I figured I should finish writing about my last year’s Japan trip before I embark on this year’s one which is possibly in about 2 weeks time. So following my last post about Ryori Ryokan Hanaoka in Takayama, it’s time to talk about my highlight of the trip (and also the most expensive stay for a very long time…) in Shibu Onsen.
Shibu Onsen is a small but very traditional onsen (hot spring) town in the mountainous regions of Yamanouchi. Nestled in a valley next to Yokoyugawa River and just below the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (they were featured in the highly acclaimed BBC series Planet Earth), it’s home to many ryokans (Japanese style inns) with many dating back 400 years. Many people pass through this town on their way to the Monkey Park but of course, many (like ourselves) also stay here for the spa and relaxation that they’re known for.
I actually made a big mistake when I planned my itinerary as I wanted to travel directly from Takayama to Shibu Onsen. I initially planned to take a highway bus from Takayama which goes through the Alpine Route (through the scenic mountains) to Matsumoto and then take a train to Nagano and then on to Shibu Onsen via a local train. The whole trip was going to take me roughly 6 hours including waiting time. However, I realised when I got there that the highway bus was not included in the JR Pass and would cost about $70AUD per person extra. Why would I do that when I already paid a whole heap for the JR Pass? So off we went from Takayama JR Station back to Nagoya Station and then changed lines to Nagano. From Nagano was another 45min train ride to Yudanaka Station. The trip took an extra 2 hours and we were so exhausted.
From Yudanaka Station we could have called our hotel to pick us up but we didn’t know they had this service so we took a 5min taxi ride to Shibu Onsen instead. We arrived at the hotel just in time for a quick rest and then dinner.
We stayed at I believe was the only ryokan that had private room onsens in the Shibu area called Kokuya Ryokan. It has been serving guests with first class meals and accommodation while keeping pure hot spring water in their hot springs for 400 years.
Like the hotel itself, the management heritage also dates back that long with the current master being the 16th generation. She was a lovely and helpful person along with the few staff we met during our stay and of course, we could feel the utmost professionalism and experience.
The ryokan was very large, a lot larger than most places we stayed at during the trip. It was also very foreigner friendly with many pamphlets and information at the front lobby area in English and English speaking staff. The lobby was very nicely decorated and made it feel comfortable and traditional at the same time.
There were so many winding corridors and stairs that I got lost a few times going to my room, even on the second day. I’m not the best with directions as Yuye knows…at least there was surprise onsen finds around every corner.
The stay certainly took a chunk out of my wallet at $500AUD a night for 2 people (we stayed 2 nights, ouch) and this was at a big discount. I booked through Zeno’s site for free and the initial room was meant to be Sakura (2nd floor) but we got upgraded to the Kisoji Room at no extra charge. In fact, if you go into their Japanese site, you can view room plans for each room.
After the wonderful time, I can say it was really well worth it. The reason for the price was because I had booked a room with a private onsen. It’s the best thing I could have done on the trip as it was such an eye opener and so intimate and relaxing that it had me creating plans for my dream home (with an onsen of course)!
It was a very spacious room at 8 tatami mats (Japanese buildings are measured in number of tatami mats), although I felt it was bigger. It also had a massive plasma TV and every facility you can think of including a kotatsu table (Japanese heated table mentioned here) high speed internet, lockable safe, fridge, hot and icy water (the best after onsen!), coffee maker, green tea, snacks and lots more.
I loved the separate powder area for me which was great after a hot onsen. We never even used the second set of seats and coffee table as the kotatsu was comfortable enough for us.
The toilet was just beside the front entrance and is reasonably simple. When I first walked in I thought, hey where’s the bathroom! But as I thought about it, why would you want a separate bathroom with shower when you’ve got an open air hot spring attached to the room with its own shower there? I’m so silly.
And here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for…*drum rolls*…my private onsen!
The backdoor opened out onto a small but very cosy little onsen with very hot water out in the open. However, there were bamboo/trees and rocks all around so no one could see into it. There was also somewhat of a roof above so snow and dirty things couldn’t fall into the onsen. I took these photos the next morning as when we arrived, it was way too dark for photos.
The shower bit was right next to the onsen. If you were wondering, yes, it was very cold. As such, we didn’t dare to shower there as it’s custom to shower before you enter any onsens so not to make it dirty. Showering before warming up in the hot onsen would have been suicide. Instead, we showered in the other onsens in the building beforehand.
Isn’t it just so natural and serene? I felt so spiritually cleansed after this experience. I didn’t know when I was onsening but the part beyond the bamboo fence was also part of our room! A door slid open from the room inside out onto a little garden with a pond. During non-winter months, carps can be seen in the pond but going in winter has a different feeling altogether with the snow gathered in tree branches.
