Muslim-friendly hot springs in Tohoku, Part 1: Takayu Onsen
When it comes to reasons people wanting to travel to Japan―for first timers as well as repeated travellers―one of them is almost always bound to be for hot springs (温泉 onsen). Dipping into hot springs is something that can be enjoyed at any time throughout the year, but for most people, the experience is particularly heavenly and unforgettable during winter. Many have fond memories of dipping their bodies into hot spring water while feeling the chilly winter breeze on their faces.
A hot spring experience is perhaps more pronounced for travellers from Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, where the climate is tropical throughout the year (read: hot and wet). Winter is definitely something that cannot be experienced in the region, and dipping in hot springs and experiencing winter at the same time would make for an amazing experience.
Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉) in Yamagata Prefecture, Tohoku Region. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Most hot springs are inside inns (旅館 ryokan), where guests will stay for a night or two to enjoy an authentically traditional Japanese lodging experience. Hot springs and inns can be found anywhere in Japan, but some of the best ones are in the northeastern region of Tohoku.
Tohoku's colours of different seasons. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)
The Tohoku region has some of the best hot spring resorts in Japan for good reasons. Geographically, it has many mountainous regions and volcanic activities which are beneficial and conducive for hot springs. Plus, it enjoys the best of seasons: cherry blossoms bloom profusely during spring, and snowfall is heavy here compared to most other regions.
Tohoku's four seasons. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefectural Government/福島県観光物産交流協会)
Most of these resorts are located according to their hot spring locations, which are often in secluded areas away from their respective city centres. Getting to these hot spring resorts take some effort―some might say that getting to the resort itself is part of the hot spring experience―but thankfully, transportation in Tohoku region is well connected thanks to its bullet train (新幹線 shinkansen) system courtesy of East Japan Railway Company (JR East), as well as some local private trains. In fact, it is even feasible to do hot spring hopping: going from one hot spring to another in a single journey, thanks to the convenience of the train system!
Access to secluded hot spring resorts is made easier thanks to bullet trains and well-connected train systems. (Image credit: JR East)
More visitors are increasingly coming to Japan to appreciate and enjoy the hot springs in Japan, and Tohoku is increasingly witnessing an influx of foreign travellers. This includes Muslim travellers of course, and the region (and country as a whole) understands the needs of their guests. As the region becomes more Muslim-friendly, Muslim visitors also want to enjoy hot springs as well, especially private hot springs where they can enjoy with privacy. For this article, I will showcase some of the best hot springs in Tohoku that visitors can enjoy privately, as well as some special services for our Muslim friends!
(Note: this is a two-part series featuring amazing hot spring resorts with private baths, ideal for Muslim families)
Takayu Onsen (高湯温泉) in Fukushima
The prefecture of Fukushima (福島県 Fukushima-ken) lies in the southern side of Tohoku. As the third largest prefecture in Japan, it borders prefectures Yamagata and Miyagi in the north, Niigata on the west, and Tochigi and Ibaraki to the south. While it may not one of the most popular prefectures for tourism, it is slowly seeing more tourists visiting as they begin to discover hidden gems here, including amazing hot springs.
Takayu Onsen (高湯温泉) in the mountains of Azuma. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Hidden in the mountains of Azuma (吾妻山 Azuma-yama) is Takayu Onsen, a hidden gem of a hot spring resort that boasts some of the best hot springs in Japan. While it may not be as popular as those in other prefectures, Takayu Onsen has garnered many titles and critical acclaim in recent years, such as "Minister of the Environment" and the number one spot for "Health Advancement" a few years ago by the Hot Spring General Election (温泉総選挙 Onsen-sōsenkyo).
Takayu Onsen has won several categories in the Hot Spring General Elections a few years ago. (Video credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
Takayu Onsen has even topped the ranks for public lists, attaining the number one spot for two consecutive years on the Jalan Popular Hot Spring Destination Ranking in 2016 and 2017. Visitors both locals and foreign have lauded how they were astounded by the hot spring resort, commended its ambience and water quality.
