10 things that might surprise you when you visit Japan

RocketNews 24:

When traveling to a foreign country for the first time, no matter how well-prepared you are, there’s sure to be a lot you’ll be surprised by! Let’s take a look at 10 things in Japan that might surprise you when you first hop off the plane.

With these in mind, you can enjoy your first trip to Japan even more!

1. Slurping Food:

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You’ve just arrived in Japan for the first time, and you can’t wait to enjoy your first authentic bowl of Japanese ramen. The salaryman at the counter next to you receives his order before you and goes to town—and he’s not quiet about it. Try not to lose your appetite—slurping noodles like ramen, soba and udon is totally okay in Japan! In fact, it shows you’re enjoying your meal and if you’re an expert noodle-slurper, it’s actually easier than trying to sip your soba delicately.

2. Toilets

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While standard Western toilets are the most common in Japan, you occasionally play a risky roulette game when you open the bathroom door. Will you be treated to the luxurious-if-not-slightly-intimidating heated washlet toilet? Or will you have to suffer the trials of the traditional floor-level “washiki?”

If you chose Door #1, you may get to enjoy a heated seat, simulated flushing sound for privacy, and of course, the bidet with various heat/water pressure/location options. If you chose Door #2, make sure your phone and valuables are out of your pockets, carefully gather up loose clothing, and try not to fall in. Some public bathrooms have both western and washiki options, so check the door for the in-ground toilet symbol! If people are waiting behind you, offer them a “douzo!” (go ahead) and a wave of your hand towards the toilet hell you’re hoping to avoid entering.

3. Sento and Onsen

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If you really want to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, you’ve got to be ready to immerse yourself in “onsen” (hot springs). Or, for the more budget-conscious traveler, “sento” (public bath houses). The idea of stripping down and taking a bath with a bunch of strangers can be pretty intimidating, but the tradition has existed in Japan for hundreds of years so try to remind yourself that everyone else is used to it!

Read up a bit on bath house etiquette (wash first, take a dip, wash again!) and enjoy the relaxation! Tattoos are often frowned upon in Japan due to their association with the yakuza, and many onsen and sento actually prohibit entering if you have them (though if they’re small enough to be covered by a bandage, you should be alright.) If you’re shy or tattooed but you still want to enjoy the hot springs experience, some onsen resorts offer “kashikiri” (private) baths for you and your travel partners!

4. Trash cans and sorting

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Japan is a country of convenience. Drinks machines on every corner, convenience stores every five minutes… but with all these grab-and-go drinks and snacks, what are you supposed to do with your trash?! Tokyo’s trash cans largely disappeared as a safety measure after a domestic terror attack in the ’90s but don’t show any signs of coming back soon, so you have to know where to look. Some convenience stores have trash cans outside, or tucked away inside if the store has a mini in-store cafe. JR stations sometimes have trash cans on the platforms, and you can sometimes find trash cans just inside or outside of subway station turnstiles. If you really can’t find anywhere to stash your trash, be prepared to carry it with you for a while! And remember, Japan is very careful about sorting its trash. Here are the most common categories:

– もえるゴミ / moeru gomi – burnable trash (paper, food waste, sometimes non-recyclable plastic)
– もえないゴミ / moenai gomi – non-burnable trash (light bulbs, batteries, broken glass)
– びん / bin – glass bottles, カン/ kan – aluminum cans (these two often get thrown away together)
– ペットボトル / petto botoru – plastic bottles

5. Unattended items

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When you’re scoping out somewhere to sit at a café or restaurant, you might be shocked to see someone’s bag or iPhone left unattended at their table. Japan is an extremely safe country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and a system that rewards honesty and casts stigma on bad behavior is to thank. For the same reasons, you may see many young children riding trains to and from school safely by themselves, and some Japanese men with long-style wallets protruding from their back pockets. Would that fly in your country?

6. Fruit prices

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If your first trip to Tokyo involves a whole lot of high-class convenience store dining, you might find yourself craving some fruit after a couple of days as conbini don’t typically have much to offer. The basement floor of many department stores include somewhat high-end supermarkets, where you can find a famed gem of Weird Japan— super expensive fruit. It’s not uncommon to see beautiful pieces of fruit going for upwards of 10,000 yen or 20,000 yen (~$100 or $200 USD) but these aren’t melons you bring home and toss in a fruit salad. It’s common for these luxury fruits to be given as gifts during business transactions, weddings or hospital visits. If those are a bit out of your price range, check out the fruit stand just around the left corner of ALTA outside Shinjuku station’s east exit for 100 yen or 200 yen sticks of delicious fresh fruit!

