Shibu Onsen And The Hot Springs of Yamanouchi

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A Ryoken Stay In Shibu Onsen Nagano

Anyone who is going to Japan will be told that they have to visit an Onsen and also do a Ryoken Stay. If you feel confused about what the difference is between soaking in an Onsen and doing a traditional Ryoken stay, this post will clear that up for you.

Shibu Onsen is a fantastic place to do both these things. Primarily as its a short train ride from Nagano and you can visit the Snow Monkeys while you are there. I loved this little village and the proximity to the Jigokudani Monkey Park was an added bonus.

Unfortunately I got robbed in Nagano in Japan. Yup – that's right, in JAPAN the safest place on earth. Not to dwell, but it was clearly a pro crew and they cleaned out the cloak room at a restaurant I was at. No violence, no-one even saw them and the Restaurant was amazing in making sure no-one paid for their dinner.

I was only in Nagano for that night as I was heading up to Shibu Onsen and the snow monkeys the next day. Sadly I had already got the cash out I needed for my Ryoken stay so my Onsen experience didn't start too well initially.

Luckily it all got massively better. Fortunately I do practice what I preach and had spare cards in my bag at the hotel so after about an hour of transferring money and cancelling the stolen cards, I went to be determined to ignore this speed bump and just get on with seeing Shibu Onsen like I had planned.

How to Get To Shibu Onsen From Nagano

There are a few ways to get from Nagano to Yamanouchi, however usually its either the train or the bus. The train gets you to Yudanaka station which was about 2km walk from my Onsen, or you can get the bus which gets you to roughly the same point but on the opposite side of the river.

Rome2Rio can help you out with the trains, buses and times.

Which is better the bus or train to Yudanaka?

The train stops at the station in Yudanaka, however the bus can go all the way to the Monkey Park so if you just wanted to do a day trip, the bus can get you to the park entrance.

It's about 45 mins on the train to the Yudanaka Station and the bus is a little more but not too much. The bus only has 3 stops so it's pretty quick. So if you are staying in Shibu Onsen, the train is probably better and you can walk to the village in around 20 mins.

It does seem confusing as you are going to Yamanouchi, getting off at Yudanaka Station and then walking to Shibu Onsen but it's quite simple really. Of course the stations have names that aren't always the name of the town or region so that's why the station is Yudanaka. Yamanouchi is the region and Shibu Onsen is a little Onsen village. I hope that makes sense.

I got the train up from Nagano and then caught the bus from the closest train station to Shibu village. Once you are in the village, it can be a little tricky to find your accommodation if its not on the main street, however thankfully as usual in Japan, everyone is VERY keen to help you.

Where to stay in Shibu Onsen

I stayed at Hishiya Torazo Onsen which is one of the oldest Ryokens in the village. It's run by a charming gentleman and his elderly mother. She is an absolute treat. She is tiny and bent over and doesn't speak a lick of English but makes your stay incredible. She showed me around explaining everything in Japanese and I easily understood everything she was telling me.

This was my big splurge for Japan so I had paid for the full experience for both days I was there. The Ryokans can be just accommodation and Onsen's, but if you pay the full fee you get the traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast which is a real treat. That is the definition of a Ryoken stay – you get the full Japanese meals and experience.

What is the difference between visiting an Onsen and a Ryoken Stay?

So while a lot of the Ryokens have private Onsens, its the meals and experience that defines it to be a Ryoken Stay. You can access public Onsens everywhere, so if you would prefer not to pay for the Ryoken experience, you can book a more traditional style of accommodation and visit the public Onsens.

My Ryoken in Shibu Onsen
My Ryoken in Shibu Onsen

Shibu Onsen Accommodation

Accommodation in Shibu Onsen is quite varied and I found it to be quite affordable. If you are after a full Ryoken experience it will be more expensive than just the overnight accommodation. You should be able to find something to suit your budget via this map search.

My Stay At Shibu Onsen

The first day of my stay there was another Japanese couple staying but the second day it was just me which was actually amazing. I had the hot spring all to myself and wallowed around in there like a hippo for most of the day on and off. So fortunate!

I can't recommend Torazo Onsen enough – they were amazing, its small and personal and when I said that I was going to go out for dinner on the second night, they gave me a discount on my room fee because I didn't have the full Japanese dinner. Treat yourself – but take cash – they don't accept cards.

