I would soak in the onsen if I were a snow monkey, too – Shibu Onsen
February 10, 2017: We started the day in snowy Nikko, in central Japan, and after a local train, 2 Shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train that the Acela wish it would grow up and become), and another local, we found ourselves in the snowy town of Yudanaka, in the foothills of the Japanese Alps on the western coast of Japan. We were heading to the tiny hot springs village of Shibu Onsen and to the Snow Monkey park to watch the snow monkeys soak in their own onsen.
But first, a note about the ritual and the awesomeness of the Onsen: the term refers to a natural, therapeutic Japanese hot spring, plus the baths and inns that surround it. They are prolific throughout Japan and, trust me, you do not want to miss the experience because you don’t know what or how “to onsen.” We first encountered them in Niseko and soaking after a long day of powder skiing is THE BEST remedy for tired quads. I wasn’t sure what the deal was – Do you wear a bathing suit? Do men and women soak together? After a lot of Googling and sign reading, I was prepared. First, most onsen are single sex: either there are separate bathing times at one facility or, more often, there are 2 separate changing rooms/baths, separated by a wall. Bring a towel, but not your bathing suit. Once you have paid, enter a small changing room. There will be cubbies for your clothes. Stuff ALL of your clothes into one of them. Yes, take off everything. Occasionally there are lockers, but I haven’t had any issues leaving my clothes in the cubby. Next, proceed to the bathing room. There will be stools in front of hand held showers. Sit, do not stand, and make a big deal of scrubbing yourself clean with the soap and shampoo provided. Try to find a place to put your towel so it doesn’t get wet, but good luck with that. If you wash your hair, I recommend wrapping your hair in the towel: it’s as good a place to keep it as any you’ll find. If you have a tiny towel – and flat head - you can also fold the towel and rest it on top of your head as you sit in the water. Once you are clean, get in to the bath, relax and soak for as long as you can stand the hot water. You can get out and rinse off and get back in, if you need to cool off. Some onsen have indoor and outdoor tubs – one we visited in Niseko had a Sapporo vending machine so you could soak outside, let the snow fall on your face and enjoy a cold après ski beer. Once you are done soaking, dry yourself off – do not rinse the therapeutic minerals off of you – before heading back to the changing room. Sit for a minute if you need to cool off, get dressed and you’re on your way, feeling zen, warm and amazing. Happy Onsening!
Back to our adventure:
We arrived in Yudanaka and learned the next bus to Shibu Onsen was in 45 minutes. The sweet, older gentleman/tourist volunteer handed us a map, circled our ryokan (classic Japanese inn) on it, and with our packs on, we marched the mile and a half uphill in yet more snow.
Shibu Onsen is a charming hot spring village that has been visited for centuries for the healing quality of its water. The water runs out of the ground at close to 50C - really freaking hot. There are 9 Onsen that dot the main street. Each one is said to cure a different ailment: stomach, eyesight, injuries, women’s health, etc. Visiting all 9 is supposed to bring great health and good luck. There is one that is open to day-trippers, but the real charm of the village is staying in one of the local inns: most have private on-site onsens for guests to enjoy AND as an overnight guest, you receive a key that will let you into all 9 of the main ones. The inns provide traditional Japanese garb - a yukata (cotton kimono) – to stroll the streets and you can wander into any and all onsen at your leisure. The 9 onsen don’t have showers, so shower at your inn’s onsen first. And note: the water is REALLY HOT. There is a cold water tap next to each bath, so turn it on if you need to. They are open from 6am-10pm.
Since it was just noon when we arrived in Shibu Onsen, we dropped our packs at our inn and set off to visit the Snow Monkeys. Officially known as Jigokudani Monkey Park, it is home to a clan of onsen-loving Japanese Macaque, affectionately called snow monkeys. A fifteen-minute walk up the hill to the entrance, and then another 30-40 minute walk along a pine forested trail and we found ourselves here:
Watching the monkeys was fascinating. Some were soaking three or 4 in a line, each meticulously cleaning the fur of the monkey in front of her, like little girls lined up braiding the hair of the girl in front. A few got into a fight – it struck me that one of them must have pulled the other’s hair and she ran away squawking. There were mothers snuggled with one of their babies, both staying warm. Others were rummaging in the snow with their front hands, searching for food. And others were resting peacefully in the warm water, just keeping their heads afloat.
If you go: Open 9-4pm in winter, until 5pm in summer. Entrance is 800¥. There is a bus from Yudanaka station that bypasses the walk to Shibu Onsen and from there to the entrance, cutting the walking time to just the final 30-40 minutes along the trail.
Once we had our monkey-viewing fill, we headed back to Shibu Onsen to check into a lovely inn run by a young couple. We have been staying in hostels and business hotels, so we splurged to experience a true Japanese Ryokan. First rule, no outdoor shoes! As soon as you enter, you remove your shoes and slip into the provided slippers. When you go to the bathroom, you slip off one set of slippers and into designated toilet slippers. When you enter the bedroom, the slippers stay in the entry way and you walk in your socks or barefoot on the tatami mats that cover the floor. So many rules! On top of the tatami mats are 2 thin but comfortable mattresses with firm, but supportive pillows. I could get used to sleeping on the floor.
Dinner and breakfast were included, so after an afternoon onsen, we headed to the dining room for a traditional kaiseki meal, promptly at 6pm. We were seated on cushions on the floor and there was a beautiful tray of dishes already set on our table: apple brandy, sashimi, assorted pickled vegetables, marinated daikon with lemon-egg sauce, white asparagus. There was a pot of water in front of each of us, almost boiling for shabu-shabu of pork, enoki mushrooms and pea shoots. Then tempura vegetables with green tea salt for dipping, roast salmon, earthy mushroom soup and rice arrived in rapid succession. Each plate was a tasty morsel, just enough to be satisfied and move on to the next flavor. We finished with a panna cotta-esque adzuki bean dessert. It was early, but we were worn out from hiking in the snow and the tatami mats called our name.
The next morning, well rested, we had time for a brisk early morning walk to visit the giant Buddha statue in Yudanaka before the 8am breakfast bell. Again, a colorful spread awaited as we sit on the floor cushions: sweet and savory and unlike anything we would consider eating for breakfast back home, save for the yogurt with prune jam, a slice of orange, and a fried egg with vegetables…on which we were instructed to pour shoyu (soy sauce). Rounding out the tray: roast salmon, miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables and a weird, wasabi-ridden, gelatinous bowl of seaweed that I found myself going back to several times for “just one more bite.” After breakfast, we had time for a final onsen soak before our gracious host drove us to the train station. Next stop, Hiroshima. Hopefully it will finally stop snowing!
If you go: Shinshu Shibu Onsen Senshinkan Matsuya; 2222, Hirao, Yamanochi, Shimotakai-Gun, Nagano; 9000-12,000¥ per person, dinner and breakfast included.
You can visit the Snow Monkey Park as a day trip from Nagano, but there are other sights and activities in/near Yudanaka worth spending the night: Skiing at Shiga Kogen; 25m tall Kannon Buddha statue; Tamamura-Honten: sake tasting and art gallery; origami shop in Shibu Onsen; and of course, spending time soaking.