Arriving from Kyoto, Beth and I make it into Nagano after dark with about 30 minutes to go before we connected with our rural “Snow Monkey” train to Yudanaka and our hotel. Compared to our warm and sunny trip to Hiroshima only a day before, Nagano is tucked away into the mountains and everyone is bundled up in coats and jackets to get away from the brisk night air. Starved, we familiarized ourselves with the station looking for a nice place to eat and take advantage of Japan’s love for beef bowl fast food and get two rice, beef, and onion bowls to go. Eating on the train we rambled along the tracks for what seemed like forever, but I suppose that’s what long days of travel and trains feels like at night. Finally, we reached the train’s final stop in the sleepy mountain town of Yudanaka.
We step off the train and are one of a handful of people milling around the station this late. Just as Beth and I begin to feel a bit stranded in the middle of nowhere, little Mrs. Yumoto, one of our innkeepers for the night, introduces herself as we load up her van and take a quick trip to the hotel. Despite our late check in, the Yumotos were the perfect hosts and Beth and I were privileged to end our trip with one of the nicest rooms we stayed in yet. Much like our room in Hakone, the room consisted of a entryway, tatami room with futons, a western sitting room, and a separate bathroom and shower. Since the hotel is in the heart of Japan’s best skiing, the room is perfectly designed for a ski getaway with roomy shelves in the large entryway and pegs for jackets in the large tatami room. Beth and I settled in with a quick cup of tea and quickly fell asleep excited for our tour of Yudanaka in the morning.
After a delicious, homemade Western breakfast we hopped in the van for a whirlwind tour of Yudanaka and Shibu, a pair of ski towns right at the base of Shiga-Koen. Joined by the only other patrons of the hotel, we fly by homes and businesses on our way to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. As we speed up the hill I barely catch our innkeeper/tour guide Mr. Yumoto say to check out the local beer and sake brewery (amongst all the other things to see in his small mountain town). Just as I got used to the stop and go nature of our mountain town tour, Ichiro (Mr. Yumoto) reached the trailhead for the park and dropped us of. With no more than a sign for the park pointing us in the right direction, we walk through a frosted and eerily calm forest as the sun rises above us.
Eventually we come upon the monkey park, or what we think is the monkey park anyway. The simple and soft spoken operation, we weren’t sure what to expect. Anxious, we pay our entrance and proceed in, only to spot a few monkeys near the pathway. Amazed by the casual nature and close proximity of these guys, imagine our faces when we ventured further to the monkey’s onsen. Dozens of them casually soaking, grooming, and lounging around the hot springs. Unlike a conventional zoo, this is a wildlife park, and there is no separation between the people and the monkeys. As a result the monkeys have adapted to not care about the human presence, completely ambivalent. We stare in amazement and awe over these little guys, just milling about.
Beyond the wonder of the setting, flecks of ingenuity and humanity appear in glimpses of these snow monkeys. The look on the faces of three soaking look just like that of three relaxed businessmen in a sauna. The way they walk around, groom, and interacte with each other has brief flashes of humanity. After taking dozens of photos in the morning cold, Beth and I head out. Despite the desire to stay and watch these little snow monkeys all day, we’ve got places to see and do before the day is done. By now the sun is up and the chilly morning is changing over to a crisp autumn day in the Japanese high county.
We meander back to the road and down into town, passing elaborate vacation homes and ski getaways. After getting momentarily lost find the Tamamura Honten Brewery and sake museum. It’s an odd situation as the shop seems entirely open, but after entering we find no one around to inquire to sample sake or their local brew. After milling about for 10 minutes or so, someone eventually joins us, and unfortunately they are not doing their sake sample tasting today. No matter, we buy a few locally made “Snow Monkey” sakes and a sampler 4-pack of the Tamamura Honten beer and head into town for lunch.
