Why just for the day?
Depending upon where you happen to be based, a day trip to Shibu Onsen just to walk around a people-less town may not sound appealing. However, given the famous Nagano snow monkeys are almost literally around the corner and the various ski resorts (winter) and hiking (the rest of the year) available nearby, there are plenty of reasons to visit.
Granted, much of the perceived appeal of a visit to an onsen town is strolling around in a yukata, checking out omiyage shops while onsen hopping and then relaxing in your ryokan with a grand gustatorial and visual work of art known as a kaiseki feast. There are ryokan available if that's what you're chasing and, even if you struggle to make a booking in Shibu Onsen, Yudanaka is right next door. Most people visit on the weekends; however, a visit to Shibu Onsen to stroll the streets when nobody else is around is an entirely different yet worthy experience. So if you can make it mid-week, you may just find yourself in another world.
We were day-tripping from Myoko in Niigata Prefecture but it would be just as easy from Nagano city or anywhere else within a reasonable distance. We wandered the streets for a couple of hours and, apart from one delivery truck (a sign that there is indeed a time when these laneways of shops and ryokans see action) which seemed to navigate the tight turns way too easily, we saw not a soul on the street.
As the images show, we visited during the greener, warmer months but as the snow monkeys will attest to, Shibu Onsen sees its share of snow which many will tell you only makes for a more storybook scene.
History, Skiing and Monkeys
Next to Yudanaka Onsen, below the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park on the lazy Yokoyugawa River, Shibu Onsen is a small maze of narrow paved laneways lined with omiyage shops and ryokans, some of which have existed for 400 years. Over this time, Shibu Onsen's quaint setting and the onsen themselves have attracted samurai, poets and, more recently, a growing number of tourists from the West. And these days during winter, it's not uncommon for guests to stay in Shibu Onsen or Yudanaka and take the bus up to Shiga Kogen for skiing or snowboarding.
The Sounds of Quiet Streets
Back to that mid-week world where there is very little open, which may turn some folks off visiting but, if nothing else, it allows for photography without the intrusion of other people. I’d also argue that it’s nice to stroll around with the only sounds being the birds, water running from the foot onsens and the echo of your own shoes upon the bricked streets.
It also presented a perfect opportunity to explore Osenji and the other smaller temples, affording the place a reverent solitude. There is perhaps one potential downside to a day trip; the onsens themselves. Of the nine in town, eight are only accessible to those staying at one of the town’s ryokans. However, simple maths tells us that we still have an option. It just so happens that O-yu lives up to its name and is the largest of the onsens. It is in the center of town and open to day-trippers.
Modern Day Peace
Perhaps the coronavirus and all that goes with it has taught us by necessity that it’s perfectly okay to spend time by yourself or with only your partner. Usually, you’d have to go hiking up into one of the many glorious mountains this country boasts in order to find that peace but, in mid-week at Shibu Onsen, not only can you find peace but also a myriad of interesting corners and paths to follow while you imagine all the interesting samurai, priests and artists who walked them in years gone by. Oh...we also managed to play a game of table tennis!
By car from Nagano; 35-40-minute drive
By car from Tokyo; 3-3.5-hour drive (Shinjuku)
By train from Nagano Station; (about 70 minutes in total) Nagano-Dentetsu Line towards Shinshu-Nakano to Shinshu-Nakano Station. From there, Nagano-Dentetsu Line Local towards Yudanaka to Yudanaka Station. From the station, it's a nice walk through Yudanaka (also a ryokan-filled village but perhaps not quite the same level of wonder) to Shibu Onsen.
By train from Tokyo; add a 90-110-minute shinkansen ride to the above
5-minute drive to Jigokudani Monkey Park
15-minute drive to Shiga Kogen