Many visitors to the Snow Monkeys in Japan, often come in on a tour bus and leave the same day. But if you have the time, you’ll get so much out of staying a night or two in the nearby traditional town of Shibu Onsen.
Situated about 35km from Nagano, the small town of Shibu Onsen sits in the Japanese Alps next to the slightly larger town of Yudanaka. It is full of traditional wooden ryokans (traditional inns) and onsens (hot baths).
Shibu Onsen Town
The town takes on a magical vibe at night and almost feels like you’re stepping into a Studio Ghibli film! Music is sometimes played from loudspeakers in the street that remind me of the scenes in Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Fortunately, this music is just a daily tester of the loudspeakers which are used for emergencies.
There’s also the sound of someone clapping wooden sticks together as they walk through Shibu Onsen late at night. It took me a while to figure out what it was but turns out it’s a fire prevention reminder so people will check their heaters in the cooler months. In my head, I’d imagined this magical monk performing some Shinto ceremony through the streets, haha.
Shibu Onsen Hot Baths
There are 9 public onsen that can be used for free if you stay at a Ryokan Association Hotel or Inn, in Shibu Onsen (check on booking site to see if you get an onsen key). When you check-in at these establishments you’ll be given a key that will open the public onsens.
You’ll also receive a yukata (light kimono) and haori jacket, along with wooden geta sandals that are kept in the lobby area. These are worn when going to the onsens. The click-clack of the getas on the stone road, really adds to the town’s charm.
You’ll also find foot baths dotted around the place. Here you can just sit back, roll up your pants and soothe your aching feet. This is particularly useful after going to the Snow Monkey Park!
Many visitors will purchase the Junyoku bath towel that has the 9 onsen names and Takayakushi Shrine name on them. When you visit an onsen or shrine, you’ll find a stamp out the front so you can stamp your towel. It is said that if all ten stamps are collected, the towel’s owner will be rewarded with divine favours such as perpetual youth and longevity. But it also makes an interesting souvenir!
The baths each have different mineral properties that help with various ailments. Nanukuri-no-yu (no.7 onsen) helps with body injuries, while Shinmeidaki-no-yu (no.8) helps with women’s health issues.
How To Onsen
- Unless you’re in a private onsen, you will be naked around other people (it’s segregated), but honestly, no one’s looking at you. Swimsuits or any other clothing are not allowed. If it’s an issue go very early in the morning or late at night (they close at 10pm), when there’s likely to be no one there.
- Always rinse your body off before getting into the onsen. There are usually little stools and cups to dump water over you from taps.
- The onsens are REALLY hot, but there is a tap of cold water you can use to adjust the temperature. You’ll also get used to the heat pretty quickly, once in.
- Take your own towel, the hotel will give you one. Wipe down before heading to the change area.
- Drink plenty of water afterwards as it can be dehydrating if you spend too long in them.
Shibu Onsen is just 2kms from the entrance of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. It’s then another 1.8kms from the entrance to reach the actual onsen where the monkeys like to hang out.
There is a tourist bus that runs from Yudanaka Station, stopping at Shibu Onsen and onto bus stops near the entrance to Jigokudani. Some accommodations also provide a shuttle bus in the morning right to the entrance of the park which saves you walking up a big ass hill!
The park opens at 9am, which is the best time to go as you’ll avoid the tour buses that generally visit from 11am-2pm. The monkeys also seem to favour the onsen in the morning when it’s colder.
It takes around 20-30 minutes to walk the 1.8km from the park entrance to the snow monkeys. It’s a very pretty walk and you’ll probably find snow about up till early April. Do take waterproof shoes though, especially if it has been raining as the track can get quite muddy. At the park entrance, you’ll find a gift store, but there is another entrance just before the monkey onsen where you pay the entrance fee to see the monkeys. You’ll also find toilets, souvenirs and light snacks here.
While the majority of the walk is quite flat, there are a number of stairs and an incline at the end. Nearer the onsen there are a smaller number of stairs.
Shibu Onsen Restaurants
There are a number of small restaurants, bars and places to eat in Shibu Onsen. For ramen, check out Ramen Tokumi (closed Tuesdays) for great port cutlet and gyozas, or after a long morning seeing the snow monkeys, stop in at Enza Cafe just down the road from the park entrance. They have amazing chicken-broth ramen and a range of other meals with some western options like wraps and fries. Yariya (below) is a quirky soba noodle restaurant run by a lovely old lady who has filled the place with thousands of curios, you’ll find them spilling out onto the street!
I was watching TV at Yariya when I came across the weirdest TV show, even for Japan! Contestants had to eat a whole load of sweet potatoes and then see who had the smelliest farts! Hilarious!
Be sure to visit Toru, the owner of Cyo-kun Izakaya. You’ll find plenty of sake, whiskey, shoshu and beer here and just let Toru know if you’re hungry and he’ll feed you. Let him know if you have any preferences or let him choose for you. I ended up with an amazing stew he called Soul Food, a delicious grilled mackerel and some baby squid in soy sauce. Toru will drink with you and knows a good amount of English so he loves a chat. You can also find a karaoke machine here.
