a 2-3 hour bus ride away. Yunomine onsen is right on the Kumano Kodo, so I was even able to do one easy section of the legendary pilgrimage.
Visitors from Asia should definitely consider this 5-Day Osaka-Kumano-Wakayama area JR pass or this 7-day pass which covers a larger area.
I also LOVED soaking in onsens when I did a temple stay in Koyasan in winter, which was much colder than Wakayama.
1. Tsuboyu Onsen (Yunomine Onsen)
ancient, UNESCO private hot spring
Built right on top of the river at the center of the tiny hot spring village of Yunomine, this little shack housing a 1-2 person hot spring is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in the world in fact. The village of Yunomine actually features 2 other public hot springs and about a dozen traditional onsen inns, but Tsuboyu onsen is by far the most famous.
For centuries pilgrims have purified themselves after hiking the Kumano Kodo and before going to worship at the Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine 1.5 hours away on foot. Legend also tells of a 15th century prince who was brought here to be cured by its healing waters.
To have this ancient Tsuboyu onsen all to yourself or with a partner for 30 minutes, you need to buy a vending machine token and exchange it for a number at the local public bath window, then wait for your turn. The full instructions are detailed on this site.
Despite its fame among locals, I never noticed a line for the spring while I was staying in town, and I only had to wait about half an hour for my turn. Just downstream from Tsuboyu is where people go to cook eggs in the hot river, and here you’ll also find Yunomine onsen’s bus stop, tiny village temple, and the only shops in town, which were often closed.
If you plan to stay in Yunomine onsen, Ryokan Adumaya (see on Agoda / TripAdvisor / Booking) is a great choice for a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) experience with private onsen on site and meals included. It is located right by the bus stop. Another great (and cheaper) choice is J-Hoppers (see #4 below).
2. Wataze (Watarase)
scenic outdoor hot spring
From where I was staying in Yunomine onsen, it was an easy 1-hour stroll along a country road to Wataze hot spring, which is basically just one big hotel called Watarase Onsen (see on Agoda / TripAdvisor / Booking) in a pretty valley that is known for having the largest rotemburo (outdoor hot spring) in Western Japan, according to the Tanabe Tourism website. It is said to have exceptional quality and a very high volume of water.
I actually didn’t stop for a soak at this one because I was more interested in moving on to Kawayu hot spring (see #3). I also wasn’t sure if they were going to be OK with my tattoos, and didn’t want to bother trying . My experience in Japan was that most traditional public onsens still enforce this old rule. But note that all the other hot springs on my list are OK for people with tattoos!
(edit: according to one reader, tattoos are not allowed at Watarase, but people with tattoos can use the private rooms for 1600¥/hour)
Love hot springs? Also see my article introducing the 20 best hot springs in Taiwan!
3. Senninburo, Kawayu Hot Spring
huge river hot spring
Another 30 minutes walk past Wataze is another famous Wakayama onsen at Kawayu, called Senninburo, which means “sage bath,” (sometimes incorrectly translated as “1000-person bath”, mentioned by one of my kind readers!) Kawayu’s hot spring is in tiny tourist town built along the river, where in the winter months only they block off a large section which fills with hot water that percolates up through the gravel bed.
In the summer, visitors can dig holes that will fill up with hot water along the riverside to make their own mini hot spring bath.
I felt so lucky when I visited, having the enormous hot spring (almost) entirely to myself; there was only one elderly Japanese guy, barley visible through the mist on the right-side picture below.
This public spring is mixed sex and most people wear bathing suits, but some locals and tourists alike go nude. They put up a makeshift wall so drivers on the main road can’t see bathers changing. You can also use the changing room across the street.
There are also several decent places to stay in Kawayu. A top choice is Kawayu is Kameya Ryokan (see on Agoda / Tripadvisor / Booking), which is near Sennenburo and offers river views from traditional tatami rooms .
4. J-Hoppers Kumano Yunomine
Awesome hostel with private-use outdoor onsen
Yes, I am going to put the onsen at the hostel where I stayed on my list. In fact, each of the dozen or so traditional ryokans or guesthouses in the tiny village of Yunomine onsen has its own private bath.
I had intended to stay in one of those guesthouses, but the prices were fairly steep and many of the reviews were poor. In the end I decided to save some money and stay in a dorm at J-Hoppers Kumano Yunomine (see on Agoda / Tripadvisor / Booking) even though I usually avoid staying in hostels.
This hostel is about as good as they come. The dorm was super private; I felt like I was staying in my own miniature bedroom. They offer free cooked rice, coffee, and tea, friendly staff, beer and sake for sale, and best of all: two indoor and one outdoor onsen baths that you can use privately for as long as you want.
The water is even the same as at the famous Tsuboyu onsen. I finished every day during my stay in the outdoor bath with a beer in my hand, looking up at the hillside where the Kumano Kodo trail winds up, passing literally right beside the hostel.
