After a dozen winters skiing Japan I have a confession to make: for the past couple of years, as I start to dream about the next “Japowder” mission, I actually find myself dreaming more about the onsen (hot spring baths) than the actual skiing.
Forget North American hot tubs and jacuzzis after skiing, they have nothing on the serenity and therapeutic restorative powers of a natural onsen, fueled by 100% thermal spring water full of minerals, and coming in different shades and smells according to their concentrations. Many let you soak right out in the snow, which is a magically beautiful experience.
In fact there’s no reason why you can’t plan your whole trip around where to combine the best onsen and the best skiing/snowboarding, and we often do just that. Here’s some tips for the best winter onsen options.
Japan’s best ski onsen: Sukayu on Mt Hakkoda
Our #1 favourite onsen has to be the 300 year old Sukayu at Hakkoda, in Aomori Prefecture at the top of Honshu. All wood, it offers traditional mixed bathing, with a screened area in the main pool and/or “aprons” (actually a pop-over-your-head little calico dress) for ladies who prefer privacy. No one cares, or stares, among the locals, it’s just relaxing times for friends, couples and families. After a big day charging the amazingly deep snow at Hakkoda life doesn’t get better than a big soak here in the steaming turquoise waters. It’s just a few kilometres shuttle ride down the road from the ski area, or you can ski the back country trail right to the back door when these are open later in the season, best done with a local guide from the Hakkoda Ski School.
Japan’s best onsen & ski town: Nozawa Onsen
Obviously anywhere with ‘onsen’ in the name is a good bet, and Nozawa Onsen has to be the number #1 all round ski & onsen resort in Japan. Great skiing plus an old town with thirteen free public onsen, which have been looked after by the Yu-nakama (friends of the hot spa) since the Edo era. Plus there are free foot spas and places to cook around town as well. Sure, all the hotels have onsen too, but it’s much more fun to visit the public ones. Nozawa has become very popular with western visitors the past few seasons, but there’s no danger of it losing its character; the lift company is run by a co-operative of local people, including the likes of Ryokan Sakaya owner Akira Mori whose family have lived for 18 generations in the village!
The best romantic getaway onsen: Manza
Another great onsen resort, where you will see very few other westerners, is Manza Onsen in Gunma Prefecture. It boasts Japan’s highest altitude developed onsen complex, at around 1800m, with a Prince Hotel offering ski in/ski out access to small but beautiful slopes, and an incredible selection of different indoor and outdoor onsen to choose from. Manza is easily combined with time in the Nagano/Niigata areas, with a bus service from Karurizawa shinkansen station, and it’s an idyllic romantic getaway spot for couples. It’s also possible to ski tour over from Shiga Kogen to Manza with a guide.
Wild skiing, wild onsen: Hokkaido’s Tokachi Mountains
There are no ski lifts in Central Hokkaido’s Tokachi Mountains, but they get plenty of amazing quality snow, and offer arguably the world’s most reliable backcountry powder skiing, with consistently good snow from mid-December through to mid-March (and spring snow well after that). With snowshoes or splitboards for snowboarders, or touring bindings and skins for skiers, you can access the great snow with a bit more effort than required riding ski lifts. That means you deserve more onsen rewards, and fortunately there are plenty, from little lodge onsen which are invariably open to the snow on one side at least, to total wilderness ones that local guiding companies can take you to.
Wherever you go, always respect onsen rules and customs.