Making it down the hill we are surprised to find everything seems shuttered up for the day, ridiculous considering it’s only 1pm. Most shops are darkened without people, with only a handful of souvenier and grocery shops open throughout all the town. So without finding some place for lunch, we continue our walk, poking our head into some of the famous Shibu Onsens. Nine in all, each is said to impart a certain benefit, such as good luck or health, to those who bathe in them. So without lunch, but after seeing 7 out of 9 special onsens, we make it back to the hotel to check out and grab a train back to Nagano, and then to Tokyo, finally making it back home to Higashi-Zushi. With warm regards and thanks for our stay, we grabbed a quick photo with our wonderful innkeeper Ichiro and headed, bags and all, to the train.
A lazy Tuesday afternoon, we were only two of four people for our train at the Yudanaka Station and snagged the front seats of our train with a ritred couple from New Zealand. Settling our stomachs with some mini mart food we got to experience a rural train ride through Japan’s fertile mountain valleys like never before. Apple orchards, agricultural fields, and rolling mountains spread out in front of us as we made our way back to Nagano. Once we arrived we had a short layover before catching our last bullet train of the trip. Settling in for the ride home Beth and I napped, snacked, and read our way back home.
All in all it has been an amazing trip, one I couldn’t think be possible to do in 9 days. We saw everything from gorgeous temples in Kyoto to the bustling nightlife in Rippongi. We marveled over Snow Monkeys outside Nagano and were moved by the International Peace Memorial and Museum in Hiroshima. We relaxed and took in the beauty of Hakone as well as the hustle and bustle of Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. I’ve learned to appreciate the modern, the natural, the elaborate, and the simple in Japan. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t rely on plans, but should always set out with a purpose. But most importantly, I know that I won’t find a better travel buddy and friend than Beth, and without her this trip wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you all for following along and I hope you enjoyed this trip as much as I did, but certainly stay tuned as I’m sure this won’t be the last time I travel to the Land of the Rising Sun…
A change of pace from our sopping day in Kyoto, we took the bullet train down to sunny Hiroshima for a day in the southern most stop of our whirlwind tour of Japan. After disembarking from the bullet train we hopped on one of the city’s many trolley cars. Kinda like the cars from Fishermans’ Wharf in San Francisco, these electric train car lines criss cross the main avenues of the town. We took one of these electric cars out to Miyajima Island, home to the famous “Floating Torii Gate.”
Arriving at the ferry terminal we were amazed by the crowds. granted it was a weekend morning but this small town ferry terminal transformed into downtown Tokyo for the day. Across the river we were surprised by something we hadn’t expected on the island: deer. These “wild” deer have learned to come out of the inland forest and into the shoreline towns to search for food. As we walked down the crowded boardwalk to get a better view of the torii gate we saw dozens of these fearless deer walk up to visitors, food stands, and even snatched some food off one guy’s lunch platter! After the pleasant walk down the beach we were a little bummed to find the famous “Floating Torii Gate” at low tide. A mighty impressive and elaborate gate, but is certainly more impressive at high tide if you can plan it right. Still, we made the most of our trip and had a blast taking photos, people watching all the tourists, and having a tasty street vendor lunch of corn on the cob and yakatori chicken.
After our stop off at Miyajima Island, we took the ferry and train car back to central Hiroshima to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. First thing to catch your eye is the A-Bomb Dome, which used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall. Almost directly underneath the epicenter of the blast this building survived where almost no others did. Used as a gathering place and emergency treatment station immediately following the blast, it now has been preserved as a testament to the destructive harm and power of nuclear weapons by UNESCO in 1996.
Just across Ota River is the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, which includes several memorials and monuments commemorating those who perished as a result of the blast. The Children’s Peace Memorial, inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, is the most easily identifiable with the colorful bins of origami cranes, loud crane bell, and tall figure just off the main road crossing the bridge. A short distance from that is the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound and Peace Clocktower, and just across the street from the Children’s Peace Memorial is the Peace Flame, which has been burning continuously since it was lit 1964. It will remain lit until the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been dismantled and destroyed, thus ending mankind’s potentially destructive nuclear age.
