Surrounded by mountains, Matsumoto City has a wealth of hot spring sources. Among them, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉) tops the list with its picturesque natural scenery and cultural elements. Putting its somewhat scary name aside, you will surely be enchanted by the onsen town’s charm!
Shirahone Onsen is located at the foot of the northern Japanese Alps. With Kamikōchi at its north and Norikura Kōgen just a 20-minute drive away, the onsen town is well-known to the Japanese, but not many foreign travelers are aware of its existence.
The milky hot spring has a weak acidity that is gentle to your skin. Drinking the hot spring has many health benefits as well, including better blood circulation to the digestive system and relieving constipation.
When you plan your trip, remember to refer to the below list of attractions and ryokans!
- Shirahone Onsen Sanjūsan Kannon (白骨温泉三十三観音)
- Ryūjin Falls (竜神の滝)
- Tsuitooshi Tunnel and Kansuikei Valley (隧通し・冠水渓)
- Hot Spring Spout Mounds and Spherical Limestones (Funtōkyū・Kyūjō Sekkaiseki, 噴湯丘・球状石灰岩)
- Yakushi-dō (薬師堂)
- Awa no Yu Ryokan (泡の湯旅館)
- Konashinoyu Sasaya (小梨の湯 笹屋)
- Ryokan Maruei (かつらの湯丸永旅館)
- Tsuribashi no Yado Sansuikan Yugawasō (つり橋の宿 山水観 湯川荘)
- Shirafunesō Shintaku Ryokan (白船荘新宅旅館)
The Fall Foliage Season at Shirahone Onsen
The fall foliage season usually peaks from mid to the end of October.
How to Get to Shirahone Onsen by Public Transportation
To Shirahone Onsen by public transportation from Matsumoto involves a few transfers.
From Matsumoto, take Matsumoto Dentetsu to get to Shin-shimashima Station (新島々駅). Then, change for Alpico’s bus services to Sawando Bus Terminal (さわんどBT). From Sawando Bus Terminal, change for Alpico’s Shirahone Onsen line. From, there, the bus trip takes around 15 minutes.
HERE is the timetable for the service. The cost for a return trip from Matsumoto is 4,520 yen (2,260 yen for a one-way trip). Bus fare for children between the age of 6 to 11 is around half of the adult’s fare. From Shin-shimashima, a return trip will cost 3,100 yen (1,550 yen for a one-way trip).
Visiting Shirahone Onsen from Norikura Kōgen
If you are coming from or going to Norikura Kōgen, you can also get to Shirahone Onsen by transferring at Sawando Bus Terminal.
HERE is the timetable for the service. The cost for a one-way trip from Matsumoto is 480 yen. Bus fare for children between the age of 6 to 11 is half of the adult’s fare.
Where Did the Onsen Town Get its Scary Name from?
If you read some Japanese/Chinese characters, you might be scared off when you see the onsen resort’s name because “白骨” can literally mean white bones. How it got its horrifying name has something to do with the minerals in the hot spring.
The onsen at Shirahone is initially transparent. However, because it contains hydrogen sulfide and calcium, it turns cloudy when the spring comes into contact with the air.
The hot spring source was discovered in the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333). As time passed, people started seeing white lime crystalized on the surface of the wooden boat placed above the hot spring. So the region was named Shirafune (白船), meaning white boat.
Somehow, before you realize it, Shirafune becomes Shirabone…(´▽｀*)
Hot Spring Fountain and Hot Spring Porridge (温泉粥)
Consuming a slight amount of white sulfur and carbonic acid can improve blood flow in the digestive organs. This means your organs will function better, and thus, it is effective in relieving constipation.
In Shirahone Onsen, two onsen fountains are installed for public use to make it more convenient for everyone to obtain the hot spring to drink. Furthermore, at many ryokans and restaurants, you can taste Shirahone Onsen’s specialty, the hot spring porridge (Onsen-gayu, 温泉粥)!
