Getting to the hot-springs town of Shibu Onsen is not difficult. First get to JR Nagano Station and then switch to the Nagano Electric Railway (Nagano Dentetsu). One of its local trains then slowly and gently rocks you until, an hour later, you find yourself at Yudanaka-eki, the terminus station. From there a seven-minute bus ride delivers you to your destination of Shibu Onsen, a famous hot-springs resort that boasts a history of over 1,300 years.
Situated in the north of Nagano Prefecture, this popular hot-springs resort is known for its cobblestone streets and old-fashioned charm. Home to some thirty-seven springs, it's a place where you can enjoy a variety of 'waters' at nine soto-yu (literally 'outside baths.') 'Outside', however, does not mean that they are outdoor; it just means that they are not located on the premises of ryokan (inns), which, of course, have their own baths for the exclusive use of their guests. These 'outside' common baths are what the locals use for daily bathing, and they have lovingly maintained them since time immemorial. The nine are Hatsu-yu, Sasa-no-yu, Wata-no-yu, Take-no-yu, Matsu-no-yu, Mearai-no-yu, Nanakuri-no-yu, Jimmyotaki-no-yu, and O-yu.
With the exception of O-yu, which is open to one and all, the use of these baths is restricted to the locals. However, if you are a guest of one of Shibu Onsen's designated inns, you will be given a master key that allows you to make the circuit of these baths free of charge. Moreover, if you successfully complete the nine-bath circuit, it is said that your cares and woes will be washed away, sickness will be warded off, childbirth will be easy, and you'll live to a ripe old age. Finally, if you worship at Shibu-Takarakushi, a temple enshrining a Healing Buddha, all your wishes will be fulfilled.
When all is said and done, however, the soto-yu circuit's main charm is that it gives you the chance to enjoy nine baths, each with its own unique characteristics. The colors of the various waters, as well as their beneficial properties, are different. But, even better, all this delightful hot water gushes forth 100% in its natural, unadulterated state. This is something that can only be found at a site blessed with an abundance of water.
The soto-yu baths are open from 6 am to 10 pm (O-yu is open to the general public from 10 am to 4 pm.) Bath capacity varies from bath to bath: the smallest can hold three to four people, while the biggest can accommodate seven to eight. The bathhouses are simple structures featuring only a tub. There are no showers. There are also no attendants: bathers let themselves in and out using the key that they borrowed from their inn. In addition, the temperature of the water is generally very high. Although it's usually considered uncouth to do so, you might find it necessary to add some cold water.