Exploring the world one bite at a time

Category: Japan

The Japanese onsen experience

If you’re looking for Japan traveling tips, please read my previous article.

In this article I would like to talk about Japanese hot springs. When visiting Japan soaking in the naturally heated water of an onsen really is a must. I hardly can think of anything that is more relaxing after a day filled with activities.

When my boyfriend and I went on a bike tour through the beautiful landscapes of Hokkaido, we stayed in lots of traditional ryokans, which all had an onsen. Although we weren’t exactly experienced bike riders, we never once had a muscle ache. Up till this day I am still convinced that the steaming hot bath we took every evening helped prevent any pain. And sure, the water of some onsen is considered to be good for your health.

Be warned though, most onsen are separated by gender and in rural areas you’ll find some people staring at you, strange foreigner. It happened to me more than one time that I had one half of the bath to myself, while the rest of the Japanese women preferred sitting as far away from me as possible. Actually I didn’t mind. More room for me! 😉

One very important rule to remember when visiting an onsen: it is considered very (VERY) rude to enter the hot bath without washing yourself thoroughly beforehand. Most of the bathing facilities offer shower gel and shampoos, but you can, of course, bring your own. The washing is done on a little stool and make sure to wash of any remaining soap, so that you can enter the communal bath squeaky clean.

More on onsen etiquette:

Some absolutely beautiful onsen to visit:

Travelling to Japan: Where to start?

In recent years I have visited Japan twice. The first time I went to Japan with my boyfriend, my brother and his girlfriend. We took a fairly standard trip around Japan. The second time my boyfriend and I attended a wedding in Tokyo and afterwards we went on a bike tour in Hokkaido. Something totally different, but a truly unforgettable experience. Never have so many people stared at me in my life. 😉

Since Japan is a country where tourism is on the rise, I frequently get asked about my experiences there by people who would like to explore the country by themselves. So that’s why I decide to combine some of my tips for traveling to Japan.

In general:

  1. Look into buying a Japan Rail Pas. It is not always the cheapest way to get around Japan, but you can’t travel to Japan and not experience the marvel that is the shinkansen (Japanes bullet train).
  2. Book at least one stay in a ryokan. An authentic Japanese experience you simply can’t miss out on: sleeping on tatami mats, enjoying bathing in an onsen (women and men strictly separated).
  3. If you’re lost or don’t know how to do something, ask help. Japanese people are very friendly, they will always try to help you the best they can. Don’t know how to buy a ticket to your destination. Give your wallet to a Japanese bystander and they will do the purchase for you and even accompany you tot the right train track.
  4. Visit a traditional Japanse onsen. But make sure to clean yourself thoroughly before entering the hot pool. Japanese people don’t want any filthy people in their baths.
  5. Don’t forget to take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Drinking tea isn’t as straight forward as you thought!
  6. Go for food in a traditional Izakaya and ask for recommendations. Be adventurous about your food. I have hardly ever had a bad meal in Japan. Don’t worry about food hygiene, Japanese cooks know what that are doing. Remember: Japanese food is so much more than sushi. Tip if you like sushi, but don’t want to pay too much: kaiten sushi.

When to visit?
Most websites will say: in spring, so you can enjoy the cherry blossoms (sakura) or in autumn so you can enjoy the beautiful red and yellow colors of the leaves. But if you asked me, each season has its own charm. I would love to return to Hokkaido in winter, to participate in a snow festival. Be warned though, summers on Honshu can be very hot and humid.

Useful websites:


  • Japan Rail Pass. If you’re not sure if it’s worth buying a rail pass, use the Japan Rail Pass Calculator.
  • IC cards are rechargeable cards that can be used to to pay public transportation fares and to make payments at vending machines, shops and restaurants. Examples are Pasmo and Suica.
  • Domestic flights: domestic flight are rather cheap in Japan.
  • Busses
  • Or you can always rent a car. Don’t forget your international driver’s licence! And be warned: in rural areas signs won’t be translated in English. Oh and one more thing: in Japan they drive on the left side of the road.

Where to stay?

What to eat (besides sushi, of course):

  • Okonomiyaki: a kind a savory pancake
  • Sukiyaki: a hot pot dish
  • Japanese Noodles: ramen is of course the most known dish in Europe and the United States, but don’t forget to try the soba or udon noodles.
  • Gyoza: those dumplings are one of my favorite dishes
  • Teriyaki: who doesn’t love the sweet taste of teriyaki?
  • Kushiyaki: skewered and grilled meat, seafood or vegetables. Also known as yakitori (although this term is mostly reserved for chicken skewers).
  • Wagyu beef: if you can afford it
  • Mochi: a Japanese rice cake. Traditionally eaten at New Year, but available year round. You can also have mochi ice cream, which is very good.
  • Do try some Japanese fruit: so much tastier than the fruit we are used to!

Please let me know in the comments if you have any further questions.

ART HOTEL Asahikawa: “Great service, excellent buffet”

Lovely hotel with nice lobby, clean rooms and very friendly staff. The location is convenient: walking distance from the station. The breakfast en dinner buffet in the Lilas restaurant are both excellent. While we were having dinner in the Lilas Restaurant we got evacuated because of a bomb threat. The staff were really helpful in explaining to us what was happening in English and they stayed calm and professional throughout the ordeal, handing out towels to elder people and baby’s to keep them warm. A lovely lady came by us ever so often to give us an update of the situation, because all the communication by the police was in Japanese. We got our dinner ánd breakfast for free and got a nice parting gift as compensation.

Would definitely recommend this hotel.

Art Hotel Asahikawa
6 Chome 7 Jodori
Hokkaido Prefecture 070-0037
+81 166-25-8811

Stayed September 2012. You can find my review about ART HOTEL Asahikawa also on TripAdvisor. My scores: value 4/5, location 4/5, sleep quality 5/5, rooms 4/5, cleanliness 4/5, service 5/5.