There is so much to see in Japan, for sure you will walk for miles and miles, running around from one beautiful temple to another gorgeous shrine. Traveling is exciting but can also be exhausting. Japanese Inns (ryokan) have been offering hot spring (onsen) as part of their service since the eight century A.D. A very relaxed cultural experience that will make you sleep like a baby. Sounds good, right? It is. I love it and would highly recommend it! Read all about onsen in this article.
Onsen near Snow Monkey Park
The owner of the ryokan, a short Japanese man in his late 60s, is already waiting for me when I step out of the local train in Yudanaka. By email he offered to pick me up from Yudanaka Station. Sure, why not? After a long flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo and another four hours by train via Nagano, I am totally up for a good dose of Japanese friendliness. I have got the van all to myself. Mr. drops me off at the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park and we agree what time he will pick me up again.
The owner is waiting for me at the parking lot of the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park at the agreed time and he drives us back to Yudanaka. I barely notice that we have arrived at the ryokan; I cannot read the signs and it looks like a relatively normal traditional Japanese house to me. It looks old but at least it fits with the other buildings in the street. But it is a special place; built during the Edo Period, ryokan Yudanaka Yumoto is the oldest Japanese-style inn in the Yudanaka area.
First steps into a ryokan
Stepping inside, the row of shoes on the shelf speaks for itself. I take my hiking boots off and put a pair of house slippers on. Two ladies, assuming the owner’s wife and daughter, bow deeply once they see me. The wife gestures to follow her and so I do. We walk through several tatami-matted rooms, past Shoji paper and wood room dividers and sliding doors, and I notice the big Japanese style garden outside.
The lady of the house shows me my room, which is divided into two parts. One part is the tatami area with two Japanese zaizu chairs on the ground and a low salon table. The other space includes two Western style beds. Not bad at all!
My stomach is growling. 18:00h, dinner time!! The lady of the house shows me the dinner room. One by one various little dishes are being served. A traditional Kaiseki multi-course meal, featuring regional specialties made from fresh seasonal ingredients. Tasty sashimi, sushi, shrimp, beef, tempura (fried vegetables), green tea ice cream and many other, unfamiliar ingredients and flavors are put in front of me. I try them all. Wow, I lost counting, but I am convinced I had at least ten different dishes, one even prettier than the other.
Due to the lack of carbs, never an after dinner dip in Japan!
Walking back to my room, I notice it got dark outside already. Determined to get my first onsen experience, I put on my yukata (robe) and head to the onsen inside the house. I run into a red flag with a Japanese sign on it, no idea what it says, but I decide to enter and luckily I find a changing room. I take the yukata off, rinse myself clean and step into one of the indoor baths. Very nice and warm!
After a while I step into the garden to go into the other outdoor bath. My muscles relax in the warm water. Time to think about my life.
Here I am in Japan, all by myself, watching the night sky. Soaking in serenity.
That night I slept like a baby, all rosy. Good night!
Want to experience this traditional ryokan with onsen yourself? Go for it!
- Yudanaka, Nagano Prefecture
- Twin room ¥ 8700 per night (app. EUR 64)
- Breakfast ¥ 1080, diner ¥ 4500
- Including pick up and drop off from/to train station and Snow Monkey Park
Onsen near Nakasendo trail
Long story short: I wanted to walk this Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago, an old post route between two villages from Edo time (17-19th Century) I wrote about in an earlier article. Based on my prior accommodation search I knew that especially Tsumago must be beautiful as all ancient ryokans with onsen were already sold out more than four months ahead. Alternatively, there are Magome and Nagiso. The three villages are all part of the Kiso Valley, which is on the border of two prefectures: Magome in Gifu Prefecture and Tsumago and Nagiso in Nagano Prefecture (Azuma area).
At the beginning of the trail I luckily run into this super nice couple from Israel, who offer to store my luggage in their car in Magome, walk the trail together and drop me off at my hotel. Well, done and done, then! Eventually it turned out the friendly couple is staying at the same place! My angels in disguise.