As it had snowed the day before, there was still snow left on the leaves and roofs of the buildings next door. It was so beautiful I had never experienced anything more calming than this.
The other onsens
In the hotel
I didn’t mention this before but due to the great Japan earthquake of 2011, hardly anyone wanted to travel. When I booked my room at Kokuya a few months earlier, I was told most of the rooms were already booked out. As it turned out when I arrived, they had in fact only 2 couples on our first night (including ourselves) and on the second night, it was ONLY US! So, as they had 8 other onsens indoors available for guests, we were told they could all be used as private onsens as long as we put our slippers by the door when we go in. Lucky us! If you travelled there during any other times, the onsens would have turned into male/female only during certain periods of the day and definitely wouldn’t have been as quiet as our stay.
We actually tried every single onsen in the hotel on the first night. We were that keen. Although we only managed to stay in each one for a few minutes. Due to this, we really didn’t even need an onsen in our room! We had an equivalent of 9 private onsens to ourselves. Some onsens were quite small and only would fit a handful of people but some were fairly large.
Our favourite onsen would have to be this large open air one where we sat in the hot water out in the open and as it was snowing at the time, cold and refreshing snow was falling on my face when I looked up. It was the best feeling I had in a long time. Wish it snowed back in Melbourne…
Outside on the streets
Shibu Onsen is also famous for its public bath houses on the streets. There are 9 public bath houses in total, but 8 of them are only available for overnight guests. Guests are provided with a master key that they can use to enter and there are special clothes and stamps for each one so that they can be collected and kept as a nice souvenir. The 9th and largest bath house is available for day guests as well.
It is said that good luck comes to those who tried all 9 (these are numbered) and obtain all 9 stamps which we didn’t have time to do. Come on, we only had less than 2 days and to try 8 + 9 + 1 = 18 onsens in total would have made us huge prunes! It was a shame but I’ll have to save the public ones for my next visit. We also passed a little foot bath place outside which are good after a long day of walking (to the snow monkey park and back, boy, that really needed a good foot bath!).
The food – woohoo!
As we stayed for 2 nights, we had 4 meals in total. Each meal had over 10 courses so it’ll be way too long to try and fit them in the same post so I will just write about day 1 for now.
Dinner on day 1
As the hotel was huge, we were led by a kind old lady to the dining area.
There were both private screened rooms and tables out in the open. As there were only 2 couples, we were given a private room.
Dinner consisted of an 11 course typical kaiseki meal with a modern twist. This is not including rice. We were provided with a printed menu listing all the dish names (which was awesome for me so I don’t have to frantically write things down).
Course 1: Seasonal vegetables with sesame dressing. This dish was a cold entree consisting of bamboo shoots, carrots and spring onions and was refreshing and not overpowering with taste.
Course 2: Red salmon sashimi with vinegar-ed miso. The salmon was very fresh. As Shibu Onsen is no where near the ocean, all seafood would have been flown in from the seaside (probably to the north). They’ve done a good job at keeping the seafood as fresh as possible. I would have been happy with just some soy sauce with the sashimi though.
Course 3: Pan of local chicken and vegetables in soy bean milk. This dish was a perfect winter warmer. Yuye and I had a seafood pot in Masuya, Sydney before which was also cooked with soy milk and we loved that so this dish was also loved by the both of us. Soy milk goes so well with meat and seafood alike and should really be included more in cooking (rather than just drinking).
I left this dish to cook for quite some time as I was busy taking photos of and tasting the other dishes. As a result, my soup dried up a little, although it made the soup even more tasty and thick.
Course 4: Broiled red salmon with scrambled eggs. Not my favourite dish of the day, I generally like my salmon raw so I found this fish a little dry, although not bad by any means. It was a little more bland compared to the other dishes though.
Course 5: Spinach potage with grilled sea bream. I loved the texture combination on this dish as the fried lotus root and potato was very crispy compared to the tender and juicy sea bream and the creamy spinach potage. It was a light, tasty and beautifully presented dish which I thought was very modern and perhaps had a French twist as well.
Course 6: Lily root dumpling with minced pork and starchy sauce. Instead of a dumpling, it was more like a hot mochi ball as the dumpling was slightly sticky on the outside. I liked the texture and the clean taste of the dumping and the soup.
The inside was of course filled with minced pork. It was so tasty.
Course 7: Spring roll – deep frying wrapped shrimp and scallop with thin wheat flour. The presentation on all of the dishes, especially this one, couldn’t be faulted. No dipping sauce was provided for this dish, however, a little bit of salt was given to give it more flavour if you so wished. This dish tasted a bit average.