7. Food portions

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Here’s some culture shock that works both ways: when Japanese people visit other countries, they’re often shocked by how huge the drink and food portions are. When visiting from outside Japan, you might be surprised by how small your lunch is. After a long day wandering the city, don’t expect a big glass of water when you sit down for a meal—but feel free to ask for “okawari” (refill) or try somewhere with a “drink bar” option—free refills of whatever kind of drinks you want for a minimal fixed price. Most Japanese restaurants don’t have “to go” options for leftovers, and instead serve just enough for one meal’s portion. Of course, everyone’s appetite is different, so if you’ve come hungry, try ordering your rice or noodle dish “ohmori” (big serving.)

8. Finding places to sit

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Travel is tiring! Sometimes you just want to find somewhere to rest your feet for a few minutes—but in Japan, Tokyo especially, this is easier said than done. There are very few public benches and places to sit outside, and sitting down on the ground may earn you several side-eye stares. Even train station platforms have only a few seats for weary travelers and commuters. If you really need a break and can’t find a public park, you may have to pay up for a drink in a café or McDonald’s, but you can stay as long as you’d like. Or, if you’re in Tokyo, you can always hop on the Yamanote loop line and be back where you started after one hour!

9. Queuing culture

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In a densely packed city such as Tokyo, lining up in an organized way exceeds necessity and has become almost an art form. Lining up for the train, lining up for the escalator, lining up for a restaurant, lining up for an hour to buy specialty popcorn—be ready to do some waiting, and absolutely no cutting in line!! If you really hate waiting in lines, they can be reduced or avoided by considering the time of day and day of the week you’re trying to go somewhere or do something. Plan around weekends and rush hour!

10. Lost items

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One of the scariest possible travel mishaps is losing something in a foreign country. But good news! If you lose something in Japan, the odds are pretty good that it will be returned to you. Items such as wallets, umbrellas, and more that get lost on trains can be recovered by talking to station staff, though sometimes you may need to go to the last station on that train line to access their lost and found.

If you lose something elsewhere, try finding the nearest “koban” (police box) and explaining what you lost, where, and when. If you forget something in your hotel room, the hotel staff will almost always be able to get it back to you, even if you’ve already gone home!

To begin explaining your situation, try using the phrase: “wasuremono wo shimashita” (I lost/forgot something) and go from there.

Pot-sticker paradise, hot-spring hotel just outside of Tokyo makes for a tasty retreat

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RocketNews 24:

Ask a Japanese person to give some examples of Chinese food, and they’ll likely reply with things like chaahan (fried rice) and the quintessential gyoza (pot-stickers). With their crispy fried outsides and juicy, flavorful insides, you can’t go wrong with gyoza, and many would say that Chinese food chain GYOZANOMANSYU (餃子の満州), based in the Kanto region of Japan, is the leader of them all.

Those wishing to take the gyoza experience a bit further can visit the hot-spring hotel Toumeikan in Gunma Prefecture, managed by GYOZANOMANSYU, and for a mere 5,900 yen per night (roughly US$59) you can stay in one of their cozy Japanese-style rooms, take a relaxing soak in the onsen hot springs, and get your fill at their breakfast buffet. Located deep in the mountains of Gunma, yet within a two- to three-hour drive from Tokyo, makes this a great place for a weekend getaway. Albeit one involving lots of garlic and chives.

Being located in the mountains means the area gets a bit of snow in the winter, so a word of caution to those making the trip by car – you may need to bring chains. If you’re not confident enough driving in the snow, it might be best to opt for public transportation instead, or to wait for spring.

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After the long drive, what better way to unwind than by taking a soak in the onsen? The water is beautifully clean and the temperature just right for relaxing, and you can move freely between the indoor tubs and the outdoor bath (called rotenburo). You’ll want to make sure to wash yourself down first before hopping in, though, as is custom before entering the baths in Japanese onsen.

You’ll probably be hungry once you’ve finished your soak, so it’s GYOZANOMASYU to the rescue with some piping-hot gyoza to fill your belly and a cold beer to cool you off. Of course, you’re not just limited to dumplings – there are other Chinese dishes aplenty to satiate your cravings, and you can eat and drink your fill for around 1,500 yen ($12.50).

