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Chin-Deep in Japan

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
This Japanuary, Matt and Agnes Hage explored Japan, going deep in the powder all day before dipping into local hot pools, known as onsen, each night. Slowly, they learned the dos and don'ts of the Japanese aprés culture.

All Photos: Hage Photo

Japanuary. It’s something skiers everywhere dream about. Day after day of skiing blower pow, so deep that it’s like falling through a white cloud. Waking each morning to find the mountains completely refreshed by the constant storms blowing in from Siberia. Experiencing a level of hospitality that makes you want to be a better person. Eating great food prepared with pride. Drinking sake that’s dangerously good. Paying thirty bucks for a lift ticket. Yep, the Land of the Rising Sun is a skier’s paradise.

On our first trip to Hokkaido several years ago, we learned a thing or two about the skiing in Japan and the after-skiing culture of the country As it turns out, the locals do après here a little differently. We’re used to loud nights out after a day in the mountains, but in Japan, you could hear crickets at even the country’s biggest ski areas. Izakayas (small Japanese bars) are most likely packed with Aussies, with few locals in sight. Instead, they are all getting their soak on, chin-deep in their favorite onsen.

Back home in Alaska, we know onsen as hot springs, but the two are really apples and oranges. The onsen of Japan are a bit like a public bathhouse or an indoor hot pool buried deep in a lodge or hotel. The country imposes a legal code for onsen, designating that the water be at least 25 degrees C and that it include at least one of 19 elements. Many onsen are known for their purported healing powers, thought to manage anything from aches and pains to infertility.

But these hot pools aren’t to be carelessly cannon-balled into. Japanese bathing etiquette runs deeper than a no-running sign. Here’s a few tips to help you ease into your first onsen:

—The baths are for soaking only, not cleaning. Scrub down like you’d normally do in the shower before getting in the water.
—Locals bring a small towel to the baths for wiping their face or for modesty. Don’t place this in the water, as it is seen as being unclean. Put your towel poolside, or fold it up on top of your head (local’s choice).
—Onsen baths are segregated and done naked—no clothing allowed in the water.
—For obvious reasons, most onsen don’t allow taking pictures (oops, my bad).
—Wait until you see a local crack a beer before doing so. Different onsen have different vibes. And remember your can koozie.

Matt & Agnes Hage make their home in Anchorage, Alaska, and shoot pictures for a variety of outdoor brands worldwide. They look for any excuse to work hot springs and cold beer into their assignments. Check them out.