A visit to Bessho onsen in Nagano prefecture is like journeying back in time. Regarded as one of the oldest onsen regions in Nagano, the day was full of contrasting experiences from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Just over 2 hours from Tokyo, you can easily access this historic town by the Shinkansen and then transfer at Ueda to the Ueda Dentetsu line, a lovely little 2 car train that gently meanders across the Shioda plains with beautiful views of snow capped mountain ranges in the distance.
Upon reaching Bessho Onsen, you have the choice of a number of onsen ryokan for overnight stays or you may choose to wander around the little streets and visit the 3 historical onsen which believe it or not only charge 150 yen entrance fees. Alternatively there is Aisomenoyu which is a modern onsen centre and charges 500yen entrance fee. I chose the historical route….
What a quaint old traditional onsen. At the door, you buy a ticket to enter the bathouse for 150yen and as you step inside you hand it in as you enter. For 150 yen you can imagine that the services are quite limited with no shampoo, soap or body creams available. Additionally there was no shower heads to use for washing yourself down, but rather just the little buckets and taps. The locals all come equipped with their little baskets and towels. Luckily for me they sold little cakes of soap for 20 yen as I had not brought anything! There was a small rotenburo (open air bath) as well as a little indoor bath. Overall it was a lovely experience although it was quite small and there are no relaxation areas to rest after the bath.
Ishiyu is another little onsen of similar size located a little further up the hill. Again it was the same system with the ticket machine out the front, and a person sitting to welcome you and take your ticket as you enter. “Ishi” mans stone, so as the name suggests, the bath was set in stones.
As with most traditional onsen towns, make sure you enjoy the footbath. It truly is amazing how relaxing, warming and energising it can be to sit with your feet in a onsen footbath after walking around town exploring.
Daishiyu was the last of the 3 onsen visited for the day. From the front of the building, you could see a lady perched on a tatami mat between the male and female bath entrances. This scene reminded me of my childhood onsen visits when it wasn’t unusual to have the bath house owner perched right up on top of the room overlooking both male and female bath houses.
“Kamakura of Nagano”
The town of Bessho Onsen has over 1400 years history and due to a number of its cultural assets, it is often regarded at the “Kamakura of Nagano”. All of the temples and shrines are within easy walking distance from the station, and many offer beautiful views across the plains and mountains. It is ever so quiet and peaceful. Dotted along the streets were the occasional art gallery or little restaurant however the town is refreshingly free of over commercialism with tourist stores
Soba to finish the day
Nagano is famous for its buckwheat noodles (Soba). After 3 baths and over 10km of wandering around Bessho onsen, it is easy to build up an appetite! It was amazing how good a 570 yen bowl of noodles at the train station was just before boarding the shinkansen for the trip back to Tokyo.