In the Japanese ski town of Nozawa Onsen one of the popular activities to do after a day in the mountains is to soak in an onsen. The island of Japan has quite a bit of geothermal activity going on below the ground and in some regions hot mineral rich water is released to form a natural onsen, also known as a hot spring.
Ski field in Nozawa Onsen
Communal bathing has been a treasured past time historically around the globe- there is Blue Lagoon spa in GrindavÃk, Ice Land, Yangbajing near Tibet, Budapest in Hungary and Bath in England. All places are on my travel list to do some day and having never personally experienced a hot spring I really wanted to try a traditional onsen whilst in Japan.
On the last evening in the village and after our very Italian dinner at Pasta Di Pasta we returned to our apartment changing into a matching pair of robes. Over the course of our time in Nozawa noticed a fair few people in the evenings wandering the village dressed in their onsen robes and assumed it would be okay to wear the robe to the onsen. We each bought along a bag with soap, hand towel and a towel for drying afterwards.
O-yu Onsen is one of the bigger of the 13 onsens in the town’s centre, walking back from the mountains each day the wood facade lights up beautifully at sunset. The onsens are single sex, left for the males and right for the females. I have to say, it was a little daunting entering the bath house, not knowing what to expect behind the closed doors. It was about 10 pm and a couple of local ladies were inside. The interior of the bathhouse was smaller and darker than I imagined, there were two baths. Prior to leaving the apartment we had showered but before you slide into the onsen you must wash yourself too. I used the water from a nearby tap and a small bucket located to the side of the bath. Taking much care not to let the soapy water run into the bath but rather to the other side. There are friendly rules to an onsen and one of them suggests to crouch over and not stand up when washing next to the bath. Naked with a few local strangers, I tried to mentally erase the self conscious and awkward feelings. I started to think about how Derek was going on the other side, concentrating to hear his familiar voice next door. But only, unfamiliar Japanese speaking voices. Derek didn’t particularly like the whole get naked and bath with a bunch of men idea and it took a lot of convincing and a couple of glasses of hot sake to get him to come, I was really curious how he was going over there.
Amazing – water channel to the side of the road
Once I had washed myself, I was ready to take the plunge. One of the ladies turned on the cold water tap for me and moved to the next bath, it must be a little well known fact that out of town folk struggle with the heat of the water, a nice gesture I really appreciated because holy cow that water was hot! A kind of hot I have never experienced before and I do love to draw an impossibly hot bath at home. It took a good 20 minutes to immerse myself, the water was soft with a strong sulfurous odour from the high mineral content. I didn’t quite get used to that odour to be honest. As I soaked submerged to my shoulders, my lingering thoughts about slowing boiling myself eventually disappeared as my mind turned blank. It was snowing and cold outside but inside the bathhouse it was toasty warm and quiet.
After a day of skiing, the hot mineral water was soothing and calming, the kind of feeling after a nice massage. My body was super warm for a good hour after the onsen and the walk back to the apartment felt really nice even though the temperature would have been 2 degrees. I could have walked back naked, that was how warm I was! Talking about our own experiences, we both would do it again and kind of wished we had tried it at the beginning of the trip. My first onsen experience was awkward, exciting and oh so very relaxing.
Dorky me after my onsen experience.
For anyone that has not experienced an onsen, the committee have put together some helpful rules. These intend to make the experience less daunting and also so that locals and out of town folk can co-exist in a happy onsen environment. The rules can be found in many of the tourist brochures accompanied with a funny caricature cartoon. Without these handy tips I think my experience would have been very embarrassing!
- Dry yourself before leaving the bath area
- You must be naked
- Do not put your towel or wash your body in the bathtub
- The bath tub is for soaking only
- Say hello
- Do not eat or drink in the bathhouse
- Turn the cold water off when you leave
- Wash your body before getting into the bath tub
- Please wash yourself sitting down. So you do not splash others
The public onsens (Soto-yu) close at 11pm each night. Do leave a small donation in the box.
If stripping off is not your thing there is a western style onsen in town where you can wear a swim suit, called Sparena. It is located near the Nagasaka gondola.
My other posts about our Nozawa Onsen trip
Staying in a Japanese Guest House, Nozawa Onsen – Shirakaba Guest House
Hamachozushi in Nozawa Onsen – Sushi in Nozawa Onsen