Following the main corridor pathway past the eternal flame is the Memorial Cenotaph, the official marker for all those killed by the A-Bomb blast, this marker is a popular attraction for locals, Japanese nationals, and foreigners alike to pray for the peaceful rest of those lost and for continued pursuit of world peace. At the end of this corridor is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In its beautiful simplicity the museum is lined up to form a straight line of sight past the epitaph and eternal flame, over the river, and onward to the dome of the A-Bomb Dome.
Once inside the museum gives a detailed history lesson in the build up of military and commercial activity in Hiroshima as well as on World War II the development of nuclear fission, and the decision to drop the bomb. And while the museum is built to remember and document the sorrow and horrific nature of that day, its primary mission is to stand as a cautionary tale to the destructive force of nuclear weaponry in the hopes for world peace. Moving through the museum there are dozens and dozens of photos, artifacts, and even pieces of buildings that had survived that fateful day. It is a somber hall filled with ripped and burnt clothing, warped girders and shutters, and heartbreaking tales of survivors struggles with losing loved ones and dealing with the fallout of radiation. Once through the exhibits of the museum, we walked past the full length windows that overlook the park and memorials with a new sense of what happened August 6, 1943. While it may seem off-putting since it happened only 69 years ago or as an American walking through the halls, I highly recommend paying a visit to this Unesco World Heritage Site.
From the museum we took a short and lovely walk following the river, catching glimpses of the numerous community and unofficial memorials in and around the park. Making it back to our train station we took two short rides and went to visit the historic Hiroshima Castle. With a storied history that dates back to 1590s, the castle grounds had risen and fallen in prominence depending on the region’s ruler, until the castle structure was destroyed in the a bomb blast. It was rebuilt in 1958 and turned into a museum on the area’s rich samurai and shogun history. Like a smaller version of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Hiroshima Castle has a large stone wall surrounded by a large moat, which was breathtaking as the sun dipped down out of the sky. We continued to walk around the wooded grounds, which include the Hiroshima Gokoku Jinja Shrine and historic military headquarters for the Japanese forces during the Sino-Japanese War. Soon thereafter we came upon the castle tower, peeking up through the trees, sun glinting off the grey stone tiled roof. The building has five successive levels, each featuring gorgeous white stucco and traditional woodwork to the region.
While we enjoyed the towering giant for its beauty and grandeur, Beth and I had dinner to eat and a train to catch, so we made our way back to the electric car line. Along the way we stopped by a tasty little Chinese restaurant and chowed down on tasty gyoza dumplings, fried noodles, and simmered pork before making our way back to the train. With only 15 minutes to spare we made our way through the stations and even purchased two traditional Hiroshima dessert cookies before we boarded the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto. The soft cookie is shaped like a maple leaf and typically has a sweet bean paste center, but can also be filled with a variety of cremes, including chocolate and green tea. After a long day of sightseeing the major attractions Hiroshima has to offer, we nibbled on our treats and relaxed along the ride back to the B&B for the night. Stay tuned for our second day in Kyoto, as well as our trip north to Nagano!
Our time in Tokyo has come to an end, and when we left off Beth and I were speeding out to the Hakone region by train. While it may not be the well-known Bullet Train, our Udayara RomanceCar was the first time I ever traveled somewhere by train. By and large it’s very similar to taking a plane: trays that flip down, chairs that recline, shades for the windows, and attendants with snacks and beverages. However you get a whole lot more leg room, can swivel your seat to face back for groups bigger than 2, and is a very smooth ride. For being an hour ½ ride, the time flew by. Watching the landscape transform from cities and suburbs to green fields and rural towns was mesmerizing and before you know it we were in town.