Patrons have praised Takayu Onsen as one of the best hot spring resorts on Jalan.net. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Takayu Onsen’s secret is in the hot spring water. Sourced directly from the nearby mountains, the water at Takayu Onsen is strongly acidic and rich in hydrogen sulphide. Because of its content, the water is slightly milky with a bluish hue, and has a distinctive "rotten-like" smell that is synonymous with natural hot springs. The water is transported straight from the source―which is rare even by Japanese hot spring standards―gushing at a rate of up to 2,956 litres per minute, with temperatures ranging between 42.8°C to 50.5°C, an optimal range for dipping.
Takayu Onsen's water is pumped directly at nine different sources, pumping as much as 2,956 litres per minute. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
Another secret to Takayu Onsen’s fame is its complete immersive experience for their guests. First-time visitors are in for a surprise: they will not find any diner, pub or even a souvenir shop at Takayu Onsen. That is because the entire area is meant to be a retreat, a place that provides escapism from the hectic lifestyle of the modern age by enveloping their guests in serene natural greenery and warm local hospitality.
No pubs, restaurants or souvenir shops can be found here at Takayu Onsen. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Takayu Onsen has several inns, all of which use the area’s natural hot spring water. One of them is Adachiya, a rustic and quaint hot spring inn that exudes old world charm, and is close to the Takayu Onsen epicentre.
Adachiya uses Takayu Onsen's natural hot spring water. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
The highlight of Adachiya is its hot spring baths (as you might expect). It has more than five different baths for their guests, each with its own unique identity and story. For instance, there is the Taiki-no-Yu (大気の湯), the large-scale open-air bath; Yakushi-no-Yu (薬師), which supposedly has health benefits for people who heal from certain illnesses (it is also a private bath!); and for indoors, there is Fudo-no-Yu (不動の湯) for men, and Hime-no-Yu (姫の湯) for women. Of course not to forget, there is also an exclusive indoor private bath named Hime-Sayuri (ひめさ湯り). Adachiya’s baths have the distinctive bluish hue that Takayu Onsen is famous for, making the experience an unforgettable one.
Adachiya has an array of outdoor and indoor communal and private baths. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
Adachiya also pays meticulous attention to their food for their guests. It uses seasonal local ingredients such as rockfish, locally bred chicken and locally harvested mushrooms, and meals are prepared around a hearth using charcoal fire, a rare culinary treat for guests.
(NOTE: For Muslim guests or those with dietary restrictions, they may need to make prior arrangements with the inn before arriving.)
Shinobu Onsen Nonbirikan (信夫温泉のんびり館)
Another hot spring inn that visitors can consider is Shinobu Onsen Nonbirikan, a charming and secluded establishment that also uses Takayu Onsen’s hot spring water. This establishment has gathered rave reviews over the years, being in the top ten rankings for best hot spring inns according to Rakuten.
Shinobu Onsen Nonbirikan. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
What is outstanding about Nonbirikan is the suspension bridge that greets all its guests upon arrival. It serves as the sole gateway to the establishment, which lies hidden from public view.
Nonbirikan's suspension bridge, separating the inn from the public. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Guests of Nonbirikan will get to enjoy the inn’s many exclusive baths, each with its own theme. Like Adachiya, Nonbirikan’s specialty is its hot spring water: the sulphurous water is said to soften keratin and emulsifies sebum. It also has antibacterial and detoxifying properties, thus helpful for people suffering from acne and atopy. The establishment has an outdoor and indoor bath for men and women, and even rooms (Japanese / Western) with private hot spring baths.
Indoor and outdoor baths at Nonbirikan, separated for men and women. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
Private hot spring baths, suitable for Muslim families. (Image credits: 高湯温泉観光協会)
Of course, Nonbirikan pays special attention to meal preparation for their guests. It uses exquisite ingredients such as rainbow trout, char, puffer fish, konjac and buckwheat flour for their meals. The meals are designed according to the season by the head chef, who has worked in many high-end hotels before coming here.
(NOTE: the ingredients used for the meals might not be halal-certified. Muslim guests are strongly encouraged to check with Nonbirikan prior to booking.)
Takayu Onsen Public Bath Attakayu (あったか湯)
For those seeking to experience a hot spring bath without accommodation, visitors can opt for a public communal hot spring. Takayu Onsen has the answer to that in the form of Attakayu, which is highly popular among hot spring enthusiasts.
Attakayu. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
As a communal hot spring bath, Attakayu is open to the public where guests can simply pay a fee to use the facilities. The baths are segregated according to men and women, and each has a unique theme: the men’s section is themed after wood (木 ki) whereas the women’s is rock (岩 iwa).
