During our two week trip to Japan, I was thwarted from visiting a Japanese onsen (hot springs) spa town favored by people in Kyoto by a child with an ill-timed ear infection. In Tokyo, however, I knew that the nearby Hakone hot springs were famous, too. Our last full day in Japan, I arranged a Hakone onsen day trip for my family to the Kowakien Yunessun hotel and spa complex. This Hakone onsen theme park is famous for its specialty baths (such as the green tea spa bath and the red wine spa bath). Moreover, unlike traditional Japanese onsens, the Hakone Kowakien lets you wear swimsuits and has has a family-friendly area with water slides and play areas. There are plenty of things that you can do with children in Hakone and this hot springs theme park is definitely something they will enjoy.
The Kowakien Yunessun Complex
The Yunessun onsen is a huge Hakone onsen hotel complex nestled in the mountains. I was worried sitting in the bus en route to Yunessun that I’d miss it. I needn’t have worried!
You should note that this Hakone hotel in Kowakien has hotel rooms and restaurants separate from the Yunessen onsen restaurants. If you are staying at this Hakone onsen hotel you don’t have to worry about Hakone onsen day-trippers taking over all of the hotel space.
Available to both the Hakone Hotel Kowakien guests and hot springs theme park guests, there is a giant gift area in the hotel where you could buy all types of Japanese souvenirs.
Of course, Yunessun has kawaii mascots that greet you throughout the complex and also provide plenty of photo opportunities.
Once you pass into the Hakone onsen theme park area itself, you can buy/rent swimsuits, caps, towels etc. We chose to rent towels but did not rent the brown robes. We did see people wearing the robes over their swimsuits but it is definitely not customary or required.
The Swimsuit Area at Yunessun Onsen
The Hakone Kowakien Yunessun bills itself as a onsen theme park primarily because it has several hot springs facilities catering for children (such as water slides and a water play area)
Who Goes to the Hakone Onsen Theme Park?
We saw lots of families as you would expect. The majority were well-behaved Japanese children with some foreign families in the mix.
The children are allowed to use floaties and pool toys at this Hakone hot springs theme park. We did not find the Kowakien Yunessun spa particularly busy when we went. It is a huge space and can cater to large crowds.
What Is Available At Kowakien Yunessun?
The facilities are extensive and spread out over inside and outside.
Indoors there is a main pool and a small toddler water play area besides this pool.
Yunessun Hakone has 3 restaurants in the hot springs theme park. The food is a lot like other theme parks you can go to – nothing special and geared towards child-friendly dishes. After all you are not at Yunessun for the food.
- There is a poolside Japanese fast food restaurant.
- Upstairs there is a snacks and crepes restaurant. It serves kid-friendly stuff like Japanese curry rice, corn dogs and crepes. To drink, you have a choice of sodas as well as bubble tea and Asahi beer!
- Upstairs there is a fancier all you can eat restaurant. It’s got beautiful views and you need to wear house slippers.
As you would expect from a Japanese place, there are vending machines galore. You can pay for the items with your wristband.
Changing Rooms at Hakone Kowakien Yunessun
The changing rooms are segregated by gender. Children over the age of 7 are not expected to be in the opposite gender’s changing rooms.
The lockers and general furniture are a sludge brown color. The lockers are closed with a wristband that also serve as your ticket to buy items at the Yunessun Hakone. At the end, you return your wristband and settle up your account.
The lockers and changing rooms are kept immaculate by cleaning staff. We did not find puddles of water on the floor which is always a problem with locker rooms in a thermal spa.
The Decor at Hakone Kowakien Yunessun
Kowakien Yunessun is decorated with a sunny Meditteranean theme with blue skies and white puffy clouds on the ceiling. The walls are painted to remind you of a white village a la one of the Greek islands.
Confusingly, you are greeted upon arrival by Japanese staff with leis and other props for a photo opportunity to pretend you are in Hawaii. The photos were quite steep to buy (1200 yen) and so we didn’t bother with the photos.
Ironically, the Yunessun setting in the mountains of Hakone is pretty beautiful in itself. Not sure why the Japanese need to pretend they are in Hawaii or in the Mediterranean. The large glass windows overlook dense forest-filled mountains of greenery. In Autumn, when the foliage turning colours of intense yellow, red and green, the view must be stunning.
The Different Pools at the Hakone Hot Springs
In addition to the main pool, inside the Yunessun Hakone complex there were quite a few specialty pools – a sake spa pool, a red wine spa pool, a coffee spa pool and a green tea spa pool. Sake is a Japanese rice wine but processed more like the brewing of wine. There is real sake, red wine etc poured into these pools but I wouldn’t recommend drinking from these spas.
The coffee pool really smelled like coffee but the other specialty pools smelled mostly like chlorine.
Dr Fish is a fish pedicure pool where fish eat the dead skin of your feet, We tried this for the first time because it only cost 100 yen per person and lasted 5 minutes. I didn’t like it because I am really ticklish. Children from the age of 3 are allowed to use the fish pedicure pool.
