Offering serene onsen, world-class art museums, traditional inns and spectacular mountain scenery crowned by Mt Fuji, Hakone (箱根) 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 of Hakone-jinja rising from the water.
This broad area consisting of three hot-spring villages, Katayamazu Onsen, Yamashiro Onsen and Yamanaka Onsen, is centred on Kaga Onsen (加賀温泉) and Daishōji Stations along the JR Hokuriku line and is famed for its onsen ryokan (traditional hot-spring inns), lacquerware and porcelain.
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, Nozawa Onsen (野沢温泉) is 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 (別府), in Ōita Prefecture, to see the reason for its popularity: steam rising from vents in the earth means there are 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.
Home to a Unesco World Heritage Site shrine, Hongū (本宮) is also a good starting point for visiting the onsen nearby – Watarase, Yunomine and Kawa-yu. Other highlights include Kumano Hongū Taisha and Kumano Hongū Heritage Centre, and some important Shintō sites. Throw in a lovely guesthouse and cafe and you have the makings of a nice stay.
The coastal onsen town of Yunotsu (温泉津) became a key port for shipping silver from the Iwami Ginzan mines to the capital and beyond. Now a protected historic area, it consists of a couple of narrow streets of preserved wooden buildings and two atmospheric public baths where you can soak in the mineral-rich waters with the locals.
In southeastern Satsuma Peninsula, around 50km from Kagoshima, the hot-spring resort of Ibusuki (指宿) 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.