At the foothills of the mountain leading up to the snowy ski-slopes of Nagano and the well known Jigokudani Yaen-koen, famously toted for their leisurely snow monkeys, sits Shibu Onsen town. This rich hot spring resort town has a long history dating back some 1300 years. If you are looking for a peaceful spot to relax and cleanse your body before you head off to enjoy the Japanese macaque monkeys in all their glory or a place to unwind after a day spent exploring Yamanouchi town and museum, you are in great luck. There are a number of traditional Japanese ryokan and a special key is issued to each guest upon check-in which gives you access to the street’s 9 various onsen.
The winding paved streets at this quaint Japanese town in Nagano are accompanied by the unmistakable clip-clop of the Japanese wooden sandals aka geta, and the visitors clad in yukata, lend an out-of-this-world kind of feel to the place. The local businesses and restaurants beat to their own drum and while their schedules were a little unreliable, our choice of a local sushi restaurant felt like I was at home with one of the locals enjoying a slice of retro-life, from the décor to the TV, to the music. The lady kindly treated the kids to a complimentary dessert which made their adventure to Nagano complete.
The number of souvenir shops in Shibu Onsen town were limited and of them some were closed for the day, so what we missed out in terms of Japanese tableware and traditional Japanese shoes, we made up for in terms of consumables. Onsen manju are sold in various shops around the town and these steamed cakes are made from flour with a red bean paste at its centre. A great snack to keep little explorers going through the day. Excited to find a shop selling local Shibu Sake and another selling honey and fruit syrups (made with local produce from Nagano), we were able to try the various flavours. Finally we settled for some blueberry and apply honey along with an array of syrups to drizzle over our morning yogurt.
Some of the Onsen, or hot spring bathhouses are more visually appealing than others, but each of them promises relief for different ailments, from arthritis to skin disorders. The gorgeous wooden detail on the exterior is so inviting that we made sure to make full use of our master keys during the night, taking turns while the kids rested at the ryokan. Special tenugui, towels, are sold at each hotel so you can stamp it at each bathhouse as a token of your tour of the nine public baths in Shibu Onsen.
When the kids grow weary of climbing mountains and bathing in the natural spring water or wake up at the crack of dawn, the retro playground next to the rushing river was a perfect place for them to stretch their little legs. They pretended to be monkeys and enjoyed the tasty Onsen manju that we had bought earlier at the local Shibu store. It was the perfect spot to watch the local tour groups bussing up and down the mountainside, and the little produce trucks darting in and out of the town carrying what I only hoped was our breakfast.
Breakfast was the standard ryokan fare, but their was nothing standard about it. It came complete with such familiar food as yogurt and jam stretching out to include a hotpot of simmering tofu and local vegetables as well as all-we-could eat servings of rice. The last was a must to keep the kids charged for the day ahead. The coffee flowed happily and a night of cozying up next to each other on futons in a modest tatami room was a wonderful family bonding experience. That and the pillow-fights, the local karaoke station on the TV accompanied by a few rounds of sake meant we had the relaxed holiday we were after.
River flowing near the onsen
In the nearby vicinity of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen Resort, beyond the highly praised monkeys is the Tamamura Sake Gallery and Brewery, which has been producing sake and local beer for over 200 years. The sampling of sake is not its only drawcard, as you can see inside the brewery and browse local art upstairs. In the nearby town of Yudanaka there are more onsens to visit and watch the trains come and go.
More information can be accessed at Yamanouchi Town Tourist Information Center.