Friday, April 1, 2011

30/03/2011 - New Japan vs. Old Japan

Wow, what a day!

Our day started in our hotel in Shinjuku, as we made preparations to leave Japan's capital. We cleaned up the room, panicked a few times as we lost and then found items which we needed to pack, and then filled out their customer service feedback form. Lots of smiley faces were written over their feedback form, as they were just that plain awesome.

Next, we took a train to Tokyo station, and then the Shinkansen Asama to Nagano. Shinkansens are freaking cool. You travel along at such a quick speed, seeing the whole world zoom by around you. Plus, they're such a smooth ride. Not once did I feel the train rock precariously from side to side, as pretty much every train I've ever been on in Australia tends to do. I also liked as we got closer to Nagano, we went through a series of tunnels. It seemed like after every time we came out of a tunnel, the environment around us completely changed. First it was urban, then it was forest, then it was thick, evergreen pine forest. Finally, and much to my delight, it was snowy forest. Yes, I finally got to see snow. This made me very happy, as along with "sunset over the water", another one of my "geographical features I must see before I die" has been ticked off.

After arriving at Nagano station, we had a mere 15 minutes to scramble between the Shinkansen station, and find and buy tickets for our ride to Yudanaka. Needless to say, it was stressful, but we got there in the end, with a few minutes to spare. The train we were on was called "Snow Monkey" - it was clear why most people visited Yudanaka!

After about another hour on this train, we arrived at Yudanaka. As I checked my holy grail folder on how to get to the hotel, I discovered that I didn't have a map. Crapshit. Thankfully, there was a very friendly station conductor who spoke very good english who put us on a bus that would take us very close to our hotel.

Now, I shouldn't really say "hotel". The place we stayed at was far from it. It is what the Japanese call a "Ryokan", which is a traditional Japanese homestay. This means everything is traditional, from the robes you wear around the premesis, to the room styling with it's tatami floor mats and it's low-set chairs and tables. It has a really nice feel to it.

We were taken through the various customs of a stay in a Ryokan. They seemed a little bit complicated, but were definitely quite entertaining for us Gaijins (foreigners), who had only the slightest clue as to what we were meant to be doing.

Also, being eight feet tall, I have discovered that traditional Japan doesn't fit me. I just don't fit. The doors are too low, the clothes are too small, and the shoes don't fit in the slightest. So much so, that when we were given our traditional japanese gowns to wear around the Ryokan, the lovely lady who was assiting us put them on called me "Totoro" (I think). Anybody who has seen the Miyazaki film "Tonari No Totoro" will know that Totoro is a gigantic rabbit-like creature. Apparently I require gowns fit for a Totoro.

Another note on the customs of Ryokans. They like their shoes. I won't go into detail, but you have shoes for outside (your regular shoes), shoes for outside over a short distance (wooden block-sandals), shoes for inside the Ryokan (but not inside your room - bare feet or socks only) and shoes for the toilet.

All, except for the shoes I came in, didn't fit me. That, combined with the small gown on my frame meant that I tend to waddle around in a traditional Japanese getup.

After spending a brief time in the Ryokan, Emma and I went for a trek to visit the Snow Monkeys. These monkeys are apparently the only monkeys in the whole world which have learned to sit in hot spring baths to keep warm. But, the trek to them is quite epic. All in all though, given the relatively cold temperature, and the divine surrounds which you walk through (pristine alpine forests, with a snow covered forest floor) make it a very nice walk.

And yes, snow. I finally got to see snow (close up). Touch snow. Eat snow. It's cold and white and awesome. You can't tell if you're going to sink into it when it's really deep, and I found that out the hard way. On several occasions I sunk in right up to my knees. Also, snow actually snowballs if you roll it down a hill, although it doesn't gain as much momentum as it does in the cartoons. Still, awesome nonetheless.

Anyway, after quite a long trek (made probably twice as long by my constant stopping and starting, looking at snow), we arrived at Jigokudani, the Snow Monkey park. The monkeys were great. You could get literally within 20 cm of them, and they didn't mind. Well, one of them did, but I'm guessing that he's the alpha male, and doesn't like being photographed. Emma did take lots of photos of the baby monkeys though, and they were really adorable. And yes, there were plenty of monkeys sitting in the hot springs, eating in the hot springs, and being general monkeys in the hot springs. All in all, definitely worth the trip out to the park, and I heartily recommend the experience to anybody who visits Japan.

Then, we headed back down the mountain to our Ryokan. Before long, it was dinner time, and we sure had an interesting, but delicious meal. Firstly, we were instructed by our hostess on how to eat the meal. Naturally, all of these instructions were in Japanese. I have confidence in about three phrases in Japanese, and thankfully one of them was "Gohan", which means rice. Because of that, I got at least one safe thing with our meal. Once again, as with the Tempura restaurant we visited in Tokyo, our food ranged from mind-blowingly delicious, to "what the hell am I eating". All in all though, the meal was rather filling, and I can't wait for my next Ryokan meal.

Unfortunately, the meal was a bit of a guessing game, as we weren't sure what you did with what. You had a little boiling vat of oil and other liquid to dip some food in. I worked out pretty quickly that you were meant to put your raw beef in there, but unfortunately Emma put a whole egg in hers, and it kind of warped it for her. Still, it did end up tasting alright, she tells me.

Afer our meal, we went for a walk around the street in our traditional robes and sandals. While it was cold, there was also remarkable beauty in these quaint Japanese backstreets, and it made me feel very lucky to experience such a remarkable part of the world.

We then headed back to our room, where magically our bed had appeared. The beds were super comfy, but the pillows were not. They feel as if they are filled with beans of some description, although after a while, they become slightly more comfortable. Still, if you go and stay at a Ryokan, don't expect a pillow made of swallow feathers or anything.

Emma and I then settled down to watch the Studio Ghibli film "My Neighbour the Yamadas", which in itself was very educational in regards to traditional Japanese household customs - if only we saw it before the trip! It was also a very sweet, funny film. If you get the opportunity, watch it! We then had a very well-deserved sleep.

Tomorrow: The epic journey to Takayama.

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