Tsubo-yu Onsen

A small onsen but a big World Heritage Site

By Alena Eckelmann    - 3 min read

There are thousands of onsen in Japan but Tsubo-yu beats them all. Not only is it one of the oldest hot spring baths in the country but it's arguably the smallest, and definitely the only bathing spot in the whole world that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Located in a quaint, somewhat isolated valley along the Yunotani River in the Kumano Mountains, Tsubu-yu is no more than a tiny wooden cabin set atop the river. Inside the cabin is a small bath tube made of rock that has space for exactly two people – perfect for couples getting in together!

The locals swear that any couples bathing in Tsubo-yu together hugely improve their chances of getting babies. If this sounds a bit like a miracle to you then let me tell you that it wouldn’t be the first miracle performed at Tsubo-yu.

Popular Kabuki plays recount the tale of 15thcentury prince-turned wandering masseur Oguri Hangan and maiden Terute. Oguri got poisoned but Terute saved him from certain death.

She must have been madly in love with the guy as she drags the half-dead man across the country to the holy lands of Kumano where he baths in sacred hot spring waters that fully restore his health and strength. This is said to have happened at Tsubu-yu.

Japanese movie enthusiasts might want to check out Toshiaki Toyoda’s film that re-tells the story in “The Blood of Rebirth” released in 2009.

Whatever magical recovery you're after, you must pay yen 750 (adult fee) and wait your turn before you can enjoy Tsubo-yu onsen. In time slots of 30 minutes between 6:00 and 21:30, bathers queue to get into the healing waters.

The onsen waters contain sulfur, natrium and hydrogen carbonate and are considered to be effective for healing neuralgia, rheumatism, diabetes and skin disease.

The water supposedly changes color seven times a day but I did not manage to get into the bath a second time to be able to verify the truth of it.

Tsubo-yu is located in Yunomine, a small village near Hongu Town in the south of Wakayama Prefecture. Yunomine is a hot spring village as there are many places where you can enjoy an onsen bath apart from Tsubo-yu.

Many minshuku and ryokan located along the Yunotani River actually have their own hot spring baths and their guests can use them for free.

Unlike many hot spring resorts in Japan, there are no large concrete buildings here that spoil the landscape. Instead there are small wooden houses nestled into the mountain slopes on both sides of the river.

If you're looking for an authentic onsen experience, this is the place to come!

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Alena Eckelmann

Alena Eckelmann @alena.eckelmann

Born East of the Wall and South of Berlin, I am celebrating my 15th year anniversary in Japan in May 2020, the country that I call home now. I lived in crazy Tokyo for 6 years and since 2011 I call the beautiful Kii Peninsula (Kumano, Koyasan and Yoshinoyama) my home.I have been a JapanTravel Partner since the conception of the platform in 2011! In Tokyo I worked in market research at AIP Corporation and in business education at JMEC. For the last 10 years I have been a guide for foreign visitors at Venture Japan, on top of being a Freelance Writer and a Business Researcher.  Apart from work, I trained at the Yoshinkan Aikido Dojo and at the Oedo Sukeroku Taiko Dojo for several years each, and I ran the 1st Tokyo Marathon and enjoyed cycling around Tokyo. During the last 10 years I am working with local authorities to improve their hospitality to foreign visitors and I have participated in many monitors as a media representative.  My current interest is in Japanese nature and spirituality. I love spending time in the forest and mountains, and I love visiting temples and shrines.   I am a licensed guide for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails  and for Koyasan, the Buddhist monastery, in addition to being a practitioner and licensed guide for Forest Therapy (Shinrin Therapy).  As a guide for walking tours, I have taken visitors to walk the Kumano Kodo trails, the Nakasendo trail and the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage trail.  Being grounded during this COVID-19 crisis, I enjoy gardening, baking bread in my new Japanese bread-maker and going for walks around 'my' village.  Take care, keep well, stay safe! 

Join the discussion

Terrie Lloyd 3 years ago
I can testify that this is an awesome little spa town in the middle of nowhere, that elegantly captures the essence of ancient Japan. In fact we stayed at an inn about 20 meters further up the river on the lefthand side. That was an amazing experience as well. You really need a rental car to visit this location and to appreciate the countryside.
Mackenzie Scott 9 years ago
I'd never heard about this place but now I absolutely want to go to the little onsen. Do you have to stand in line to wait or do they have a sign-up sheet or some sort of reservation system?
Terrie Lloyd 3 years ago
If it's not being used, you seem to be able to simply slip in there. We took the safe route and asked the lady managing the inn to give us a good time to go in.