Do you know Shirahone?
Big chance you’ve heard of Nagano. Yep, correct; the location of the 1992-winter-olympics. Now Matsumoto. A little harder already. Maybe less if you have been thinking about traveling to Japan before. It is a pleasant town in Nagano province, right in the Japanese Alps, that has one of the few remaining Japanese castles. Now images of ninja and samurai spring to mind right? So Matsumoto is generally on an itinerary for those who dare venture away from the Tokyo-Fuji-Kyoto-axis. Especially when kids are in on the game. But how about Shirahone?
‘show us a rock and we will cut through it’
Matsumoto is a very camper-friendly city so if you haven’t yet, read this post about it later. Now we are just driving out of the Matsumoto-area, after having enjoyed a wasabi-burger at a wasabi farm. (Yes, that is inside that other post too). The mountains are calling! Up goes the road, quiet and curvy but well maintained as usual in Japan. It is only about 50 km but the views are great and as mentioned, the road twists and turns. Signage is clear, the gps even clearer. We stop for a bit on a large dam that creates an ice-blue lake, just before a tunnel. Once inside that tunnel I tick the box for a novelty; a junction coming up, inside the mountain! Sometimes I think the national road-builders-motto is ‘show us a rock and we will cut through it.’
Closer to Shirahone there is a scream from the backseat; “Papa! Monkeys!” And indeed, in the trees, and after we stop on the road too, is a dozen of monkeys. Big and small, babies watching us while hanging from under their mums. The big and mean-looking alpha male, or is it an alpha-female, is keeping watch. Japanese macaques are fairly common but fun to watch, especially the boys love them. Generally they are not afraid of people, often because people cannot restrain themselves from feeding them. Which you should not do please. They don’t need it, not even in winter and it makes them dependable if we do. After this troupe we reach the village without further surprises.
Shirahone is very small, it is not really a village as it lacks a centre, shops even. It is more like a collections of traditional inns on and inside a couple of mountain cracks, high up in the southern Japanese Alps. The location is amazing during foliage season, in autumn, when leaves turn red and yellow and 50 shades in between. The rest of the year it is just an ordinary kind of fantastic. Although I imagine covered in snow would be rather wonderful too!
Creamy, silky milk water
Shirahone is a hot spring or onsen town and means something like ‘white bone.’ This refers to the milky, creamy looking waters bubbling up here. Health benefits are attributed to bathing here but I cannot testify to that. I do know it leaves you all nice and warm, and your skin feels all silky and smooth. For days after! Kid’s benefits are simply that it is fun to soak in a bath that looks like a bowl of hot milk, steaming porridge or even miso soup. Or whatever they come up with once they’ve started. Hot springs are not usually free and actually can cost quite a bit if they are fancy ones. So we always combine the pleasure with the cleansing-necessity, meaning go-out-and-explore first, and enjoy-a-good-soak after.
Take a hike
Several hikes are possible around Shirahone, but since I carried Tom (then 2 years old) on my back I decided to keep things simple by just following the trail where the road ends. Easy to return whenever I felt it was enough. It trails through the forest, up and up, high over the ryokan and gorges. Every now and then I found a clearing and could look way over the valleys below. Different kind of trees and rock formations caused Tom to point excitedly and although we did not see any, I felt a monkey-presence. So I carried a stick just in case. As I learned from experience, making noise with it by banging onto a rock or tree is enough to keep overly curious monkeys at bey. It worked well on holy mountains in China and touristy caves in Malaysia, so for the local Shirahone monkeys with a far less touristy background it should be fine. After an hour or so we tempted our faith with a little picnic but no hairy visitors joined, too bad.
Back down, just under the parking area is a short trail to a bridge high over a stream. A noisy waterfall completes the scene. It makes a fun little adventure for kids but do keep them close as on all trails and bridges, these are not meant to be kid-proof.
Onsen-time, Koshu rotenburo
You can peek into the onsen deep down in the gorge from the side of the road. No worries, it is too far to see much and, it exposes the male-area only. Starting down the steps across from the tourist booth and soon you can smell the healing qualities of the Shirahone hot spring. It is a small facility, nestled at the bottom of a cleft, on a riverbank. Water comes out of the rock face too, leaving colourful patterns from the various minerals in the water.
Buy your ticket at the desk, and say bye-for-now to your better-half. A couple of lockers at the entrance of the small dressing room, and baskets to place your clothes in. Outside, facing the stream, are a couple of washing facilities and for sure by now you have already peeked around the corner to see the small but inviting pool. Enjoy!
At the parking for the night
A welcoming sign awaits at the small parking lot; beware of bears! We did not get to see any but then we didn’t leave any food out to make an encounter too obvious. But seriously, I have seen a fair share of these signs but yet have to meet my first honey-loving mammal. That said, Asiatic black bears are known to be aggressive, especially when you surprise them, so hiking with a little bell tingling from your pack, as many locals do, is advised.
About this camp spot; I didn’t find any other scary signs, the toilets are clean and even have heated seats! The parking surface is flat and as the size of the village suggests, it is quiet even though you are next to the main road. So, oyasuminasai, good night!
At the entrance, exit and centre of town (all-in-one) is a tourism information booth. Not always open and surely no English speaking staff but useful for maps and leaflets with ideas which you can always pick up.
The mentioned parking is small and free with toilet facilities just across from it. The public hot spring is right inside the gorge, down a of hundred or so steep steps. Outside-bath, no mixed bathing. Note that this is closed from December to March. You can bath in a ryokan instead.
There are no shops, save for some souvenirs. No convenience store even.
Full details below, in the Ride Summary
Shirahone is only about 50 kilometers from Matsumoto, the friendly castle town on the way to Tokyo to Nagano. Once out of the valley it is up and up, on a good but curvy and beautiful road. With a stop at a lake, taking pictures of monkeys and views it will take you about a 1.5 leisurely hours.
Onwards, to for example Takayama, would be a similar trip, but you can easily make it into a full day with a hike or other stops.
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