In three days, I spent more time in a bath that I have for the two decades preceding them…

Water forms a major part of Japanese culture – it’s a medium which can connect you with other worlds. Westerners saw Ringu and thought “Yeek! Scary lady comes forth from water which we did not expect!”, but for the Japanese, it’s an intrinsic part of their folklore that goes without saying. Yudanaka is a town famous for its onsens (bath houses), and… Have you seen Spirited Away? That’s about the closest cultural touchstone I can think of to describe the town. It usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion as it doesn’t look like either Blade Runner or The Seven Samurai, but it’s probably one of the most quintessentially Japanese places you can visit, as this is where the Japanese come to relax.

Or at least the Japanese that can afford to visit come to relax, possibly. Japan is a pretty expensive place to be, so gauging who does what when and where can be tricky (and I tend to be about as sensitive as a brick to the face, so let’s move on…)

Yudanaka even feels different to the rest of Japan – you can see the similarities connecting cities like Tokyo and Osaka (even if natives will insist that they are nothing alike). It helps that it is so rural, if only by comparison. While we were pretty damn sick of snow thanks to the errant snowfalls we had to deal with before getting to Japan, we had to appreciate the dreamlike state of the town when we got there. Our connecting train from Nagano took us from a sunny, bright, and thoroughly pleasant but completely dry city to a snow-flurried Winter wonderland.

It helped that our train looked like a spaceship.

The idea behind Yudanaka is that if you want a bath, you have a bath. Maybe you are walking down the street for a pint of milk when you hear the glub glub glub of a bath nearby. You’re tempted… What do you do? BAM! You get in that bath! This is facilitated by walking around in a yukata (a formal kimono-style bathing robe) which you can easily shed to facilitate your bathing needs.  The town was built around volcanic springs, so there is a constant supply of hot water. The onsen ryokans are the apotheosis of this, formal resorts where you can eat, drink and be merry around your bathing.

But Brian, how do you know that Yudanaka is serious about their bath houses? They have one outside the train station. Can’t wait to get to your location? You can bathe immediately following your train. Wet here, wet now.

Our first stop in our three day jaunt here was the Yoroduya Shiraiso, a several-centuries old onsen that you can’t book into without being fluent in Japanese. While neither of us could be described that way, we had the on-the-ground aid of Craig from Biyu No Yado (more on whom we will see later) who stepped in to help us out during a booking SNAFU via the facsimile machines.

Yoroduya is stunning – every inch of the building has been preserved to demonstrate the timelessness of the area.

The location is flawless, a Faberge Egg of buildings.

Instead, the only problem was that I got sick en route and, following what can only be described as The Meal of Kings that followed our arrival, I collapsed in a heap and spent the next twelve or so hours dead to the world in recuperative sleep. The next morning though…

Glub glub glub…

BAM!

While I missed out on the communal baths downstairs, I woke up completely refreshed and over my illness so that I could fully enjoy the rest of our stay. A sacrifice true, but a sacrifice most worthy. The food was one of the reasons for my speedy recovery and will get a full dang post later as it was one of the greatest meals of my life.

And yes, as the picture above shows, all baths are outside. In the snow. You will be outside, in the snow and in the nip. Believe me when I say that you will learn new speeds of movement between the indoors and the bath (and vice versa).

Our next stop was the Shibu Onsen up the road. Where Yoroduya was the premier five star resort for the upper classes, Shibu Onsen was the option for the middle class. A much smaller building, it has been slowly expanded and grown over the years, stretching back, down, up, up, around, down, and further on still. Where the bath in Yoroduya really only fit one person at a time, the individual baths of Shibu Onsen’s rooms could facilitate more. Not that you were going to do much with more than one person in each: the temptation to just kick back and relax is far too strong. Alas, of the three onsen we stayed in, one must come in third and this must be that place. It’s not a slight on the location – it’s a truly lovely place, but it’s caught in the middle of eras: Yoroduya is the history of the town personified, while Biyu no Yado is the modern onsen ryokan perfected (being a custom-designed building). I suspect I’m being grossly unfair – of the three, it’s probably the most genuinely loyal to the concept of the onsen ryokan as it historically was and is for the majority of people. We’ve just been ridiculously spoiled by the buildings either side of it.

Fun fact: I had my first proper massage by an actual masseuse here, and on my last day as a twenty-something to boot. It was Quite Good and I can certainly see what the fuss is all about. There are worse places to end your roaring twenties and start your not-quite-as-mature-as-you-should-be thirties, and I feel guilty for possibly giving the impression that the Shibu Onsen is anything less than lovely.

Biyu no Yado was the location of our final night in town. Getting there late in the evening (due to events which shall, as with others, follow shortly), we crashed out in possibly the fanciest – certainly the most up-to-date – of the three venues. For a start, we had a robot toilet. Everywhere should have a robot toilet. We also had TV and wifi, so once more we could reconnect with and have a clue of what was going on in the outside world (there was a US Navy scandal regarding inappropriate videos  getting into public circulation, storm problems in Australia, and British people giving out about the airports and public transport). Also: gated room!

Decor!

A classier way to indicate the gents and the ladies!

Me in little more than a classy dressing gown!

Weirdly, for all the modernity of the building, it retained wooden baths (which just added to the charm). It also had the most considered bathing area, decorating it rather than leaving the (admittedly stunning) surrounding environment to do all the work.

Also, to the delight of Olivia, there was TV.

Of the three buildings, it was probably our favourite. As tragic anglophones, it was definitely the easiest to interact with, as they had a range of polyglots on staff. For someone coming to the area for the first time, it’s definitely the best place to be, as their liaison Craig will show you around the town and, if you give enough notice, will take you far out beyond the town and into… adventure!

To be continued…


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For more information on the area, contact Craig et al. here. For more general information, hie thee there.

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