Tsubo-yu onsen is as small as a closet (Photo: Alena Eckelmann)

Tsubo-yu Onsen

A small onsen but a big World Heritage Site

Tsubo-yu onsen is as small as a closet (Photo: Alena Eckelmann)
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!

Alena Eckelmann

Alena Eckelmann @alena.eckelmann

Founder of Kii Monogatari, my story and the story of the Kii Peninsula of Japan. Originally from East Germany, I came to Tokyo, via Berlin and London, in 2005. In summer 2011 I moved by choice to remote Kumano in the south of the Kii Peninsula where I live, work and play now, and explore every da...