I’ve spent several days over the last week exploring the Yamanouchi area. It’s most widely known as the home of the Snow Monkey Park (which is great, I agree) but there’s so much more around here for travelers to take advantage of. In a few days I went skiing and snowboarding, hopped in plenty of hot springs, enjoyed a variety of craft beer and local cuisine, and got up close and personal with Japanese archers.
The highlights from last week’s adventures are below.
Yamanouchi’s Traditional Onsen areas
In the center of Yamanouchi are its many onsen villages. The most famous of these is Shibu Onsen, where guests can hop between 9 different public baths. Each one is from a different hot spring source and comes with different properties. Some are good for your skin, some are better for circulation and others alleviate the symptoms of certain conditions. After you try a few of them you may start noticing the unique texture of the water and become an onsen connoisseur yourself.
To enjoy all these baths, our group stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya inn(1) in the heart of Shibu. Our hostess greeted us warmly and taught us all that we needed to know about the area and how to use the baths around town. She also showed us how to properly wear yukata robes (put the right side inside the left!), and then gave us time to wander ourselves before dinner.
We had a traditional kaiseki-style dinner with various small plates of seasonal fare. Our meal featured Shinshu beef, Shinshu salmon and several delicious pieces of tempura. All of the other dishes were great too, even the dishes themselves! We had mushroom soup served in a clay tea kettle and soba arranged in a three-tiered gourd. The creativity and care with which it was prepared really impressed me, and the beef was pretty delicious as well.
The Mountainous Resorts of Shiga and Kita Shigakogen
Yamanouchi is surrounded by mountains. Shigakogen, Kita Shigakogen and Mt. Kosha are all visible from town, and Mt. Madarao (near Iiyama) and Nozawa Onsen are not far away. Whether you’re interested in winter sports and snow activities, or green season hiking or mountain biking, there’s something for everyone in these beautiful highland areas.
Shigakogen is a UNESCO protected national park as well as Asia’s largest ski resort. In summer and fall, there are many hiking and trekking trails with beautiful views of the valley below. In winter, the whole world turns white and trees crystalize with snow. With 19 different ski areas, you can spend days exploring without visiting the same place twice. Snowmobiling, snowshoe tours and backcountry ski tours also operate out of Shigakogen.
While you’re here..
- Try snowmobiling in the Yakebitai area of Shigakogen. Find more information here.
- Visit the Yokoteyama Ski Resort for a beautiful view from the tallest peak of Shigakogen at 2307m. There is a delicious bakery and crumpet café at the top so you can leisurely enjoy the scenery.
- Stop by Ichinose for a drink at the Teppa Room(2), where you can enjoy a variety of Shigakogen’s beers on tap.
- From the end of April until November, you can drive through a beautiful portion of Shigakogen that connects Yamanouchi and Gunma’s Kusatsu Onsen.
A 20-minute bus ride from Yudanaka station is Kita Shigakogen, home of Ryuoo Ski park and the Mt. Kosha ski resorts. For travelers interested in snow but not necessarily skiing or snowboarding, Ryuoo has a wide variety of snow activities to try including snow buggy riding, sledding and more. In addition, you can ride the 166-person gondola up to the Sora Terrace café, where beautiful panoramic views of Northern Nagano await you. The terrace and gondola also operate during the green season, and visitors can enjoy trekking at 1,700 meters above sea level.
While you’re here…
- If you’re driving, visit Hotel Selan on your way back and take a dip in Toomi no Yu(3), an outdoor hot spring with amazing views of Yamanouchi, Nakano city and distant Nagano.
- Try Sugakawa Soba, a variety of soba made with plant fibers. The resulting noodle is gluten-free and has a firm, slightly chewy texture. For more information about Nagano’s soba varieties, check out this recent blog post.
The snow monkeys are cute, and everyone loves catching photos of them relaxing in hot spring baths. But that’s not the only time to enjoy these creatures—they’re still around in spring along with plenty of adorable little babies. You may not see them bathing as much, but that means that they’ll be that much closer to you, frolicking and playing around.
While you’re here, stop by Café Enza for a bite to eat. They have a wide range of Japanese dishes along with some modern twists. The coffee is good and you should definitely think about ordering some fried satsumaimo (a type of Japanese sweet potato).
See below(4) for tips on driving to the monkey park.
“Ebesa” Interactive Cultural Workshops
One little known part of Yamanouchi is its tours of traditional Japanese arts. Practitioners in the area offer workshops where you can participate in tea ceremonies, watch geisha performances, make your own soba or even shoot a traditional Japanese longbow. These workshops are are part of the Ebesa tour initiative, which means “Let’s go!” in Yamanouchi’s local dialect.
As part of one of these tours, we visited Uotoshi Ryokan to see its archery dojo and learn about its history from the owner, Kazuhisa Miyasaka. We watched a practice match between five of the archers who train there before listening to Mr. Miyasaka tell us about Japanese archery. We were really surprised by his fluent English as he explained everything from the history of the bow to the physics of shooting it. We weren’t able to shoot any bows ourselves, but he offers three-hour archery lessons for those who want to.
Snow Monkey Beer Live
Once a year, around mid to late March, the Shigakogen brewery hosts Snow Monkey Beer Live, an event where breweries from around Japan come to share some of their latest and most experimental beers. Highlights from this year’s show included a delicious barrel-aged imperial stout, a Shinshu Apple ale, and an earl-grey tea infused beer.
The fun takes place at Shigakogen’s Sogo 98 hall, a commemorative event space for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Free shuttle buses run from Yudanaka station and through Shigakogen’s many resorts so anyone in the area can easily join in. Tickets for the event cost around 4,500 yen and include 5 drink tickets and a commemorative beer glass.
Most visitors to Yamanouchi come for the Snow Monkey park, but there’s a lot more here for people to experience. Whether you’re interested in the outdoors, skiing, drinking beer or getting in touch with Japanese culture, this is a great base camp to explore Northern Nagano.
Look out for more on summer activities around Nagano in the coming months! And as always, you can reach us with any questions you have at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time!
Senshinkan Matsuya (Back to text)
One of TripAdvisor’s 25 top B&Bs/Inns in Japan, located centrally in Shibu Onsen. See their English website here.
Teppa Room (Back to text)
Sample a wide variety of Shigakogen beers at this restaurant and bar in the first floor of Chalet Shiga in Ichinose.
Open from mid-December to the end of March
|Address:||Chalet Shiga 1F, Ichinose, Shigakogen|
Toomi no Yu Hotspring (Back to text)
This small onsen facility by Hotel Selan has a magnificient view of the surrounding valley. Separated into men and women’s sides, each section has an outdoor bath, showering facilities and sauna. A private bath is available to rent for families or couples.
|Price:||General entry: 600 yen
Private family bath: 2500 yen
|Address:||Hotel Selan, 6995 Yomase, Yamanouchi|
Driving to the Snow Monkey Park (Back to text)
There are two ways to reach the snow monkey park by car. One is to park near Cafe Enza and walk 30 minutes to the park, and the other is a closer parking lot that is only available during the green season (mid April onwards). You can locate it with your car’s GPS using this phone number: 0269-33-5733
Cafe Enza’s phone number is: 0269-38-1736