Today it was time to make our way out of Tokyo and into a Japan that most westerners will overlook. We travelled north by shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano and then on to Yudanaka Onsen. An onsen is a hot spring and the towns which feature them use it as part of their name.
The train travel was very relaxed and everything was impeccably on time, as it was in Tokyo. We bought some bento boxes of tonkatsu and rice (fried pork, like chicken katsu) which were really tasty. I also had some rather nice vanilla ice cream on the shinkansen.
When we arrived at Yudanaka there was a helpful volunteer at the train station who helped foreigners to find their hotel or ryokan and pass out maps. Touches like this really warm you to a country! We walked about 10 minutes uphill to Shimaya Ryokan. This was our first traditional accommodation for the trip and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. The owner had a decent grasp of English and was just a little on the eccentric side. He gave us some strong suggestions for what to do and told us that we’d go to the snow monkey park as soon as we’d dropped our bags off.
So we drop our bags in the tatami mat room and have a quick look. The decor is a bit tatty in the bathrooms.. perhaps very tatty. The rest of the place is quite eclectic in the decorations too. The walls of the stairway are like a guestbook, where previous occupants have drawn or written a poster of gratitude, suggesting everyone was very happy to stay here. Then it’s off to see the monkeys.
The owner drives us up to the monkey park about 3 miles away and we agree to walk back. It’s about another mile along a path to the entrance. Once inside we’re greeted with a small park where local snow monkeys hang out and bathe in the river and hot springs. It’s probably at its best in winter with everything covered in snow, but it was still a wonderful sight and there were so many cute little baby monkeys playing everywhere.
We stopped off at a cafe by the exit for some ice cream and drinks (turns out apple ice cream shouldn’t really be a thing) and then walked back to Yudanaka via Shibu onsen, another local onsen town.
We had a short time to relax at the ryokan then we changed into our Yukata (the traditional dressing gowns, tied at the waist) and went down for dinner. Dinner at a ryokan is 9 courses (all served at around the same time in small dishes) and it features a real variety of food. I’d been wary of this experience but it was truly one of the most wonderful meals I’ve ever had. The wife of the owner does all the cooking and she’s very talented. We had some slices of beef that we cooked for just a few seconds on a stove in front of us (we each had a stove), some veg already on the stove, grilled rainbow trout, a selection of sashimi (raw fish), stuffed aubergine (this was amazing), a lovely little mixed seafood salad, pickles, steamed vegetables in broth, rice, miso soup, tea and a selection of fruit.
After dinner we were immediately taken (still wearing yukata, and wooden sandals) to the ryokan’s private onsen. It was just after sunset and we had lovely dusk views of the valley and moon for our bathing. Visiting an onsen is a quite elaborate amount of first washing yourself and then once clean, bathing in the very hot waters of the small pool. Swimming costumes simply aren’t done, so be it a private or a public onsen, you do it naked. In public onsen at least there are usually separate areas of men and women to preserve modesty. Very hot doesn’t really do them justice and you don’t get used to it in the same way as cold water. When you’re in the hot water, if you move then every little bit of searing flesh lights up again. We eventually learned that you can modify the temperature usually via a cold water hose but it feels a bit like cheating (until you see a local do it!).
After this I had the best sleep of the trip so far. Apparently being boiled alive is good for getting relaxed somehow!