Outside there is a small hot tub area and a large pool with a waterfall leading to an internal grotto. Having only heard about Hugh Hefner’s famous pool grotto at the Playboy Mansion, I can only imagine this grotto is what it looked like.
There are 3 water slides as well as a water play area for younger children. The play areas are all set up so that parents can sit in the hot tubs and still watch their children.
Other Kowakien Yunessun Amenities
In the relaxation area, there is a large tatami mat area with low tables with picture windows overlooking the mountains. With sockets on the walls, its a nice area to hang out in. We saw families playing cards, napping and generally chilling in the relaxation area.
Next door to the relaxation area there is a massage area. The booking system seems pretty informal and I had no problem getting an appointment.
The little old Japanese lady who did my massage spoke limited English. Yet, she was WAY stronger than I expected. I opted for a shiatsu massage (without oils) and I felt pummelled like a piece of meat. Especially after the hot water easing my muscles, the massage was exactly the icing on the cake I needed but it did remind me of a quote from one of my favourite movies set in Japan.
I was feeling tight in the shoulders and neck, and so I had a shiatsu massage in my room… And the tightness has completely disappeared and been replaced by an unbelievable pain.
– Bob Harris from Lost in Translation (2003)
Mori No Yu – The No Swimsuit Area
For me the highlight of the Hakone Hotel Kowakien experience was the traditional Japanese onsen, i.e., the no swimsuit area called Mori No Yu. It was quiet, peaceful and beautiful!
Unlike other thermal spas like Therme Wien in Austria, Yunessun seemed pretty relaxed about taking photos in the swimsuit area. I did not, however, feel it appropriate to take photos in Mori No Yu. So here’s a photo from the Yunessun website:
Like all traditional onsets, you need to scrub yourself down before getting in the pools. There are lots of showering cubicles both inside and out the secluded Mori no Yu area.
The Pools at Mori No Yu
I did not find Mori No Yu crowded (about 20 women) and usually I had a pool to myself. It was mostly Japanese women – maybe they cleared out when the foreigner came in?!
In the women’s area, there were 2 large indoor pools (one stone, and one wood) and 4 outdoor pools landscaped into the rock and 3 small tubs. The rock landscaped pools even had stone beds that let you lie down and relax.
I thought the small tubs were perfect for one person stretching out. It was like having a hot tub in a beautiful Japanese garden with mountain views.
Separately there is a large rock pool with milky blue water which reminded me of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
I had to rely on my husband and son for their opinion of the men’s side of Mori No Yu. They said there were about the same number of men on their side too. They had 3 large pools both indoor and outdoor but had many more smaller tubs.
The Ambience at Mori No Yu
The atmosphere was peaceful and quiet (except for the slightly overloud tinkly music played over the loudspeaker). Some mothers were there with their little daughters but it was still peaceful and quiet.
Unlike western hot tubs, there are no age restrictions for children to use the hot tubs. Onsens are part of the Japanese culture and children are introduced to onsens early.
Locker Rooms at Mori No Yu
The locker rooms are similar to the Kowakien Yunessun locker rooms in that they are sludge brown color and work on a wristband system. You can just use any available locker and take the wristband.
Other Amenities at Mori No Yu
There is a little cafe, a tatami relaxation area and a massage area in Mori No Yu, too. So you don’t need to buy passes to both Kowakien Yunessun and Mori No Yu to have access to these amenities.
Buying Passes To Hakone Hotel Kowakien
You can buy passes to use just the swimsuit area (Kowakien Yunessun) or the no-swimsuit area (Mori No Yu) or both. We chose combination tickets in the hope that we could convince our kids to try out the traditional onsen. My son went with his father into Mori No Yu but my daughter flat out refused to strip in front of strangers. Sort of like the holy water baths at Lourdes, she was not to be persuaded from her opinion.
Transportation to Hakone Kowakien
From Tokyo, our Hakone onsen day trip was easy to organise.
Since we had our JR Passes, we took a Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Odawara station. From Odawara you can take the Romance Car or the bus. We opted to take the 45 minute bus ride (Bus H, Lane 3) through the mountains. The bus stops right outside the Hakone Hotel Kowakien spa stop (helpfully also called Kowakien).
Returning, we took the same bus from outside the Hakone Kowakien Yunessun. There is a doorman who will help you get on the right bus.
Our Opinion of Hakone Kowakien
We loved our Hakone onsen day trip to Kowakien Yunessun. I’m not convinced by benefits of the specialty baths such as the green tea spa or the red wine spa. I’m a big fan of traditional thermal baths so am a bit boring in that respect. But it is always fun to say you bathed in a green tea spa!
It was the perfect relaxing end to a busy two week trip to Japan. In fact, the kids had wanted to return to the Hakone Open Air Museum which is only a few minutes away from the Kowakien Yunessun. The lure of relaxing in the hot springs of the Hakone onsen theme park proved too strong and we were pretty happy to just hang out as a family.