A glimpse of a traditional Japanese life

You may have read our previous posts about our Japan trip. We visited Fukuoka, Osaka and Kyoto and we used AirBnb for booking apartments to stay. While we have been in Kyoto we thought about the last part of our vacation and what we would like to do. We wanted to spend some time in a nice village to get an impression of traditional Japanese lifestyle. Thus, we spend the evenings in Kyoto looking for a place to stay for two nights before moving on to Tokyo.

After some time we found an interesting place. It combined a traditional Japanese Inn (Ryokan), a small village far from a bigger city, and Onsen – a Japanese hot spring.

Now it was clear where we had to travel to: Nagano. We got out of bed in the early morning and started our way to Nagano via train. We had a short stop in Kanazawa where we changed to a Shinkansen. It was a pretty relaxing tour as the trains are very comfy.

When we arrived in Nagano we had to figure out how to continue the trip. Our destination was Nozawa Onsen, a small town north of Nagano. When arrived we just noticed that we hade to take a train back to Iiyama from where we took a bus shuttle to our destination. Fine for us – we just had a small break as you can see on the image above.

Luckily Iiyama station was small and it was pretty easy to find the bus shuttle going to Nozawa Onsen. Just a few people were traveling with us for the about 40 minutes ride.

For those who like to see Olympics might know the village. When Nagano was hosting the Olympics in 1998 the biathlon took place in Nozawa Onsen. We have been there in end of summer but I think the impression is totally different when being there during winter. It seems to be famous for ski vacations. We didn’t care. We wanted to have some traditional Japanese feeling – that’s why we have chosen it.

When the bus stopped in the small village we had to figure out where our Ryokan is. We’ve selected Tokiwaya Ryokan to stay as it was still offering a room for 2 nights and the images and the reviews sounded promising. And to spoil already: It was beautiful!

Just a 5 minute walk from the bus stop away we saw our Ryokan. The whole town smelled like sulfur – which is obvious as the hot springs are not hot because of artificial heaters. One has to get used to it a bit. Nevertheless, we entered the Ryokan and the hosts were a bit surprised that we booked – it seemed they just miss to check the bookings from booking.com. But they managed to get the room ready for us in a few minutes.

During the way up to the room they explained the background of Ryokan and when entering the room they described us how to use the room.

The room was way bigger than expected. We had a nice place to stow all our stuff, a nice kind of a balcony and a living/sleeping room. During the day we had a traditional Japanese table and chairs. During the evening the staff set up the Futon beds.

The room was very comfy. We were really happy that we’ve found such a nice place on short notice. Well, it wasn’t cheap but it included the Onsen and breakfast – and breakfast was huge!

So we enjoyed the first impression just as the staff came back to give us our traditional Japanese garment: Yukata. Yukata is a casual summer kimono.

The Yukata can be used everywhere. While walking around the city, while having dinner, and of course while going to the public bath. It was very comfy and kept one much warmer than expected.

Yeah, on the first day we arrived quite late in the afternoon so we first tried to have some dinner in the small village (as it was not included in our stay). Fortunately there are plenty of restaurants around. Not that many as in the bigger cities but still quite a good choice – if you are not running late. This evening we had a noodle soup.

Stuffed and a bit tired we took the chance to have a bath in the house internal Onsen. Public bathing is much more different than in Germany. In Japan there are several rules you have to follow to fully enjoy the experience and to adapt to the local culture. Luckily it is quite easy to find these rules. Our hosts provided us a nice cheat-sheet for the Onsen, as you can see on the image below.

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Public Onsen Guide

They told us that we should drink a glass of the hot water running in front of the Onsen out of a spring before entering the bath – so we did. We did once. For the other bathing sessions we didn’t drink again. It tasted like rotten eggs – same as it smelled. But we tried it at least!

As the Onsen are strictly separated by gender Bianca and I had to go to different rooms. This means in general each public bath has at least two bathtubs. In our Ryokan they switched the gender assignment at 9pm so that one can enjoy both of the bathtubs. When entering the Onsen for the first time it felt a bit strange. Not because I had to be naked; more because I wanted to stick to the guidelines as good as possible. I didn’t want to make a mistake. So in my case I was very happy that I had my first experience alone. No one was there when I entered.

The Onsen is strictly organized. So you leave your shoes (actually your slippers) at the entrance to the bath. Here you can dry your hair, shave your beard and stuff like this. Moving on to the next room you will find some racks for stowing your clothes. As you will only take a small towel with you into the Onsen you can just leave everything. In the public Onsen one can find lockers to store the stuff.

Well, then I started to clean myself sitting in the showering section. After that I started to splash myself with the soak (while seating!). Then I moved slowly into the bathtub. It was so hot! Still not the hottest as I would experience the next day. I tried to relax and changed my position slowly. Leaving the soak and coming back. All the time having only the small towel with me. One has to make sure that it won’t end up in the soak. For this I put it on my head as you can see on the image above. At the end I cleaned myself carefully while leaving a clean place behind. I took my stuff, dried my hair and went back to the lobby to wait until Bianca would join.

If you want to know more about how to use a public bath in Japan, try to check the web for some good guides. We’ve used a German one from Wanderweib.

This was our very first experience with a Japanese public bath. It was awesome. I really liked it. At the end of the day we just felt asleep as bathing in such a hot water is both exhausting and relaxing.

Luckily we had one more night to come meaning we could enjoy one more day (almost one and a half) in Nozawa Onsen.

Stay tuned for the next post – I hope it won’t take ages as this took.

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