Japan: Shibu Onsen

I finally came back to Japan. Some people ask me why I went there again, I already been there in 2017 and it’s not like it is a one hour, 100$ flight. But my answer is – why not? Japan is so big and full of places, it is impossible to see everything in just one trip.

And Shibu Onsen is one of those places. Honestly, I think this is probably one of the most beautiful places I have been to. At least in my Top 5 for sure.  I would recommend it to anyone.  So, some facts here and there.

 Shibu Onsen

Shibu Onsen is a historic and beautiful small hot spring town in Yamanouchi, which has retained a traditional atmosphere. Located in a small valley, Shibu Onsen is close to famous Jigokudani Monkey Park or more commonly know as a Snow Monkey Park.

Town itself is very small, just couple narrow streets, lined with ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), some of them dating back 400 years, and hot spring baths. It has 9 public baths, which could be visited only by locals or by guests staying overnight in one of the inns. The baths are locked, expect for one, and master key is provided by your ryokan.

The bath houses are small and simple, but also have special names and state that they can cure different ailments. Ryokan would provide you with yukata robes and geta wooden sandals. Be aware – it’s not that easy to walk on cobblestone with them!

Bath Houses

Bath houses or onsen in Japanese are hot springs and bathing facilities. There are approximately 25,000 hot spring sources throughout Japan, and approximately 3,000 onsen establishments use naturally hot water from these geothermally heated springs. One must be familiar with proper etiquette before going to onsen.

Most of the baths are gender separate (unless you have booked a private one). All guests are expected to wash and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water. It might slightly vary form onsen to onsen, but in Shibu onsen you must wash yourself with a bucket of water from the bath while sitting on a wooden stool or another bucket. Swimsuits are strictly forbidden, as well as tattoos in most onsen. Luckily in Shibu Onsen, they actually allow people with tattoos to go to bathhouse.

It is said that good fortune comes to those who visit all nine bath houses. You can buy a special towel at your inn for collecting stamps from each bath house and make nice souvenir. The stamps are found in front of each bath house. Though it was a bit tricky for us to understand which kanji was for which bath house. 🙂 Since water in onsen is very hot, and you cannot be there for very long it is quite possible to cover all 9 baths in one evening.

Getting there

From Tokyo take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station, then make the switch to the Nagano Dentetsu Nagano Line to Yudanaka Station. Nagano Dentetsu line is not covered by JR Pass, you will have to buy a separate ticket at a train station, be sure to select a Limited Express train.  This entire journey takes a little over three hours. From Yudanaka station it would be best to arrange a pickup with your hotel or ryokan.


As I mentioned before, this is a perfect place to stay at a traditional ryokan. We stayed at Shibu Onsen Koishiya Ryokan . Service and hospitality were lovely. They provide a free pickup from Yudanaka station, as well as free shuttle to Snow Monkey Park. You can even book a private onsen at this ryokan.

Or you might try your luck and try to book most famous ryokan there Shinise Ryokan ‘Kanaguya’, which was one of the inspirations for Hayao Miyazaki “Spirited away”. But as far as we checked it was booked year in advance.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

I think most of us saw at least one picture of snow-covered monkey enjoying a hot spring. The Snow Monkey Park was established in 1964 as a facility where wild Japanese macaques can be observed in an environment without fences or cages.

They live in the surrounding mountains, but come down for the free meals provided by park staff. December to March is usually the best time to witness them bathing, but we were there mid-November, and still saw plenty of monkeys.

The baby monkeys now live rent free in my head forever.

Monkeys are used to humans being around, so you will be able to get photos, but you will usually be completely ignored, unless you walk too close to them with your umbrella, then you might get an occasional side eye. Still, you should follow park rules, do not feed monkeys, do not get too close to them and do not stare them directly into the eyes.

Shibu Onsen is a must-see if you are looking to experience a more traditional side of Japan or just to relax and unwind, especially towards the end of your trip in Japan.

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