Apparently, the rotten egg smell of the sulfur-based onsen will disappear after the hot spring is cooked
If you are staying overnight at Shirahone Onsen, the ryokan will most likely serve you Onsen-gayu for breakfast.
Shirahone Onsen Sanjūsan Kannon (白骨温泉三十三観音)
The first attraction closest to Shirahone Onsen bus stop is the 33 Kannon Bodhisattva statues.
Just steps away in the large car park to the right of the bus stop, the statues made in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) are placed opposite the public toilets. They were offered by the guests who had benefited from the hot spring’s medical property to show their appreciation.
In the past, when medical resources were limited, most Japanese relied on hot springs to cure wounds and recover from illness. It was said that if you indulge in the hot spring for three days in a row, you won’t catch a cold for the next three years!
Ryūjin Falls (竜神の滝)
Ryūjin means ‘a dragon god’ in Japanese. So you might be expecting something really magnificent. But betraying your expectations, the word ‘elegant’ is probably more suitable to describe this waterfall.
Just a 2-minute walk from Shirahone Onsen Sanjūsan Kannon, Ryūjin Falls flows smoothly over the moss-covered limestone slope next to the prefectural road. Consisting of strings of water falling across the wide rock surface, the waterfall is known as a spiritual spot where the dragon god who looks after the water lives.
While you might not find the 20-meter tall waterfall impressive, if you include the limestone caverns on the rock surface and the greenery that the water flows over, it is overall a gorgeous picture that nature has painted for us.
Apart from the early spring’s fresh green and the vivid fall, the best time to adore Ryūjin Falls is between January and February, when it becomes an icefall.
Again, different from our stereotype, the frozen Ryūjin Falls look more like stalagmites in limestone caves than like a large ice curtain. If you walk directly below it, you might worry that those sharp icicles will drop on you…
Tsuitooshi Tunnel and Kansuikei Valley (隧通し・冠水渓)
Walking further down for around 5 minutes from Ryūjin Falls, One of the spots in Shirahone Onsen that almost all tourists will visit is the natural wonder, Tsuitooshi Tunnel, and Kansuikei Valley.
Due to the continuous erosion by the Yu River (湯川), a tunnel was formed at the bottom of a limestone cliff. The mountain stream that flows out of the 6 meters tall and 20 meters long tunnel is named Kansuikei. Standing at the bridge above the river, watching the dynamic water flow out of the tunnel, you will feel the mighty power of nature!
From the closest car park/Shirahone Onsen stop, the narrow promenade is built along the Kansuikei River. You might not realize it, but the bus stop where you came from is actually just at the top of the tunnel!
Important: The earthen road is slippery, especially after rain. It is best to trek on it with a pair of sneakers. Also, be aware the observatory is aging.
How to Get to Tsuitooshi Tunnel and Kansuikei Valley
The trailhead is located around 100 meters away from the bus stop, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉) or Shirahone Onsen Tourist Center (白骨温泉ご案内処). Facing the bus stop/Tourist Center, it is the road at your right that you need to follow (prefectural road).
Hot Spring Spout Mounds and Spherical Limestones (Funtōkyū・Kyūjō Sekkaiseki, 噴湯丘・球状石灰岩)
今日から北アルプスの線状凹地を掘る調査。リーダーのT先生以下、メンバーが松本集結。まずは白骨温泉の噴湯丘や石灰華を見学。凹凸のある地形で崩壊地形と紛らわしい。 pic.twitter.com/4hcMsnzkBi— 苅谷愛彦 Yoshi Kariya (@yoshi_kariya) September 17, 2018
The hidden attraction in Shirahone Onsen is the Water Spout Mounds and Spherical Limestones on one side of the road. If no signs are placed next to it, most people will walk straight past this Special National Natural Monument.
Because Shirahone’s hot spring contains rich calcium carbonate, a hill-like terrain is gradually formed as the precipitation of lime calcium carbonate continues. In the area, there are more than 100 such special terrains.
Although non of the hot spring spouts in Shirahone are active anymore, something unique to the town is the shape of such accumulates. Instead of a hill shape, the sediment close to Sirafuneso Grand Hotel (白船グランドホテル) is in the shape of a sphere with diameters from millimeters to four or five centimeters.
