If you are doing a rotation in Japan you simply must try some of the traditional Japanese Onsens.
Fortunately for Niseko ML some of the very best Japanese Onsen’s are located up here in Hokkaido and we urge you to experience as many you can.
No Onsen visit is ever the same with subtle changes in mineral content, temperature and views giving you unique experience each visit.
So what is an Onsen ?
No one can agree completely but its generally accepted that on Onsen is a hot bath feed by a natural spring that is already over 25 degrees Celcius before any additional heating is added. As Japan lies right over the ” Pacific rim of fire ” it is rich in volcanic activity forcing superheated water to surface.
It is thought that there are now somewhere around 20,000 Onsen’s in Japan and at least 250 of those are found in Hokkaido where they are generally thought to be higher in mineral content and quality than many others due to the fact that Hokkaido has over 30 active Volcano’s. Onsens in Hokkaido are generally split into those high in Chloride or those high in Sulphur.
To be classified as an Onsen the water must contain at least 1 of 19 minerals and Onsens with a high Sulphur content are usually regarded more highly by Japanese people and leave your skin feeling more refreshed. Usually the baths are about waist deep allowing you to sit comfortably.
Many hotel ” onsens ” really should be more correctly referred to as public baths if they are not spring feed. Still a very nice experience but not the real deal !
How old is Onsen Culture ?
Probably as old as Japanese culture itself but the way Onsen’s have been used has changed a lot over the years.
The first written reference to Onsen’s is found in one of Japans oldest books the ” Nihon Shoki ” which was written in the second half of the 1st century around 720. Some of the Onsens’s referenced in that book are still in operation today.
Onsen culture took off during Japan’s early first century with under it’s Buddhist roots where Onsen’s had a very important role in Spiritual Cleansing and religious ceremony. There were typically located in temples and not part of everyday life.
Things changed during the Kamakura period (1192-1333) where Onsen bathing was an activity enjoyed by the noble class and not something available to common people.
There growing popularity meant that by the Edo Period (1603-1868) bathhouses become more common and were no longer just enjoyed by a select few. At this time it was common for Men’s and ladies to mixed which was quite the culture shock to visiting Westerners that were starting to trade with Japan by this time.
Over the Showa period (1926-1989) indoor bathing at home became more common and Onsen’s become to be seen again a as a luxury visit and somewhere to unwind the stress and treat yourself. Men’s and Ladies became split although some mixed Onsen’s still persist.
How to use on Onsen
This can a little intimating for Westerners but once you have one visit under your belt most never look back. The men’s Onsen will usually have a blue flag under it and the Women’s a red flag. Best not to get those 2 confused or your first Onsen experience may not go to plan.
To prepare for Onsen you will need one large towel to dry yourself and one small towel to aid in washing and modesty. Most Onsens provide body soap, Shampoo and Conditioner but if you are in small country Onsen you may need to supply your own. For Men shaving is permitted in the washing area.
Remember to take your shoes off as soon as you pass the flags and put them on the shelf provided. Once you are into the chage room there will either be lockers or baskets provided. Here you want to remove all your clothing and place in the basket and the only thing you want to take into the washing area is your small towel and your locker key if you have one.
Once you are in the washroom sit of the small stool provided and cover your body with soap, using the small towel to wash your body. From here you move out to the Onsen tub where you can soak away to life’s content. Some people chose to shower again after the onsen, others like myself prefer the feeling of the minerals on your skin. Bear in mind if you are in a high Sulphur onsen that move may not be appreciated by your housemates.
There are few things that can keep you out of trouble in your Onsen experience.
- Make sure you take all your clothes off upon entering washing area. Nothing will attract attention faster than Westerner freaking out out being nude. Nobody is actually that interested in you !
- Wash all your soap off really well . Soap suds love floating to the top of onsen and screaming ” new guy “
- Your small towel can be used in 2 ways in the hottub. You can can either place it over your head which can be useful in Hokkaido to stop your hair from freezing or you can place it to side. Do not allow the towel to enter the Onsen water
- Avoid talking loudly and attracting attention. This is the one that Westerners screw up the most and cause offence to our host Nation . The Onsen is place of quite reflection and calmness. If you can avoid crowding out the tub with large groups that will really help keep the peace.
- Don’t bring anything else into the Onsen.
- Avoid entering with Tattoo’s. Actually this is complex. Read more below
What about Tattoos ?
Oh boy. Here we go.
Probably the the question we get asked the most on our tours is about tattoos in Onsens.
The Onsen’s themselves will tell you that that are forbidden yet it’s not all at uncommon to see tattooed Japanese people in Onsen. So welcome to the great Onsen Tattoo paradox.
Again perhaps some more can be understood by looking at this policy in context of Japanese the history.
Back in early Japan from the 7th century to right up to late 1700’s Tattoos where used as a form of punishment for criminals in engaged in theft and other misdemeanors. Criminals would be marked on the center of the face or arms known as a “tattoo penalty” or “Irezumi Kei,”
It might seem brutal but in the days before criminal record databases it was probably a pretty effective way of keeping track of who should be allowed near the change room baskets and was a kindler gently alternative to removing body parts which pre dates this practice.
By the 1700’s In a classic game of cat and mouse criminals began tattooing their body in decorative tattoos to hide the criminal stamps and decorative tattoos began to be an artform in itself. With no way to tell which was art and which was a sign that you may be Yukuza, Onsens and places of significance upheld the ban on all tattoos and in classic Japanese culture, once a rule is a rule it’s a rule !
There are some are recent pressures to relax tattoos even coming from a Government level. In 2005 the Japanese tourism association conducted a survey and began a campaign to relax the tattoo rules for foreigners to increase international tourism with limited success.
So where does that leave us ?
Well if you if you have anything but a small tattoo and want to be completely culturally compatible and respectful you may need to give tradition Onsen’s a miss.
If you feel that this is a rule in transition and open to some ” interpretation ” and you may want to push the boundaries a little. Here would be our suggestions if you fall into this camp.
- Don’t ask. Asking an Onsen is likely to get a firm no rather than a special exception as it may in Western culture
- Make sure it’s not visible on check-in
- Do you your best not to display it in the Onsen such as keeping you back against a wall etc.
- Keep a low profile and talk very softly. Avoid being in large groups. One person might be ok but a group of tattooed people together is not going to float. The tattoo is unlikely to trigger a complaint but it will be what gets you asked to leave.
- Avoid busy times. Try and go right before close or early in the morning.
- Be extra respectful and courteous so that your tattooed brethren in the future may enjoy an easier Onsen experience.
There are some specific tattoo friendly Onsens. Lists like this can become outdated so may wish to do some googling but here are some good lists.
If you are Niseko The Niseko Grande hotel is great Tatoo friendly onsen and is picture below
Some great Onsens in Niseko
Be sure to check out our top 5 onsens on the link below