Today we got up, had a western style breakfast at the Shimaya ryokan and then said our goodbyes. Both the owner and his wife saw us off and wanted a few photos with us and they gave us some ribbons tied through 5 yen coins to tie to our packs for good luck.
We then hopped back on the “Limited express Snow Monkey” train to Nagano to start our journey into the mountains. From Nagano we got a local service to Matsumoto which had to stop several times to reverse onto a different line to let an oncoming train pass. It felt like it was unplanned at first but this was Japan, and trains do not run late. We hit Matsumoto a minute ahead of schedule.
From Matsumoto another local train into Shinshimashima and everyone on the train seemed to be headed out into the mountains. A group of about 25 teenagers (maybe 17 years old) were on board, as were a flight crew of 5 from Switzerland. The 2 Swiss guys were bald and ended up with the girls stroking their heads and exchanging sweets all around. Jealousy is an ugly feeling! The kids were so cute and everything anime had told me they would be. All of us ended up on the coach from Shinshimashima into Kamikochi. The total journey taking just over 4.5 hours. The coach had little flip down seats that went into the aisle and meant that even when full, nobody extra had to stand. I spent a while chatting with the Swiss about their travel plans and mine and had the funny background noise of all the girls on the coach exclaiming whenever we’d try to squeeze by another bus on the tiny roads (Sugoi! Sugoi!).
Japanese seats aren’t always very forgiving any by the time the coach pulled into Kamikochi we REALLY needed to walk about a bit. After a little gap we grabbed some Japanese curry in a little cafe then made our way to the Shirakaba-sou Hotel. The hotel is on the banks of the river running through this mountainous valley. It’s all very lush and green at this time of year and a really pleasant setting. It was a little overcast, but that’s pretty normal in the mountains and in Japan as a whole, not unlike England. The hotel here was like an upmarket ryokan, with us staying in a traditional Japanese tatami room. Much larger than in Yudanaka and much more like a regular hotel than a guest house.
We dumped our bags and headed out to walk north in the valley to the next bridge and back down the other side of the river. Some of the walk was through thick forest and other parts along the bank of the river, sometimes on raised wooden boardwalks. The highlight was the bridge crossing as many monkeys, probably thirty or forty were using it to cross over to our side of the river. Whilst the monkeys at the park in Yudanaka were very cool, it was special to see these out in the wild. Almost all the tourists had departed in the late afternoon and we were about the only people around. We eventually left the monkeys and ended up walking by torchlight to get back to our hotel in time to get changed into our yukata for dinner.
Dinner here was in a large room and served as courses one after another in a western style rather than all at once as had been normal so far. There was no English menu and when I did ask, although the waiter spoke some English, he seemed more interested in what I thought the food was. We had 9 courses, some of which contained up to 4 individual dishes and most of it was very tasty. There was a wide variety on offer, from strips of near raw beef, some kind of sea creature with suckers and clam chowder to a mushroom risotto and berry panna cotta. Having this many small dishes is a fantastic way to eat and enjoy food. If we don’t like a dish (and this has been rare) then we don’t eat much of it and there’s plenty of other ones to have. We only tend to finish the better dishes because there’s so much food on offer and we have to pace ourselves!
Our room had been switched over from a table and chairs to having bedding out whilst we’d been at dinner. Beds hadn’t been terribly remarkable on the trip yet but after a little while of lying down and getting people to hit other people on the head with pens thousands of miles away I tried to stand up. Pen karma kicked in and gave me a few seconds where my back did not consider being upright a reasonable proposition. The futons here are about 3 inches thick, sitting atop a hard tatami mat floor. On the futon is a very thin blanket to lie on and I really hadn’t considered that most Japanese people would press a bit lighter on these than me and be more used to them. So as I go to bed, I have 2 of them stacked on top of each other and we’ll see if double futon is the way forward here.