In Japan, there are several onsen towns, but the small Shibu Onsen still retains that charm of the past, with its wooden houses and cobbled streets, where you can stroll wearing geta and yukata while you go to soaking from one onsen to another.
If we add that the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, the park of the monkeys soaking in the onsen, is about twenty minutes away on foot, we can say that Shibu Onsen comes straight out of an enchanted mountain!
Located in Nagano prefecture and surrounded by the Japanese Alps, Shibu Onsen is a onsen destination with a history of 1,300 years, also frequented in the past by pilgrims who visited the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, and still today there are several ryokans and buildings over 400 years old.
Strolling through the streets of Shibu Onsen, especially in the evening, really gives the impression of walking in a Japan of yesteryear, in atmospheres similar to those of the villages along the Kiso valley.
Another reason for choosing to overnight at Shibu Onsen is to have free access to 9 public onsen in the city, each with different healing properties.
These onsen are very simple and spartan, divided by gender and small in size. There are no showers, hairdryers or other amenities, but only baskets to store clothes and a tub of hot water to immerse yourself in. To access the onsen (except one) you will need a key, owned only by residents and give to the guests of Shibu Onsen ryokans and facilities.
Shibu Onsen’s most famous ryokan is Kanaguya, one of the various ryokans that inspired Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but there are also many other options at more affordable prices. For example, we chose to stay overnight at the Suminoyu Ryokan, opting the half board option with exquisite traditional local cuisine. If you prefer, there are also a couple of restaurants in the town where you can dine and it is not necessary to choose the dinner option in the ryokan and saving some money.
The best time to visit Shibu Onsen and Jigokudani monkey park is winter, when snow covers the landscape making everything even more magical, and the low temperatures are a pleasant contrast to the warm thermal waters. However, summer is also very enjoyable, with cooler temperatures than the heat of Japanese cities and with newborn baby monkeys.
Onsen meguri – the Onsen hopping of the 9 healing hot springs
After checking in and leaving the small suitcase in my tatami room, I wear the yukata and geta, the traditional wooden shoes, take my big key and leave the Ryokan to find myself in a village of other times, with wooden buildings and cobbled streets, ready to my “meguri onsen” and immerse myself in the hot thermal waters of Shibu Onsen.
There are 9 hot springs in this onsen town in the Nagano Alps, each with different healing properties and you can access them for free with the key that is provided by the ryokans in the area.
It is also possible to collect the “Goshuin” of the onsen, the red seals that usually certified the visit to the various temples during pilgrimages. At Shibu Onsen you can buy special towel to collect them and outside every public bath there is the red stencil to put on it. It seems that collecting the 9 stamps + that of the Takayakushi Shrine, brings good luck and long life. Of course, I get one and start my onsen tour.
The onsen are small and spartan, the changing room is very small, there is a maximum of 3 people. I take off my clothes and put them in one of the baskets before entering the tub area. There are no showers and so I rinse myself by taking the water from the tub with a basin. It is really hot! Luckily there is the possibility to open the cold water tap to mix the water, you just have to remember to close it when you leave.
I immerse myself for a few minutes, just long enough to relax for a moment and let the thermal minerals act. 5 minutes maximum, then it’s best to go outside, drink some water, breathe some fresh air outside the public bathroom and head to the next onsen.
The 9 onsen have different characteristics, not only in terms of minerals and healing properties, but also in the style of the tubs: some are wooden, others tiled. The temperature and color of the thermal water also change and it is pleasant to feel the various sensations that the combination of the various elements causes on our body.
1. Hatsu-yu: for intestinal and stomach problems. It is the first onsen connected to the spring, with pure water, and it is also possible to drink it …. of course, be careful because it is hot! You could put it in a small bottle and drink it once it has cooled down.
2. Sasa-no-yu: great for the skin, but it’s the hottest ever and it’s virtually impossible to dive without adding cold water
3. Wata-no-yu: like the previous one it is very very hot and also linked to the epidermis, especially indicated for treating acne and scars
4. Take-no-yu: indicated against gout, the bathtub is made of wood and extremely relaxing!
5. Matsu-no-yu: this too with a beautiful wooden tub, is particularly suitable for neuralgia problems
6. Mearai-no-yu: the one with the best temperature for me, for eye problems, and it is recommended to bathe your eyes with this thermal water.
7. Nanakuri-no-yu: is indicated for watching injuries
8. Shinmeidaki-no-yu: contains minerals useful for gynecological problems and help female health.
9. Ooyu-no-yu: the largest and the only one open to all (even day visitors can access it by paying an entrance fee of 500 yen), excellent for fighting rheumatism and rich in iron.
All onsen are accessible to those who stay overnight in Shibu Onsen thanks to the key provided from 06.00 to 22.00, while during the night they are accessible only to residents (who also have the key).
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