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The breakfast buffet, which is included in the cost of your stay, includes various Chinese-style side dishes, a salad bar, rice, soup, and more.

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If you’re looking to get away for the weekend, relax, and eat some great food without breaking the bank, Toumeikan may be just the spot.

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5 tips for staying healthy while traveling in Japan this winter!

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RocketNews 24:

 

I spent two winter seasons working in the hospital emergency room (as a translator) in Niseko, a popular Hokkaido snow holiday destination for foreigners. While we had our share of broken bones from ski and boarding accidents, what impressed upon me most was the number of people who get ill while on vacation. There were just as many sudden illnesses as snow-related accidents–everything from gastrointestinal disorders to ear infections and first-time asthma attacks which too many times put people in the emergency room.

The good news is that most of these illnesses can be avoided, but different cultures pose different health risks and knowing what to watch out for beforehand can be tricky, if not impossible. In this article, I’ll share some tips on how to stay healthy while traveling in Japan in wintertime, based on my experience working with hundreds of foreigners who ended up in hospital on their vacations.

By following some simple (but not necessarily so obvious) rules, we aim to keep our snow-loving Rocketeers out of Japan’s hospitals and flying down the slopes in all their glory instead!

Many foreigners who come to Hokkaido to ski or snowboard are coming to Japan for the first time. Since the foremost attraction for them is some of the most awesome skiing in the world (waist-deep powder, off-piste skiing–say no more!), it’s understandable that such guests may not have thought much about the actual culture they’ll be skiing into.

Let’s start at the beginning then, booking your accommodation.

 

 1. Japanese minshuku and ryokan

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Staying in family-run minshuku and ryokan is a quintessential Japanese experience that everyone should partake in. Such places have several advantages over a hotel room, including a traditional Japanese ambiance (tatami mat rooms, futons, etc), home-cooked meals, and witnessing Japanese hospitality at its finest.

But other than some top-of-the-line ryokan, most traditional style Japanese accommodation involves shared bathing and washing facilities. This is fine as long as you’re prepared for it. But if you’re not careful, these communal facilities (showers, sinks, etc) can be like a super highway for the spread of bacteria and viruses, least not when they’re being used by people coming from all over the world. Dr. Wuthrich, an American doctor who works out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming says that staying safe from viruses can be as simple as carrying antibacterial wipes with you. “Wipe down faucets, flush toilet knobs, and towel hooks before using them,” she says. “The antibacterial wipes won’t kill all the germs, but most of them.”

 

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But since many minshuku and ryokan are family-run (although not all), you’re subjecting yourself to the hygiene standards of the owners, not a professional cleaning staff.

 

▼I’ve never quite understood this, but communal body scrubbers can be found in accommodations throughout Asia, including Japan. No thanks.

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During my tenure in the Niseko emergency room, I had quite a few patients who had contracted the dreaded Norovirus. One of these patients told me, “I know exactly when I got it. I put down my toothbrush, turned on the water faucet, cupped the water and drank from my hands to rinse my mouth.” Unfortunately, the person who had used the sink before him had the virus. Within days, it had spread to over half the guests and the accommodation was shut down by the health department to be sanitized. Wow, right?!

I’ve never gotten sick at such a place myself, but if you catch colds easily or if you’re paranoid about getting sick, choose a studio apartment, rental condo or hotel room where the only people you share facilities with are those who you know don’t have a virus.

 

2. Asthma and respiratory illnesses

While in Niseko, I saw an inordinate number of cases of adults suddenly afflicted with asthma attacks, either on the slopes or while in their accommodation. When the doctor asked these patients if they had a history of asthma, most of them said they had had it as a child, but hadn’t suffered an attack since. A few patients said they’d never experienced an asthma attack before. What would prompt a sudden onset of asthmatic symptoms, or a recurrence, years later? The only thing I could see that connected these patients was that they were all staying in budget accommodation that wasn’t very clean. Maybe you know the places I mean–they haven’t changed the tatami mats in years, the bedding is ancient, the fusuma doors are stained and no one has bothered to wash the curtains or upholstery since smoking became prohibited in public places.

▼Avoid poorly maintained minshuku or ryokan.

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Old accommodation is fine as long as it’s clean,” says  Dr. Wuthrich, a previous resident of Japan. “Mites live in dirty bedding and carpet. Curtains are generally okay, but smoke and dust can still be a problem for those susceptible to asthma.”