In Nagiso there are two places you should consider staying, located opposite of each other:
I check in with Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori, the more luxurious big bother of the two. I booked at room at Tokonamiso, the budget baby brother across the street. When I open the door, I already notice the shelves with rows of shoes. I know what to do! So as if I have never done anything else, I take my shoes off and put on the wooden house slippers that are already waiting for me. An older man walks up to me and bows deeply. He gestures to follow him to my room.
The door opens, an empty space. The man starts talking in Japanese to me, I have no clue what he says so all I can do is politely smile. By now he is bowing so deeply right in front of me, it starts to feel slightly embarrassing! I have never experienced anything like it. Once the man is out of sight, I wander the closets, where I find a bunch of futons, duvets and a yukata. Good!
After my bento box meal at the restaurant of Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori, I decide it is bathing time. My muscles are soar from the trail. So here we go; I put on my yukata, wooden slippers, special toe-socks and walk across the street to the onsen. Again I run into flags with Japanese signs on it, but now I understand the blue flag is for the men and the red flag is for the ladies. At this onsen, the side where the men and the side where the women have to go (left or right) switches every 12 hours so everybody can enjoy the best if both worlds.
This Fuki no Mori onsen is significantly bigger than the one I visited near the Snow Monkey Park. While soaking in the outdoor bath, looking up to the stars above, I chat a bit with this nice lady, a doctor from Sweden who is visiting Japan with her family. Now this is what I love about traveling solo. Running into interesting people you have never met before, realizing I am proud of myself doing all of this on my own and enjoying the silence in between.
Bathe, sleep, repeat
Again, I sleep like a baby that night, right on top of my big pile of futons. Like the Japanese version of the Princess and the Pea LOL The next morning I went again to the onsen, to see it also by day light.
Walking the beautiful Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago? Reward yourself with an onsen bath after the hike!
- Nagiso, Nagano Prefecture
- Traditional Japanese room with shared bathroom starting from ¥ 7000 per night for single (app. EUR 60) or ¥ 12,000 for double (app. EUR 100)
- Including use of onsen at sister hotel across the street
- Free shuttle service to/from Tsumago village and Nagiso train station
- Japanese and Western style rooms with private bathroom starting at EUR 178 per night (¥21,000)
- Breakfast ¥ 2000, basic diner option ¥ 3000 per person
- Onsen open daily 08:00h – 23:00h
- Free shuttle service to/from Tsumago village and Nagiso train station
PS: These accommodations seem to enter their availability a bit late, around 3-6 months ahead.
Other ryokans with onsen
As you may have noticed I wrote many other articles about Japan, this is actually article number 11! In earlier articles I have mentioned a bunch of other recommendations for ryokans and hotels with onsen throughout Japan:
- Fuji Onsenji Yumedono in Kawaguchiko next to Mount Fuji
- Ryokan Iwaso on Miyajima Island (near Hiroshima)
- Nikko Senhime Monogatari in Nikko
- Ryokan Nanaeyae in Nikko
- Kanaya Hotel Kinugawa in Nikko
- Ryokan Sugimoto in Matsumoto
- Takayama Ouan in Takayama
- Oyado Koto No Yume in Takayama
- Ryokan Shiroyamakan in Shirakawa
These ryokans with onsens are also very suitable for autumn and winter time! Several are near a ski slope too, like Fuki no Mori.
Onsen Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: What is a ryokan?
A:Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that are still in use, some are centuries old. Nowadays ryokans range from simple, pretty basic ryokans to fancy, luxurious ryokans, located all over Japan. Staying at a ryokan is usually a bit more expensive than a regular hotel room, but definitely worth the extra money. You will get a very special experience in return. The rooms in a ryokan are decorated in a minimalistic, typical Japanese style. Ryokans are often run by families, who are extremely polite towards their guests. Most ryokans offer food as well.
