Offering serene onsen, world-class art museums, traditional inns and spectacular mountain scenery crowned by Mt Fuji, Hakone can make for a blissful escape from Tokyo. Ashino-ko (芦ノ湖) is the lake at the centre of it all, the setting for the iconic image of Mt Fuji with the torii gate of the Hakone-jinja rising from the water.
Intimate, dramatic and straddling a deep gorge, this onsen resort town is one Japan's most beautiful – heavenly during autumn and a wonderland in winter. Onsen ryokan with open-air baths surround the gorge. Meaning 'white bone', it is said that bathing in the silky, milky-blue hydrogen-sulphide waters of 'Shirahone' for three day ensures three years without a cold.
This broad area consisting of three hot-spring villages, Katayamazu Onsen, Yamashiro Onsen and Yamanaka Onsen, is centred on Kaga Onsen and Daishōji Stations along the JR Hokuriku line and is famed for its onsen ryokan, lacquerware and porcelain. Of the three villages, Yamanaka Onsen is the most scenic.
This wonderful working village tucked in a picturesque corner of the eastern Japan Alps is both a humming winter ski resort and a year-round onsen town – worth visiting any time of year. Settled as early as the 8th century, it's compact and quaint, though the maze of narrow streets will challenge even the best of drivers.
You don't have to look far in Beppu, in Ōita Prefecture (大分県), to see the reason for its popularity: steam rising from vents in the earth means onsen bathing opportunities galore. Beppu is at turns quaint, touristy, modern, traditional, solid and rickety, but the charm of this hilly, hospitable city grows on visitors as sure as the waters are warm.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Hongū is a good starting point for visiting the onsen nearby. The spiffy Kumano Hongū Heritage Centre has detailed information in English about the sacred Kumano region. Amid rice paddies behind the heritage centre is Japan's largest torii (39.9m tall), made out of steel and painted dramatic black.
Three stations south of Nima is the coastal onsen town of Yunotsu, one of the ports from where silver from the Iwami Ginzan mines was shipped to the capital and beyond. Now a protected historic area, it consists of a couple of narrow streets of well-preserved wooden buildings and two atmospheric public baths where you can soak up the mineral-rich waters with the locals.
In southeastern Satsuma Peninsula, around 50km from Kagoshima, the hot-spring resort of Ibusuki is quiet, particularly in the low season, and more especially after dark. Ibusuki Station is located about 1km from the beachfront and most accommodation, but the few eateries are near the station.