One of the experiences we really enjoyed at Niseko was the onsen, otherwise known as the hot springs.
I didn’t start out being a fan of the onsen. Quite the opposite, in fact. The first time I went to an onsen was way back in 2000. The memory of this is hazy because I might have blocked it out of my mind a little too successfully. I was 18 and it was a family trip to Japan with my folks. There was a lot of excitement about how relaxing it would be to soak in the natural hot springs that was filled with awesome minerals but being 18, I was understandably self conscious and I couldn’t think of anything more mortifying than having to bathe out in the open next to my mom, my sister and a whole bunch of strangers. It could have been holy water hand-scooped by virgins in the himalayas and I still would not have wanted to bathe in it publicly. After some persuasion, I eventually did give it a go but it was an extremely awkward affair (so many boobs that I cannot unsee!) that I have since locked away in my mind.
Having borne the scars of that traumatic onsen experience, I was prepared to sit out on it this time around. I was like “you guys go ahead, I’ll just watch the baby here in the room.”
But then I thought, I’m here in Niseko at a gorgeous resort with an open air onsen out in the snow and I’m not experiencing it because I’m self conscious? Don’t be such a baby.
So I put on my brave face, changed into my onsen robe, and made my way to the very public bath.
It’s been 17 years since my last onsen visit so I was a little rusty on the specific rules of the onsen. I knew it was a no clothes allowed situation but that was about it. How does one go about doing this? Where should I disrobe? Why are there different towel sizes?? Do I take a towel into the onsen area? If I had just showered in the room, can I just rinse or is it rude to not have another full shower before entering the onsen? Do I have to explain my pre-shower so everyone else doesn’t think I’m being unhygienic??
SO MANY QUESTIONS.
Normally, I’d just ask someone for help or observe someone else do it but when you’re butt naked next to another butt naked person, the two rules to observe is to not stare or start a conversation. I had to be discreet about this.
I walked into the onsen and saw a shelf with a couple of sandals. Ok, self explanatory. Put my shoes on the shelf before entering. So far, so good.
Once I was in the changing area, I almost made an abrupt U-turn to leave because it was packed with undressed women of all ages. There were like 8-10 ladies just doing their own thing but without clothes. So distracting. Having made my grand entrance, I could feel many pairs of eyes on me. Clearly, this was the time to undress but where do I put my robe and stuff?? Do I grab a towel? Should I casually drape towel on my arm like it’s nbd or use it to cover up?
Thankfully, there was a lady who was a step ahead of me and I was able to steal quick glances so that I could do exactly as she did.
At the shower area, I found a stool at the furthest end of the row and began my shower. After the initial awkwardness, I was starting to feel less weird about the whole experience. It’s fine, I’m just showering out in the open next to all these exposed boobs and bottoms, this is completely normal.
On this note, I discovered that showering on a stool? Total game changer. I mean, why is this not the default showering protocol? I’ve showered standing all my life and I suddenly felt so cheated because I was doing it wrong all this time. It is so comfortable to be sitting down for a shower. There’s also zero risk of slipping when I’m trying to lather the soles of my feet. I don’t have statistics but I’m willing to wager that far less Japanese people slip in the shower because they’re like “you morons can stand and shower, I’ll be sitting here all safe and comfy on my little stool.”
See, I would not have learnt this incredible life hack if I had been too chicken to try the onsen.
Eventually, I was ready for the onsen and it was glorious. It was hot but I love my showers almost unbearably hot so I didn’t mind the temperature. The faint smell of sulphur was strangely therapeutic and I could feel the aches from my snowboarding falls wash away. Just sitting there breathing in the crisp, cold air and watching the snow fall around me as I soaked in the hot springs made the sacrifice of modesty worth it.
**Pro tip: Depending on how squeamish you are about public nudity, you can go really early (it’s usually empty), or in the middle of the day (maybe a handful of elderly ladies, which is far less threatening), or during prime evening time (super crowded but crowded can work in your favour because with so many naked people, nobody’s got time to look at you).
**Super pro tip: If you’re travelling with family or friends, you might want to consider staggering your onsen visits because naked strangers is one thing, but having to see someone you know naked, that’s just a mental image you don’t want to have seared into your retinas.