More restaurants in Shibu Onsen
- Koishiya – western-style restaurant that’s open for breakfast
- Izakaya Shibu – Japanese style bar with bar food
- Kaneshin – Japanese dishes like sashimi, tempure, fried chicken, plus snacks & alcohol
- Tamagawa – soba noodle restaurant with specialties such as walnut or mushroom soba and wild duck
- Kozushi – Only sushi restaurant in Shibu Onsen
- Fukuan – Cafe selling western food such as hotdogs and spaghetti
- Karan Koron – Japanese style bar with a wide selection of sake and snacks
- Motoya – Japanese style bar serving beer and sake with seasonal dishes ( ¥ 300 cover charge – appetizer included)
- Ishinoyu – Onsen hot bath and cafe serving drinks
Where to Stay in Shibu Onsen
Most ryokan and hotels in Shibu Onsen are members of the Ryokan Association, which means guests get a key to use the nine public onsen baths around town.
I stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya, a charming traditional ryokan in the middle of Shibu Onsen with views over the main street. My tatami lined room could fit two futon mattresses and had a lovely low table with floor chair and under-table heating. There was also a small sink, fridge and tea/coffee amenities. Larger rooms are available.
A western-style toilet was on the floor below mine and they even had their own onsen downstairs, complete with apples. Now I’m not sure if they’re for decoration or to eat as the hot water softens them but I wasn’t game to try, lol. The friendly owners speak English quite well and put on an amazing breakfast. They also have a cat! They can pick you up from Yudanaka train station before 5.30pm and in the morning will drop you off at the snow monkey park entrance, which saves the big walk up the hill from the bus stop. I really enjoyed my stay here.
You could also sleep in the 250-year-old Kanaguya ryokan. This one’s a lil fancier and has 9 onsens, 5 of which are private, so you can just pop in and lock the door. They also have two large outdoor communal onsens.
This multistory ryokan looks impressive from outside and lights up beautifully around 7pm each night. It definitely bears some resemblance to the bathhouse in Ghibli’s Spirited Away!
Kokuya Ryokan is another popular luxury ryokan with 9 indoor and outdoor onsens, some can be booked for private use.
Check out Saekeya Ryokan if you want the tatami ryokan feel but without sleeping on futons on the floor (they offer both). They also have a lovely outdoor onsen.
And if you really want to save some money, check out Nozaru Onsen Hostel which provides futon dorms or private rooms. They also have their own onsen onsite. Kaneki Hotel in Shibu Onsen is also a good budget option.
Other Facilities In Town
- You’ll find an ATM at the Post Office in Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen and at 7-Eleven and Lawson’s Convenience Store in Yudanaka Onsen. These are close to Yudanaka Station. Many places in Shibu Onsen do not have ATM or Credit Card facilities so make sure you have some cash on you.
- You’ll also find a pharmacy and coin laundry in Yudanaka Onsen.
- If your ryokan does not offer a transfer or if you get in too late, there is Nagaden Taxi right in front of Yudanaka Station. If you need to call them the phone number is 0269-33-3161.
- A bus runs from Yudanaka Station to Shibu Onsen and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, with a number of stops along the way.
- There are a lot of stores that sell specific types of food in Shibu Onsen, so it’s a good idea to get a few snacks at the convenience stores when you first arrive. However, there are plenty of vending machines around Shibu Onsen.
What Else Is There To Do In Shibu Onsen?
There are two main shrines about, one in Yudanaka Onsen, which includes the World Peace Kannon statue and Takayakushi Shrine in Shibu Onsen. There’s also an interesting cemetery near Onsen-ji Temple.
There are plenty of walking trails in the area of varying degrees. In winter you can go snowboarding or skiing on nearby runs.
In summer you can watch fireflies along the river banks.
Tamamura Honten Sake Gallery & Brewery offers sake tastings and brews Shiga Kogen Beer using locally sourced hops. In March there is even an annual beer festival!
There are lots of little souvenir shops around town. You can buy your very own geta sandals that come in lots of different colours and fabrics.
Outside one of the ryokans you’ll find soft boiled eggs for sale, cooked by the hot onsen waters.
When To Visit Shibu Onsen
The winter months in Japan are the best time to visit Shibu Onsen as the ground is covered in snow, the snow monkeys are eager to soak in the hot onsen waters and the nearby snow runs of Shiga Kogen are available for snow sports.
Tourist traffic starts to wane in late March which also makes a great time to visit as the town seems a little more magical without lots of people in it. Although some shops will be closed, or half-open. Literally, the door will be ajar and shopowners will be in the back part in the house area but there’s still an open sign on the door.
Autumn has its pros and cons. It’s monkey mating season then and along with the abundance of mountain food, the snow monkey onsen doesn’t see as many monkeys. On the plus side, the autumn leaves in the area are just stunning!
How To Get To Shibu Onsen
The Shinkansen (bullet train) will get you to Nagano on the Hokuriku line. A one way trip takes 80-100 minutes, costs about 8000 yen.
From here you switch to the local Nagano Dentensu (Nagaden) line, which is next to the JR Nagano station. The limited express train takes 50 minutes, and is 1260 yen one way, direct to Yudanaka Station. Be sure to get the limited express as the local train requires a transfer at Shinshu-Nakano station.
Once at Yudanaka station you’ll find a taxi service out the front or your accommodation may provide transfers. There is also a local bus that leaves Yudanaka station and will take you to Shibu Onsen, about 10-15minutes away.
There are express buses from Nagano to Shiga Kogen but these buses do not stop in central Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen. They will stop at the Snow Monkey Park bus stop (40 minutes, 1400y one way) so these are better if you’re only planning a day trip to the area.
I hope you enjoy your stay in Shibu Onsen. It may seem like an out of the way place to get to but a trip to Shibu Onsen is so worth it! Definitely one of my favourite trips while in Japan. I really liked the authentic, traditional feel of the town and the friendliness of the locals.
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