It is worth noting that I was there in February so it was pretty quiet. While a lot of people visit the Snow Monkeys when there is actual snow on the ground (obviously) a lot come from Nagano for the day so during the extreme winter cold the accommodation is more affordable and you will have more options.

Around Shibu Onsen (Yamanouchi Onsen)

Being February everything was covered in a wonderful layer of snow. Being Australian this wasn't my first snow experience but it is always so amazing to me. I love the snow. I couldn't live in this climate forever but I have no challenge being in a cold climate in winter. It is just so different from what I'm used to and so pretty.

The town is meant for wandering and even though it was cold and at one point did snow, the streets are well maintained and easy to navigate. There is one main road that is the access way past the town and then there is one “main street” I guess you would call it which has a lot of the public onsens and little cafe's and shops.

Main street in Shibu Onsen, Yamanouchi
The main street through Shibu Onsen

At the top end of town is a gorgeous temple and cemetery. I wasn't quite sure of the protocol but a lovely gentleman told me that yes I was fine to go inside the Cemetery. I love cemeteries. They are the ultimate celebration of love to me. Around the world they are treated so differently and this one in Shibu Onsen was the first Japanese one I'd seen.

It started snowing while I was up that end of town so I was so excited. You have to remember I'd come from Australia in November, to The Philippines in December, and then Borneo in January, so to have snow in February even after almost a fortnight in Japan was still amazing.

This was probably my first experience with taking photos of show covered temples. While I'd been as far north as Abashiri, somehow I had never noticed the temples or they were covered in too much snow, but from this point forward I became unhealthily obsessed with taking photos of temples covered in snow. I had over 120 when I finished Japan. I did say I became obsessed!

Shibu Onsen Cemetary

Using The Public Onsens

As you walk around the town you do have the option to visit the public onsens. Your own Ryoken might be able to help you with the pass, or you can get one from one of the bathhouses on the main street.

There are 10 in all if my memory serves me correctly and they each have their own stamp. You buy this little towel for around 400 yen and can collect the stamps from the various bath houses as you visit them. You can get a robe and Japanese slippers and you see people wandering around town going from bathhouse to bathhouse.

I didn't partake in the public bathhouses mainly because I am quite heavily tattooed and while its getting less and less restricted, traditionally tattoos are not allowed in public onsens.

Years ago the Yakuza was the only group of people with tattoos so to keep them out, the Onsens were tattoo free. Some still keep this tradition alive and while I'm sure I would have been fine, I couldn't find anyone that spoke good enough English to ask such an intricate question.

If you are wondering about Shibu Onsen tattoo friendly status, it does have its own website which has basic access, accommodation and attraction info. That might be the place to start. I'm sure they can advise you on Shibu Onsen Tattoo protocol.

As you wander around the street you see these little stalls with boiled eggs that are cooked with the hot onsen water. Usually they just have an honesty box, but be careful because if no-one has bought one for a while it could be days old. I saw a woman putting new eggs in the one outside her shop and she took me inside and sold me a couple.

From what I could gather the ones out in the little boiling baskets are often for show and you just go inside to buy the eggs. Nothing super culinary about them but it was cool to eat a couple of boiled eggs from the hot springs.

My Ryoken Meals

Unfortunately I just didn't think to take my camera or phone for dinner, however it was quite a spread. Being on my own, I had my own room with all the Japanese food spread out in front of me. I wore my Kimono the first meal but it was a little hard to maintain some modesty sitting cross legged on a cushion in a kimono (I guess there is some kind of way to do it) so after that I wore my standard pants and shirt.

Your meal is a selection of Japaneses delicacies and was absolutely delicious. I'm a HUGE fan of Japanese food anyway but this was just divine. Don't miss the meals if you do stay at a Ryoken. At least one is worth it.

I spent the last day of my stay in Shibu Onsen at the Snow Monkey park which was a really fun way to spend some time and then I got myself on the train back to Nagano and on to Kyoto.

Ryoken meal
A typical Ryoken meal.

Are You Visiting Japan Soon?

Consider a JR Rail Pass. Available in 7, 14 or 21 day options, you can save up to 50% on your train tickets. They do have to be ordered prior to your trip and delivered to your home country, however you can activate them on your arrival in Japan starting from a set date so if you are going to be in and around Tokyo for the first 5 days you can set your JR Rail Pass to start on day 5 when you will start traveling.

Check out my Japan Destination Page for all the info, posts & places to visit in Japan

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.