For hikers who complete the full Kumano Kodo trail, they will likely end up in the harbor town of Katsuura or nearby Nachi after visiting Nachi Waterfall and Nachi Taisha temple, one of the three Kumano Sanzan, from where they will catch a train out of the region.
I decided to spend a night in this harbor town to avoid rushing. There isn’t much to see in town, with one exception: the ginormous Hotel Urashima (see on Agoda / TripAdvisore / Booking), occupying an entire peninsula sticking out into the bay, features amazing Bokido Bath cave onsen, easily the most unique and impressive of Wakayama’s onsens, where visitors can bathe inside several different caves facing the sea. You can get to the hotel by taking a free five-minute ferry.
The bad news is that tattoos are definitely not allowed; I tried. The good news is that (if you don’t mind splurging, I think I spent about US$30), you can get your own private wooden tub for an hour facing the sea in a pretty little cove.
If you want to stay the night in Katsuura like I did, Onsen Minshuku Kosakaya (see on Agoda / TripAdvisor / Booking) is the best (and possibly only affordable) place to stay in town. I found it to be a very friendly, traditional Japanese guesthouse that includes gourmet, lovingly prepared multi-course feasts that show off the amazingly fresh seafood that the harbor town is famous for.
I never travel without a guidebook! I recommend these:
11 thoughts on “Yunomine Onsen and Four Other Awesome Wakayama Onsens”
Hey Nick, thanks for the post! I’m looking to travel around scenic Japan in Winter and this has been very informative and inspiring. I might add that the ‘sennin’ part of senninburo actually stands for a mountain hermit or sage, 仙人、rather than 1000 people, 千人, which is pronounced the same. Anyway, best of luck with your ongoing adventures!
Hi Nick, I’m planning on staying at Hotel Urashima in October, and I have a medium-ish(?) sized tattoo so it’s useful to know that you’re able to book a private onsen. Just wondering, did staff at the hotel ask you prior if you had tattoos? (and then advised you that you weren’t able to enter the public baths?) or was it when you actually tried to enter the onsen? Sorry for the questions. Was thinking maybe if I could go really early or really late to the baths, then i could maybe avoid bumping into anyone who may be offended by tattoos! Thanks, Clara
Great article. I‘m in Yunomine right now and already love it! Just a quick note on Wataze: Tattoos are not allowed. It is possible to book a private bath though, they have about four. Apparently it‘s about 1‘600¥/hour.
Keep up the good work!
Hey Jen, thanks for letting me know about that, I will add the info to my article!
hello nick, i’m also interested in the info about tattoos, it’s kind of important cause my bf has a completely unhideable half sleeve tat (half in size, goes through the whole arm’s length). mine is ok because it’s on my foot, i doubt anyone will notice. a slipper will easily cover.
but, in another article it was mentioned that kawayu fujiya are super strict about tats, sanctimonious even, so pay tell me, did you have probs getting into that river senninburo? i think my bf might have probs everywhere, i just hope they wouldnt ban him from the private bath lol.
Sorry that I’ve fallen behind with approving and replying to comments! Kawayu Fujiya is a spa/hotel onsen beside the river, so it does not surprise me that they are strict about tats, as this is rather common across Japan. The river onsen (Senninburo) is on the other hand a natural hot spring in the river, so there’s nobody there to stop you from going in, nor is there any sign saying tattoos are not allowed. The only issue you could potentially have is if there were lots of locals there, and they disapproved and said something. When I went, I was literally the only person there (it was a weekday morning in winter). One older local man came later, but the spring is so large that I wasn’t even close to him. I can’t imagine most people would care, but I don’t want to say 100% for sure you won’t have any issue. I would say definitely try, and if you can, go at as slow of time as possible like I did to minimize your chance of having any issue. Another thing he could do is just wear a towel or sarong over his shoulders and covering that arm as he goes in. A lot of locals bring in little white towels to wipe sweat from their heads, so it wouldn’t seem too unusual. Hope this helps!
Hello Nick! I wonder how come my comment did not get posted, strange.
I was eager to ask about the tats as well! I’m doing a research on Kumano Kodo Ryokans & Onsen for my personal purpose of choosing THE best one for me and my friends to stay in. We suffer from the same gaijin ailment as you do – half of us don sizeable tats. Two will be definitely hard to cover (half back, half sleeve – but half in width, not in length, so it’s basically a full arm), one easy to cover, and mine’s on my foot so I’d be -really- surprised if anyone paid enough attention to spot it (in fact even if I’m not wearing slippers people take ages, quite literally, to notice it. It made me realise people don’t really watch other people’s foot… good for me! I was aiming at that choosing that location for the tat).
But I digress.
Aside from private bath (the reason for tattoo being no-go is because “other people can see you and get offended” (let’s not discuss how ridiculous this is xD)), which options allow the usage of their regular baths, on facility grounds, for silly people like us?