After a quick bus ride from the station we arrived at our traditional Japanese hotel, complete with shoe locker and slipper setup before checking in. After getting everything stowed away (my size 13s only fit if I put them in sideways) we headed up to our room on the second floor. Just like the entrance to the hotel, our room has an entryway complete with bedding closet and slipper stowaway (socks or barefeet only) Moving from the entryway we slide the door to the right to find the main room, complete with low table and floor chairs. At night the table and chairs move to the side and we setup our sleeping quarters. Complete with futon mat, sheeted comforter, and pillow we bunked down on what became a very comfy floor. Off the main room is a sitting room, complete with two chairs and small table with a view out to the river behind the hotel, as well as a sink. Connected to this was a small toilet room, but more importantly was the outdoor stone shower and hot springs tub (more about that later). Finally, in typical ryukens and onsens (traditional Japanese lodgings and hot springs) normal everyday street clothes are not worn. Instead guests use a yukuta, which is essentially a heavier version of the more well known kimono. This yukuta is far more than a bathrobe, as it is worn to meals, throughout the hotel, out on the grounds, even to bed if you so choose.
Well, after two long days of serious sidewalk touring around Tokyo, Beth and I jumped at the chance to settle into some comfy robes and hit up the reserved private onsen, or hot springs. Once inside we were able to soak and shower in a traditional tile bath house. Unlike the Western view of the hot springs being centered outside around a nature geyser or spring, the Japanese often bring the natural spring water in to use for bathing and soaking. No bubble jets or jacuzzi settings here, just good ole fashioned hot baths.
Following our first soak, we then partook in an outrageous traditional dinner filled with all the staples of Japanese dining: noodles, broths, rice and fish. Surprisingly, it wasn’t separated into courses, but if it was would be a 6 or 7 course meal. The centerpiece of this feast was a delicious simmering stew cooked table side. This Miso based delight came with mushrooms, onions, noodles, tofu, and shaved pork that we added to simmer and were super tender. We also enjoyed tempura fish, roasted potatoes and veggies with a honey mustard dipping sauce, a soy based side soup, steamed rice, pickled veggies, and a few other goodies…including a pear sherbert dessert. Paired with this gluttony of all things Japan was a bottle of their local brew, Shonan Lager. While it fit well with the typical light and hoppy taste of most Asian beers, this lager carried a more robust flavor and crispness with it that certainly enhanced its hoppiness.
After dinner all Beth and I could think about was going back to the room and trying out the private room tub on the outside porch. Keep in mind it is November here, and while it may not be snowing yet the temps have come down to make these fall nights crisp and chilly. So the meeting in the middle of steaming hot bath water and the chilled November air pouring in from the Hakone foothills truly enhanced the feeling of relaxation and ease that a good soak gives. Granted, it was painfully slow to fill up, but it was well worth being able to sit in piping hot water almost up to your shoulders. We stayed in until the water was almost lukewarm and then settled in for a goodnights sleep amidst the running river. Between the Japanese league baseball on TV and the faint glow of the moon through the wood and paper door I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Waking up the next morning Beth and I were treated to a traditional breakfast featuring steamed rice, a light broth with onions, noodles, and chinese cabbage, a full grilled fish, and lots of pickled and root veggies. Unlike the bacon and eggs or milk and cereal breakfasts of the West, our morning meal in Hakone is quite similar to our other meals, featuring rice, noodles, miso broth, and fish. Planning our adventure for the day we discover something special about the Hakone Region. Much like Summit County, Colorado has lots to see spread across several towns, the Hakone area is much the same, with various attractions in different towns. Furthermore, each of these towns are separated by switchback roads and tall mountain valleys, making the local bus system key to our travels.
Our first stop was Hakone-Machi, home to the famous waterside arch, part of the Hakone Jinja shrine. There we got to enjoy great views of Mt. Fuji, complete with Ashi Lake in the foreground. The Hakone area is well known for its unique and skillful woodwork, and got to admire some pieces ins several of the woodwork shops throughout the town. Everything from tea trays to inlay paintings, to kids toys, to their famous puzzle boxes were on display, each of which done with care and craftsmanship. All that shopping worked up an appetite, so we got lunch at a little sausage and brat shop that was a nice retreat from the typical Japanese meal, yum yum.
