Norikura Highland Onsen

Shirahone Onsen Guide Part II 白骨温泉, 長野

Greg Goodmacher

After donning warm yukata, comfortable Japanese robes, prepared for guests staying overnight at Awa no Yu, we strolled to an intimate room in the dining section of the hotel.

Our first dinner included many regional delicacies: slices of sashimi made from iwana, a type of freshwater char, locally grown buckwheat noodles, handmade tofu, yogurt milk, Japanese marbled beef, and more.

The most unique dish was a simple rice porridge, called okayu, that was cooked with hot spring water. Despite having lived in Japan for over two decades, it was my first time to enjoy this sweetly sulfurous rice dish. Awa no Yu's chefs also created tantalizing crunchy croquettes using the rice porridge. Probably, Shirahone Onsen is the only onsen village in Japan serving these delicacies.

River trout and other sashimi at Awa no Yu, Shirahone, Japan.
River trout and other sashimi at Awa no Yu

Sated, stuffed, and relaxed, our next desire was a bath under the winter sky. My male friend and I walked into the men's section and our wives into the female section. Long thick log-like beams supported the roof. Two rectangular wooden indoor baths were side by side in front of windows. One contained white water while the other was clear. After briefly soaking in these, we headed down the long thin hallway that connected the indoor baths with the outdoor bath.

We walked naked, except for a tiny thin towel that barely covered our privates, on bare feet over painfully cold icy flooring for about ten meters before exiting into a small steamy valley. Stepping into the hot water was heaven. Pillows of snow lay piled around a rock rimmed bath that could comfortably accommodate thirty people. Silhouettes of our wives approached through the mist from the entrance to the women's side. We joined in the center. The bashful ladies wore towels wrapped around the center of their bodies.

Bathing at Awa no Yu

One couple cuddled together along the bath's rim where hot water poured into the bath. Being one of the coldest nights of the year, the outdoor air temperature was too cold for my wife and friends, so they did not stay long. The water temperature, though, was around 36 Celsius. I stood under wooden troughs elevated above the bath.

Water gushing out of the troughs massaged the kinks out of my back, but the night air was cold enough to freeze the hair on my head. I headed back to the hottest indoor bath, which was over 40 Celsius. Refreshed, clean, and smelling slightly of sulfur, all of us returned to our rooms, where hotel staff had laid thick Japanese futons on tatami mats.

My room's lights illuminated the white forest outside a wide window. I sipped hot green tea in serenity. Despite the caffeine, I noticed that my muscles had slid into a jelly-like state. The warm futons on the tatami floor soon embraced me.

Enjoying Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Enjoying Norikura


After a morning feast in our private dining room, we cautiously drove our car up the slippery eight-kilometer route between Shirahone Onsen and Norikura Plateau, a nearby outdoor sports resort and park. We were expecting good conditions for snowshoe trekking. We discovered one of the best snowshoe trail systems in Japan.

Our first stop was the Norikura Visitor Center, on the right side of the road for drivers coming from Shirahone, to get directions to the famous frozen Zengoro Falls. Although the visitor center staff did not speak English, she showed us a multitude of English and Japanese pamphlets and brochures.

We discovered behind the visitor center and facing the ski resort a shop, called Little Peaks, which rents snowshoes, poles, and boots for only 1,000 yen for half a day. All day is 2,000 yen.

Owner and trekking guide Kuniyoshi Komine leads half-day tours for 5,000 per person and full-day tours for 9,000 yen. Tours include lunch. You can also rent skiing equipment for the Norikura Ski Resort, which you can see from almost anywhere in town.

Mr. Komine says that skiing and snowshoeing are usually possible from around Christmas to early-April, and he can arrange for back country tours all year round. In the heat of summer, you should try canyoning and rafting.

Zengoro Falls, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Norikurakogen Heights Guide Map, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

After checking out Little Peaks, we parked at the signposted trail head for Zengoro Falls. After rechecking the route on a large map sticking out of the snow, we started hiking. Trails are easily visible, so even first-time snowshoe trekkers need not fear getting lost.

Intermittently spaced along the trail are small metal poles that hikers are advised to strike together. The warning "Be careful of bears" is written on the poles. The ringing alerts bears to your presence, and bears prefer to avoid people. Ring those bells, people, to avoid potential conflict.

After about half an hour of easy meandering in the silent forest of beech, birch, and other snow laden trees, we came to a steep switchback that led to a ravine. Before seeing a stream, we heard it murmuring and splashing. A wooden bridge thickly covered with snow stretched over the ice-encrusted stream. Crystal water weaved its way up, over, and around ice.

Zengoro Falls

Zengoro Falls, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Zengoro Falls, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Standing in awe of Zengoro Falls, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Standing in awe of Zengoro Falls, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

Then, I spotted Zengoro Falls, standing majestically at the end of a white valley. Twenty years of snowshoe trekking had not prepared me for this awesome natural ice sculpture. My wife, always rushing ahead while I take photographs, was standing at the base. Compared to the over twenty-meter high frozen waterfall, she appeared Lilliputian.

I rushed forward so I could see, hear, and touch the presence of the waterfall. Though the outside was solidly frozen, flickering light beneath some parts of its icy columns indicated water flowing deeply below the exterior. Still wearing our snowshoes, we climbed the waterfall until steepness prevented our ascent. What would happen if the waterfall calved while we foolishly stood upon it? The waterfall seemed like a gigantic living being, and only my wife and friends shared the experience with me. It was one of those rare moments when you intimately sense the power and beauty of winter.

Zengoro Falls is one of many falls in Norikura. Great Bandokoro (40 meters), Sanbon (three connected waterfalls, and Zengoro are the three most famous. They all in turn become magical ice structures in winter. If you have the time and energy, you can visit all of them. In summer, you can swim in pools and hike upstream and downstream.

Zengoro Falls was the highlight of the day, but we also explored other trails of great beauty, strode confidently over a frozen Ushidome Pond, and slid down steep slopes on our butts. We hiked all day, stopping for a refreshing lunch of locally produced hot soba and tempura at Kyukamura Norikura-Kogen Hotel. While relishing our meals (less than 1,500 yen each), we enjoyed scenic mountain and forest views from our table. Satisfied, we continued exploring the snowy trails until late afternoon.

Ushidome Pond, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Standing on the ice at Ushidome Pond, Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Snowshoe sliding is great fun, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Snowshoe sliding is great fun, Norikura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

Access Getting to Shirahone

The largest city nearest to Shirahone is Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. You can get to Matsumoto by car, bus or train from both Tokyo and Nagoya in approximately three hours, but winter weather often bring delays.

Driving to Shirahone Onsen from Matsumoto takes about 1¼ hours in good conditions. The Alpico Bus Company operates one bus per day that runs between Shirahone and Matsumoto. If your goal is Awa no Yu Ryokan, get off the bus at the last stop, which is five minutes past the main bus stop for Shirahone. For more specific transportation details, click here.

Awa no Yu (in Japanese, English and Korean)
Shirahone-onsen, Azumi Matsumoto
Nagano 390-1515
Tel: 0263 93 2101

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