Japan's Secret Ski Towns: Togari Onsen and Shibu Onsen
While most avid skiers favour the popular ski slopes of Hakuba, Furano and Niseko, there are many smaller, just as cosy resorts where you can escape the crowds and indulge in onsen in your free time. Two of these pleasantly unknown towns are Togari Onsen and Shibu Onsen, both located not too far from Nagano city.
Shibu Onsen (and Shiga Kogen Ski Resort)
Shibu Onsen, about two and a half hours out of Tokyo, is the more beautiful of the two, with traditional buildings lining the streets and huge trees overlooking the town from the hills. When snow falls the town is dead silent and it feels like you've just stepped into a picture book.
If the lure of the ski slopes of Shiga Kogen, not far out of the town, and the beauty of the town itself isn't enough to convince you, what about the opportunity to access nine public onsen for free if you stay overnight in the town? That's right, if you stay at a hotel in the town you will be given a key which opens all nine baths. You might even be able to have one to yourself. It's good luck to visit all nine in a night, so grab your towel, throw on your yukata and get bathing!
If this still hasn't got you reaching for your suitcase, maybe the proximity (5 minutes by bus) to the Jigokudani Monkey Park will get you going. Jigokudani is that place you've probably seen on TV, in brochures, online, and pretty much everywhere, where wild monkeys come down out of the mountains to take nice warm baths in the local hot springs. While you aren't allowed to touch or feed the monkeys for everyone's safety, it's a fantastic photo op and unforgettable experience for all.
Togari Onsen is directly accessible by bus from Tokyo and Yokohama during the ski season. Perhaps the best way to experience the town is to buy a plan – this would typically include a night's stay at a hotel, dinner, breakfast, snowboard/ski rental, clothes and goggles rental, the bus ride to and from Tokyo/Yokohama, and two days' lift tickets for the ski slopes, all typically for about 13000-16000 yen per person.
While there's only one food shop in town there are a couple of places to eat (there are two or three restaurants located at the ski field) and chances are, if you've paid for a plan, your hotel will be providing your dinner and breakfast for you anyway. The town is located right at the bottom of the ski slope, the closest hotel not event ten metres away from the entrance. While the resort is great for beginner and intermediate skiers, it perhaps doesn't offer the range of long slopes desired by pros. Nevertheless it`s still a fantastic place to teach a friend or lover to ski or snowboard or simply a great place to holiday with the family.
There's also an onsen located not two minutes' walk from the bottom of the slope, but unlike Shibu Onsen, this town is all about the skiing and less about the culture, so don't expect to see many traditional buildings or snow monkeys here.
These two very different destinations are both fantastic and unique in their own way, so be sure to avoid the crowds this winter and head for an onsen town!