Shibu Onsen, Day 3: The Promised Monkeys

Let’s cut to the chase with the last of my Shibu Onsen vacation posts: here’s the monkeys.

You’re welcome.

The snow monkeys have their own onsen, inside their own park, protected by an unassuming little ticket and souvenir cabin. As my ryokan proprietor warned me when I mentioned I was walking up to the park, “The onsen is only for the monkeys. You aren’t allowed to get in the water.” I stared at her, thinking I hadn’t understood. “I don’t… want to get in,” I said. “OK, that’s good,” she said. “Do people want to get in the onsen with the monkeys?” I asked, assuming there was some basis in reality for her warning. “Oh, yes,” she said, but I couldn’t get her to elaborate.

If you ever go I think you’ll share my incredulity, because while the monkeys don’t particularly give any damns about you, they also don’t want you poking at them, and they also don’t abide the rules that humans generally do about where poop goes vs where one bathes. IE, that those things should be in entirely different places. The park stunk of monkeys and their various leavings, and also the food pellets that a park keeper would bring and toss out so the monkeys would collect for photo ops. Overall though the monkeys seemed content to lounge about in the warm water and ignore the silly bipedal things that sometimes didn’t watch their food closely enough. The water thing, at least, I was told was not a construction of the park: there’d always been natural hot springs in the area, and the monkeys took a dip year round. The park just makes it convenient to find them and invade their privacy while they’re bathing.

Shibu Onsen has a few other attractions, including old temples and a sake museum. But it’s a small, quiet town, even if you walk down to neighboring Yudanaka, and if you’re really an attraction-based traveler or not a fan of walking aimlessly it might not be the place for you. But for me on my leisurely, lazy vacation, walking aimlessly in the brisk but clear weather worked fine, and I spent the rest of my day poking around empty streets, taking photos of empty things, eating food and lounging in my own, monkey-free hot springs.

Hot Spring Vacation in Shibu Onsen (2 of 3)

The Goddess of Mercy for World Peace

So this is embarrassing. Right after I’d returned from my December jaunt to Shibu Onsen I made the first of three posts about my trip.

And… now this is the second one.

You will not have to wait another half a year for the third and final post, I solemnly swear.

I really enjoy traveling by myself. Shibu Onsen in the first weeks of December was an ideal solo travel location, as the little hot spring town was still quiet, preparing for the late winter boom, but small and friendly enough that I could navigate without disappearing down some side street to never be found again.

A+++ to the ryokan I stayed at, where my second day was met with another vegan breakfast prepared in house. I ate breakfast in the downstairs dining room, where the older woman who staffed for the family of owners served and chatted with me when she figured out I spoke any Japanese.

After a good steam in the in-house onsen, I set out to wander aimlessly and enjoy the quiet beauty of the snowy mountain town. There’s a lot to be said for lack of crowds, and I wandered the streets for hours feeling like I could be the only person left in the world.

I eventually found my way to a famous Buddhist statue, “The Goddess of Mercy for World Peace,” near the base of the mountains in Yudanaka. Yudanaka is the next little town over from Shibu Onsen, about a fifteen minute walk away. By the time I reached her the sky had cleared, and she cut a striking figure against the blue sky and the setting sun.

Afterwards I hiked up the mountain behind her. I had the idea that there was something at the top, so I just kept hiking, and hiking, and hiking… finally I noticed it was starting to get dark, and that this was usually the point in horror movies where I yelled at our naive protagonists to stop pushing into the empty, creepy woods and go home already.

So I went back. My evening consisted of visits to each of the seven famous hot spring baths in Shibu Onsen, each corresponding to a particular ailment they’re supposed to heal. I don’t know about that, but I do know some of them were painful hot. I made friends with a young Japanese woman, also traveling alone, as we attempted to get into a bath that felt on the brink of literally boiling. The old ladies who came in right after us hopped in without trouble, and then left again, and we just muttered to each other, むり、むり (impossible, impossible).

While I’m normally not an onsen fan, there’s something to be said for near boiling oneself, then stepping out into the crisp winter night and drinking under the moon.

Adventures in Sento

Snow Monkey at the Onsen

There are plenty of ways to be a gauche foreigner in Japan. In my relatively short time here I’ve hit a lot of them: eating or drinking on the subway, walking against the flow of foot traffic or standing in the middle of it, roaming around in circles with a look of confusion, saying a wide array of incorrect and baffling to rude things. When you’re a non-Asian in an Asian country you’ve just got to embrace that you are never gonna blend, and you are never gonna totally get it. It is what it is.

But still, my pride was wounded when I went to the sento last night and added a new foreigner stereotype to the list: not being able to handle my hot water.

So quick background. “Sento” is a public bath. They are a thing in Japan, and they aren’t a big deal. There is one in my neighborhood, and I and my housemates have had to go there for the past week because our house shower is being renovated. Sento consist of an open shower room and at least one big bath (like, mini pool size) of very hot water.

