After a fantastic morning at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park Mr A and I headed back to Shibu Onsen, a well-known Japanese spa town. This means that as well as our ryokan Senshinkan Matsuya having a private onsen, there are also 11 public ones in the town.
These onsens are used by both locals, for their daily bathing needs, and visiting tourists.
Shibu’s fame began in 1303, when priests from the temples in Kyoto discovered the healing effects of its hot springs. Since then the town has attracted visitors from all over the world. The water in each onsen is said to help particular ailments, ranging from common coughs and colds to gout.
Unlike in some Japanese ryokans, the onsens aren’t fancy. They are quite simple, either wooden or tiled rooms. Our ryokan host told us that certain ones are considered the ‘fun’ ones, where you’ll always get some good gossip.
In the evening, before our delicious kaiseki meal, we tried out three of the baths. We were a little nervous at first about using public ones, but once you understand the routine it’s pretty straightforward.
How to use a Japanese onsen
- The baths are divided into male and female, so make sure you get the right one for starters!
- In Shibu Onsen local ryokan guests are given a free master key which unlocks all of the bathhouse doors. Visitors to the town can also access the key at the tourist information centre for a small charge.
- Once you’ve unlocked the main door you’ll enter a small changing room. This is a good way to spot if anyone else is using the baths, as you’ll see their clothes.
- In the changing room remove all of your clothing and leave it in the lockers/shelves.
- Go through the second door into the onsen. Sit on one of the stools around the edge of the bath to wash yourself thoroughly with the provided bucket. This is the important one. Do not get into the main bath without washing first.
- Then, once you’re thoroughly clean, sink into the communal bath and relax! (Beware, in Shibu the water is very hot and can be up to 40C. It is possible to add water from a cold tap, but make sure you ask permission from anyone else bathing.)
A real insight into Japanese life
Although we felt a little self-conscious about using the locals’ baths, we found the whole experience really enjoyable. Like many things in Japan, I love observing the simple rituals and it was nice to see the town’s residents using the onsen as part of their daily routine. Because the town is very tourist-friendly we didn’t feel unwelcome in the baths. The locals are used to seeing strangers in them, so hopefully they forgave any mistakes we made!
As night drew in we enjoyed the feeling of stepping out of the boiling hot baths into the cool mountain air. We found it funny that tourists are encouraged to walk through the paved streets in their yukatas (a cotton kimono, which is kind of like a dressing gown) and geta (traditional footwear which is kind of a cross between flip flops and clogs) which are provided by the ryokans.
After an amazing dinner at Senshinkan Matsuya Mr A and I headed back outside to try another three baths, comparing notes about which was our favourite as we met up after each one. We even got up early the next morning to sneak in a quick bathe before breakfast. Finally, we enjoyed a last soak in an outdoor footbath before check out.
Shibu Onsen was a special place to us, as it was the first stop on our honeymoon in Japan which introduced us to the traditional elements of Japanese culture, from the wonderful ryokan we stayed in to the art of the onsen. Turns out it was just a taster of what was to come!