Onsen

A beautiful Japanese onsen at Lotte Arai
Gorgeous Japanese onsen on the west coast of Aomori
Outdoor onsen baths (rotenburo) at Appi Kogen
Matsukawa Onsen in Hachimantai Iwate
YukiChichibu Onsen (Chisenupuri Onsen) near Niseko
Japanese onsen etiquette includes having a good wash beforehand
Goshiki Onsen near Niseko Japan
Oyu is one of the public baths in Nozawa Onsen
Shibu Onsen has various public baths
Takakura Onsen at Shizukuishi Resort
Nyuto Onsen near Tazawako in Akita Prefecture
Takaragawa Onsen near Tenjindaira Gunma
Ryounkaku Tokachidake Hokkaido
Public onsen at Zao Onsen in Yamagata
Geto Kogen
Madarao Kogen Hotel
Aesthetically lovely Japan onsen at Lotte Arai
Public bath at Hirayu Onsen in Gifu
Fukeikan in Yamada Onsen near Yamaboku
Amihari Onsen

Onsen

What is An Onsen?

An onsen is the Japanese term for hot spring, which is naturally heated water that has a high concentration of minerals such as sulphur. “Onsen” is typically used to refer to the thermal water source as well as the bathhouse and the baths. The plural of “onsen” can be “onsen” or “onsens”.

There are many onsen (hot springs) in Japan, which is not surprising considering the degree of geothermal activity in the mountainous areas of Japan. Onsens are the perfect remedy for sore muscles after a hard day on the slopes.

Types of Japanese Onsen

Onsen are generally gender segregated, but sometimes you’ll find old traditional onsen where there is mixed bathing (konyoku onsen) along with a women-only bath. Often with mixed bathing, women are provided with a towel-like dress to maintain decorum.

Some places also have a private onsen bath where you can book a time slot, or there are some guest rooms at very deluxe hotels and ryokan that have their own private onsen – this is the ultimate!

Many onsens are indoors and are adjacent to the shower area (see below) whilst some will also have an outdoor onsen (rotenburo). These may have screening for privacy or be located in a remote spot in the forest or mountains, away from prying eyes.

Most onsen are part of a building such as a hotel, have an attached dressing area and showering area, and provide toiletries and hairdryers. Meanwhile some of the old-school onsen have very basic amenities and the pre-wash may occur with a bucket of water. Japan also has some a la naturale onsens out in the backcountry where there is no attached infrastructure.

Where Are the Japanese Onsens?

Many ski resort areas have onsens, and Japan has lots of onsen resort towns. Here are some particularly good spots for onsen that are associated with a ski area.

Japanese Onsen Etiquette

Step 1: Take off slippers or shoes

Typical onsen facilities have various sections to them. The entrance way will have a raised part where it’s essential onsen etiquette to remove your shoes or slippers before you step up.

Step 2: Take off your clothes

In the changing room you’ll need to take off all your clothes (or yukata) and put them in one of the baskets or compartments along with your big towel. No matter how bashful you may feel, do not put bathers on as this is really bad onsen etiquette. Get your shrubbery or man-fro in check if this helps you deal with your insecurities, and use your little modesty towel. And don’t look in the mirrors in the changing room, otherwise you’ll figure out how you look in your birthday suit!

Step 3: Wash yourself with hand held shower and/or bucket

The next room on from the changing room has the washing area and indoor onsen. Sit on one of the plastic tubs or stools (probably rinse it first!), and use the hand held shower to wash yourself. You wouldn’t be alone if it took you a minute or two to figure out how to use the shower! Some onsen aficionados would say that you have to wash yourself three times, but as a bare minimum, make sure that you scrub and rinse yourself very thoroughly. Don’t spray any other onsen guests during the process and don’t stand up, no matter how ridiculously low and uncomfortable the stool is.

Some old traditional onsens (e.g. sotoyu at Nozawa Onsen) don’t have chairs or hand held shower hoses, so you’ll have to sit on the floor or crouch and use a small bucket to wash yourself.

Another onsen etiquette tip is not to wash your clothes in this shower area.

Step 4: Enter the hot bath

Take your modesty towel (the small one) and it’s time to enter the hot bath. Most of the onsens are much hotter (approx 40 degrees) than your standard spa, so you might not be able to stay in for long. You can wear your modesty towel on your head, but do not put it in the onsen water. The onsen is a place of relaxation for the Japanese, so rowdy behaviour is not appropriate which includes drinking copious amounts of alcohol or performing snow angels! Nevertheless don’t be surprised if you hear some of the locals making a few grunting noises, which seems to indicate their pleasure of sitting in the onsen!

Some onsens have onsen flowers, which are mineral deposits that look suspiciously like floaties. Apparently these signify the quality of the onsen!

Some of the Japanese are inclined to stare at your naked body (particularly the women), so you’ll just have to get used to it. Needless to say, don’t gawk back!

Step 5: Wash again (optional)

After you exit the hot spring bath, have another wash. Traditionally you don’t re-wash so as to retain the skin benefits of the water, but if the water is particularly stinky with sulphur, you’ll probably want to wash again so that your clothes and then your whole suitcase don’t stink of sulphur!

Step 6: Dry yourself

Try to dry yourself as much as possible with your modesty towel. If you head into the changing area (where your real towel is) dripping wet, you won’t be very popular.

Step 7: You know what to do

Finish drying off and get dressed or put your yukata on, and you have the option of drying your hair and glamming up with the mystery products on offer. Trying to figure out which bottle is hair tonic versus face moisturiser can be interesting. Head out, put your slippers or shoes back on, and wander to the vending machine for a drink!

Best Onsen at or Near Ski Areas

Here are some of our favourite Japanese onsen near ski areas. Many of these are historic onsen, so not surprisingly some of these include mixed onsen (konyoku onsen).

Takaragawa Onsen is a very famous onsen near Tenjindaira and Houdaigi which has a collection of outdoor mixed baths on either side of a river.

Hachimantai in Iwate has some great hot springs and Matsukawa Onsen has a small collection of ryokan with blue milky onsen, some of which are mixed.

Furofushi Onsen on Kogane Peninsula out on the western coast of Aomori is a pretty special experience because the outdoor baths sit on the ocean front and you can bathe whilst watching the waves crashing around you. One of the baths is mixed, whilst the other rotenburo is ladies only.

YukiChichibu Onsen (Chisenupuri Onsen) at the base of the old Chisenupuri ski area near Niseko offers gorgeous views of the slopes and mountains. It is super stinky!!

Sukayu near Hakkoda is a really old onsen. The senjin buro (bath of a thousand bathers) is the most famous of the baths. It’s a mixed indoor onsen and it’s so dark that you won’t be able to do any peeking.

Nishiya Ryokan is a 200 year old ryokan with its original thatched roof intact in the little village of Shirabu Onsen near Tengendai. The little indoor onsen is really raw, with the hot spring water gushing out of the side of the mountain.