Finishing our meal, we walked up the hill through the shrine area and got to admire the beauty of the old growth forest and skillful designs of the shrine. So far I’ve found that Japan is a country whole heartedly devoted to stairs and stone steps, so it was no surprise to see a great set of ones leading up to the main shrine. After making it to the top we were rewarded with a graceful trip back down using switchback paths past lush foliage, dragon statues, and a koi pond. Once we reached the bottom of the hill it was only a short walk to get up close and personal with the torii gate. The way the gate frames the water and stands in stark contrast to the surroundings is hard to do justice to, even with photos. After trying our best (despite our pesky camera’s refusal to use the flash setting) we headed back to town along a quiet stone path by the water.
To get back to our hotel we took another bus, but it was more like a Nascar with handles the way our driver handled it. The hair-raising ride kept me on my toes as the handle would jerk at each turn and I’d need to use every muscle to steady myself at the abrupt stops. Just for kicks we decided to take a pit stop at the town of Miyanoshita, the next largest up the road from our hotel, with the idea of window shopping, looking for dinner, and probably walking down to our hotel for a soak and sleep. Well, things got colder, darker, and closed real quick – November in the Hakone mountain’s is quite chilly and the sun goes down around 5pm, so we decided to hop back on the bus and head to the hotel. Thank goodness we did as the distance down the winding two lane highway was great, with no easy place to walk. What seemed like a 15 minute walk on the map would have surely taken an hour or more, something neither of us wanted to do. Our driver this time around couldn’t be more different than previously. Very polite, very careful, he always checked his seven mirrors before starting again and warned passengers to “hang on tight” when tight turns approached.
Finally, we reached our hotel just as the sun cast its last rays and got a breather before planning to search for dinner in Hakone-Yumoto later. While stretching our legs and enjoying a cup of freshly made tea, Beth and I were lucky enough to catch a sumo match on the television. Sumo is a full-contact sport where a wrestler attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. After watching several matches we concluded that the bouts are much more about the tradtions, rituals, and pomp and circumstance rather than the few quick moments of intense competition. Every so often we got to see a duel that lasted closer to 20 or 30 seconds, but most were finished in 10 seconds flat. Well after all the walking we did during the day Beth and I built up quite the appetite and went out to search for dinner.
We took a quick bus ride down to Hakone-Yumoto for dinner and seemed to only find an odd mix of train station diners and high priced sushi dens. Just when we thought all hope was lost, we poked our heads down a side street that featured a great little yakiniku, or Korean BBQ restaurant. Yakiniku is a form of Korean BBQ somewhat similar to Mongolian BBQ in the states, except its only beef and the portions are a little smaller…and you grill it. That’s right, each table comes with a inset grill used to cook your beef to perfection. And while that sounded tempting, Beth and I enjoyed their special of the day: pork and chicken bowls. These bowls featured scrumptious chicken or pork coated in a sweet and savory BBQ sauce served with kimichi and rice with a side of miso soup. Simple and to the point our dinner was delicious. Similar to sweet and sour sauce at home, the Korean BBQ sauce was the highlight of the meal for me. That being said, the chicken and pork were both very tender (even if they were a little fatty).
After dinner we returned to the hotel and away from the chilly and brisk mountain air. Before heading out to dinner Beth and I reserved another 30 minutes in the private bath house for when we returned, and it was the perfect way to end the day. Immersing in the hot water felt great on some tired muscles from three days of serious walking. Before you know it the thirty minutes were up and we headed back to the room, rested and relaxed…just what we came here to do.