As a side note, it is said that the hot spring spouts in Shirahone Onsen were formed around 350 million years ago.
Although not marked on Google Maps, another place where you can see the special phenomenon is at the back of Ryokan Maruei (かつらの湯丸永旅館).
If you are interested, check with the ryokan staff.
On the ground of Shirahone Onsen Yumopto Saitō Ryokan (白骨温泉 湯元齋藤旅館), the small but gorgeous Yakushi-dō enshrines the Healing Buddha. Erected in 1702, the Buddha has been worshiped by visitors who came to Shirahone Onsen for the hot spring’s medical benefits. Nowadays, many tourists also come here to pray for health-related matters.
Tip: The doors of Yakushi-dō are normally closed. If you want to see the Healing Buddha, come on the 8th of June.
How to Get to Shirahone Yakushi-dō
Yakushi-dō and Shirahone Onsen Yumopto Saitō Ryokan are located at the far end of Shirahone Onsen. In front of the ryokan, there is a small hill. The worship hall is just at the top of 20 staircases.
From Shirahone Visitor Center, it is around a 15-minute walk.
The Accommodations in Shirahone Onsen
If your schedule allows for it, spend a relaxing night at Shirahone Onsen to enjoy all the onsen town has to offer. But before you hit that “book” button, here are a few things to watch out for:
- Not all ryokans can cater to special dietary requirements. If a ryokan can entertain the request, please let them know in advance what you can’t eat
- Many of the guestrooms in Shirahone Onsen don’t come with a shower facility and/or bathtub. This means if you have booked one of those rooms, you will need to utilize the communal hot spring pools
- Most ryokans have thin walls. If you are sensitive to noise, it might be a better idea to stay at Shirafune Grand Hotel (白船グランドホテル)
- A few ryokans/hotels provide free pick-up and drop-off services (especially in winter). Please check with the ryokan if the service is available and book the service with them in advance
Awa no Yu Ryokan (泡の湯旅館)
Although Awa no Yu is located away from the town center, it is the ryokan that represents Shirahone Onsen. In fact, the biggest onsen pool in Nagano Prefecture is found at Awa no Yu!
The ryokan, which was opened in 1912, is known for its mixed-gender hot spring pool. But don’t worry, you can wrap yourself up with a thick towel for bathing. You are not expected to go in there naked.
If you have seen the Ghibli movie Spirited Away, you will get excited when you see how the hot spring fills the pool in the photo. Yes, it looks exactly the same as what was used in the anime, where the hot spring flows from long wooden box sections!
The Female Changeroom
To make it more comfortable for female guests to utilize the mix-gender onsen pool, more efforts have been put into the construction of the female changeroom.
Firstly, the bath towels we have mentioned, which can be worn into the onsen pool, are placed in a basket in one corner. The specially made towels are made with materials that hardly absorb water. So, when you move around in the pool, it is less likely to fall off.
Secondly, you can go straight into the onsen pool from the changeroom. So by the time people in the mixed-gender pool see you, they can only see what you choose to leave above the water. Everything below the water is invisible to others, thanks to the hot spring’s milky color.
If you look carefully at the photo, the house at the far end of the onsen pool has a blue curtain attached. Beyond the curtain is the female changeroom.
The Other Hot Spring Pools in Awa no Yu
Obviously, if you aren’t comfortable bathing in the same pool with the opposite gender, there are gender-separated hot spring pools, open-air or indoor. Furthermore, if you want some private bathing time, remember to reserve one of the higher-grade guestrooms with a bathtub.
If you are comfortable with public bathing, we would recommend at least getting into the larger indoor pool once. This is about how the hot spring is distributed throughout the ryokan. The larger indoor pool is the only place in the ryokan where you can enjoy the hot spring directly from the spring source. Because the spring’s temperature at the spring source is only around 38 degrees, all other pools in the ryokan have the hot spring heated up beforehand. This is why the color of the larger indoor pool is more transparent. Heating is another factor that makes the hot spring change color.
