Niseko is blessed with a rich bounty of natural hot spring water which is as almost as much of a drawcard as the snow. Being able to soak your tired muscles and body in a 40C+ Niseko onsen (hot spring) after a long, cold day skiing is one of the most amazing things about Niseko.
Submerged to the neck, gazing across a dreamlike snow-covered landscape through a veil of steam, is a truly unique Niseko experience. The total mind and body relaxation experienced in the hours after leaving an onsen is perhaps the only thing that can beat it.
Niseko’s Top 10 Onsens
The Green Leaf Hotel’s Paul Haggart is passionate about ensuring Niseko visitors make the most of their Hokkaido holiday by introducing them to the best and often least-known cultural experiences in the area. He also knows a good onsen when he sees one. We asked Paul to list his Niseko onsen top 10, in no particular order.
Hotel Ikoinomura Onsen
A must-try onsen. Fantastic bathing areas and great outdoor baths with a very natural feel. Located at the Annupuri Ski Field near the Northern Resort Annupuri Hotel and close to the Nook where the Free Passport buses stop. Free internet on the first floor of the Hotel. I recommend combining an onsen with lunch or dinner at the Mokumoku Tei Yakiniku BBQ House, or try some of the amazing cafes and restaurants in the Annupuri area.
Niseko Grand Hotel
The only onsen in the whole of Niseko that has a large outdoor unisex bathing area. Really natural and some of the area’s best sulphuric hot spring water. Great for your skin and good for sore joints. Smocks available for those who aren’t sure about the unisex bathing experience. Towels in the bath are also OK. Milky white onsen water.
Kira no Yu
Niseko Town’s own onsen. Very modern setting, this is one of the region’s only onsen with a private room that you can hire out. Great for those who want an onsen but aren’t sure about the whole onsen experience. Possibly the best teriyaki chicken donburi in the district available in the café at the railway station across the road.
Located near the base of the Moiwa ski field with easy access, try the Mori no Tenkuu Buro – an outdoor bath located on a second floor platform. Sulphuric water, fantastic for the skin and joints after winter sports or summer hiking. Try a Buddhist Ashifumi massage before an onsen. A magical experience!
Great rooftop onsen really close to the main Hirafu skiing area. Ski in for a really healing experience. The water here has a high nitrium content and is really good for the skin. Ski in and ski out, fantastic!
Hirafu Tei Prince Hotel
Located on the main road up to the ski area, this is ones of the area’s more well-known onsen. The Hotel’s spring water is rich in nitrium.
On the spa bus circuit, this is one of the region’s most popular onsens. Amazing outdoor bath area with a pergola over the top of the outdoor onsen. This onsen really puts you in touch with nature all year round. Closing at 11pm, it’s also one of the latest closing onsen in the area. Great after Annupuri night skiing.
Niseko Hilton Village
Visit the main tower complex and enjoy an onsen while overlooking the golf course. The outdoor onsen overflows into a large pond that is home to real carp. The water seems to go on endlessly. This is a really special experience – even though there are no fish in the bath they are really close. During the day head on down to Takahashi Farm (Milk Kobo) for the world’s best Choux Cream.
This onsen is off the map for most visitors to the area. It was actually one of the main bathhouses when the area had a bustling Geisha district and has an amazing outdoor bath looking out over a waterfall. The building is really traditional giving a real sense of the history of the area. Sulphuric spring water is great for the skin – the Geisha obviously had the right idea.
Located around the back of Mt Annupuri, Goshiki is frequented by a few back country skiers who ski in for an onsen. The area is magical in summer with lots of geothermal walks and wildlife to enjoy. This area sports some of the best onsen water in the district, leaving your skin feeling silky soft and smooth afterwards.
Located deep in the national park behind Mt Annupuri is the Yuki Chichibu Onsen. The water is a different type of water altogether and leaves your skin feeling soft and revitalized. This would have to be one of the most beautifying onsens in the district – great for those who are interested in keeping up appearances. Access is not easy – charter a taxi or go on a onsen tour.
Onsen Use and Etiquette
Enter the changing room through the appropriate door or curtain: 女 on a red curtain for women, 男 for men.
Remove your clothes and put them in the basket or locker provided.
Take only the small wash towel and keeping your mid-section covered with the wash towel, enter the bathing area closing any door behind you.
Take a seat at the showers and wash your body thoroughly.
Rinse off and it’s time to relax in the onsen.
After your bath you should wash yourself again under the showers.
There is an established code of etiquette for Onsen. Observing the following guidelines will result in a pleasurable experience for everyone:
Do not wear a bathing suit unless the rules of the onsen require it.
Never use soap or shampoo in the bath itself. Washing is done outside at the showers.
Wash with soap or at least rinse well before entering the bath for the first time.
Avoid making loud noises or rowdy behaviour. Onsen are places for quiet relaxation or conversation.
Avoid staring. Respect others privacy and modesty.
A short history of onsen
Many onsens are as shrouded in myth and legend as they are in steam. One of my favourite onsen legends is the tale about the creation of the Oigami Onsen. They say that way back in the dawn of time the Snake God of the Akagi Mountain Shrine fought with the Centipede God of the Nantai Mountain Shrine. The battle was long and hard and the first casualty was the God of Akagi who was wounded and forced to retreat. Having found a place to rest he dropped his bow and where it landed, a hot spring erupted. He bathed in the spring which healed his wounds and allowed him to return to the battle and defeat the Nantai Mountain God. The Oigami area gets its name from this mythical battle – Oigami literally means ‘the chased God’.
