Onsen etiquette when skiing in Japan

How to act like a local when bathing in Japan’s mineral onsens. 

There’s so much to love about skiing in Japan. Big powder. Big mountains. Trees. Sushi. Third wave coffee. And onsens.

The country is home to over 25 000 hot springs thanks to volcanic geography and if you’re skiing in the mountains of Hokkaido or Honshu then you’ll no doubt find one in your accommodation. The benefits of onsen bathing are in the sulfur and magnesium which can do wonders for your nervous system and soothe weary leg muscles from all that powder.

But. There is an art to ‘onsenning’ in a country where culture and respect are imperative. So don’t act the bogan Aussie tourist, brush up on onsen etiquette before you dip your toe in.

Tattoos

Uh oh. That Asian Kanji tattoo you thought so culturally hip in your tattoo parlour in Sydney may mean no onsen for you. Oh, the irony. But seriously, if are tatted up, and who these days isn’t, then many onsens will not allow you entry. Though the country is relaxing these rules so check with the onsen before arriving.

Clean up

Many onsens will have soap and small towels for you to use, however it is best to also carry your own soap, hand towel and body towel as scrubbing yourself before onsen entry is de rigeur. Expect a small stool to sit on, a hose with tap or buckets with water and wash yourself down in the dedicated rinsing area before slipping into the onsen waters.

Let it all hang out

Go naked. There is no other culturally appropriate way. Take it off. If you’re modest there are small hand towels to cover yourself with but you’ll be lucky if they cover one boob let alone two. Though it’s best, again, to bring your own towel in case the onsen doesn’t provide any.

Man or woman

Onsens are traditionally segregated by gender. Because. Naked. Do check the times though as some onsens offer bathing times for men and bathing times for women. Others have two different onsens, one for each.

No photos

Because. Naked.

Watch that towel

The point is to keep the onsen water as clean and untouched as possible. Hence the elaborate bathing before entering. It is considered rude to throw your hand towel in the water, even ruder to wring them out in the water.

You can place the towel on your head while you are in the water. It can certainly help with perspiring scalps but be careful not to drop it in the water. If you do then, again, don’t wring it out in that same water.

Quiet

Think of your onsen time as meditation time. You can high five, whelp and holler about your face shots at the bar. This is not a bar.

Relax some more

Most onsens will have a post bathing relaxation room. Use it. Lie down, cool down, have some water, come back to earth.

Vending machines

Yes they are at onsens too. You can buy hand towels, razors, underwear, shampoo, food, beer and more. So if you do forget to bring your own products then you’re covered.

Many onsens will be indoor and outdoor so you can soak in mineral waters under a snow laden sky. Some are ‘illegal onsens’ where locals have just pushed a pipe into the spring and created a rock pool in a forest. There’s one near Furano, so ask around, quite fun to trek out under the stars surrounded by snow.

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

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