Course 8: Hot soba noodles. You can’t imagine how full I was by this stage. I always struggle with the noodle/rice dishes as it’s really just so much food to eat at once! It was however, very beautiful and warming with a clean soy broth and perfectly cooked soba noodles.
Course 9: Vegetable pickles. Pickles are always provided when there’s rice. I liked the pickles in Takayama and Shirakawago more as that was a specialty of theirs but these ones weren’t bad either.
Course 10: Soup with vegetables. The soup was very clean and refreshing. It consisted of mushrooms and greens in a clear broth. It takes a lot of effort to get the soup that clear I think.
Course 11: Strawberry Bavarian dessert. This was a welcomed change from all the savoury dishes we just had and it was very nice as well. Although I would have preferred a slightly more Japanese end to the evening – such as maybe some form of green tea dessert or black sesame? Nevertheless, I enjoyed this dish.
Breakfast on day 2
Breakfast was yet again a huge feast. At a whopping 10 courses not including rice, I didn’t know how I was going to finish my food!
Course 1: This dish was meant to be boiled rape blossoms seasoned with soy sauce but it was really just a boiled broccoli/broccolini salad.
Course 2: Slice of yam with local miso. This dish was a bit sticky as yam usually is, but it was tasty when mixed with the miso.
Course 3: Broiled salmon. This was a very simple dish with some pickles and a sticky and sour sauce in the bowl. I love salmon, although like I mentioned earlier, I do like my salmon raw, or at least not as cooked.
Course 4: Vegetable salad. This dish is somewhat western as it appears on the menus at most hotels and I’ve also seen it a few times for breakfast at ryokans. It consisted of cabbage, carrot, corn with a mayonnaise sauce and the tomato and broccoli on the side.
Course 5: Cooked chicken and vegetable. This is a stewed dish with chicken, bamboo, shiitake, tofu, carrot and yam. This dish always appears somewhere on the menu because it’s very warm and delicious.
Course 6: Half boiled egg, boiled in Kokuya’s hot spring, or also known as onsen tamago (onsen eggs). This was soooo good.
The eggs are actually by the front entrance in a little basket with hot spring water constantly running through the eggs. We bought a few to snack on in the evening as well.
It goes best with a bowl of rice and a bit of soy sauce. The yolk is broken over the rice. I love watching the yellow runny yolk flowing everywhere.
Course 7: Boiled local tofu with vegetable and chicken dumpling. This dish was more a soup than anything. It had a chicken mince ball (the dumpling) with pieces of tender tofu, spring onions and mushrooms in a clear soy broth. It certainly warmed me up!
Course 8: Miso soup – these miso soups are always delicious. Using white miso paste, spring onions and tofu, it rivaled the chicken dumpling soup above. I didn’t know I could fit in this much food!
Course 9: Vegetable pickles. Again, went well with rice but I still liked the Takayama ones better. This time it consisted of pickled cabbage and plums. I didn’t eat the plums as I thought they were too sour, gave them to Yuye instead.
Course 10: Apple juice. Apples are a local specialty (of the Shibu region and Nagano) so apple related products were in abundance. We also bought an apple jam from a local souvenir store, was so delicious. This juice was really good too, so sweet and refreshing.
After the wonderful meal (second time in a row), we headed out to see the snow monkeys. As this post has gotten way too long, I will leave that for next time but here’s a sneak peak at the kinds of things we saw on the way.
A hidden temple amongst trees and snow piles…
Of course, the Snow Monkey Park was a definite highlight and a huge hike too…didn’t help that it was snowing!
And of course, there’s 2 more meals to go!
I booked the accommodation through Zeno’s site for free as I mentioned above. Zeno’s fairly busy most of the time though, taking tourists on his special tours around the region but he will always reply you within a few days. His site has great information about the area and siteseeing as well. Alternatively, you can book through Kokuya’s own site (down below) or through www.japanican.com.
I actually just realised that one of my favourite bloggers and ex-Masterchef contestant, Billy Law at A Table For Two, also visited Shibu Onsen and stayed at Kokuya. What a pleasant surprise. Check out his beautiful photos (way better than mine) and for a different room and angle on things.
Question time: What kind of eggs do you like? Soft boiled, hard boiled? Scrambled?
My favourite is the onsen tamago cooked in a perfect temperature of I believe it was 67C. I can almost drink it.
Location: Shibu onsen street, Yamanouchi town Shimotakai-gun, Nagano Japan ZIP: 381-040