Yamanouchi: Chihiro, Monkeys & Onsen
My favourite film from the Ghibli studios is Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し). A number of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) inspired this anime fantasy, particularly Kanaguya, near the famous Jigokudani monkeys in the town of Yamanouchi (Nagano prefecture), within the maze of streets and hot springs known as Shibu Onsen.
This is a historic Japanese inn, there’s no doubt about that! However, in the late '70s it had become very gloomy and dilapidated inside. The monkeys had no difficulty squeezing themselves through the old wooden windows and were a real problem for guests. Kanaguya was no longer a comfortable place to stay and was about to close its doors.
Then the son of the former owner took over the inn, revamped, restored and reopened it, at a price affordable even for young people. When Chihiro moves there and enters the spirit world … the tourists willingly follow 🙂
Older Yamanouchi residents, however, have touching memories of the original Kanaguya inn. I certainly didn’t know it (hey, I'm not that old) but I've stayed there a couple of times.
The first visit was with my parents in 2009. We had misunderstood which were the public and which were the private baths and the four of us (my mum, dad, ex-girlfriend and me) ended up in a public bath. Japanese people were arriving naked and my mother quite naturally said: They look surprised but they can come in with us, can’t they? It was rather funny! That's the bath below.
After a good soak you’re entitled to a typical ryokan dinner. If you ask me the food looks better than it tastes, but it’s healthy, and an original experience if you’re not used to it.
And then back to the baths. Click on the rotenburo (outdoor bath), don’t you see something hidden? Such as a little hairy beastie? 🙂
Back to your room to sleep? No! Kanaguya is a virtual labyrinth, so I'd suggest drinking plenty of atsukan (hot sake) with your meal and refreshing yourself with beer after the last bath (or in the bath directly if it’s private), then you’ll appreciate losing yourself in the nooks and crannies of the old building.
If your heart’s still in it (bravo), go outside, and you can try Shibu Onsen’s public baths and explore its alleyways.
Shibu Onsen is part of Yamanouchi town, whose history goes back to 1303. The main paved street is surrounded by 25 ryokans and 9 public baths (which you can use free if you’re staying at a local ryokan).
The hot spring town was originally popular with priests from Kyoto for the healing properties of its waters. During the Edo period, samurai of the Sanada clan replaced them. The samurai were great onsen fans, and I suspect they were the main patrons.
Shibu Onsen became very popular after the Second World War, until the ’70s when the region grew rather old-fashioned and neglected. Cool 😉 Kanaguya, a few other ryokan and the village’s proximity to Jigokudani have now boosted its popularity.
To be honest, there isn’t much to do or places to eat … apart from a very special izakaya, Cyo-kun Izakaya, run by Toru-san. There’s no menu, the only offering is nanka (which means … “something”) at 500Y. You can drink beer (or whatever you want) and as long as you’re hungry, ask for nanka and he’ll serve you something. Be prepared, he likes to talk, his cooking is simple, neither fancy nor romantic. But you’ll have a great time together 😉
Do I need to introduce you to Jigokudani? No, I didn’t think so. It’s an extremely touristy place where monkeys warm themselves up bathing in a relatively small hot spring.
Don’t get the wrong idea, they’re there because they’re well fed so as to contribute to the local economy 🙂 But it’s a friendly place that lends itself to original photos.
I know many of you have visited Jigokudani, so what did you think of it?