Nick (nickmurdoch) wrote,

Japan 2016: Days 5-8

We spent the next few days doing quite a lot of snow-related stuff, while in and around the Japanese Alps. A particular highlight of the holiday was seeing the snow monkeys at the hot springs. We also did the Tateyama Kurobe route through the mountains.


The journey to Yamanouchi was very pleasant, taking a private train line into the mountains through rural Japan. We got to ride in the front seats, DLR style, though not because the train was automated but instead because the driver had his own separate cabin above us; he disappeared through an attic-style trapdoor with ladder at the start of the journey!

Yamanouchi is a resort town of hot springs, and had some very pretty streets where you would often see people walking around in their yukatas between some of the many public onsen. The ryokan we stayed in, Koishiya, didn't have its own hot springs, but shuttled us to another hotel in our yukatas for an hour in their natural-heated outdoor rock pools, which were open to all their guests and, like most public baths in Japan, were gender segregated. I'm not particularly comfortable about stripping off, washing myself, and bathing naked around strangers, but it seemed silly not to try it at least once.

The water was pretty hot and I found myself glad that I was outside in the cool evening mountain air to counteract this. I had the pool to myself for about half the time, after which I was joined by a group of young Japanese men.

Anyway, enough tales of my own bathing experience. We'd mostly come to Yamanouchi to see monkeys bathing!

While they didn't come into town, the snow monkeys in Japan are famous for using one of the natural hot springs further up into the mountains. The tour groups tended to get there for 9am or 10am, when the keeper would spread seeds around the area to entice them in, so we decided to walk up earlier when it would be less busy.

On our way up we came across a wilder family of macaques crossing the road. After walking past them, I turned around to have another look, at which point the largest of the group came over to me and tugged on my trouser leg, staring directly at me and making an O with its mouth. I decided that in the context it probably wasn't after food, and moved away fairly promptly. I later read that Macaques will not tend to attack humans, but instead try to stare them out like this. I guess it worked!

When we got to the hot springs, there were already plenty of monkeys around. They were playing on the paths, grooming each other, and generally hanging out.

They were not paying attention to any humans at all. There was no snow around at this time of year, so there were none in the onsen, but once the keeper had scattered some seeds around the area, including into the pool, one macaque decided to have a dip.

A few monkeys were also sitting on the edge of the pool, perhaps enjoying the warm steam, including one mother who was carrying her baby underneath her.

After having our fill of monkeys, we walked back to Yamanouchi and soaked our feet in a public foot bath before walking back to the ryokan to get our bags and walk back to the station.


We found ourselves with some spare time in Nagano, so visited a buffet restaurant there called Kinoko & Vegetable (lit. mushroom & vegetable), which was almost entirely vegetarian, and had very tasty desserts. Then we visited Nagano's main temple, which was really very pretty. We ran across a man with a shiba inu (such dog, wow), and when he noticed our attention, he had the dog do a trick for us.

Tateyama Kurobe

Tateyama Kurobe is a multi-modal route through the Hida Mountains, the "Japanese Alps" which promised amazing views and some pleasant walking routes. It was quite tricky to find any concrete information about when we were planning the holiday, but we found the end points and booked hotels accordingly.

It turned out that most tourists are encouraged to do the route from West to East, rather than East to West as we'd planned. In the end this wasn't a problem but it meant staying near Omachi, a small town reasonably close to Matsumoto. When we arrived we enquired at the ubuiqutous tourist information office for somewhere that would serve vegetarian food ("fish okay?" "yes") and we ended up in a place called 味処泉味 (assuming I have traced it back correctly via Google Maps and Street View). The owners didn't speak a word of English but were ever so helpful, bringing out a couple of fish on a chopping board that we could choose between and generally making the most of sign language. Emily drew a sketch of a fish on a scrap of paper and drew a line through the middle to indicate that we'd just like a half portion each. I joked that I'd end up with the head and she'd end up with the tail.

... which is exactly what happened!

Fortunately I'm not too squeamish about being served a whole fish, and it was delicious, served on a bed of rice, with miso soup I think.

I was hoping to use my self-taught Japanese numbers to sort out the bill at the end (the menu was, for the only time we saw in Japan, marked up in Japanese numerals) but the Arabic numbers on the printed till receipt scuppered my plans. They'd only charged us for one meal plus an extra rice, which was rather nice given that we had sides too.

We caught a taxi to our hotel, buses through the town being rather rare. The next morning we got up early, ready to catch the first bus to the first station along the route, Ogisawa. It was the first day the whole route was open, and it turns out there were a lot of people heading up there, mostly apparently for the snowboarding. Long story short, we spent about as much time queuing for each consecutive transport connection as we did sightseeing.

That's not to say it was all bad, though. It's quite amazing to suddenly be at the top of a snowy mountain, walking a circular route to sulphur banks, passing university students digging in the snow for their climate course.

Despite the snow, it was pretty warm up there -- at least for us Brits; the Japanese were all still covered in multiple layers -- and a blueberry ice-cream from one of the lodges went down well!

It's probably fair to say that the 23-metre snow wall is the main attraction of the Tateyama Kurobe route. It is dug out after the snowy season every year to allow the tour buses to ... reach the snow wall.

We continued along the route until we got to the last cable car station, and did part of a short walk through an ill-maintained trek through cedar forest before heading back off the course and down to Toyama via another private railway.


Toyama was an extremely clean and tidy city, and when we arrived we ate at an italian restaurant that was more-or-less right above the station. We passed a particularly picturesque castle on the way to the hotel.

In the morning we explored more of the surrounding area on the way to the station to catch a train to Kyoto. There was a particularly nice garden and a river adjacent to the castle.

Then we were onwards to Kyoto for a few days!

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