One of the most popular and uniquely Japanese experiences is bathing in an onsen. An onsen is no ordinary pool of water. Because Japan is full of volcanoes and hot springs. Onsen was initially formed by sourcing that special Sulphur water into a small tub or area for bathing. The water is believed to have healing properties, and depending on the kind of minerals infused into the water, cures specific illnesses.
Another part of Japanese culture is to have little towns dedicated to resorts, spas, and inns. These spa and resort towns can be found anywhere from the top of a chilly mountain to a famous hot springs site.
Yunomine Onsen, a Relaxing Hot Spring Village
One of the quaintest, most underrated hot spring villages is Yunomine Onsen. It is in Hommiyacho, Tanabe, which is near the town of Hongu. It belongs to the Wakayama Prefecture’s southern section. It is home to the onsen – Tsuboyu/Tsubo-yu Onsen – which was proclaimed by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2004 as a world heritage onsen, and is the only one which exists with that ranking.
This village is by no means modern, and is rustic in many senses, due to what seems like a pause in time that honors this onsen’s ancient history. See, in this same area of Tanabe sits a cluster of mountains that have been hailed by the locals as sacred for centuries. Yunomine Onsen is nestled in a valley in between those mountains.
It is, however, not the only onsen area around the mountain cluster of Kumano Honkyu Onsenkyo. Yunomine Onsen exists alongside two other hot springs that are in Kumano, namely Kawayu Onsen, and Watase Onsen.
The History of Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama, Japan
This onsen used to be part of the Kii Province, in the Muro District long ago. It is known for being one of Japan’s – and possibly the world’s - oldest onsen, having been discovered as long as 1,800 years ago. Those who traveled around Kumano would come to bathe in these hot springs to ease their fatigue. Pilgrims who were on their way to visit the Hongu Grand Shrine would also make it a habit to bathe in this onsen.
There is a tale that talks of how spring water was initially found spouting out of a stone figure of the kind of Buddha that was responsible for healing and medicine. That Buddha is known as “Yakishi Nyorai”. Today, that very statue can be found at Yunomine’s equally quaint Toko-ji temple.
This area is also depicted in the colorful legend of a clan member with a rebellious spirit, Hangan Oguri. The tale is called “Hangan Oguri and Princess Terute”. He cured his illnesses by making a pilgrimage to Kumano and soaking in the waters of the Yunomine Onsen, as well as seeking out the help of Princess Terute and Yugyo. This legend is depicted in kabuki theaters and other religious expositions.
The Etymology of Yunomine
Although the truthfulness of this legend is questionable, you may visit the temple yourself to see the statue does have a hole that looks like water could gush out of it, found around the chest area of the statue. This legend is where the name of the entire onsen comes from, as the word “Yunomine” evolved from the word “Yunomune”. Yunomune, in English, means “hole in the chest”. As the years went by, Yunomine would become famous for the healing powers of its water.
Fast Facts About the Hot Springs in Yunomine Onsen
The water that runs through this onsen has sulfur, as well as sodium bicarbonate. Fresh from its source, this water emerges at 92 degrees Celsius; almost boiling point. Water discharges from the onsen at 30 liters per minute and is classified as hypotonic in terms of its osmotic pressure.
Bathing in these waters supposedly ease the symptoms of hangovers, diabetes, reproductive health problems in women, gout, digestive, skin, and nervous disorders, and even rheumatism.
Around this hot spring, there are 15 places that can offer you an accommodation. Out of that number, four of them are ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and eleven of them are minshuku (guest houses/bed and breakfasts). There are around 507 people staffed all around this village in a day.
Reviews of Yunomine Onsen
Out of all the 67 things to do while you’re in Tanabe, Yunomine Onsen is ranked as 3rd place. It has 144 reviews that have given it a star rating of 4.5 out of 5. It was also awarded a Certificate of Excellence by the TripAdvisor site, which is only granted to areas that have consistently great evaluations.
Some compare it to being in an old Japanese film, others say that it’s the most authentic experience they’ve ever had, as onsen now have been modernized throughout Japan. Either way, tourists can’t get enough of this onsen town.
What’s So Great About Tsubo-Yu?
The different institutions set up in this village have their own onsen, yet Tsubo-Yu stands out from the crowd because of the spot’s deep UNESCO accredited history and the enchantment that comes with its water’s changing colors – and it changes 7 times in one day. Though it’s UNESCO accredited, this isn’t a luxurious hotel bath. Tsubo-Yu is made up of large rocks cemented together to form a single, small hut with a bath in the corner that can fir around two people.
Tsubo-Yu is open from 6 AM until 9:30 PM, for the entire year. There are constantly people lining up to use it, so you’ll have to come early. The price to use this onsen costs 700 yen, which buys you 30 minutes of time relaxing in its hot waters.
