Wednesday morning Jen, CJ, and I got on a train (to a train, to a train, to a bus) to a little town in the “Japanese Alps” to the north-west of Tokyo, called Nozawa Onsen. The trip up was beautiful, and the village itself was adorable. We explored, had dinner at a great little place (my dinner was amazing — tempura udon, although Jen’s was a little gross… cold soba dipped in pureed yam and raw egg.) and then a soak in the onsen in the basement of the ryokan (traditional japanese inn). (My photos are all below, approximately in chronological order.)
The next morning we got up early and CJ took off skiing while Jen and I rented some snowshoes and went up the gondola to hike around the mountain. The mountains are beautiful, and the ski season has only just started, so it was beautifully quiet hiking around on the ski trails. Meanwhile, Vida drove up from Yokosuka and met us for lunch at another little soba place. Soba is buckwheat noodles (quick japanese noodle education: Udon is thicker white noodles, ramen is more of a chinese thing and is usually in a very salty broth) and can be served hot or cold, but the hot stuff in a warm bowl of soup is a wonderful way to warm up after being out in the cold. In the inland parts of Japan, there’s less raw sushi and more noodles/roasted fish on rice/Japanese curry/tempura (other Japanese cuisine generally). Nagano, the nearest big city is famous for their apples, so on the way home we also picked up a whole bunch of beautifully crisp ringos.
After lunch we explored the town and its cute snow-topped temples. Their system of keeping the roads clear is quite ingenious — the use the excess water from all the hot-springs and run it under all the roads, as well as running it across some of the parking lots etc. So even though there were maybe 4 feet of snow everywhere, the roads didn’t even need plowing. They also had a section where the locals can cook food in the boiling water. Foreigners are strictly banned from the area (reportedly too many gaijin thought it was some sort of foot-onsen and not only scalded themselves quite badly but also stuck their feet in the villagers’ cooking water). We did find ourselves an actual foot-onsen though, and after snowshoeing/skiing/walking around all day, boy did that feel good. We found another cute little place (unfortunately playing synthesizer christmas carols in the background) for dinner and I got some of the best tempura I’ve ever had. Then a little more onsen-soaking at our ryokan, and we turned in early. The ryokans have the traditional futon beds with hard little bean-filled pillows. I didn’t sleep well most of the time — mattress and pillow are too hard, so I don’t know that we’ll continue to go the traditional lodging route in the future. The breakfasts were wonderful however — they brought out a small flotilla of little bowls with fish, rice, veg, eggs, tea, etc etc.
The next morning we woke up to a snow storm — Vida and I got up early (Vida because she’s a morning person, and me because I couldn’t sleep anyway) and walked through the village in the snow. It was really nice to get a chance to go up to the mountains just to have that Vermontish weather — it feels more like it’s actually winter now. Then we took off to go see the snow-monkeys! A few towns over, they’ve built some onsens specifically for the macaques, who had previously just attempted to infiltrate the human onsens when it gets cold in the winter. They were totally nonplussed by all the people around trying to take pictures of them — maybe half of them were in the pool, the others were sitting up on the rocks. There were a bunch of little babies as well. I had a lot of fun stalking them with my camera. We even saw a monkey-fight, which I suspect was a dispute over who was going to be mating with whom. Their eyes are almost creepily human (once they reach adulthood, they babies eyes looked different), and their hands are also really cool. There was a lot of grooming of each other in the pool.
After the monkeys, we went to see Matsumoto castle, which is one of the largest remaining castles — complete with unbelievably steep stairs, hidden third floor, moon-viewing chamber, and massive moats.