Friday, January 19, 2018

Yudanaka-Shibu Onsen, Japan: a true Spirited Away setting

       Nagano Prefecture is famous in Japan for its 200 onsens (hot spring), and on this trip, I jumped on an opportunity to visit one of the most well-known one, the Yudanaka-Shibu onsen, an idyllic area overflow with history.
Spirited Away setting

       The hot spring in Yudanaka-Shibu was discovered about 1350 years ago and since that it is widely celebrated by many cultural figures. The easiest way to reach Yudanaka station from Nagano Central station is to take a limited express train on the Nagano Dentetsu line. This is a panoramic train so be sure to grab a seat in the first car so that you can appreciate the scenery along the route.
how to go to Yudanaka and shibu onsen
how to go to Yudanaka and shibu onsen
how to go to Yudanaka and Shibu onsen
       Once arrived at Yudanaka Station, don’t rush to your hotel just yet. It had been a long day so you definitely deserved to be pampered a bit. So, the best thing to do is to head to Kaeda-no-yu hot spring just behind Yudanaka Station and enjoy the free open-air foot bath! It is so soothing that you will immediately forget the soreness you get from all the walking. During colder months, they will cover the whole place in a plastic tent.
Yudanaka onsen
kaeda no yu

       Some tourists would prefer staying in Yudanaka because it is more convenient to reach on Public Transport. If you intend to stay in Yudanaka Onsen, here are my recommendations for people on different budgets:
Budget: ZEN
Mid-price: Yamazakiya
Luxurious: Kamei no Yu

       If you are like me, wanting to stay close to the snow monkey park, dreaming about quaint cobbled streets lined with traditional ryokans (Old Japanese Style Hotel) and Izakaya (Japanese Pub), then definitely make your way to Shibu Onsen!
shibu onsen
shibu onsen

       You can either take a pleasant walk through town or use the public bus to reach Shibu Onsen. Even if you’ve unfortunately missed the last bus and have no intention to walk, Taxi will come to your rescue! The Nagaden Taxi Center is directly across the road from the Yudanaka Station. A taxi ride from Yudanaka Station to Shibu Onsen costs a little less than 1000 Yen (also depending on your destination).
how to go to shibu onsen

Here are my recommendations for accommodation in Shibu Onsen:
Budget: Nozaru
Mid-price/Luxurious: MatsuyaKatei (see below for more selections) 
Experience: Ryokan Kanaguya, which inspired the popular animated film Spirited Away by Ghibli studio.
ryokan in shibu onsen

       I know you’ve been to, or at least knew the word “bar-crawling” or "pub-hopping”, but do you know that “bath-hopping” is a thing? I know some of you are looking confused right up to this point and I know the explanation coming right up will give you nothing but even more shock (I am talking about first-timers).

What is an Onsen? Sharing my first experience and the things I've learnt.

ryokan in shibu onsen

       Ever thought of taking a bath in public?
       I haven’t until I visited Japan 7 years ago and got addicted to onsen-visits. This experience might be the biggest culture shock you’ll get during your time in Japan (well, on second thought, maybe not… there is a lot more bizarreness in this land, but anyway…). the experience involves taking a shower in public and getting into a huge bathtub (indoor or outdoor) filled with strangers (if you are lucky, you might get the whole place to yourself) without any clothes on.
       My first experience? I was 17 when I first visited Japan. I was brought up in a very traditional Chinese family, so I was feeling “Ahh, all these shame...” while getting into the bath. But believe me, that feeling vanishes fast after a few more trial and you will most certainly enjoy every minute of it.
       That is not all that will catch you off guard. For those who aren’t aware (like myself), you’ll get the shock of your life as soon as your toe touches the water. I got my first experience in a luxurious onsen-resort at the foot of Mount Fuji, I once thought that all the white steam must have been dried-ice just to make the place look dreamy and fancy. I hopped into the water without thinking twice and all hell broke loose. I literally felt that I was being cooked (the water is thaaaat hot!) but the weird thing is the water doesn’t feel that hot anymore after a minute or so…. and you’ll only feel the heat again if you move in the water.
       I remember asking my guide will it be dangerous if a person stayed in a bath for too long, as in one will accidentally get cooked? Her answer did not help at all:
"Don’t worry about this. We take onsen bath moderately. After this let’s go to the cafeteria to get some hard boiled eggs.” 
eww, I hate eggs. What’s special about them?” 
They are cooked in an onsen!” 
       I was too afraid to move until the end of the session… I didn’t want to end up like the eggs.  
Onsen eggs
       I guess if you’ve been to an onsen-bath without prior knowledge of Japanese culture, you can relate to my first experience (and feeling). After a few more baths, I’ve learned a few things about this culture and would like to share it with you:
  • You wouldn’t get cooked in a public bathhouse. The onsen-eggs I mentioned above are boiled in other pools that are dangerous to human beings, reaching above 80 degrees Celsius. 
  • Visitors with tattoos (no matter how small are they, as long as they are visible) aren’t allowed to enter a bathhouse. I have a friend who covers hers up with water-resilient makeup and entered without problems. 
  • However, I’ve noticed some loosening of the tattoo ban over the years, most probably due to the flourishing tourism. The original reason for the ban was to keep members of Yakuza (Japanese Gangster, their existence is semi-legal in Japan.) out from the premises. 
  • Some Japanese like to bring a tiny towel into the bath, fold it up nicely and put on their head. I always remind myself to ask the receptionist but always forget, so the reason behind it remains a mystery to me.  
  • It is against the rule to immerse towels in the water. 
  • I found a lot of "white fur” in one of the baths in Shibu Onsen and I thought those are monkey fur (since the area is famous for snow monkeys soaking in onsen). That turned out to be 
  • It is socially unacceptable to splash water around or talk loudly while taking a bath in onsens. 
  • Do not place your head underwater
  • People with known cases of High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease should be cautious when taking onsen bath. 
  • People with open cuts, rashes or skin lesions should not enter the bath. 
Snow Monkeys