So if you want to benefit from the outstanding quality of fresh hot springs, stop by the indoor public bath. It is gender-separated.
In the onsen pool, you will discover why the ryokan was named “Awa no Yu”, which means bubbly bath. The spring that contains carbon dioxide gas will stick tightly to your body. No matter how many bubbles you poke, new ones will continue to form!
Awa no Yu’s Best Guestrooms
For our female friends, the best guestrooms in Awa no Yu are located on the 3rd floor of the new building. Not only is the interior design more elegant, but you can enjoy a variety of toiletries and use the cute Japanese-style bag to carry whatever you deem necessary to the public bathing pools.
On top of that, there are two sets of Yukata (a casual Kimono). One set is for you to wear inside the ryokan and the other set is for sleeping.
To reserve, please head to their official website HERE. When you book, look for the options that say “Deluxe” or “Superior”. One of the photos attached to the option should be a set of clothing fabrics.
Making a Day Trip to Awa no Yu
If staying overnight at Awa no Yu isn’t what you want to do, you can also enjoy the hot spring during the day from 10:30 am to 2 pm (the last admission is at 1:30 pm). You will just need to bring your towels unless you are happy to pay extras. Please be aware that the special towels for the mixed-gender pool won’t be free for day visitors either.
How to Get to Awa no Yu Ryokan
If you are taking Alpico’s bus, instead of getting off at Shirahone Onsen, please get off at Awanoyu (泡の湯).
Konashinoyu Sasaya (小梨の湯 笹屋)
For those who want to enjoy a private outdoor onsen pool, Konashinoyu Sasaya, which isn’t too far away from Awa no Yu, is the ryokan you will want to spend a night in. Although only for 30 minutes, it is the only hot spring facility in Shirahone Onsen where daytime visitors can enjoy an open-air private onsen session!
From the time you check in to 10 pm and from 7 am to 9:30 am, as long as the signs “只今露天風呂は空いております。ご利用ください”, feel free to proceed further to the private onsen pool. The sign means the open-air pool is vacated; please enjoy.
☛ Remember to slide the sign before you go in, so it says “只今入浴中の為、しばらくお待ちください”. This is to notify people that you are inside. And please slide the sign back when you come out.
☛ Although there won’t be anyone there timing your session, please follow the 30-minute rule so others can enjoy some private bathing time too.
Just note that the private bath isn’t in the main building but in the annex a few meters away. This means on a rainy day, you might want to bring an umbrella with you if you don’t want to dash.
Tip: Remember to check with the staff if the drinks in the fridge in the resting space are still free.
Important: If you plan to stay at Konashinoyu Sasaya during the fall foliage season, make a reservation as early as possible to avoid disappointment. The ryokan receives bookings as early as one year in advance.
Making a Day Trip to Konashinoyu Sasaya
As a day customer, from 11 am to 2 pm, you can rent out one of the three onsen pools at Konashinoyu Sasaya, the outdoor pool Konashi no Yu (小梨の湯 露天風呂), and the indoor pools Dono no Yu (殿の湯 内湯) and Hime no Yu (姫の湯 内湯). Again, each session is 30 minutes only.
The cost is 700 yen per person.
☛ As there are days when the facility is closed for daytime visitors, please call to confirm the availability at +81-263-93-2132.
☛ They currently cannot accommodate special dietary requirements.
How to Get to Konashinoyu Sasaya
From the bus stop, Awanoyu (泡の湯), it is around a 3-minute walk.
Ryokan Maruei (かつらの湯丸永旅館)
Similar to Awa no Yu next door, Ryokan Maruei is another ryokan with a mixed-gender outdoor bath. And yes, the female guests get to hide their bodies underneath the milky hot spring before they go past the long curtain into the outdoor area.
One thing to note is, Ryokan Maruei’s outdoor bath is rather small. So you might still feel awkward even with the towels and hot spring blocking the view from others.
