The word onsen has become widely-known in the English language as being just the right word for a Japanese hot spring bath. In just the same way as the word sushi has become the word for raw fish on rice.
So, what is hitou? Hitou is hidden hot springs, secluded baths that are so far off the beaten track that they are difficult to get to: and thus, therein lies their attraction. The word is formed from the two Chinese characters for “hidden” and “bath.”
How fitting that the word hitou is still unknown to the English-speaking world. Hitou tends to be in extremely remote locations, which may be unattractive for the casual tourist, but for the curious explorer, these are places found in areas of outstanding natural beauty, offering mountain and forest vistas that can be enjoyed from the comfort of a hot spring bath.
Onsen has always been important to the Japanese people. Historically, bathing was associated with Shintoism due to the act of cleansing and purifying the body. Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku is said to have its history more than 3,000 years and be the oldest onsen in Japan. Buddhist priests play some role to spread onsen culture in Japan. There are many onsen in Japan which are said to be found by famous priests like Kukai or Saicho. Later in the history, the health benefits of the various types of onsen spring water were starting to be recognized and going away for an onsen break became an established style of holiday.
For the more adventurous travelers in search of hitou, signposts were put up guiding travelers to the more remote and hard-to-find hot springs. There are hitou in many parts of the country. On top of the excitement of visiting hitou, is the actual adventure of making one’s way there. Trains and buses usually are long and infrequent, yet scenery is stunning and the convenience of the city is sacrificed for the peace, calm and tranquility of rural Japan. Be warned, if you visit one of hitou, you might get hooked.
Ubayu Onsen Masugataya, Yamagata Prefecture
Ubayu Onsen, literally nanny bath, has a long history dating back to 1533 when a miner went to the mountain in search of gold. He fell asleep and dreamt of an old woman with long black hair holding a baby in her arms. She told the miner to cease his greedy quest for gold and to look after the hot spring instead. It has been popular ever since. Open for business from early April until November, this is a rough and wild hot spring located in a high valley in the mountains.
Namegawa Onsen Fukushimaya, Yamagata Prefecture
Situated 850 meters high up in the mountains, set in the fold of a valley running through the forest, this hot spring has a history of some 270 years. The name of the onsen, Namegawa, comes from the story of its discovery: a man was trying to cross a river, slipped and put his hands on a hot stone. Hence Slip River onsen was born. The lodge associated with the hot spring, Fukushimaya, was built around 200 years ago and has a wonderfully rustic charm to it. It is a place to relax in peace and quiet with a book.
Takayu Onsen Azumaya, Fukushima Prefecture
Arriving at this 10-roomed onsen lodge, one is immediately greeted by the distinctive eggy smell of sulfur. This hot spring’s history dates back to 1607. The owner of the lodge is enthusiastic and friendly, who has a firm policy about running a lodge attached to a hot spring. “It’s no use getting into this business for money. You’ve got to do it for the love of it.” The hot springs at Azumaya certainly reflect the love that the owner has put into his work. The waters are an unforgettable blue, and 100% spring-sourced.
Marukoma Onsen, Hokkaido
Marukoma Onsen is a delightful onsen situated on the shores of Lake Shikotsu in Hokkaido. Opened in 1915, the hot spring was originally only accessible by boat across the lake. Now, a road has been built making it easier to get to. The open-air bath is distinctly memorable, being partially connected to the lake it looks out across. Hot water rises up from the gravel base of the bath, keeping you nice and warm to admire the view. A morning bath with mist rising off the lake will definitely give you an unforgettable experience.