Guesthouse Raicho was one of those places you wished you could stay for one more night, at the very least. Their hot springs were the most fabulous part of our stay but it definitely wasn’t the only thing we liked about the accommodation.
We first zeroed in on Norikura Kogen as one of the destinations for our winter trip. I really wanted to do something specific to the season and Norikura Kogen was one of those destinations that kept turning up in my searches. Turned out, it was easily accessible from Matsumoto, one of our planned stops via the JR east Nagano-Niigata pass.
Guesthouse Raicho was one of the accommodations which offered guided tours in the region. I wasn’t about to attempt venturing in unfamiliar snow terrain without an experienced guide so I thought Guesthouse Raicho was a great choice. And it turned out better than expected!
How to get to Norikura Kogen and Guesthouse Raicho?
Getting to Norikura Kogen is fairly simple from Matsumoto and will take you about 90 minutes by train and bus. If you’re coming from Tokyo, it will take more than 4 hours so I highly recommend a stopover in Matsumoto in between.
The super quick guide on how to get there:
From Matsumoto train station — take the Matsumoto Electric Railway to Shin-shimashima station — take the Alpico bus to Norikura Kogen visitor center
Now for the detailed version:
We purchased two round trip passes from the Matsumoto bus terminal which cost 3300 yen per person. Thankfully they accepted credit card payments! We bought the passes only on the day of departure since we were told by the staff that they couldn’t be bought in advance.
After purchasing the tickets, we crossed opposite from the bus terminal to the Matsumoto train station to catch the electric railway.
The train goes through a couple of stops in the countryside…
Before arriving at the Shin-shimashima station after approximately 30 minutes.
Right next to the station was a small bus terminal where we caught the bus that brought us up to Norikura Kogen.
The bus meandered around the mountains, treating us to fantastic views of Azusa lake and its surrounding dams before arriving at the Norikura Kogen visitor centre about 45 minutes later.
Here’s the view from the stop where we alighted.
It took us a bit of walking to find Guesthouse Raicho and I’d advise contacting them beforehand to see if they could pick you up from the bus stop. We took nearly 30 minutes to find the guesthouse when Google estimated only 8 minutes on foot. 😅
For the full train and bus schedule, click here.
What we liked about Guesthouse Raicho
Guesthouse Raicho worked out to be about $140 for the night we stayed. I could have gotten a basic room in Matsumoto for $60 that night which I almost settled for but nearby lodges or guesthouses would have set me back by $200 at least.
Given that I could have settled for something for less than half the price, I initially thought it was rather pricey but I was willing to fork out more for the experience. However, during my stay, I came to realized that the price was extremely reasonable; I would even say I got the room at a steal!
Private hot springs
One of the reasons I felt so was the hot springs at Guesthouse Raicho. I always wanted to go to a Japanese onsen but was a little shy about the public bath experience. There were places which offered private onsens but those were usually a lot pricier.
Over at Raicho, they found a balance between the price point of their accommodations and the needs of overseas guests who may not be accustomed to public baths. And that would be designated private bath times!
They have a chalkboard at their reception where you can book half-hour slots for both their indoor and outdoor baths. The indoor baths are private for two hours in the evening while the outdoor one is private throughout the operation period.
Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to try both!
Indoor bath at Guesthouse Raicho
The indoor baths were segregated by gender. There was the classic bath area with a small wooden tub and a low stool for you to wash yourself before the dip.
Their onsens were sulphuric so the guesthouse placed large foil sheets over the onsen to maintain the temperature. It was my first time trying the onsen and I was shocked by the temperature. I was totally convinced that I will be scalded. 😂
But of course, it was totally safe. I got used to the temperature by pouring buckets of the water over myself before entering. And once I got in? It was the most comfortable feeling ever and it was reinvigorating.
Outdoor bath at Guesthouse Raicho
The outdoor bath was actually kind of fun.
First, you have to go outdoors to a small room in the blistering cold a short distance away from the onsen to strip down. Guesthouse Raicho allows their guests to enjoy the outdoor onsen with swimsuits. This is a rare exception in a country with really strict rules about how to enjoy their onsens.
