Photo:Edward Dalmulder

3-Day Trip to Yudanaka Onsen in Nagano

Ever dreamed of going back in time and walking through a historical Japanese town wearing a Yukata? Well, guess what, your dream just came true. Before knowing the existence of various onsen town in Nagano prefecture, I never knew Japan still has those secluded yet authentic areas like in Yudanaka and Shibu onsen town, both of which are located just side by side.

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons
Big road stretching from Yudanaka to Shibu among the mountains.

Yudanaka Onsen

Yudanaka Onsen town is great all year round; however, going in winter would be a bonus to your travel plan as you can see the snow monkeys covered in snow soaking themselves in the onsen, go skiing or snowboarding, and most importantly, enjoy the outdoor natural hot spring under the snow (one of the best life experiences ever).

Yudanaka is located in Yamanouchi, and is less than an hour train ride from Nagano City. Surrounding Yudanaka area are Shibu Onsen Town (10 minutes by bus/30 minutes by walk) and snow monkey resort (20 minutes by bus). If you are visiting during winter, you are just at the right place for skiing or snowboarding at Shiga Kogen, Japan’s largest ski resort which is located just 30 minutes away by from the monkey park. There are many different resorts to choose from too, depending on your preference.

Snow monkeys cuddling under the cold winter wind

Ryokan vs. Hotel

Typical room in a ryokan

When it comes to accommodation in Yudanaka, I highly recommend spending a little more money on a ryokan (旅館: traditional Japanese hotel with tatami flooring), which will give you a very authentic living-like-a-Japanese experience that western-style hotels don’t offer. Some ryokans have outdoor open-air onsen, which is something you should make use of. Many ryokans also offer breakfast and dinner, and experiencing dining like a Japanese person wearing a Yukata is certainly the highlight of staying in a ryokan.

Even better, when you stay at a ryokan in Yudanaka, you will be given a master key which has access to every single public bath in town (about 14 different baths). Those public baths are free, but are only open to those who have the access key. The public baths are quite antique, and was definitely an experience! One obviously great thing about staying at Yudanaka as compared to Shibu is, there are more restaurant and bar options in the area, and it has way more convenient access to public transportation while Shibu only has one bus stop, and the bus only comes every half an hour or more. Moreover, Shibu Onsen Town is a ‘dead town’ during the day; most shops are closed and the place only lit up at night. Although many ryokans do offer dinner, it is always better to stay in a location with a convenience store and food, just to be safe.

Cafes and restaurant near Yunadaka station

From personal experience, I highly recommend Yudanaka Tawaraya ryokan. It is reasonably priced, but offers more than just an amazing stay; the hospitality was awesome and the location was excellent. The ryokan also has an outdoor open-air onsen, of which you can book a time slot for private usage session, for free.

Rules of Staying at a Ryokan

As mentioned earlier, a ryokan is simply a Japanese hotel with tatami flooring rooms. You have to take off your shoes when entering the ryokan, and smoking is not allowed inside. In most ryokan, if not all, you will be sleeping on futon on the tatami floor, and there usually is no sitting area in your room because you will be sitting on the floor the traditional Japanese style. Many rooms do not come with a private bathroom, so if that’s the case, you are going have to share the public bath with other guests of the same gender, which can be a little awkward at first. Also note that most of the time, guests with tattoos are not allowed in onsen. Just make sure to check with your ryokan before booking.

Onsen Etiquette

First and the most important point, shower before you bathe. The onsen is supposed to be kept as clean as possible. The idea of showering while bathing at the same time of the western culture still disgusts most Japanese people to these days. So, make sure to clean yourself well before entering the communal bath. If you have long hair, make sure to tie them up when immersing in the bath. In each room, you will also be prepared with a set of yukata for each person, which you can wear them around the ryokan or even out for a short walk. If you are not sure how to put them on, you can always ask the hotel staff who would be more than willing to teach you or help you put them on.

Dining in the Ryokan

A very filling Japanese dinner at the ryokan

One of the best parts of staying in a ryokan is to experience eating dinner like a Japanese person while wearing a yukata straight out of the bath. It is even better to use the onsen before dinner; that way, you would feel cozier and relaxed after a long day. A satisfying dinner is served from around 5 pm onward, and usually runs until 8 pm. If guests arrive later than that time, dinner may not be served. So, it is best to check with your ryokan if you are going to arrive much later than the check-in time especially when you also have your dinner included in your booking.

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