Q: What is a futon?
A: A futon is the Japanese traditional style of bedding, consisting of a thin mattress and a duvet. Both are usually stored away in a large closet during the day, so that the room can be used for other purposes. Traditionally, futons are used on tatami mat, which softens harder flooring types like wood and stone.
Q: Is swimwear allowed at an onsen?
A: No, you should undress completely before entering the onsen bathing space (unless signs tell otherwise). Who knows there is one, but traditionally it is not allowed and Japan likes its traditions.
Q: Where can I find an onsen in Tokyo?
A: Ryokan are difficult to find in Tokyo and other large cities because many are usually much more expensive compared to modern hotels and hostels. Traditional ryokan are more commonly found in rural areas (villages). Take a train out of the city and explore!
A: What is the difference between private and public onsen?
A; Public onsen means also non-hotel guests are welcome. A private onsen is for hotel guests only. Public onsen are usually bigger and busier, not rarely offering additional things like sauna and steam room. Private does not necessarily mean you have the bath all to yourself. The onsen of Yudanaka Yumoto and Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori should be considered private onsen.
Q: Do I get slippers from the ryokan or should I bring my own?
A: Slippers can seem a bit of a challenge at ryokans. The slippers are provided, made of plastic, fabric or wood. There are different slippers for indoors, outdoors and the toilet. It takes some effort to move around a ryokan wearing the right slippers. But you will manage, no worries!
Q: Can I enjoy the onsen together with my wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc.?
A: Often men and women are separated in different areas of the onsen, with different entrances. You may want to check in advance. If not mentioned, assume the standard rule; men and women are not mixed together.
Q: Are dinners served at ryokans?
A: Yes, and those are the most fantastic, authentic, traditional Japanese means I ever had! Highly recommendable, there is nothing like it. Not necessarily the cheapest option, and you might not like one or two dishes, but you get a very special experience, excellent service and many beautiful courses in return. Try before you die! Contact the ryokan in advance to ask about the price and availability of dinner options, book in advance. At Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori the extensive (and pretty pricey) dinner menu is only available for direct hotel guests. Guests of the neighboring Tokonamiso are welcome for a more basic, bento box dinner (upon request). Expect mainly cold dishes like sea food, some rice, veggies, etc. all served beautifully in little containers or on little plates.
Q: I have tattoos. Can I enter an onsen?
A: You may have heard about the fact that in Japan, people with tattoos are seen as members of the Japanese mafia called Yakuza. Try to cover up. I have a small tattoo on my back and brought nude colored tape to Japan; just in case I had to cover it, but eventually I did not have to use it. The onsen of Yudanaka Yumoto near the Snow Monkey Park is pretty small and felt very private, no problems with tattoos there at all. The onsen of Ryokan Hotel Fuki no Mori in Nagiso is bigger yet mainly visited by hotel guests, who are mostly foreign; no problems with tattoos there either. However, if your body is full of tattoos, it may result in at least some looks, possibly comments or in worst case scenario access prohibition. Hard to tell in advance but something to keep in mind.
Once upon a time…
The first time I started to think about Japan as an interesting holiday destination was about 15 years ago. While traveling back and forward between our internships in Amsterdam and our hometown Alkmaar, a friend told me about his experiences while studying abroad in Japan for a year. I strongly remember this story about his host family bathing every night. First the father went into the bath, then the mother, followed by the oldest son, etc. One by one after each other, in the same bath water! At that time it sounded like a strange yet fascinating story to me, from a faraway country I was hoping to visit one day. Now, having been in Japan myself, I can put this more into perspective. This is home-based, traditional Japanese onsen culture.
Going to Japan? I wrote 13 other, detailed articles about it full of tips! Check all my Japan articles in the Japan Blog Archives.
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I hope this article was helpful for you. Have you ever been to an onsen? Or would you like to? Is there a similar bathing/wellness culture in your country? Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.