I’ve had a monster cold (or the flu? or alien virus? it was BAD) for the past week, but I was finally feeling better. So my housemate and I put on our coats and trekked over to the bath. I showered and hopped in the hot water, hoping to further clear the gunk out of my sinuses. But in about ten minutes the heat was a bit much for me, so I got up.

Whoah there, said my head, as my vision swam and I felt roller coaster levels of dizzy. That was not such a good idea.

I sat back down and breathed slowly until enough blood circulated to my brain that I could, you know, see clearly and balance on my two feet, while naked and walking on slippery tile. I shuffled my way back to the shower, where I stood under the cold water for a bit. But that “walking” business had apparently taken a lot out of me, and I got dizzy again, to the point I had to sit down on the tile. The dizziness and blurry vision faded again, and I told my housemate, now sitting in the bath, that my head was being really weird so I would be outside in the changing area. She said she’d come with, probably because I looked very pale and disoriented.

I make it out to the changing area, I get my towel from my locker, and as I dry off dizziness hits me again. So I have to sit, again, still naked, because pff dignity, and this time an old Japanese lady – because that’s who’s at sentos – comes over to me and asks if I’m okay. I’m fine, I say, thank you, sorry for worrying you.

Finally I manage to get up and dry off a bit more. But then AGAIN with the dizziness, and I’m not feeling so confident in my ability to put pants on, so I wrap myself in my towel and sit on the couch, breathing and watching the TV they have mounted up on the wall. Another old lady is sitting next to me, and points out the mini fridge of water, juice, milk and such that the sento sells, and recommends I buy something to drink. I thank her and say I’ll be okay, really. (I probably could have used something to drink, but the act of getting my wallet and purchasing something seemed well out of my ability, if putting on pants was still an insurmountable challenge.)

The dizziness faded again, I shuffled back to my locker, and I finally got dressed using the smallest, least blood-circulation-increasing movements possible. My housemate had been patiently waiting for me this whole time, and we went out, with final apologies to the worried old ladies and the woman running the sento. “It’s because they’re not used to baths,” I heard one old lady say as I went. “They just take showers.”

No! I wanted to protest. I can’t hold my liquor, but I can hold my hot water. I’ve never gotten dizzy at an onsen (hot spring bath) before. It’s just because I’ve had a cold, I’m weaker than I thought I was.

But being the fainting foreigner is enough for one night, I didn’t need to try to defend my honor. Especially not in a foreign language, while red-faced and dizzy, and really just wanting to go home.

Still, there’s nothing quite like old ladies concerned that you’re about to tip over and crack your head to make a new place feel welcoming.

Hot Spring Vacation in Shibu Onsen (1 of 3)

Three lanterns reading "Shibu Onsen" in kanji.

After my internship wrapped up I went to Shibu Onsen, a hot spring town about three hours from Tokyo.

The shinkansen trip was uneventful, just like I like my navigating foreign countries to be.

It was evening by the time I arrived. I’d booked a stay at Senshikan Matsuya Ryokan, which I can’t recommend highly enough, and the husband of the husband-wife team that runs the place picked me and two other guests up at the station. I was visiting during the slow season, before the Christmas holiday abroad and the New Year holiday in Japan, so I and the two others were the only guests in the whole place for my first night there. Other guests came and went for the next two days, but the place never felt crowded.

After getting settled in my room, I still had a few hours before dinner, so I went and walked around the little town. It was night, and there was barely any sound except for the river, and the stars were so bright.

When I got back my amazing dinner prepared by the amazing ryokan staff was ready. I’ll have a video up of the food and what’s what in the near future.

After dinner, I soaked in the inn’s hot spring bath then went to bed. Phew! One day of food and relaxation down, two to go. Up next: monkeys!

Shibu Onsen Omiyage

Hello all, apologies again for the lack of posts. I’ve gotten back into a regular and part-time schedule, which should go a long way toward my being productive outside of work.

Last week, between the end of my full-time internship (more on that later) and my part-time job (also, later) I spent a few days in Shibu Onsen, a hot spring town about three hours from Tokyo. Enjoy this little snippet I recorded about the omiyage, aka souvenirs, that I brought back, and stay tuned for more soon.

Vacation in Ito, Japan: Day 3

On the last day of our vacation in Ito, Makiko and I got up late, at breakfast at the hotel, and sat in the hotel onsen one last time. I tried the “Galaxy Bath,” one of three themed, private rooms there, which was essentially a long, shallow bath with smooth pebbles on the bottom, in a darkened room with a blacklight and blacklight paint spattered on the walls to look like stars. It was less kitschy than it sounds, and even the occasional low groan of air from the vent contributed to the weightless, quiet, and vast sense of space. (I know space is actually completely silent, but having never personally been my concept is based on movies, not reality. So it was a lot like movie space, where I imagine lots of long, deep notes on a cello or something.)

