For as long as I have been fascinated by Japan I wanted to visit and stay at a traditional Japanese-style inn also known as a ryokan, and on my last trip across Japan I finally had that opportunity. After spending a few days in Tokyo, I set out for my next destination, Nagano Prefecture, and my accommodation there, ryokan Kokuya that was established in 1625 and is currently overseen by the 16th generation of owners. After a 3 hour bus ride and the short trip with the train, I arrived to Shibu Onsen, a small mountain town famous for its hot springs and snow monkeys. I was a bit tired from the journey, so I was happy to see that the staff from Kokuya was waiting for me at the train station. Kokuya itself is located only 5 minutes away from station by car. Upon my arrival to Kokuya I was greeted by several members of the staff, and I have to say I was quite impressed by the look and the feel of the whole place. It felt like I had travelled back in time and was now enjoying the wonders of traditional Japan. After checking in I was led to my room where the friendly staff explained to me everything I needed to know about staying in a traditional ryokan. For example, how and when to use many different baths they have there, how to dress in a traditional way, when to show up for breakfast and dinner, and many other tips. All in all they were very helpful. Welcoming tea was prepared for me, as well as some snacks. I also received a traditional Japanese clothing, yukata, to wear inside the ryokan and around the town.
The room in which I stayed was quite spacious, and was of course decorated in a traditional way. I slept on a tatami mat, a traditional Japanese bed, and I found it quite interesting. Apart from the tatami, the room also included the traditional Japanese table called chabudai. There was also a flat screen TV, safety box, refrigerator, air purifier and humidifier, many toiletries, and a nice bathroom with a bathtub and a bidet toilet. But, the highlight of the room was definitely my own private open-air bath with hot spring water from one of the six sources used by Kokuya. It is ideal if you want some privacy or if you just want a quick bath before heading out for a dinner or for some sightseeing.
After I had taken a quick bath, I got dressed and headed out to the dining room for dinner, which I have to say, was probably one of the most amazing experiences I had so far in Japan. Dinner is made in a traditional way using ingredients from the local area and it included over 10 courses. Most of the dishes served I had never tasted before, and now that I did I absolutely love them. Boiled Shinsyu-Wagyu-Roast beef, local salmon, steamed egg custard with eel, cooked duck and deep fried tofu were among the many dishes that were served over the course of the dinner. The staff member that was serving the dinner was extremely helpful and explained everything about the meals to me. I was told that the menu is changed every month in order to highlight the essence of each season.
After the dinner I went to one of the big baths located inside Kokuya. It is called Issa and it is a large outdoor bath that includes a sauna as well. It felt so amazing and relaxing to be in this outdoor bath in the middle of the night all by myself, with only stars above keeping me company. It is safe to say that I really slept well that night and was ready for a fun day of sightseeing. Fun fact – this bath was named after Kobayashi Issa, a famous poet who lived in this area in the over 200 years ago.
In the morning, traditional Japanese breakfast was served to me, once again made from local ingredients. As expected, it was delicious and filled me up with energy for the entire day. Among other dishes, it included a bowl of freshly cooked rice, fresh vegetables and fruit, and Kokuya’s signature onsen tamago — soft-boiled egg cooked in hot spring water!
The kind staff at Kokuya offered me a guide who would show me around Shibu Onsen and the surrounding area. During the course of that day I visited many interesting places, one of which was the famous snow monkey park located nearby – Jigokudani Monkey Park. There you can see Japanese snow monkeys bathing in the hot spring. I also visited the onsen sources that supply the whole town, and climbed to the top of Mount Yokoteyama whose height is over 2 kilometers. There I had lunch in the highest Japanese Bakery! Also I had a chance to visit the a volcano that is located nearby. You are not allowed to approach too close to it since it erupted in 2018. After that, I explored the town itself and I have to say it was one of the most unique places I have visited in Japan. All of the houses were made in a traditional way, with small stone streets and tiny alleys criss-crossing the town. They were many souvenir shops and hot springs all over the town. As a matter of fact, there are 9 public hot springs in Shibu Onsen which I could access for free with the key that was given to me as a guest of Kokuya.
After my sightseeing was completed, I spent the rest of the day relaxing in many baths that Kokuya has to offer. In fact, they have six public and two private baths that use free-flowing hot spring water from six different spring sources, and the guests can enjoy all of them. Keep in mind that half of the public baths are for men and half for women, however, every 12 hours they change. Once again, the traditional Japanese dinner prepared by the staff of Kokuya featured a wide variety of meals and was absolutely amazing.
In the morning of my departure, I had western style breakfast which included cheese, bacon, eggs, a salad of fresh vegetables and more. When the time for my departure arrived, one of the staff members drove me to the train station. I even got a gift, a rice meal for me to eat during my train ride.
All in all, I immensely enjoyed my stay at Kokuya. It is probably one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. It felt like I really traveled back in time and discovered the traditional of side of Japan. I wholeheartedly recommend you to check out Kokuya and see for yourself all the amazing things it has to offer. If you want to experience the traditional side of Japan I suggest you book a stay at this unique place.