Any ryokan in Yunomine? Or Kawayu? The only thing I understood is that J-Hoppers’ is fine, and Kawayu river is also fine (according to one account).
Could you clarify which others might consider our colorful skin passable?
Already resigned from staying in Urashima – super expensive, while yes, interesting, why pay 3x the regular price if we wouldn’t be able to use the facilities 🙁
Kossakaya was fine with your tats?
Thank you in advance 🙂
Just to add to what I’ve already said in my other reply, I remember I did a lot of research before my trip, and came to similar conclusions to you. I found that most places were not Ok with the tats. Before I researched all the Ryokans in Yunomine, I was really set on staying in one to have the “traditional” experience, but couldn’t find conclusive answers about whether they were Ok with tats. I got the impression that for most of them, there’s no set rule, but they (or other local guests) may not be really OK with it, but when you are staying in a small guesthouse with its own onsen, the thing is that you often have it all to yourself or with only a small number of other users at the same time, so nobody will even notice. Its definitely taking a small chance, though, because one complaint from another guest and they will probably tell your whole group you can’t use them. In the end, since I found these Ryokans were all quite pricey, not to mention that reviews were often kind of average or even poor, I decided to stay at J-Hoppers. I normally don’t like hostels, but I was super happy with my choice. The onsen there is small but it’s outdoor, and you and your little group of friends could use it privately, which is great. It really was the best hostel experience I’ve ever had. Even the dorms were very private, and the communal space had a traditional look, so I didn’t feel I was missing out on the “traditional” experience of staying in a ryokan. On top of that, you can visit the famous Tsuboyu Onsen (individually or as couples) with no issues about tattoos. With these two options in Yunomine, combined with the walk to Kawayu for the river one, that was more than enough for me! It also saved me a lot of money by staying in the hostel instead of Ryokan. Please let me know if you have any other questions!
Oh, one more thing, Kosakaya was super NOT OK with the tats for entry into their public cave hot springs (sadness…)
They weren’t even really OK with letting me use one of the private pools (pictured in my blog above), but I played the “I don’t speak Japanese, what’s going on?” card (I actually don’t speak Japanese, but I just really pretended to not get it when the clerk tried saying no, after I asked if my tattoo was OK). She eventually brought over someone who did speak a little English, and I kind I think they just decided to let me in because the situation was already awkward and they didn’t want to lose face. So basically…it’s definitely not OK for their public one, and it seems like they don’t even want tats in their private ones but will make exception.
In your second reply, do you mean Kossakaya or Urashima? I’m confused because Kossakaya doesn’t seem to have cave onsens, it’s just a minshuku. It has mixed reviews online so I’m super unsure about them, crossed them off to be safe – your review was giving me second thoughts about that.
After research, I found newer info:
Kawa-yu Fujiya – super NOT ok with tattoos, but, they have 2 person rooms with private small open air bath where they wouldn’t care if you have tats or not, due to you and your partner being the only people there. So again, a mixed info, but both confirmed.
Kawa-yu Kameya Ryokan is said to be OK with tattoos. I bet conditions apply, but indeed the usual fine print is missing from their booking.com listing – no mention of “with tats we can refuse you entry to the baths”.
Kawa-yu rotenburo itself also said to be tattoo friendly in several places, listed as such on tattoo-friendly.jp (together with Tsubo-yu, as the only ones for this region).
Except Tsubo-yu which is tattoo friendly for an obvious reason & J-Hoppers, I’ve not found any place that is openly accepting tattoos.
And yep, lived in Japan & Korea, speak both languages, graduated oriental studies. After 1 year of caring and trying, which yielded no positive result actually, only irritation on both sides, I decided that nope, I am not going to be continuously proving to everyone that I’m not a camel (specifically, that I’m not an ignorant American walking stereotype, only by the virtue of being white and capable of speaking English – sometimes they tried to dupe me having assumed I know nothing) for one thing, and also that I’m *not* going to be conforming to their uber strict and mostly irrational rules when they serve no purpose for anyone anymore and also go against my interest/comfort, so I decided to use the Japanese/Korean speaking card to call them out on their bs OR play the dumb westerner card whenever it suited -me-. It has made life just *SO* much simpler and more pleasant! Yes, pleasant even, and I mean for both sides remarkably! Felt like I’ve unlocked a superpower xD
Oh, by the way, your pictures are -a-maa-i-ziiiing-, you were so lucky with the weather! ^_^
Sorry, yes, when I mentioned the cave onsens, I was talking about Urashima, not Kossakaya!
Thank you for the follow-up info about tats and the Kawa-yu onsens. I’m sure this will prove useful to some future readers.
I like your approach with languages. You’ve expended that much energy learning them, so use that power as you wish!
And thanks for your positive feedback. Glad you liked my photos!