After that we hopped on the train to eventually produce what you see above–soba! For some reason the Ito area has a number of soba-making classes, so Makiko and I hit the lunch time session. The class was held in a large tatami room with tables for each group of people who had signed up. We were allotted a certain amount of buckwheat, flour, starch, and water, and led through the steps by an industrious obachan. The whole making process took about 45 minutes, and the waiting-while-our-soba-cooked maybe 15 more. As Makiko and I decided when we were finally digging in, the soba tasted even better for all the hard work we put into it.

As you can see, we started from absolute scratch–that big stone contraption is where we ground the buckwheat to flour. I suppose we didn’t have to harvest it, but… still hard work!

After soba, it was raining something awful, so we hoofed it back to the station, did a little souvenir shopping, and got back on the train toward Tokyo. Our transfer point was Atami, another hotspring town, so we got off there to see one last sight:

Kinomiya Shrine, a short walk from Atami Station, is home to the 2,000 year old hulking camphor tree you see above. The internet told us that we could pray to the tree for good health and long life, and that if we walked around the tree and made a wish the wish would be granted. Couldn’t hurt! It was pouring rain but we made the journey anyway. The temple was fairly deserted given the weather, but there was something very special and mysterious (“fushigi,” as Makiko and I kept saying to each other) about looking up at that ancient tree in the storm.

After the temple we poked around the (covered) shopping street one last time, got our last souvenirs, then finally got back on the train for Tokyo.

Phew! I spent the next day mostly sleeping–relaxing vacations can be really exhausting. But I had a wonderful time, and I highly recommend Ito to anyone who wants to see something a little closer to countryside Japan.

Vacation in Ito, Japan: Day 2

Yeah, vacation felt like that. Day two of our trip to Ito we went to an area of the city with a few old preserved buildings, one of which was the Tokaikan, an old timey hotel next to a canal. It’s no longer in use, and now you can pay a small fee to poke around the rooms, which are fairly well preserved from back in the day.

Nearby is the home where Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata was born. Sadly we didn’t have time to go in, so I just snapped the outside.

Orange trees were everywhere in Ito, and it was orange season–so every store had bags and bags of them for cheap. Somehow we didn’t buy a single one while we were there. Maybe it was because we saw oranges lying all over the road, too, and I kept thinking, I can just grab one…

From there we went to Omuro-yama, an extinct volcano. It’s been years since I’ve been on a ski lift, and though it was a smidge easier without the skis, it was still terrifying. Trust me when I say the shots on the lift looking down the mountain were some of the hardest to take in my life. Makiko was ever encouraging with refrains of “Scary scary scary” beside me. XD

Once we got back down, we decided to walk back toward the city rather than bus as we had coming up. On the way we discovered the… cactus museum?…

My people! Er… my plants! I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, so I’m no stranger to saguaro. Somehow it didn’t feel like home though.

On our walk we also ran into a Wasabiya-san, or a wasabi-themed food shop. Wasabi-flavored food was a big thing in Ito, and apparently a popular souvenir. Though I love spicy, I love Southwest or Thai spicy, and really can’t handle wasabi’s acidic burn. Makiko and her family love it, though, so she picked up a few wasabi-flavored rice crackers and other goods. We wove our way through some small residential streets the rest of our way back, then hopped on the train to our hotel.

A restaurant just seemed like too much effort–not to mention it was about 9pm, so most places were closed–so we hit the grocery store and had a veritable feast in our room. Makiko also found a bag of takoyaki (grilled octopus ball) flavored chips. Yum! An excellent end to an excellent day.

Vacation in Ito, Japan: Day 1

My friend Makiko and I, as students with a whole month off in spring, took a three-day, two-night jaunt down to Ito, a seaside onsen town about 2-3 hours south of Tokyo.

We took local trains rather than shinkansen (the famed bullet train) to Ito, so it took a bit but it was scenic and rather peaceful. When we arrived we dropped off our things at the hotel then took off for the seashore. Since Ito is more south than Tokyo, and therefore warmer, the cherry blossoms were already blooming there (though they’ve only just started here in Tokyo). The cherry blossoms in Ito are slightly different than those in Tokyo, though. The ones in Ito are… pinker:

We walked around a famed cherry blossom street a bit, then hung east to walk along the shoreline. Looking at the map, we figured we could do the entire oceanside hike – but then, after hiking for ages and only making it about 1 or 2 km, we decided to call it a day.

Along the hike we also encountered a suspension bridge. Beautiful view.

After we got back to the station we caught a bus to a nearby onsen, whose selling point were the baths that overlooked the ocean. We got there just as the sun was setting and then looked up at the stars for a while. I’ve never been able to make out Orion or the Big and Little Dipper as clearly as I could in Ito.

We ate dinner at the onsen then hopped back on the train – miraculously not falling asleep – and checked into our hotel. Makiko, per my request, booked a Japanese-style room with tatami and futons to sleep on. It was so homey and relaxing after a long day.