Attakayu, as seen from outside. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Men's hot spring bath is themed after wood. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Women's hot spring bath is themed after rock. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Good news for Muslim guests: a private hot spring bath is also available at Attakayu! It comes with a full range of facilities such as private bathroom and changing room, but a reservation fee of ¥1,000 is required and it can be made earliest two days before the day of use.
A private hot spring bath is also available, but prior reservation is required. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
BONUS: Trekking in Takayu Onsen!
It is natural to think that Takayu Onsen is all about the hot springs. However, to visit the resort only for the hot springs would feel like a waste, because the resort is also popular for trekking during non-winter seasons (pro tip: trekking followed by dipping in hot spring is a heavenly experience)! First-time visitors will be enthralled by the spectacular view of the area surrounding Takayu Onsen, the main spectacle being the grand Bandai-Azuma Skyline (磐梯吾妻スカイライン), which is also known as "the road that runs across the sky" and is considered as one of the top 100 roads in Japan.
Bandai-Azuma Skyline, in autumn foliage. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
First-timer visitors keen on exploring the Bandai-Azuma Skyline on foot should visit the Fudosawa Bridge (不動沢橋), also known as Tenkū-no-Kakehashi (天空の架け橋, translates as ‘Suspension Bridge in the Air’), that spans over the Tsubakuro Valley (つばくろ谷 Tsubakuro-tani). Visitors will feel like they are walking high up in the air when crossing this bridge, while gazing at the spectacular Eight Views of Azuma (吾妻八景 Azuma-Hakkei) below and around them.
Fudosawa Bridge. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
The Eight Views of Azuma. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
At the centre of Bandai-Azuma Skyline is Jododaira (浄土平), a sub-alpine plateau that features volcanic scenery, pine forests, marshlands, and swamps. With the Jododaira Visitor Center as the starting points, visitors can come here for an unforgettable trekking experience by choosing any of the many trekking routes available onsite.
The Jododaira Visitor Center is the starting point of trekking routes in the area. (Image credit: : : Ys : :)
Trekkers can choose from the many trekking routes available. (Image credit: 高湯温泉観光協会)
One of the highlights of the trekking experience in Jododaira is Azuma-Kofuji (吾妻小富士), a 1,705m active stratovolcano with a cone-shaped crater. As the name suggests, the symmetrical shaped volcano resembles a miniature version of the famous Mount Fuji (富士山 Fuji-san), and thus is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors on the Bandai-Azuma Skyline can simply a stop along the route to pay a visit, and trekkers can take the Jododaira Visitor Course to witness this marvel.
Azuma-Kofuji. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Jododaira Visitor Course leading to visit Azuma-Kofuji. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Fukushima is one of the underrated prefectures in Japan when it comes to travel destinations, more so when it has Takayu Onsen, undoubtedly one of the best hot spring resorts in the country. As dipping in hot springs is one of the primary reasons that visitors from all over the world flock to Japan time and time again, it is only natural that more people should be visiting Takayu Onsen. Plus, the resort has plenty of options for private hot spring baths which is ideal for Muslim families, or simply visitor groups who want some privacy.
For my next article, I will explore another amazing hot spring resort in Tohoku with private hot spring baths, so stay tuned!
More details on Takayu Onsen
Takayu Onsen is a hot spring resort in the capital city of Fukushima in Fukushima Prefecture, located in the north-eastern region of Tohoku. Visitors from Tōkyō can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train to JR Fukushima Station (JR福島駅 Fukushima-eki), which should take around 1 hour 30 minutes.
Upon arrival at JR Fukushima Station, visitors can proceed to the station’s West Exit and take the bus bound for Takayu Onsen. There are 3–5 buses departing for the hot spring resort from the station, and the bus ride takes around 30 minutes. The one-way bus fare is ¥820 per adult. For visitors interested in hiking in the areas around Takayu Onsen, they can also consider renting a car instead. Car rental services are readily available around the JR Fukushima Station.
Visitors are encouraged to check for room availability for all hot spring inns in Takayu Onsen before coming to the resort. Also, due to the ongoing coronavirus, some of the facilities may be closed temporarily.
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free!)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.
Header image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会