Cobblestone streets and riverside inns:
treasure towns of traditional Japan

manhole design

Manhole design

The historical hot spring towns have been refining the art of making visitors happy for over 1,000 years.

Shibu is essentially one long cobbled street, with over 50 traditional hot spring inns, or Ryokan.

If you have seen the dazzling Studio Ghibli animated film, Spirited Away, you’ve already glimpsed Shibu, with its 400-year-old bathhouses faithfully waiting for the gods to come and bathe.

These twin towns put effort into providing Japanese cultural experiences for their international guests. It was decided that I would first experience the joys of origami.



Surrounded by town officials, I succeeded in making a possibly very useful paper crane.

Back outside, people dressed in cotton bathrobes shuffle by, their faces glowing a soft pink. Some collect stamps at the public bath entrances to prove they had been victorious in visiting all nine, and collect their reward of health and happiness.

I bet they are the same kind of people who enjoy origami.

I stayed at Biyu no Yado one of many large and impeccably-run traditional inns in Yudanaka. In my tatami-scented room, I found teacups, tea and hot water were positioned so that everything was close to hand. The guests don’t know why life suddenly seems so light and manageable, but it’s all carefully engineered. The evening’s entertainment was dinner, an endless succession of tantalising little dishes. The most memorable experience was when I had to pick my own shiitake mushrooms from the log which they grew in. Actually, it was a clever paper-pulp log that they packed for me to take home, along with a thoughtful stash of useful
origami cranes.

biyu no yado

Elaborate meals at Biyu no Yado Inn

The owner of Biyu no Yado inn was telling me about an unusual guest from England. This fellow was an award-winning nature photographer who booked in for 22 days. “He left every morning at ten, spent the day photographing the snow monkeys and came back at four. We worked hard to make him happy, as he is a vegetarian!” The hot spring bathing monkeys are a great tourist drawcard for Nagano. Just watching their expressions as they take refuge from the snow, worried little faces taking pleasure in the hot water, fascinates us. You have to earn your time with the monkeys. It takes a 30 minute walk up a mountain path that can be treacherously icy. An old Japanese lady who saw me sliding around gave me two walking sticks she had just finished with.

There is talk of constructing a road so busloads of tourists can see the monkeys without wasting time. The refined people of Yudanaka do not like this idea. The long walk is beautiful and prepares your heart to see the monkeys. You forget about the built world and you become a forest-dweller.


Signboards explain the monkey visiting etiquette: Don’t talk to the monkeys. They don’t understand your language. What sounds friendly to you may be a taunt to them.

Don’t look into their eyes, as that’s an aggressive act, and you might get attacked.

Don’t eat in front of them. They do not yet associate humans with food and that’s the way it needs to be.

The Japanese macaque is the northernmost dweller of all primates, except for us

The monkey park is a 10 minute ride from Yudanaka and 20 minutes from Shiga Kogen.