24.05.2017 - 30.05.2017 22 °C
On arrival in Nagano we checked in to our accommodation ‘Hotel Unicorn’. Our hosts were the loveliest little Japanese couple and we were ecstatic when we went from the fairly simple corridor into a really fancy Japanese style room! Given the language barrier we remain unsure if we were upgraded, or if all the rooms are just that lovely, but either way it made for a great base for our Nagano adventures, as we stayed there for three nights.
The following day we set out to board a bus to the Snow Monkey Park, where thankfully we were not greeted with snow (although there was a bit of an unfamiliar substance called rain, which we haven’t seen in some time) but did see a huge crowd of macaque monkeys! It’s an amazing spot where the wild monkeys come to enjoy the natural hot spring baths, known as onsen. We spent the morning watching them getting up to mischief, and I particularly enjoyed seeing all the new little baby macaques as it’s baby season! The monkeys seem unperturbed by us humans, pretty well ignoring us and going about their day so you can get up close without them batting an eyelid.
From there we walked down into Shibu Onsen, a nearby town with 9 different onsen baths which are for human, as opposed to monkey, use. Locals have a key to all 9 so they can come and go as they please, but the only way for tourists to visit is to either stay at a local hotel, or to visit one specific bath, ‘Ooyu’. If you succeed in the quest of firstly finding it, and then communicating with a man (who appeared to be aged around 105 and a relative of Yoda) who speaks zero English that you wish to use the onsen, it’s as simple as buying a 500yen ticket!
The onsen was an amazing experience, it’s an indoor bath using constant flowing hot water from the natural springs, so the water is always fresh. Thankfully they also provide a cold tap to cool it down as we were keen to avoid third degree burns during our visit! Men and women use separate baths, which I for one fully support given that it’s no swimming suits allowed! Luckily for us we were the only people in Ooyu bath throughout our visit so it was lovely to relax on our own. I would have otherwise been concerned I was not adhering to the rules, of which there were many, including not being allowed in if you have any tattoos! After we drifted away from the onsen feeling suitably relaxed, Richard bought a boiled egg to snack on which was cooked in the spring water, which will give you an idea just how hot the water is! On our way back to Nagano we stopped off in Obuse which is famed as ‘one of Japans nicest small towns’. It may have something to do with the fact I was a little hangry by this point, but I’d prefer a Cotswold town, or even one of our own Northern Irish spots any day of the week!
The next day we took another day trip from Nagano, this time to Matsumoto to visit the castle. It’s a beautiful, 6 floor castle (one of the floors is a ‘hidden’ floor which can’t be seen from outside) and is the oldest still standing in Japan. Given that it’s made almost entirely from wood, the Japanese attribute this good fortune to a shrine in the roof which is believed to keep the castle safe from fire. We were joined by a retired Japanese lady who volunteers as a guide for English speakers. This was particularly helpful as all the signs were in Japanese, and it was nice to stroll around with a local who is obviously very proud of the castle.
We have really enjoyed sampling all the different Japanese foods, but one of our favourites are bento boxes, which are really just a beautifully displayed (as almost everything in Japan is) boxes of assortments, always some rice accompanied with sushi, tempura chicken, battered pork, tofu or a little of all of the above! There are nearly always some mystery items that you’re not quite sure what you’re eating, but it’s all part of the fun! However, our last dinner in Nagano has been our favourite so far. We went to a traditional style Japanese restaurant to sample soba noodles, a local delicacy made from buckwheat. The surroundings were beautiful as was the food, which we had with tempura chicken and came with soup, and vegetables cooked with fish, along with wasabi. Dining out in Japan is an experience not to be missed. Before leaving Nagano we also visited Zenko-ji Temple, which is said to be home to the first Buddha image brought to Japan. It is a beautiful temple and gardens to rival any of the others we’ve seen in Japan, but seems altogether less touristy.
From Nagano we took a Shinkensen “bullet” train (the trains here make UK travel seem hugely inefficient!) to Kanazawa. We stayed in a beautiful, historic area called Higashi Chaya district in our first proper Japanese style guesthouse, called ryokan. Our room had tatami mats covering the floors, a small table with floor cushions to sit, and futon mattresses that you whip out whenever you want to sleep! It’s a very space efficient concept in a place where space is always at a premium, and was a fun novelty for us.
We spent some time exploring the historical streets of Higashi Chaya, where it was great to see so many Japanese people out enjoying themselves on a Saturday afternoon, including lots of people wearing traditional kimonos which are beautiful! Kanazawa is famed for its beautiful gardens, of which we visited two. The first was Gyuokusen Inmaru Gardens, and the second was the most popular Kenrokuen Garden. We really enjoyed wandering through both, in particular Kenrokuen where there were many beautiful flowers, plants, trees and ponds to see. They also have Japans oldest fountain which shoots 3.5m in the air, and is powered by natural water pressure due to ponds at two different levels!
We were happy to discover that the Gyuokusen Inmaru Garden was also having an evening light show (think relaxed mood lighting to music as opposed to strobe lights and smoke) while we were there so it was a nice surprise to get to enjoy the gardens in both the day and night!
From Kanazawa we got the Thunderbird Express train (superb name) to Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital until 1869, and still has a buzzing vibe to rival Tokyo. The train station is an experience in itself with droves of people rushing in every direction. It is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year which is crazy as it still feels very futuristic. We visited a temple, Nishi-Hongan-Ji that afternoon, which was interesting to see as they were in the middle of a very large service.
The next day we had a full day in Kyoto and decided to explore by bike! First stop was to visit Nijo-jo Palace, which was beautiful to explore both inside, and in its impressive gardens. I particularly enjoyed seeing the beautiful screen paintings on the walls throughout (see photo mischievously taken despite no photos signs). The paintings were apparently intended to intimidate guests, which seems a little inhospitable to me!
Next we visited the ‘Silver Pavillion’ which was beautiful, although in my opinion oddly named as it is not, nor has it apparently ever been silver! The gardens there are unique as they feature a large sand cone (don’t ask us why).
Our final stop for the afternoon was one of our favourites in Japan so far, Fushimi Inari. It is an amazing shrine featuring 10,000 red gates leading up to the mountain top over about 4km. It was very busy at the bottom, but apparently people are lazy lumps as by the time we reached the top we were almost totally alone! On both evenings in Kyoto we enjoyed delicious picnic dinners on the rooftop garden of the train station, with wonderful views across the city. We are always very glad to see green areas for Japanese people (and tourists!) to enjoy in their big cities, as for us, the stark absence of nature is something we would definitely not enjoy if living in a Japanese city!
Sheltering from the rain!
Freshly boiled egg - afternoon snack
Our ryokan in Kanazawa
Some greenery on the roof of Kyoto train station (the 11th floor garden)
Covert photography of the gilded screens
The silver pavilion
The view over Kyoto