Onsens are a recognized and treasured cultural tradition in Japan and have been around for almost 1500 years. The first onsens were what are now called rotenburo, or outside baths. They were naturally occurring rock-pools filled with water heated and infused with minerals after passing through, or near, the earth’s inner core or volcanic magma. There are believed to be as many as 14,000 hot springs in more than 150 locations around Japan.
The original onsens, being natural pools, were all mixed gender bathing and stayed that way even after buildings were built around them until the mid 1800s and the Meiji Restoration period. There are still some mixed gender onsens operating in rural areas around Japan today which provide a culturally authentic experience. Even in onsens with separate baths, children under the age of eight are allowed to accompany either parent into the onsen. Some places have baths separated only by a screen so that children can pass back and forth.
Though hot springs have been used since biblical times as places of healing, it has only been in the last thirty years that scientific evidence has been found to support what everyone else already knew. Each hot spring, with its different temperature and different mineral content, is helpful in dealing with different disorders or ailments. Just about any hot bath will be good for blood circulation and long-term rehabilitation, but hot springs are also good for neurological disorders, joint inflammation, menopausal discomforts, chronic skin diseases, diabetes, digestive disorders, high blood pressure, and clearing out arteries. It is also a great way to relieve stress. The body and mind relax, people come together without all the imposed formalities of the social structure and, surrounded as most hot springs are with the serenity of nature, they ease the spirit and mind. It has been said that the only thing a hot spring can’t heal is a broken heart.
In 1949 a Hot Spring Bill was passed which set down the legal definition of an Onsen, requiring it to be naturally occurring spring with a minimum temperature and mineral content. There are 14 recognized types of mineral waters, and four classifications of hot spring based on water temperature.
Hot springs have been in use around the world for thousands of years, they are mentioned in the Bible and by ancient Greek philosophers as places of healing. The earliest mention of onsens in Japan is in the Kojiki, written c. 680, which mentions a legendary prince, Yamatotakeru, who lived in the 4th century and became the 11th Emperor of Japan who, the story goes, visited Sabakoyu Onsen to be cured of an illness after his father tried to have him killed. In the Manyoshu written c. 759 there is a legend about Prince Shotoku (574-622) who visited the Dogo Onsen.
But even with all we know of the ancient world the true history of the hot spring will never be known. We will never know who the first person was to take the plunge, nor where the first ‘bath’ was established. Given the popularity of hot springs and spas today, and the tourist dollars invested in them, it’s hard to make any definitive claims, but, in Japan, they’ve been enjoying the luxury of the onsen for 15 centuries, and that’s a tradition not to be sneezed at.
An onsen virgin’s first time
I don’t know a single foreigner who wasn’t at least a little apprehensive the first time they were invited to an onsen, and I’m no exception. I don’t have the figure to cause a stir on Maslin Beach but I certainly seem to attract a lot of attention in Japan. That was the root cause of my apprehension – if I garnered so many stares just walking down the street fully clothed, what was it going to be like when I was naked?
Have you ever had that feeling that someone’s watching you but when you look around you don’t see anyone? That was the feeling I had as I stripped off in the changing room. The only instructions I’d been given were ‘Don’t soap up in the bath… oh yeah, and use the small towel… you know…’ with a vague hand gesture around the mid section. Not a lot to go on. This was my first time at an onsen, and I was with my new father-in-law who still hadn’t made up his mind about me yet. One faux pas and I could sour our relationship from the get go. There was, to my mind at least, a lot riding on me doing things right.
My father-in-law had ducked into the toilet and I’d hurried on ahead, hoping to be changed and in the bath before he came back, so I knew it wasn’t him staring at me. I whipped off my boxers, grabbed the small towel, and, instinctively, held it where it would hide the most vulnerable portion of my anatomy. I approached the glass doors leading into the bathing room with trepidation, expecting dozens of pairs of eyes to fasten on me the moment I opened it, and steeled my face in an expression I hoped showed only disdainful disconcern.
I opened the door and stepped into a steam-filled half-light. At first I couldn’t see anything then a gust from the still open door cleared away the haze and revealed the rock-inlayed concrete floor and swimming-pool sized bath beyond, but no people. I closed the door and edged my way towards the bath.
There were tiled pillars rising out of the water up into the dim recesses of the ceiling and from behind one of these there appeared a bent-shouldered old man. We both stopped and stared at each other for a long moment, then he gathered his towel about his skinny hips and made a dignified dash for the change-room. I was left with the whole bath to myself.
Since then I’ve been to dozens of onsens and had a wide range of experiences. I’ve become a little more comfortable stripping off in the change-room while little boys stare at me goggle-eyed, something only little boys seeing their first gaijin seem to do. I learned to ignore everyone when I walked in, affording them the same courtesy they afforded me; learned to rinse off properly before getting into the bath and to use the scrub cloth whilst half-squatting on the little plastic stools to wash myself after. But, most importantly, I learned the joy of stretching out in hot water, letting it ease the ache in tired muscles while I tried to count the stars, or enjoyed the feel of the snow melting on my face. And then, a couple of years ago I learned of the almost religious experience to be had from getting out of a hot bath to roll in virgin snow until you’re shivering then jumping back into the bath. Actually, I think it might be time for another onsen now.
Derek is a writer who pays for his predeliction by teaching English. He has lived in Sapporo with his wife and 2 children for 13 years.