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Cherry blossom flowers in Shibu Onsen

Snow monkeys, hot springs and Shibu Onsen

Because we have been having such a hard, difficult, ascetic kinda life, it was time for a bit of decadence in the last weeks before facing home. A ryokan – old school traditional Japanese inn – offering kaiseki – haut cuisine – dinners and breakfast, and with our own outdoor private natural onsen, in one of the finest little traditional hot spring villages in Japan, might just do. This is the most expensive place either of us has ever stayed in, at over £300 a night – plenty of places we stayed were almost a tenth of that. But – gotta do it.

And yes, it was utterly wonderful. A huge, light, tatami matted room, for sitting and relaxing during the day, and set up as a bedroom with mattress on the floor at night while dining. A beautiful tiny outdoor pool and garden, fed by the hot springs running below the hotel. Delicious food, of many tiny and amazing things. An elegant, old school dark wood hotel, with utterly lovely staff who anticipated every need – one of them was possibly the only person in Japan studying Brazilian Portuguese.

The town of Shibu Onsen is – unsurprisingly – known for its onsens; you hear the hot springs gushing under every street of the town, feeding the various hand baths and foot baths available for public use. But we had a special treat: because we were staying in one of the ryokan, we had access to the 9 onsens that can only be accessed by locals and ryokan guests. So we did the full onsen tour – each of the onsen is meant to treat a different ailment, from gout to neuralgia (one was for unspecific “women’s issues” – apparently for the men’s side as well?) Doing all nine is said to bring good luck. It certainly brings wealth to those who sell the souvenir towels that you can stamp each of the onsen (yes, I got the towel and all 9 stamps. Call me tourist). All onsens except the last were empty, so V could use them despite her tattoos (and I could take pictures).

We even did the correct thing of walking between the onsens through the town wearing the yukata provided by the hotel. I also attempted to wear the geta sandals they provided – but quickly reverted to the regular sandals. I never thought I’d prefer high heels to any other footwear – but these geta are even more hideously uncomfortable and difficult to walk in. The two high wooden elevating bits, are both partway down your foot – so instead of ground contact being heel and toe, you are wobbling on a midway platform, with back and front both likely to tilt unexpectedly. I couldn’t imagine any practical use, other than hobbling people, but Wikipedia assures me that they’re useful if you want to avoid fish scraps on the floor. Possibly the only Japanese design fail so far. However, I deeply approve the ‘ninja socks’ – or tabi, as they’re more formally named; an innovation from 15th century Japan (rather than being a 21st century Brazilian flip flop wearers invention, as I’d thought)

Even getting to the town was lovely – there’s a private railway with special panoramic windows to admire the many miles of sakura and snow covered mountains – this is the alpine region of Japan, famous for skiing.

Also known for its sakura, which was perfectly in full bloom – a bit later than most areas nearby, being higher altitude.

It’s also famous for its onsen-loving snow monkeys. You’ve probably seen the classic pictures of them on a snowy day, blissfully lying back in a steaming hot spring, as red-faced and relaxed as meself. Well, the snow had melted and monkeys were unlikely to bathe, but we figured we’d go to the snow monkey park anyway, despite having low expectations from the reviews. But yes, overall, it was a bit grim. A lovely half hour walk to get there through mountain forests – though if you don’t like walking, tough: the car/bus park is a long way from the monkey area, and no motorized options. But the area where the monkeys hang out and bathe, is very artificial – fake pools, fake rocks held in place by wire net, and a couple of fake-looking logs; really strange, given the natural area around is lovely, and that Japan normally does this kind of thing much better. There’s even a keeper, who periodically blows a whistle and scatters grains, to get the monkeys to come to the area. The monkeys themselves were lovely – much more relaxed than the ones in Bali, possibly due to the onsens. They paid no attention at all to the people around and did their thing; one of them even went into the water briefly, to everyone’s delight.