Other Fun Things to Do Around Yunomine Onsen
Aside from sampling the different onsen around the area, there really isn’t much to do. One activity that tourists enjoy doing is having their eggs, root crops, and veggies cooked in a net, steeped in a boiling onsen. The vegetables are sold right in front of this special onsen service, and you can eat these as a delicious appetizer or snack if you’re hungry and dinner isn’t served yet at the ryokan you’re staying in.
You can choose to go for a short hike (there are two specific ones that are both pilgrimage routes; Kumano Kodo’s Dainichi-goe and Akagi-goe. You don’t have to go all the way, though, just enjoy the scenery for a walk, and come back to the town.
Ryokan/Hotel Choices to Consider While You Visit Yunomine Onsen
- There’s Ryokan Azumaya (旅館あづまや), which is rated 4 out of 5 stars by 57 reviews on TripAdvisor. Located in 122 Yunomine Hongu-cho, Tanabe 647-1732, Wakayama Prefecture, this ryokan is ranked 9th best out of the 47 hotels and ryokan found in Tanabe. One night in a room here costs around 21,000 to 22,000 yen. It offers a classic ryokan experience and amazing food with the convenience of being situated near a bus stop.
- Next is Ryokan Yunomineso (湯の峰荘) which is rated 4.5 out of 5 stars by 79 reviews on TripAdvisor. Located in 437 Shimoyukawa Hongucho, Tanabe 647-1734, Wakayama Prefecture, this ryokan is ranked 4th best out of the 47 hotels and ryokan found in Tanabe. A night here costs around 16,000 yen. Those who stayed here found that they had a very restful stay, beautifully styled Japanese food, and sampling the onsen. Though it may be categorized as a ryokan to some, it is actually a Japanese Onsen Inn. The water in their onsen is said to be so dense with sulfur, that you know it’s authentic because of its eggy smell.
- Lastly, there’s Ryokan Yoshinoya (よしのや) which is rated 4 out of 5 stars by 57 reviews on TripAdvisor. Located in 122 Yunomine Hongu-cho, Tanabe 647-1732, Wakayama Prefecture, this ryokan is ranked 9th best out of the 47 hotels and ryokan found in Tanabe. A night here costs around 21,000 to 22,000 yen. It offers a classic ryokan experience and amazing food with the convenience of being situated near a bus stop.
What Is the Weather Like in Yunomine Onsen?
Because the mountain that Yunomine Onsen is situated on is on the more southern end of Japan, it is a little more humid than its northern neighbors. That, however, does not mean that it doesn’t get any snowfall. During winter, it snows lightly around Kumano Sanzan. It rains quite often, so it’s smart to have a light rainproof jacket if you want to tour the village or go for a walk/hike.
During most parts of the year, it is considered a temperate and warm zone. It rains as much as 1577 mm of water every year on average. Its coldest average temperatures hit 3.2 and 3.7 degrees Celsius in January and February respectively, while its hottest average temperatures hit 25.3 degrees Celsius and 26.2 degrees Celsius in July and August, respectively.
How to Travel from Shingu, Kii Tanabe, and Koguchi to Yunomine Onsen
While both areas are in the same prefecture, there is no train or subway route that can take you from Shinu to Yunomine. You would have to rely on one specific bus route to travel to the station inside Yunomine. To see the updated timetable, visit the Tanabe City Kuman Tourism Bureau website, under the link “transport”. They offer a comprehensive map and PDF files of schedules.
Though it is said that JR Passes cannot be used in this service, it won’t hurt to ask again.
The only bus route that goes from Shingu directly to Yunomine is one that starts from Shingu, and ends at Gojo, making in between stops to Kumano Hongu Taisha, Yunomine Onsen, Kawayu Onsen, and Totsukawa. Others stop at Koyasan. There is the same route that goes backward. The full bus route supposedly ventures the entire route backward and forwards, but sometimes does not complete the route. The name of the bus that used to transit these areas was “Ryujin”, but that may no longer be the case.
The same rules for the count for both Koguchi and Kii Tanabe as well. There is a bus that comes from Kii-Tanabe and Shirahama that goes directly to Kumano Hongu Taisha. As for Koguchi, the bus initially must pass Shingu first before going to Hongu.
It’s crucial to print the updated timetables from the website of Tanabe City Kuman Tourism Bureau because it’s handy to have in case you would like to change your mind about a pilgrimage hike, or if you feel tired or ill, and opt to take the bus instead.
Where to Find a Map of Yunomine Onsen
Also available in the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau’s website are area guide maps if you want comprehensive details on what you can do adjoined with the chart. Otherwise, you can rely on google maps on your smartphone for most of your navigating around this area.
Kumano Kodo Maps can be found on their website under “Q & A” in the lower part of the page. Click “maps and pamphlets”, and you will be given an entire list of different kinds of maps that may be useful to you during your trip (and while you plan it) to Yunomine onsen, your possible pilgrimage hike, or other concerns/items on your itinerary.