If you’ve ever been skiing before, you know how enticing the call of the hot tub can be after a hard day on the slopes. In Japan, post-ski relaxation is taken to the next level with a slow soak in an onsen.
Onsen are hot springs or baths that are rich in natural properties making them ideal for skiers at the end of the day. Not that you need a reason to take a dip!
While soaking your body and mind in an onsen is an incredibly relaxing activity, it’s important to understand a few basic rules before you take the plunge.
1. You won’t need your swimming gear
Unlike that hot tub on your last holiday, you probably won’t be bringing your bathing suit here. In fact, almost all Japanese onsen require you to be completely nude when entering.
If you happen to be visiting a very popular ski resort where the hotel you’re staying in has its own, things might be a little bit different. However, if you’re venturing out of the confines of your hotel, which you should be doing, then the chances are high that the public onsen will require no clothing.
Curious why this is a rule? In short, it’s because anything worn into the pools could be dirty and may compromise the cleanliness of your fellow soakers. Don’t worry about the nudity – many people in Japan have bathed in onsen since they were little and thus it isn’t considered a big deal in Japanese culture.
2. They are perfect after a day on the slopes
If you’re anything like me, taking your boots off after charging down the mountain all day is a blissful feeling. The only thing that tops it is jumping in the hot tub. With Onsen, you won’t only get the opportunity to rest and soak your muscles, but also indulge in the myriad of healing properties onsen can give.
Most baths are full of many different natural minerals which are great for your skin, aches and pains, blood pressure, and heart rate.
However, keep in mind that these waters can be very hot, so don’t stay in them for longer than you can manage. I would advise taking a break every 15-20 minutes and making sure you drink plenty of water. This is likely to vary from person to person, so just make sure you don’t overdo it.
3. Tattoos might be a problem
At a ski resort onsen, you’ll probably be okay because it’s been built with tourists in mind. However, the vast majority of public baths won’t allow you in if you have any visible tattoos.
The “taboo” of tattoos in Japan, especially in onsen, is due to their association with Yakuza, or Japan’s organized crime. Of course, most people who travel to Japan on holiday don’t have those kinds of backgrounds, but unfortunately, that isn’t enough for you to be allowed in.
The best piece of advice here is to either call up your hotel beforehand (or send an email) to double check or get the staff at your hotel to recommend somewhere if it’s available. If your tattoos are small enough, you should be able to purchase a few waterproof plasters before your trip, and then your options will open up.
4. Take a shower before, not after
It’s very important to realize that bathing in an onsen is not the time for washing yourself. That’s something that happens before you get in the bath. All onsen will have a set of shower facilities located in the same room or very close to the baths that are there so you can clean yourself beforehand.
After you’ve stored your clothes in the available lockers, take only your small towel with you to the showers. Next, sit on one of the stools underneath the showers and thoroughly wash yourself with the provided shower gel.
Once you’re clean, rinse your body with the bucket next to you, and feel confident in the knowledge you’re ready to go in the onsen.
Tip: Do not go into the pools with your towel. You may place it on your head, or somewhere nearby, but never let it touch the water.
5. Leave everything in your room
Skiing gives you a great chance to reflect and spend some time with your thoughts. There’s absolutely no reason that needs to stop when you hang up your boots for the day.
When you make your way to the onsen, whether it’s inside your hotel or public, you should only carry your clothing, some money, and a phone if you have to travel further.
Most onsen will provide a key and locker for you to store your valuables in, so you should be able to visit at any point in the day. For the most part, you don’t have to bring your own towel, but you’ll likely have to pay a small fee when you’re there if you don’t.
You absolutely shouldn’t bring any form of electronic device in or near the pool. Ideally, the entire trip to the pool will be an incredibly mindful experience for you and you’ll leave your phone at home. Of course, that isn’t always possible so just make sure anything likely to disturb you is safely stowed in the lockers provided.
6. Respect the space, respect the people
Skiing, especially in the champagne powder Japan is so well known for is highly likely to increase your adrenaline and leave you feeling hyped after a great day on the slopes. However, it’s important to remember that when you enter an onsen, your attitude needs to reflect the environment. In this case, that means a calm, serene experience for you and your fellow bathers.
While you might have thrown yourself off the mountain during the day, you shouldn’t be jumping in the baths during the evening.
Basic rules of an onsen you should follow include no jumping, no loud or rude conversations (if anything), no taking glass into the room, no getting drunk, no clothing or towels in the pool, no running or swimming, and no getting in without cleaning beforehand.
Those might all seem fairly self-explanatory, but it’s easy to forget when you’re somewhere new on a high from your holiday. Respect the space and let everyone enjoy onsen the way they are intended to be enjoyed.
7. When in doubt, follow the locals
Japan is often suggested as a confusing place to travel, and that does have some truth behind it. The culture can wildly differ, there are three separate alphabets, and everything seems to just feel a little alien.
That’s sometimes enough to put travellers off from living their authentic dream holiday, and onsen often don’t make the cut. Sure, if it’s something you’ve never done before it can be a little intimidating, but take it from me that you honestly don’t have anything to worry about. Just remember to take your shoes off before you go in! And don’t even think about going in with your ski boots!
Now, navigating your way around an onsen might be easier if you are in a popular ski resort with lots of English-speaking staff, but that won’t always be the case. So if for some reason that survival phrase travel book you read for 15 minutes on the plane hasn’t taught you how to read Kanji, I’ve got one last important tip for you.
Follow the locals. Again, this might not always be possible, but it’s ideal in a pinch. It’s also important you understand the main reason you should go to an onsen is to relax and have fun. Don’t overthink the rules, just use your common sense and follow what someone else does if you forget.
Depending on your confidence, you could even ask the staff to help you. Some onsen won’t have staff, and most staff won’t speak English, but you won’t know unless you try. In some cases, they may notice you’re a foreigner, realize you need help, and go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. Such is Japan’s famous hospitality!
So there you have it: seven things to remember when you’re visiting an onsen on your ski trip. Please don’t feel too intimidated by the unknown aspect of it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you’ll definitely regret if you don’t do it. Plus, anything that heals your muscles ready for the next day’s skiing has to be a good thing, right?!
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