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Japan is a land of striking contrasts between old and new, the traditional and the modern. Somehow these elements coexist peacefully and gracefully -- nowhere more so than in the ancient tradition of bathing in hot springs (onsen) and staying in traditional inns (ryokan), two activities that provide insight into Japanese culture and values. In fact there are several hundred ryokan that actually have onsen on their properties, allowing you combine the two quite easily and affordably. Winter is the perfect season to visit Japan if you want to indulge in hot springs. The weather can be quite cold but generally sunny with snow in the central and northern regions, but relatively warmer mild temperatures in the southern island of Kyushu.

Tours

Travel In Style (tel. 888/466-8242; www.travelinstyle.com) has a seven-day Onsens and Temples - A Japanese Landscape tour. The trip is priced at $2,121 per person based on double occupancy ($1,884 for children) and includes airport transfers, six nights' accommodations (the New Miyako Hotel in Kyoto, the Royal Park Hotel in Tokyo, Hotel Kowaki-en in Hakone and the New Miyako Hotel in Kyoto) including taxes and service charge, ground transportation to Mount Fuji by motor coach, Bullet train transportation from Kyoto to Tokyo and Odawara to Kyoto, tours and entrance fees, guide services and three lunches with set menu. This tour departs daily from January 5 to December 21 (No tours departing: February 15 and 16, April 25 to 27, May 1 to 3, August 2, 8, 9, 15 and 16, September 12 and 19, October 10 and 31 and November 1). Highlights include the Imperial Palace Plaza, Asakusa Kannon Temple, a cruise along the Sumida River, the Seaside Top Observatory, a cruise on Lake Ashi, a ride on the Mt. Komagatake aerial tramway, relaxing hot-springs in Hakone, the Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Shrine and Deer Park in Nara and the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle, ancient Imperial Palace, Sanjusangendo Hall and Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto

Their Onsen Experience tour is an eight-day trip from Tokyo that visits to the Atami Spa, Mount Fuji, Hakone, Kyoto and Nara. The tour includes airport transfers, hotel pick-ups, seven nights' accommodations (the Takanawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo, the New Akao Hotel (Ryokan) in Atami and the Kyoto Tokyu hotel in Kyoto) including taxes and service charges, ground transportation including a roundtrip on the bullet train, tours, usage of the onsen areas and pools at the Atami Spa, tours, entrance fees, and four meals (one breakfast, two lunches and one dinner). Rates per person based on double occupancy are $1,654 ($1,518 for children) with daily departures (with some exceptions) from January 6 to December 23, 2007. Highlights include a visit to the Tokyo Tower observatory level, the Imperial Palace Plaza, Asakusa Kannon Temple, the Shinkansen (Bullet) train ride to Atami, Mount Fuji, a cruise on Lake Ashi, a ride on the Mt. Komagatake aerial tramway, the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle and ancient Imperial Palace in Kyoto and the Todaiji Temple, the 3000 lanterns of the Kasuga Shrine and the Deer Park in Nara.

Jalpak (www.jalpak.com) is currently promoting its six-day Japan Discovery tour that features visits to Tokyo, Nikko and Kinugawa, the latter being the country's largest hot springs resort area. Highlights of this tour include experiencing the ancient cultural heritage of temples and shrines at Nikko as well as soothing your body and mind with authentic Japanese hospitality at Kinugawa hot springs. The package price includes round-trip airfare from the U.S. to Japan on Japan Airlines, airline fuel surcharges and other taxes and fees, round-trip airport limousine bus, three nights' accommodations at Le Meridien Pacific Hotel Tokyo, one-night at Sanraku Ryokan Hotel in Kinugawa, train tickets from Shinagawa to Nikko and Kinugawa to Asakusa, Nikko sightseeing with an English-speaking guide, a day of hot springs, one breakfast, one lunch and one dinner.

Departure date for this trip is March 22, 2007 and this package is priced from $1,765 per person based on double occupancy from Los Angeles or San Francisco and $1,813 from Chicago. The price is reduced by $99 for travelers sharing in triple rooms. Additional nights are available from $97 (or $78 triple share). A surcharge of $35 each way applies for weekend departures.

Do It Yourself

Finding the perfect ryokan to stay in is only a mouse click away and not speaking Japanese is no hindrance. Several websites make is easy, like StayAt (www.stayat.jp) which features information, pricing and bookings for several hundred ryokan. Some of their properties include:

Ryokan Tohoku, a traditional ryokan located in the Mt. Zao area, near Yamagata -- known for skiing and hot springs. Prices start for $59 per night per person for a room with breakfast or $71 per person including breakfast and dinner. The ryokan features its own segregated outdoor baths (separate male and female) plus there are larger hot springs complexes located close by.

Ryokan Tabinoyado Nanjyo at Bessho Onsen (near Nagano) has a long and distinguished history that can be traced back over 1000 years. Surrounded by tranquil traditional gardens, the ryokan offers authentic Japanese-style guest rooms. A Japanese style room here for two to four people, sleeping on futon style mattresses on tatami floors start at $48 per person per night including breakfast or $68 including breakfast and dinner -- plus unlimited use of the onsen.

RyokanToya Sansui at Toyako Onsen in Hokkaido is a recently renovated property known for its constantly flowing hot-spring and its excellent food. A Japanese style room with private bathroom and breakfast is priced from $57 per person per night and the accommodation with dinner and breakfast is $76.

My Guide Japan (www.myguidejapan.com) also has listings of ryokan and onsen by regions and cities, including details of amenities and accommodation styles. Be sure to check out their online etiquette guide so you'll know exactly how to behave while visiting an onsen. For example the Kirakuya Ryokan and onsen (www.kirakuya-inn.co.jp/ewelcome.stm) located in the Tohoku region in the north of Honshu island. Here a traditional Japanese room based on double occupancy is $64 per person per night including breakfast and full usage of the onsen facilities open 24 hours a day. Kirakuya has five kinds of public baths: an open-air bath, a jet bath, a sauna, a cold-water bath and a lukewarm bath plus for onsen beginners who may feel uneasy about public bathing, there are two private baths. Outdoor Japan (www.outdoorjapan.com/section-onsen.html) and Japanese Guest Houses (www.japaneseguesthouses.com) also feature information and booking links for various ryokan with onsite onsen facilities.

Japan Travel Advisor (tel. 800/633-9350; www.japantravel.com) has roundtrip airfares to Japan from various US cities during the fall and winter. Sample round-trip fares for travel between December 25, 2006 and January 1, 2007 and again from January 9 to March 27, 2007 include:

  • Los Angeles, San Francisco. Las Vegas or Phoenix $530
  • Dallas or Houston $680
  • Washington DC, Atlanta, Memphis or Raleigh $690
  • Miami, Tampa or Orlando $700
  • New York/Boston $720

If you book by November 28, 2006 and can travel by December 9, 2006, fares can be up to $110 less than the sample fares above.

For more information about planning your trip to Japan, visit www.frommers.com/destinations/japan.

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