For the past two years that I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve visited tons of well-known hot springs, some even in renowned Nyuto and Ginzan Onsen villages. However, nothing beats Tsubame Onsen, a tiny, milky hot bath secluded in the mountains in rural Niigata.
Located at the trailhead of Mount Myoko, the highest mountain in the Hokushin area, Tsubame Onsen is surrounded by forest and gives its visitors a private bathing time with abundant nature around. To get to the bath, you’ll first need to park your car (public transport to this area is available, but scarce) near the small onsen village entrance, then walk up a steep slope where a few family-owned ryokans are located, for about 15 minutes.
Are you ready to “hike” up to the onsen?
When you hit a staircase leading up to a shrine, then rest assured that you’re only steps away from this secret hot bath.
View from the shrine
There is no entrance fee to enter the bath, but donations are welcome in order to maintain the facility. After you pass the donation box, you’ll turn around and see a steaming hot, milky bath waiting for you. The male and female baths are only separated by a thin bamboo mat–don’t be weirded out when you hear the opposite sex chat as if they’re right next to you. Or, if you would like to try a mix-gender onsen, walk a little further to Kawara-no-yu. Bring a towel to wrap yourself before soaking in, though!
As Tsubame Onsen is a natural hot spring up in the mountains, there are no pre-shower facilities. Simply take off your clothes at the hut next to the bath and you’re free to hop in.
Beware, though, since the bath is at 43.5-degree Celsius. Take your time to dip your feet first then slowly your body. The bath contains rich sulfur, sulfate and chloride, which are great for healing rheumatism, neuralgia, and various skin ailments. You will see white residues floating in the bath; don’t worry, they’re natural minerals to soothe your body. After a while, you may even notice that your skin is smoother and softer than before.
Tsubame Onsen is tiny, but full of treasures.
As the bath is sized only for about 5 people or so, it is quite personal. I went on a weekday for my first visit and whoa–I had the bath to myself, with generous views of the forest and Mt. Myoko in the background. There is nothing more than peace in my surroundings. It was quite foggy that day as well, giving the spot a dreamy feel as if it was out of an old-school movie.
After hopping out, feel free to get a drink and some snacks or souvenirs at the shops in the small onsen village below. The shopkeepers are extremely friendly so strike up a conversation with them if you can speak Japanese! There are also some free foot baths in the family inns nearby so if you want to reward yourself after a long hike on Mt. Myoko, that is the place to go.
Overlooking the onsen village below, from the onsen.
Although winter is undoubtedly the best time to visit a hot spring, Tsubame Onsen is closed from December to April due to heavy snowfall (it’s literally out in the woods). As the bath is located in a high altitude, it is quite chilly even in summer. Time your visit and make your way up to a (free) secretive bath off the beaten path.
No official hours, but typically from sunrise to sunset. The bath is closed from December to April due to heavy snowfall.
None, but donations are welcome.
There is no English information at the onsen village, so please look for “黄金の湯” for Ougon-no-yu and “河原の湯” for Kawara-no-yu. The character for male and female are “男” and “女,” respectively.
27-rinhan Myokosan, Sekiyama, Myoko 949-2235, Niigata Prefecture
• By train: Take the Echigo Tokimeki railway on Myoko Haneuma Line and get off at Sekiyama Station. From there, take the bus that brings you straight to the last stop at Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉 in Japanese). Notice that the bus doesn’t run on Saturdays, Sundays and school holidays.
• By car: If you are not staying in any of the hotels in the onsen village, please use the parking lot about 200 meters before the village. The parking lots inside the village are for hotel guests.