If you travel to Niseko, you have to be prepared to shrug off your modesty and your clothes to really have a good time.
Niseko is famous for its skiing, but it is also well known for its numerous onsens. Onsens are geothermal baths; the waters are filled with a variety of minerals that are supposed to have healing properties. Since Japan is so volcanically active, it has many of these hot springs. Onsens can be both indoor and outdoor, and because of the hot water, they are the perfect treat after a day of skiing.
The concept is fairly simple:
1. Separate by male and female.
2. Enter a locker room that contains no partitions or privacy.
3. Strip. Everything.
4. Receive friendly smiles from ancient, hunched-over Japanese women.
5. Enter the shower room. Notice that all the shower nozzles are about two feet off the ground, and realize that you can either bend over or sit on an old plastic stool to clean yourself.
6. Rush through this process.
7. Sprint to the outdoor bath. (You have to run because it’s blizzarding outside and you are naked.)
8. Step into steaming hot water and register the fact that you are the perfect height for the water level.
9. Conclude that communal bathing is not as strange as it sounds.
10. Feel all the soreness seep away from your muscles and rejoice.
Our chalet came with a list of local onsens to try. Our group finally decided we would try one, but the descriptions were rather vague. We chose the one listed as “traditional” and asked our chalet office to take us. Unfortunately it turned out that “traditional” meant old and moldy. My friend and I first entered the indoor bath. It was stifling hot and the room was full of steam. I could see mold growing on every crack in the concrete blocks. It was really gross. I was trying to tough it out and act like it didn’t bother me, but this place was pretty shady. Then a Japanese lady entered from the locker room and walked straight to a door that I thought was an emergency exit. My friend and I immediately decided to follow her, because anything had to be better than our current predicament. We waited a minute so as to not be too obvious, and scampered after her. The door led outside to a much larger bath. This one was stone and had no trace of mold. If you sat with your back to the building all you could see was snow covered trees and water streaming down rocks and into the bath. It was beautiful. The water was still hot, but being in the cool air made it more manageable. We developed a system of alternating between submerging to our necks and sitting on the side to be able to manage the heat. The onsen played soft instrumental music, and there were only three of us in the bath at the same time. It was very quiet and serene. We lasted about 45 minutes, which was a lot longer than the males in our group were able to handle. Our muscles felt so relaxed and our skin was smoother after the bath. We were hooked.
We agreed to go onsen-ing again on our final day. Though I was sick, the rest of the group planned to ski most of the day and wanted to take a break in the middle for the onsen. We chose a different onsen to visit, hoping for something that didn’t remind us of a building constructed in the Soviet Union. We were much more successful with our second selection. The process was very similar, but the surroundings greatly enhanced the experience. The bath was much larger, and it had a pavilion and a large rock in the middle of it. This was really helpful since it was snowing very hard. In fact, it was snowing so much that my hair had half an inch of snow on it and froze. You can rent tiny towels at the onsens, about the size of a hand towel. You can take this with you to the bath, and the tradition is to place the folded towel on your head. I did this and the wind promptly blew it off my head and into the water. I placed it on a rock, and it froze. The water at this second onsen was slightly cooler; I could have stood for hotter water. I think some of it may have been because the pool was larger and because all the snow was cooling the water. However, it was an amazing experience to sit in a bath in the middle of a blizzard! Though there were signs requesting that you don’t take pictures, there was no one in the bath when we were leaving, so I sprinted back out to get a picture for you! (See the top of the post!) The steam and snow make it a little blurry looking, but give an accurate account of the conditions!
Although this was an experience slightly out of my comfort zone at the beginning, I was so happy that we took the plunge!