Aging minshuku and ryokan are especially prevalent in Japan’s countryside but it’s surprising how many can still be found even in tourist areas. If you’re traveling around Japan on a two-week to one-month vacation and hit one of these places by mistake, it’s not as big a deal if you only have to suffer through one night. But on a ski trip, where people tend to stay in the same place for a week or longer, the monetary savings may not be worth the cost to your health.

 

Yep, if it’s dodgy on the outside, it’s probably dodgy on the inside too. Stained and torn fusuma doors.

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It’s easier to make this mistake than you’d think. I once called to make a reservation at aminshuku I had stayed at before, but since they were fully booked, they gave me the number of the only other place in town. Another time I unexpectedly ended up somewhere for the night and had to take the only place available. You get my drift, right? These places fill up last. Get your reservations in early so you’ll still have a choice of where to stay.

Rather than going for cheap, go for clean. Think of those ’60s-style motels with the neon signs along roadsides in the U.S. They’re cheap, they’re retro, but ..oh…um, well, maybe you shouldn’t stay there.

In situations like this, it’s probably best to follow the advice of the Japanese: You’re on holidays–treat yourself!

 

▼A rental condo and asthmatic’s paradise.

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3. Slippers are okay if…

Upon entering any minshuku or ryokan, you’re likely to be met by a line of slippers set out for guests to easily slide their feet into after having taken off their shoes. Yes, they’re plastic and yes, they’re yucky! Most foreigners envision nasty fungal spores living inside these slippers, eagerly waiting to attach themselves to our vulnerable foreign toes. But wait, it turns out their actually okay, according to Dr. Wuthrich, “…as long as you wear socks.” Socks will protect you from most of the nasties.

 

▼The dreaded communal slippers!

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Of course, the Japanese know this which is why its considered polite to wear socks when you go to someone’s house. So keep those feet covered, whether it be summer or winter.

 ▼Besides, with all the cute socks available in Japan, we can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be wearing socks even in summer.

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4. In the Onsen

Now that you’ve settled in to your nice, clean minshuku, ryokan, condo or apartment, and are lounging around in cute socks, it’s probably about time to hit the hot springs!

 

▼A typical Japanese onsen is heated to temperatures of at least 38 C (100.4 F).

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While everyone should try Japan’s legendary onsen hot springs, make sure you don’t dunk your head under the water. Not only is this considered rude, it can lead to ear infections and gastrointestinal problems (should you accidentally drink the water) and a week of lost skiing topped with a general feeling of misery. Japanese people would never put their heads under the water, but children getting into an onsen for the first time are likely to treat such a large body of water like a swimming pool. Also, do not enter the water if you have open cuts, sores, or lesions. And of course, bathe thoroughly using the showers before you get in.

 

5. Wash your hands

Yeah, we know. No, seriously, wash your hands!

Bacterial hand wash is everywhere in Japan. All public buildings have them and most places where money is exchanged will have a bottle sitting just ready to be squirted onto your filthy digits. Don’t just look at the bottles and marvel at how clean the Japanese are–use the hand wash! Use it before and after you handle money.

▼This hand sanitizer is sitting right next to the money tray (another admirable hygiene policy) , so you can’t miss it.

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Many Japanese wash their hands immediately after coming indoors just to make sure that any germs aren’t brought inside and spread around the house. Now that’s thinking!

 

  • Bonus tips for skiers and snowboarders:

In addition to the above, Dr. Wuthrich recommends that when at ski areas, use your gloved hands to open and close doors. If you have a choice, use sinks with sensor faucets. And if you really must touch a nasty curtain in that dirty minshuku booked by your spouse who hasn’t read this article, make a fist with your hand and slide the curtain to the side (or even use an elbow) rather than using your hands.

And lastly, she’s all for bowing rather than shaking hands.

Some of this advice may seem a bit extreme, but the worst that can happen by following it is–not getting sick. After all, this is your vacation, so treat yourself!

All photos © Amy Chavez/RocketNews24

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Five of Japan’s most unique snow-covered hot spring bathing sites

RocketNews 24:

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If you’ve ever experienced a soak in a hot outdoor spring, or rotenburo, in the middle of the snow, you’ll know the incredible sensation of extreme cold and heat on your body is an experience that’s hard to beat. With the best of the snow still to come in January and February, we’ve found five of the best snow-covered hot spring destinations perfect for a weekend getaway. From water slides to goblin masks, this collection of winter snowscapes will help you beat the winter chill in the most unique way possible.

