This post will cover both full days we spent in and around the Shibu Onsen resort. Since this destination was in the middle of our time in Japan, we used it as an opportunity to rest from the hectic city life. With no trains to catch, no subways to squeeze into, and breakfast and dinner provided by our accommodations, Shibu Onsen allowed us to stretch out a bit and take things at a slower pace.
Breakfast at Matsuya Ryokan
As mentioned in the last post, we spent our first night of three at Matsuya Ryokan. The breakfast served was similar to the dinner we had the night before: a number of small plates consisting of pickled vegetables, rice, fruit, fish. It was topped off with a fried egg that cooked on the little burners while we sat at the table.
I’ve since learned that this type of traditional food is called washoku.
Like the other Ryokan, Matsuya provides free transportation to the Snow Monkey Park and also back to the Yudanaka train station. Since we were staying the next two nights at a ryokan just one block away, Matsuya kindly offered to transport our excess baggage for us after dropping us off at the Snow Monkey park. This saved the trouble of having to pay to check our bags at the museum outside of the snow monkey park.
No trip would be complete to this region without a short walk up to see the snow monkeys. The snow monkeys, more formally, Japanese Macaques, are best known for utilizing the hot springs in the mountains above Yamanouchi during the cold winter months.
The area around the hot springs typically used by the monkeys is called the Snow Monkey Park. The entrance is a little less than 2 kilometers away from Shibu Onsen, if you walk. Most hotels will happily drive you this distance from the morning. From the parking lot it is an easy 1.6 kilometer hike to reach the actual park entrance. Aside from a short span of shallow steps at the beginning, the trail is flat and doesn’t require boots to traverse in the dry months. (If you were to come here when there is snow on the ground, it would be a different story. You can rent winter boots at the beginning of the walking portion.)
Eventually you will come to a small gate house which sells the tickets for admission to see the monkeys. The entry fee was 800 JPY per person. The gatehouse also includes a small gift shop and restroom. However, this is no food for sale up here, so make sure to eat before your hike. There are signs stating that the snow monkeys are not guaranteed to come down into the park if it is mating season or sufficient food exists at higher elevations. Luckily they were present when we were there.
A telephoto lens is useful for capturing more natural images, but you will almost certainly have the opportunity to see a monkey close up. The macaques are not shy at all and will walk very close to humans. This is especially true when they want to utilize the same bridge that people use to cross the water. The park is relatively small. Don’t plan to spend more than an hour observing the monkeys. At the time we were there, none were bathing in the hot springs due to the relatively warm temperature.
On the way out, near the parking lot, we stopped at Enza for a matcha latte. There is a bus that leaves from a bit downhill of the parking lot to return to Shibu Onsen. Enza posts a schedule near there entrance, so it may be useful to consult it (ideally before hiking to the snow monkey park).
At the time we finished our latte, there was over an hour until the next bus, so we walked the 2 kilometers back to town. Since it is downhill all the way, it isn’t a very strenuous walk, and it has the benefit of giving you a closer-up view of some of the countryside and small streets.
Lunch at Shibu Onsen
At this point of our trip, we had not yet had any ramen, so we went to a ramen shop in Shibu Onsen: Ramen Tokumi.
The restaurant offers an English menu with pictures. We both had ramen, which is served as a brown of ramen noodles with broth, a small cut of meat, and a few vegetables stacked on top. Dishes were about 700 to 900 JPY. The meal was simple yet delicious and filling.
Suminoyu Ryokan was similar Matsuya in many ways, thought it is a bit larger and a little more modern.
The room we stayed in was a little larger and had its own toilet. And rather than being in the basement, the public baths for the hotel are on the top floor. In addition to an indoor bath for soaking, there is also a smaller, outdoor one that looks out over the town and valley.
Both traditional dinner and transitional breakfast are included in the room charge, though Suminoyu served meals at western-style dining tables (seated in chairs) rather than seated on the floor.
Wearing a Yukata
One important aspect of staying in ryokan (especially in a little onsen town) is the traditional dress. A ryokan will provide you with a Japanese-style robe and belt called a Yukata.
It is fairly self explanatory to put on. The only important detail to remember is that the left side crosses over on top of the right side. Women should tie the belt around the waist with the knot in the front, to the side. Men should tie the belt a bit lower, around the hips, with the knot more toward the back.
There is a outer shirt which is optionally worn over the inner robe. Both ryokan we stayed at also provided a thicker, insulated outer layer in the lobby for wear in cooler weather. Near the door the ryokan will have traditional Japanese sandals (called geta).
Though it can feel a bit awkward at first, it is perfectly acceptable to wear this robe as your clothing when walking around the hotel or going outside to visit the onsen. (I would recommend changing into more normal street wear for longer walks between neighborhoods or to go visit snow monkeys).
