Tomoe, Mona and I just got back from a night in the famous Yudanaka/Shibuonsen hot-spring area – home to the famous hot-spring monkeys. Thanks to the earthquake in our village, several inns in the nearby Nagano area have been offering Sakae Mura residents free packages to show their support through our hardships. This time was at one of the many tacky, ugly hotels that line the streets and clutter the skyline of what was once presumably a very nice hot-pring resort.
We were under whelmed with our stay this time, and certainly would not recommend the ryokan to anyone except any budget bike tourists who need a cheap bath (see below).
The food was “normal”, the rooms were “normal”, and while the bath was quite nice, it was advertised as open 24 hours, but we found out the next morning that those 24 hours exclude a few hours after breakfast - just when Tomoe had been looking forward to soaking for an hour while I nap in the room with Mona being baby-sat by the TV.
It was just as well that the bath was closed. I was horrified to find that, while we were down in the dining area trying to find some way to justify waking up early simply to eat the unspectacular breakfast, there was someone up in our room taking away the (admittedly cozier-than-home) futons I had been looking forward to napping in!
We reluctantly checked out earlier than planned and took a short walk around the area, knowing full well there was nothing to see, but wanted to feel like we had taken full advantage of the opportunity. We had planned to walk further, but decided to use the time to run errands on the way home instead.
Looking on the bright side though, the room did have a TV. Assuming the bath really was open all night, it would have been a good opportunity to use it as a family bath, as there were only two other small groups of elderly customers that night who would all be in bed by nine so we would have the bath to ourselves. We discussed it, but in the end having a TV in the room won out and we stayed up until mid-night watching the boob tube and catching up on everything we had been missing about modern Japanese culture.
I guess I can’t be to hard on the ryokan. After all, the only thing they really could offer us that we don’t already have at home was the TV and a non-cluttered room. (the room was cluttered very soon after our arrival though)
For one thing, it is hard to be more than underwhelmed by the meals when we are used to Tomoe’s amazing, fresh, natural, home-cooking every day. This inn, like most large ryokan catering to package tours, was geared toward “the masses” – busloads of non-discerning silvers on package tours who are there because they were taken in by a JTB flyer or just want to make their friends jealous that they spent the weekend at a famous hot-spring area.
There is really no incentive for them to put any effort and investment into the food and they can’t be blamed for simply serving chemically-flavored “traditional” ryokan meal that everyone would expect and that you can see in any JTB flier, and maybe we shouldn’t blame them for piss-poor rice, despite being located in the country-side so close to local fresh rice.
So to wrap up, highlights were a slightly more comfy futon and TV. Aside from the TV, mona seemed to also enjoy the foot baths, sitting in a chair while eating (at home she stands or sits on the floor), and she liked the slide in a nearby park.
Beyond the cynicism
This post got a bit out of control and turned into what could be a poorly organized page from a future Japan bike touring guide. Note that I am not an expert in Yudanaka nor have I checked out many of the inns or restaurants there. I am, however, quite familiar with the area.
Yudanaka/Shibu-onsen can actually be a nice place to stop by. So here are a few tips if you happen to be the kind of traveler that we are.
If you are touring Japan by bike, with a tent, and on a strict budget, Yudanaka/Shibu-onsen is a good stop. One, it is not too far from Nagano. I generally don’t like camping in large urban areas, and Nagano city does not have much in the way of in-town baths. Most of the attractions and baths are on the outskirts. Shibu-onsen is one of them, and it is an excellent stopping off point before going further either over the Shiga-kogen, or along the Chikuma river.
Keep in mind that most of the baths the area is famous for are reserved for people staying in the rather pricy inns. If you stay at an inn, you will recieve a key that will let you into any of the baths. If you would rather camp (recommended) you can either use the main bath in downtown Shibu until 4pm (tickets purchased at local information booth), or try to find a larger inn that offers higaeri (bath only). Yukariso, the ryokan we stayed at, cost only 500 yen for a bath and had a nice loby to chill out in if it happens to be raining or cold outside.
Even if it is raining, you can keep yourselves and your gear dry by pitching tent in a small park in the nearby river. There is a large roof with picnic tables that I have never seen being used. You can also pitch tent under the bridge to stay out of sight and out of the elements.
If you are planning to see the monkeys, and don’t care to take a walk through the little village, or eat at a local izakaya or ramen shop, you can just ride right up to Jigokudani where the “wild” monkeys come every morning to be fed. I don’t know how much or until what time, but the interesting rustic inn up there offers a bath without staying the night, and you may get the added bonus of some other primate guests joining you.
There is a small parking lot at the end of the road and tucked just a few meters into the forest behind this parking lot is a little building with some flat, out-of-sight space to pitch a tent. Be careful with food, however, because the monkeys can be quite agressive and scary.
I recommend pitching tent down in Shibu, however. While not exactly beautiful, there are two or three small streets in the area that can be nice to walk through at night depending on the season (when I was there last night it was a gohst town) and a foot-bath or two to sit and relax. There is a Lawson near Yudanaka station that is open 24-7, and a foot bath right across the street. While it is against the rules, and bad manners, a cold beer while you soak a long days ride out of your feet can be quite relaxing.
If you choose to stay in an inn, there is one or two I know of in the 4-5,000 range (can’t remember any names) without meals, but that is still overpriced if you happen to have a tent and sleeping bag. If you are looking for some English help, the defacto English liaison for the area is Craig, from Ryokan Biyu. His inn also offers lots of cultural experience activities like for foreigners. I have never stayed there or eaten there myself, but they certainly put a lot more effort into providing a high-quality experience than the place I stayed. They may even offer use of bath only, but I am not sure.
If you have the budget, and are looking for something a little more small and traditional than Craig’s place, I recommend Matsuya Ryokan. I have found them to be extremely friendly and willing and accommodating to my foreign guests, despite a slight language barrier. If they are not too busy they will even give you a lift up to the monkey park.
Anyway, if you are touring Japan the way it should be toured (by bike), you will want to know where to go next. From here you are in prime location to ride over the Shiga Kogen to Nozawa Hot-spring, Akiyamago, Sakae Mura (my home), or Kusatsu Hot-spring. All are difficult rides over some mountainous/hilly terrain, but if you leave early enough it should be possible in one day.
All these destinations are much less touristy and more scenic than Yudanaka, so if your time is limited, I suggest making Yudanaka simply a stop-over and hitting the road as soon as possible in the morning.