In the morning we rose, had another breakfast complete with fish, soup, and a slew of pickled veggies, then checked out for the day. Complete with our big backpack of clothes, our little one of stuffs, and a bag of gifts and souvenirs from Hakone-Machi, we made our way to the train station in Odawara. After pulling into the sprawling station, we popped most of our things into a storage locker and set out to explore the town. Unlike the small mountain towns of Hakone, Odawara was a bit more urban, complete with mid-level rise buildings, fast food chains, and lots of commercial industry. We had a few hours to kill before setting off to Kyoto that afternoon, so we made our way to the Odawara Castle. After walking past some shops and sushi dens, we came upon the grounds for the Odawara Castle. Unsure if the grounds were open to the public, Beth and I ventured through two sets of walls and gates before seeing another visitor. Traveling during the week in November has its perks as mostly young vacationers and retirees can be seen at most tourist attractions. The grounds contiuned through a maze of walls, gates, and vertical rises before we entered the inner courtyard and castle keep. Thew keep rises up five stories and has beautiful views of the Hakone hillsides. Unfortunately, the original keep which was first constructed in 1447 was destroyed by the Meiji Restoration in 1872. Fortunately, it was rebuilt in 1960 utilizing ancient architectual plans and construction techniques to house a gorgeous museum featuring the area’s feudal history. Once we completed our schooling in the ancient samurai, we went back to town and I got to sample my very first beef bowl. A common fast food staple in Japan is the local rice bowl eateries, which Beth and I have lovingly nicknamed beef bowl shops. They all have huge outdoor banners promoting their cheap and tasty rice bowls piled high with onions and beef. I had seen these in each of the towns and cities we had been through but had yet to sample the wares; Boy was it tasty and filling!
After our late lunch we went back to the station, collected our bags, and waited for our shinkansen train that would take us to Kyoto. This was something I was very excited about because the shinkansen train is the Japanese name for the Bullet Train! These aerodynamic trains feature long sets of cars and travel at break neck speeds all across Japan. Essentially replacing the need for domestic air travel, these trains are quiet common and are used frequently. But for two Westerns e couldn’t keep our jaws from hitting the station platform as we watched the first of several bullet trains speed through the station. In the blink of an eye the train would be gone (as we discovered while attempting to take photos of it) just a flash of white and blue. After a half hour or so of frenzied train spotting, ours had arrived and we got to board. Unlike the excitement of watching the train from the outside, the inside operates much like an airplane that never really leaves the ground. The setup is similar to the RomanceCar, except a bit more modern with bathrooms, smoking lounges, changing rooms, etc throughout the cars. It wasn’t until we got to full speed in the countryside and hit a few banked curves did I fully appreciate the speed, style, and smooth ride that our shinkansen offered. We’ll get to ride more of the bullet to visit Hiroshima and Nagano, and I can’t wait to see what those trips offer.
Arriving in Kyoto we gathered up all our belongings and bags and headed north to our hotel after a quick subway ride from the station. Unlike bustling Tokyo with lights and people everywhere, or the one horse towns in Hakone, Kyoto is a big city with an old soul. Restaurants are typically closed by 8 or 9pm, and shops much much earlier. As we walked down the darkened street it seemed closer to midnight than 7:15, and Beth and I feared that dinnertime may have already passed. After quickly dropping off our bags at the hotel we got directions from the innkeeper of a close-by noodle house that should still be open. Thankfully it was and we ended our touring day with mix of authentic udon noodles, curry and rice.
After a hectic day of travel we settled into our room at the Three Sister’s Inn Annex. Opening shop in 1969, this inn is used to receiving western tourists and have seen enough to fill volumes of travel anecdotes. We had heard about it through Beth’s parents who had stayed at the Inn back in 1970s, and the great reputation for service and style hasn’t changed since. Tomorrow is our only full day ins Kyoto to sight-see, so it’s sure to be jam packed with temples, shrines, and all sorts of cultural experiences to share. Hope you’re enjoying my travel log as much as I am, stay tuned for more tales of a Denverite abroad!