Visiting Shibu Onsen and the Japanese snow monkeys
September 28, 2014
Shibu Onsen and its cheeky monkeys
For 1 day, 1 night | in August | ~33 C, occasional rain
We jumped on the 'subway' train from Nagano Station to Yudanaka station on route to Shibu Onsen.
It was the first time since arriving in Japan that we saw some picturesque arable countryside. Apple and peach orchards where individual apples and peaches, still on the tree, are wrapped in paper to protect them as they mature (the region is famous for it's apple produce), grapevines too where each bunch is also individually wrapped, dwellings separated by patty fields, and a backdrop of towering mountains.
Upon arriving in the wonderful Shibu Onsen we checked in to our traditional Japanese Ryokan for the night, Kokuya. The room was very spacious, covered with beautiful bamboo floor matts, floor level table and chairs and a separate sitting room. We also had our own private outdoor stone onsen bath.
The mountains trickle a constant stream of natural hot water into the many Onsen hot baths at its feet; emphasis here on hot. We had to run the cold tap into our room's private Onsen so we didn't boil alive.
Sitting in the bath, with natural spring water trickling in, surrounded by rocks, plants and a stream of carp running beside, was utter relaxation. My skin felt visibly better after a couple of these long soaks.
The Ryokan has 8 other shared baths in total, separated at certain times of the day for men and women. Some are wooden, others stone, some indoor and a handful outside.
The main attraction in Shibu Onsen, other than the Onsens of course, is the Jigokudani Monkey Park where Japanese Macaque hang out. We arrived to 1 and 2 month old infants playing like kittens on the ropes and rocks surrounding the monkey onsen baths, and noticeably irritating their mothers and older siblings.
A couple of teenagers fought in the hot bath, getting out and diving back in before playfully attacking each other. We got right up close and personal with these kawaii (the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture) monkeys.
We only had one night in this quaint Ryokan, as the experience doesn't come cheap. You need to be willing to shell out $700-$1,000 per night for a traditional experience complete with dinner and breakfast.
Given this was a once only experience for us on this trip, we chose to have the traditional Japanese dinner menu. Dressed in our Yakatas, informal kimonos, we were led to our private dining room - A small raised room, closed off with bamboo and paper screens, furnished with a ground level table and cushions on bamboo matting.
The meal was 19 courses, some delicious and some a bit too out there for a western palate. The slow roasted eggplant was my favourite, served with a stalk of sweet pickled ginger stem. I need to find those in Sydney.
There were two dishes that we drew the line on, carp sushimi (not helped by the fact we had a stream of carp swimming outside our bedroom) and sea eel semon soup.
As you can see from the photos below, everything is presented creatively on a huge variety of colourful and shapely ceramics.
The refreshing fruit jelly to finish thankfully went down a treat.
After dinner we went for a stroll in our yakata (cotton wrap) and wooden clogs up the quaint little street our Ryokan was nestled in. The street is filled with public onsen and the locals were out in force with their towels around their necks heading for a late night soak. We walked up the street and stumbled, quite literally, upon a local street party. We were swiftly pulled into the centre of the small crowd, offered Asahi and edamame, and welcomed into conversation dominated by hand gestures. They were crazy about the white people from New Zealand, and when another couple from Hawaii came along they told us 'white people to talk to each other'. It was hilarious.
Like the hand of a magician, our traditional ryokan room was converted into sleeping quarters upon our return. Two futons were laid out on the bamboo matting and that is where we slept. Not as bad as I thought!
After an early morning Onsen we made our way to our private dining room for our daring traditional Japanese style breakfast. It was a bit of a challenge; salmon, pickles, tofu, zucchini with chicken mince, very soft egg boiled in the hot spring, miso, rice, boiled vegetables in satay, radish, and eggplant.
We did try everything but the fresh peach provided, peach juice and green tea filled my belly just fine.
The staff at Kokuya were wonderful. We even received a gift as we departed. The extra you pay to stay in something like Kokuya is well worth it. The accommodation, meals, service and overall experience is extraordinary.
A wave goodbye and we were off, back to Nagano to catch the Shinkansen to Tokyo. What a gorgeous place and a unique experience.