We literally had to sprint from the room to the bath in order not to freeze ourselves to deaths.
But it was all good once we entered the bath. It was such a surreal feeling, to be submerged in comforting warmth of the sulphuric waters, heads in the cold, alone in the dark and silence, surrounded by snow.
Similar to the indoor onsen, the guesthouse also placed foil sheets over the water to maintain its temperature. We got into a frenzy when a strong gust of wind threatened to blow the sheets away. Thankfully, we reacted fast and held on to it before it disappeared into the darkness.
I’ll definitely do this again if I get the chance and I highly recommend everyone to try it!
Comfortable rooms in Guesthouse Raicho
Throughout this Japan trip, we’ve been staying mostly in business hotels where the rooms were cramped and the air was generally dry, characteristic of winter and air-conditioned rooms.
We booked the economy room in Guesthouse Raicho and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a spacious tatami room. That alone, was a notch above the business hotel rooms. There was ample space to lay two futons, house a kotatsu (a low wooden table with electric heater on the underside), a heater and two chairs. The room was simply but adequately furnished.
Only their family rooms had en-suite washrooms. Guests in the economy rooms and shared rooms would have to share a common toilet. It was clean and we didn’t really have to wait to use the washrooms, perhaps due to the limited rooms they offered.
The air also had some humidity. Together with the thick futon and weighted blankets, the room was just exceedingly comfortable to sleep in.
And the KOTATSU!
It was simply magical. We saw it a lot in Japanese dramas and anime and as with the onsen and tatami room, this was our first time experiencing its magic. It was soooo comfortable to sit around the table and stick your legs underneath the warmed table.
Cozy, well-furnished common areas
We didn’t get to use the common areas as much as we’d like since we were only there for less than 24 hours and most of our time was spent in the onsens or resting. Unfortunately.
The reception was decorated with what appeared to be souvenirs from around Japan. They also had a couple of chalkboards scribbled with handwritten welcome notes and information for guests. The whole place was exuding a cozy, welcoming vibe.
There was also a couple of areas where guests could just sit down and chill.
The guesthouse also stocked up on some beverages free for their guests. Others, such as bottled water, was charged at reasonable prices. You could also pay a small amount of money to use their ingredients and kitchen facilities to make your own breakfast.
Great service by Guesthouse Raicho
Even before we arrived at Guesthouse Raicho, I was firing lots of questions to them (especially because I was booking a snowshoeing tour for the first time in my life and was getting a little nervous over it). Yuma, the owner of Guesthouse Raicho, was proficient in English and patiently attended to all my queries over emails. It definitely helped allayed most of my anxiety before the trip.
Their office area is just behind the reception, so it was easy to find someone for help during our stay. In the winter months, the skies turn dark really early so it’s difficult for people unacquainted with the area to walk around, especially with the thick snow. The staff will gladly ferry you to and fro the restaurant of your choice if you inform them in advance.
Some of the restaurants we went to were this Soba place, which served the best Soba we had on our trip…
And this homely family-owned restaurant which would remembered by us for their comfort food and curry rice with a humongous serving.
And I’m not the only one who thinks that Guesthouse Raicho is awesome.
They’re ranked number one on TripAdvisor! I think this is an impressive feat since I understand from Yuma that they’ve only operated for 3 years.
So, what can you do around Guesthouse Raicho?
Or in Norikura Kogen in general.
Guesthouse Raicho thoughtfully listed the activities on a large chalkboard in their common areas. There was snowshoeing, which was hiking but in the snow, winter camping, skiing and snowboarding. Some of the sights were also within one or two hours from the guesthouse.
We did the snowshoeing tour to Kamikochi and it was the most divine experience ever, which I will share more in my upcoming posts.
I hope I got Norikura Kogen and Guesthouse Raicho on everyone’s radar after this read! Feel free to let me know if you’ve got any questions by leaving a comment on this post.