Since we had already visited the snow monkeys, we took the next day a bit slower. After taking a nap after breakfast, we walked about 1.2 kilometers to the Daihiden Temple.
Daihiden Temple is located about 1.2 kilometers back towards the Yudanaka train station. It is easily found by following the main street of Shibu Onsen back in the direction of the station. The temple is home to a 25 meter tall female Buddha stature, built in the aftermath for World War II as a symbol for world peace. The top of the statue is easily seen from the road and from the courtyard outside of the temple, but I would recommend going inside the main temple building for a look around. Admittance is 200 JPY per person. (If you’ve started collecting stamps from temples, you can also pay 300 JPY at the entrance for a stamp in your book.)
You start in the main hall, which has a shrine hosting a smaller version of the statue that is located outside. There is also a large drum that you can give a big “thump” in order to bring good luck. Note that this isn’t a major tourist destination, so there is very little English text available. However, at the time we were there, one of the staff of the temple did his best to explain with gestures and pointing to images (and a tiny bit of English) the significance of what we were seeing. Facts such as that this is the 3rd largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan.
On the right side of the main hall there is a hallway that will take you to a room located under the large bronze statue. This room contains small versions of 33 different statues that come from 33 different temples around Japan. As visiting temples is supposed to bring positive karma, the idea is that a visitor to this temple can gather some of that karma by proxy through these 33 different Buddhas. Circle the room counter-clockwise. You can gently ring the bell in front of each station and say a prayer or pay respect in which ever way you are accustomed to.
From here, go down one floor and through a narrow hallway with low ceilings. At the far end there is a statue of Amitabha Buddha. Continue around the hallway and back to the second floor, then proceed up the stairs in the center. This will take you to the elevated platform which hosts the large bronze statue, giving an even better view of the statue and its construction.
At the front of the statue there is some calligraphy. Patting the three different characters (right to left) and then running your hand over the inscription of on the left, is said to bring good fortune. If you’re unsure of which characters to touch, they will be the ones that have been polished by the hands of other visitors.
Soba Noodles for Lunch
We at lunch on the way back to our accommodations, this time having soba noodles at Tamagawa.
Much like the ramen place, this restaurant has a simple menu of noodle dishes. English menus with pictures are available. Dishes were in the same price range, from 700 to 900 JPY. The food was delicious. This restaurant also serves desert (but only if taken as part of a meal).
We spent the remainder of the day exploring the little shops in Shibu Onsen. We purchased a box of buns with various stuffings to snack on during the 3 hour train ride back to Nagoya. Before dinner we visited a few more of the baths in town.
Numbers 4 and 5 were our favorite. As they were not located on the main street they tended to not be as crowded and overly used. Number 9, as it was the only one that could be used by day visitors, was the largest and the most crowded.
I did manage to visit all nine of the baths in Shibu. In order to keep track of your progress, the ryokan (and many of the gift shops) sell a towel which lists all of the public baths. Each bath has two stamps that you place on your towel after you visit (self-service, honor system). Be sure to find a completed towel on display (most likely posted somewhere in the lobby of your ryokan) to understand where to place each stamp. Note that the baths are listed on the towel from 1 through 9 (right to left), except for the larger text in the middle, which I will explain below.
After visiting all 9 baths, go to the Takayakushi Temple. It is at the top of the long stairs across the street from bath number 9. The last stamp can be found at this temple and goes to the item in the middle of the commemorative towel. Visiting all 9 baths and the temple is said to bring divine favors.
Other Notes on Logistics
A few other miscellaneous notes on Shibu Onsen.
There are a number of little souvenirs and bakeries located around Shibu Onsen, and no shortage of opportunities to buy souvenirs or Japanese treats. The hours can be a little unpredictable: shops close for lunch, may close early in the evening or late, and some days may not open at all. If you don’t have much time remaining during your stay and you see a shop that looks interesting to you, it is better to go while you know it is open.
Similar to the little shops, restaurants work limited hours. Your hotel can provide a list of restaurants and the days/hours they are open.
Cash and ATMs
Stores and restaurants generally only accept cash. The ryokans we stayed at also accepted cash only (even if you provided a credit card at the time of booking.) There is a single ATM located in Shibu Onsen next to the post office. It would be wise to make sure you have enough cash with you before you go to pay for accommodations, meals, tickets, and some shopping.
Hot Springs are Hot
The water used to feed the public baths is incredibly hot and there is no effort made to protect yourself from your own carelessness in these baths. Be sure to test the water before entering, and use the cold water taps to cool the bath if it is too hot for comfort. (Just make sure to turn off the cold tap before you leave.) Be sure to drink lots of water as well.
If you have any tattoos, they must be covered up when in a public bath.