       For first-timers, here is a summary of how to take an onsen-bath :
  1. Strip in the changing room and put all of your stuff into a provided basket (including undergarment.)
  2. Wash body with provided shampoo and body wash. (if there are no shower-head, wash body with onsen or tap water using the small wooden buckets provided by the path.)
  3. Get into the bath gently.  
  4. Wipe your body before going back to the changing room.  

Spirited Away setting
       For guests staying at Shibu Onsen Ryokan Association member inns or hotels, you will receive an exquisitely-carved wooden key to access to all of the 9 Sotoyu Public Baths, where you can take a bath free of charge anytime from 6 am to 10 pm. Legend says that if you take a bath in all 9 public baths, your various illnesses will be cured.

The 9 Public bathhouses are numbered from1 to 9 and they are all within walking distances:
1. Hatsu-yu
2. Sara-no-yu
3. Data-no-yu
4. Take-no-yu
5. Matsu-no-yu
6. Mearai-no-yu
7. Nanakuri-no-yu
8. Shinmeidaki-no-yu
9. O-yu
       Get a Junyoku Special Towel at inns or souvenir shops. It is seriously a fun way to document your every footstep in Shibu Onsen. At all 9 Sotoyu Public Bath and the Takayakushi Shrines, you can get commemorative seal stamps… `it is said that once a person collected all 10 seals, he will be granted with divine favors such as protection from the evil spirit, safe babies delivery, perpetual youth, and longevity.  

       Best way to do it is to put on a Yukata and casually drop in at all the 9 public baths collecting unique seal stamps and memories!
Shibu onsen
Shibu onsen

Shibu Onsen Ryokan Association hotels include:
Azuya (Towels are available for purchase)
Shibu onsen

Frequently asked questions: 

What if I am not staying in listed hotels above? 
You can visit one of the public bath named “Oyu” from 10 am to 4 pm with 500 Yen. Firstly, purchase a ticket at the Shibu Onsen Information Center. Then, show your ticket to the designated inns listed above and the staffs will give you a key to open the door of the bathhouse.
Shibu onsen

When will be the best time to visit the Onsens? 
There is no best time! Those who are into festivals of the earth may find mid-July through late August interesting as the Japanese celebrate the Yudanaka Onsen Summer Festival.

Where to eat in Shibu Onsen? 
Well after treating yourself to a galore of culture shock, its time to reward yourself for your courage and willingness to experience new things! There are a plethora of restaurants to choose from in the area, here are some recommendations: Ramen Tokumi for Ramen, Yariya or Tamagawa for soba, Kozushi for sushi and visit any Izakaya for bar tit-bits.

What to eat in Yamanouchi? 
 Sugakawa Soba
Yamanouchi specialties include Sugakawa Soba (buckwheat noodles), Onsen-Manju (bun with red bean paste filling), Oyaki (dumpling stuffed with vegetables), Shiga Kogen Apples (Available in Autumn) and Sabatake (Miso soup with bamboo shoots/ Available in summer).

What else to see or do in Yudanaka-Shibu Onsen? 
World Peace Kannon
  • World Peace Kannon
    If you choose to walk from Yudanaka Station to Shibu Onsen, you will pass by this bronze cannon statue (one of the tallest in all Japan). Pray for world peace by ringing the Buddhist bell here.
  • Tamara Sake Brewery
    Open from 9 am to 6 pm, Tamamura Sake Brewery is the spot to hit up if you are fascinated by sake. Come here to visit the brewery and try some local brew for free! 
  • Otozan Onsen-Ji Temple
    Drop by to pray for health if you are in the area. The temple is said to be dedicated to a legend of Ryujin, a medical personnel who cured all diseases and injury.  
What Else to do in Yamanouchi (the area)? 
Tons! You can visit the world famous bathing Snow Monkeys or spend a snowy afternoon at Ryuoo Ski Park!  Well, and a lot more that I haven't get to explore. You can easily spend 3 days here! 

Yamanouchi map

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Thank You for Reading! 
This post is made possible by the Yamanouchi Town Tourism Association
As always, it is based solely on my honest opinion or personal experience. 

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