1. Kita Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture

If you’re looking for a little-known hot spring with gorgeous snow views not far from Tokyo, Kita Onsen is definitely the place to go. Hidden in a mountain valley and accessible only on foot, cars have to be parked a ten minute walk uphill from the tiny onsen town. While the baths here can be enjoyed throughout the year, the silence in winter as you approach the area is truly magical. Surrounded by wooden buildings from the Edo, Meiji and Showa periods, a journey here is like stepping back in time.

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▼ Kita onsen is said to have been discovered by a tengu, a long-nosed mountain goblin, about 1,200 years ago. A special bath is adorned with huge tengu masks in honour of its mythical founder.

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▼ The women’s bath, with a lovely view of snow, was used exclusively by daughters of noblemen in the Edo period.

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▼ The most famous of Kita onsen’s three baths is the hot spring swimming pool. The 15 x 10 metre bath has a unique water slide popular with children and although it’s a mixed bath, for use by both men and women, towels and bathing costumes can be worn. Another unique aspect is that swimming, usually taboo in hot spring culture, is accepted here.

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2. Tamago-yu, Takayu Onsen, Fukushima

The smell of sulphur in the area is a good sign of fresh hot spring activity and mineral-rich waters perfect for nurturing the skin. Tamago-yu, literally meaning egg spring, may sound a little off-putting but the bathwater is said to give you slippery smooth skin like that of an egg. The waters here flow 100% direct from the hot spring source, which is the most sought after type of onsen.

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▼ Tamago-yu is located inside a picturesque thatch-roofed hut. Filled with natural light during the day and lamplight by night, this hut was built in the Meiji era (1868-1912).

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▼ The mixed bath inside the hut is revered for its waters which come direct from the hot spring source. While the water is originally clear, once it comes into contact with the air it takes on a milky appearance.

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▼ The design of the hut allows for air to flow freely through the structure, giving you the outdoor experience but with a greater amount of privacy.

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3. Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano Prefecture

The hot spring in Jigokudani, literally “hell’s valley”, is famous for being the only place in the world where monkeys can be seen bathing in hot springs. The family of Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys, draw thousands of tourists to the area every year.

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▼ When the monkeys come down to the spring from their homes in the mountains, they feed only on small seeds scattered by workers. Visitors aren’t allowed to feed or touch the wild animals, which means the monkeys run around without even acknowledging the people around them.

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▼ Korakukan Ryokan is just across the river from the monkey park. The outdoor spring at the inn is reserved for humans but monkeys often take a dip here too. The entire valley becomes a stunning snowscape in winter.

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▼ The Monkey Park and inn can only be accessed by foot. The 30 minute walk from the nearest car park in winter takes you through some gorgeous scenery.

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4. Yagen Onsen, Aomori Prefecture

At the northernmost tip of the Japanese mainland lies a hot spring with a 400-year-old history. Easily accessed from the Hotel New Yagen, you can get an indication of the snowfall around here from the height of the snow on the signboard.

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▼ The Yagen hot spring is accessed from a long corridor which goes through a national park and winds up at the side of a mountain stream.

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▼ While there are other outdoor onsen in the area, this one is popular as it provides some shelter from the cold while also being open to nature. Many visitors commend the fact that the return trip to their rooms is covered, which helps keep the warmth from their soak in their bodies.

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5. Magoroku Onsen, Akita Prefecture

Akita’s well-known Nyuto onsen town is famous as a hot spring destination but one of its most beautiful springs is actually a secret, hidden spring known as Magoroku Onsen. Located deep in the mountains, the rustic inn on site offers a series of baths along the river which send out plumes of steam, creating a beautiful atmosphere.

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▼ One of the baths inside a small hut is called Ishi no furo, or stone bath, and is said to be great at weather forecasting. If the water is muddy, there will be bad weather and if the water is clear, the weather will be fine.

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▼ The hot spring water from utase-yu, cascading hot spring water, is great for soothing sore back muscles.

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▼ A quick run from the indoor bath to the outdoor bath is an invigorating experience!

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With landscapes and experiences as beautiful as these, we hope you get a chance to step outdoors over the break and brave the winter as it descends itself upon Japan. The best way to fight the chill is with some warmth, and there’s no better place to get it than with a good, long soak in an outdoor tub!

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Five of Japan’s most unique snow-covered hot spring bathing sites