Dad, Aunty and I went to the Nagano prefecture to see the snow monkeys. This could have been done as a day trip, but to give ourselves a little time to relax, we booked a night’s stay at a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn. It was a great opportunity to experience Japanese living and hospitality, and is one of me favorite memories from Japan.
There are many different kinds of ryokan, ranging in size and cost. Some, like the one we stayed at, are small and family-run. Others are bigger and may contain more Western-style amenities. Typically, a ryokan differs from a Western-style hotel in that the rooms are traditional Japanese-style, meaning they include things like tatami mats, sliding doors, kotatsu (heated low tables), Japanese baths, and sleeping on futon (mattresses placed on the tatami floor and are typically folded up and kept in the closet during the day). Often, kaiseki dinner (Japanese cuisine) and breakfast is served.
It turns out that we were the only guests at the ryokan for that night, so we had the whole place to ourselves 😉 aw yeah. I thought that was strange though, because this was during the Lunar New Year and I expected a lot of people (mostly Chinese people) to be on vacation. However, it turns out that the ryokan only takes Japanese guests, because of culture and language differences. Since there is an emphasis on traditional atmosphere, I guess they don’t want guests who don’t appreciate or follow their customs. It makes sense, but running a place like this can’t be cheap and I can’t help but feel that they are losing out on business…
If you read my previous post about my snow monkey experience, you would know that I was extremely sick that day with an upset stomach/severe nausea. So once we checked into our rooms, I basically went to bed while Dad and Aunty had their dinner. Luckily Dad took pictures so I can show you what they ate:
Their meal consisted of sukiyaki, slides of sashimi, and other stuff, idk, I wasn’t there, you have eyes, you can see for yourself.
The innkeeper was very nice though, and delivered a big plate of apples and another big plate of onigiri (rice rolls) for me since they knew I wasn’t feeling well. The hospitality here is excellent!
After my nap, I started to feel a tiny bit better, and I really wanted to try out the onsen, or hot springs bath.
The above two pictures are blurry with steam, but I hope you get a sense for what it was like! As I mentioned before, there were no other guests that night, and Dad and Aunty already had their turn earlier, so I had the whole bath to myself. In the top picture, you can see the section where you can wash your hair and things like that, as they provide shampoo and body soap. Then, after you’ve rinsed off, you can take a dip in the hot natural spring water bath. The water was really hot, and relaxing in the bath felt so good! Apparently the minerals in the natural spring waters are good for you, too. Although, I would have to get out every couple of minutes because I felt TOO hot. So you basically get in the bath for a few minutes, come back out, then get back in, and alternate over and over until you’re satisfied! 😀
After I got out of the onsen, I put on my yukata that was provided for us in the closet, and headed back to my room to sleep.
The next morning, I felt a little bit better, so I joined Dad and Aunty downstairs for breakfast. They have a room just for meals, and since there are 4 guest rooms, the dining room is split up into quadrants. We took up a little corner by ourselves, and sat down at the low table and waited for our food to arrive. You are supposed to sit on your knees, but since I am not really used to doing that for long periods of time, I eventually switched back to criss-cross applesauce 🙂 Anyways, the innkeeper was nice enough to save some sukiyaki and sashimi for my breakfast since I did not get to enjoy it last night. So here is what my breakfast looked like:
It was soOOoOOoOOooo good! Apparently, the beef they use in the sukiyaki is special local beef, kind of like how Kobe is famous for their beef. Basically, they light the fire under the pot and you keep it covered until the candle thing has gone out and your meet is cooked. Then, you take a piece of meat (which has been cooking in a sweet sauce) and dip it into the raw egg to eat. I’ve eaten sukiyaki before in America, and I thought that was great, but this was so much better because the meat quality was phenomenal. It was tender and so delicious!
After checking out of our ryokan, we headed to the nearby onsen town of Shibu, just to see what it was like. Shibu is a small spa town with many old ryokan (some as old as 400 years) and 9 public hot spring baths. The buildings here exhibit traditional Japanese architecture, and the whole town itself was very charming, with wooden doorways and roofs covered in snow. On the day we went, it was also strangely empty. Nevertheless, as we wandered through the streets, we passed by many small hot springs, ryokan, and gift shops.
This gift shop carried an assortment of dried fruits, local snacks, and candies. What I found interesting is that they had candies in brands that I recognized, like Pocky and Kit-Kat. But the flavors were totally unfamiliar. For example, the above picture shows Pocky in a grape flavor, and “Pretz” in apple, which is kind of weird in itself. But not just any grape and apple. Apparently, the flavors are local apples and grapes, which this region is famous for.
These Kit-Kats, I found even more interesting. First, there is a sake flavored Kit-Kat. Can you imagine that????? I later ended up trying one, and it does taste like sake, but also has a creamy flavor, like white chocolate. It was weird. Next, there’s green tea Kit-Kat, which I feel like is what everyone brings back to their friends when they go to Japan. I’ve tried them before and I have to say, they are pretty good, and I usually dislike green tea flavored things. On the right is the local Shinshu Apple flavor. I wonder how these huge candy companies produce local varieties that are only sold in the gift shops of tiny towns like this? Finally, on the bottom, in the packaging that looks like a Mt. Fuji (why???), is strawberry cheesecake flavor.
I ended up not buying any snacks (I don’t really have the luggage space for it), but Aunty did, so as an act of appreciation, the owners of the gift shop opened up the public hot springs across the street for us to peek in and see what it looked like. (Normally you would have to stay at their ryokan to use it, or otherwise pay a fee.) It looked like this:
…. So yeah tbh we were not really impressed. It was tiny, and probably only had room for one or two people. We gleefully smiled because we felt like we got a much better deal with our private, huge, indoor hot spring bath 😀 But, apparently people staying in this town basically will bath-hop, going to one bathhouse to the next, because the water in each bathhouse offers different benefits. We saw some young people wearing yukatas and those Japanese sandals walking down the street, presumably on their way to the next bath. It is said that if you visit all 9 baths, good fortune will come your way.
Another interesting shop we visited was this origami shop. Except, I’m not quite sure if it was really a shop, because they didn’t seem to be selling anything (How do these people make money????). But this whole shop was filled with various intricately-folded origami creations such as swans, dogs, roosters, dragons, samurai hats, and more.
We continued walking and passed by a ryokan that had this set up in front of their doors. This is onsen tamago, or soft boiled egg cooked by the hot spring water. As you can see, they were 50 Yen each, and you just had to leave your money in that little basket and take an egg for yourself. (People here are so trusting!) We each bought one. Because of the minerals in the hot spring water, these eggs are supposed to have a different taste.
I’m not sure if they tasted any different, but the egg was very gently soft-boiled. The egg white was barely coagulated. It was tasty!
Here, we passed by a bathhouse that also has a foot bath on the upper level. This is exactly what it sounds like – a place to soak your feet in the hot waters. Aunty used it, but I passed because your foot might be hot when they are in the water, but eventually you will have to pull them out and expose them to the cold winter air. Also, I was too lazy to untie my shoes.
That basically concludes my onsen and ryokan experience. I loved the experience of authentic Japanese living, walking through a small traditional town, and relaxing in the hot spring baths! I highly recommend that you be Japanese so that you can stay at the same ryokan in Yudanaka that we stayed at. If for some reason you cannot be Japanese, make a Japanese friend and have them take you 😉