But, the great thing about Ryokan Maruei is a relatively more friendly price tag. And, paying less doesn’t mean you will receive less than top-notch hospitality. The staff here do their best to look after their guests that many visitors become a repeater after their first stay!
Tip: Please confirm with the staff if you can still rent out a private onsen pool.
How to Get to Ryokan Maruei
Ryokan Maruei is just opposite Awa no Yu. From the bus stop, Awanoyu (泡の湯), it is around a 2-minute walk.
Tsuribashi no Yado Sansuikan Yugawasō (つり橋の宿 山水観 湯川荘)
If you would like to stay in a guestroom with a river view, Tsuribashi no Yado Sansuikan Yugawasō is the ryokan you will want to book a stay with. It is the only ryokan in Shirahone Onsen that is situated at the side of a river.
The ryokan also has three (two in winter) open-air and one indoor private onsen pool that you can rent out. All of them are free of extra charges to ryokan guests.
☛ If you plan to utilize the private onsen pools, remember to lock the door, so others know there is someone inside.
☛ Their guestrooms don’t come with a shower facility.
☛ The ryokan might not have English-speaking staff stationed. It would be helpful to the ryokan if you can speak basic Japanese.
Tip: If you would like to enjoy your dinner in your room, they can accommodate this request at an extra 5,000 yen per person.
How to Get to Tsuribashi no Yado Sansuikan Yugawasō
From the bus stop, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), it is just a one-minute walk.
Shirafunesō Shintaku Ryokan (白船荘新宅旅館)
Shirafunesō Shintaku Ryokan is one of the older ryokans in Shirahone Onsen. Opened in 1865, the ryokan’s public hot spring pool is made of Japanese cypress.
Located on high ground, the ryokan is surrounded by a forest, home to many wildlife, such as squirrels. Another rather unique thing about Shirafunesō Shintaku Ryokan is its dinner. Instead of rice, the staple food is soba noodles, which Nagano Prefecture is famous for.
Moreover, Shirafunesō Shintaku Ryokan is another hot spring facility where you can rent out one of their private onsen pools. When you check in, let the staff know you want to book the family bath Konashi (こなし). This is because Konashi has two small pools, one indoor, and one outdoor. The other family pool Sumomo (すもも) only has an indoor pool.
Important: They currently cannot accommodate special dietary requirements.
How to Get to Shirafunesō Shintaku Ryokan
From the bus stop, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), it is around a 10-minute walk.
Other Ryokans that Have Private Onsen Pools
If having access to a private onsen pool is a must for you, here are a few more ryokans/hotels (not a complete list) in Shirahone Onsen where you can do so.
- Shirafune Grand Hotel (白船グランドホテル)
- Extra charges will be incurred
- In winter, the hotel provides free pick-up and drop-off service from JR Matsumoto Station. Please reserve with the hotel your spot if you require this service
- They can accommodate special dietary requirements. Please let the hotel know in advance
- Shirahone Onsen Yumoto Saitō Ryokan (白骨温泉 湯元齋藤旅館)
Also, we just want to call out that Shirahone Ebisuya (白骨ゑびすや) provides free pick-up and drop-off service from JR Matsumoto Station. And, it can accommodate special dietary requirements. But note the ryokan doesn’t have private onsen pools.
Enjoy the Beautiful Nature at Norikura Kōgen (乗鞍高原)
Shirahone Onsen is a perfect place for relaxation and rejuvenation. However, spending a whole day in this small town seems excessive.
So, how about spending the daytime and hiking through the breathtaking nature in Norikura Kōgen, Matsumoto’s hidden gem?
For more information, please refer to our article on Norikura Kōgen!
Explore Other Fascinating Attractions in Matsumoto City
Wonder what else in Matsumoto is worth your time? Check out our list of selected attractions in Matsumoto that you won’t want to miss out on.
There are a couple of places where you can source delicious natural water from in the city center, an art museum filled with Kusama Yayoi’s eye-opening contemporary artworks, places perfect for cherry blossom and fall foliage hunting, and a lot more!
For more information, please refer to our article on Matsumoto!