Saturday, November 16, 2013
Last weekend we took our first road trip in Japan. We've driven to the airport before, but not much further than that. Rowan and I drove to Hakone once, but it was just a day trip. We decided a while back to take the Veteran's Day 3 day weekend to go to Nagano and see the snow monkeys. We had heard they were still not getting into the onsens as it was too warm, but we hoped by the time we went things might be getting colder, but no snow of course. When it snows up in Nagano, it can get pretty dicey, so we weren't sure we wanted to go there during the snow just yet.
So we started off on Saturday morning. What we had hoped would be a 3.5 to 4 hour road trip turned into quite a bit longer as we encountered awful traffic in Tokyo as we switched from one freeway to another. Of course, there are very expensive tolls on the freeways (not so free), but we calculated that for the 3 of us it would be less than if we all took the train. It turned out to cost about $150 in tolls for the round trip, much less than taking the train.
We've been using Booking.com to book hotels/ryoukans here, and I have to say, I love it. We found a very reasonably priced ryoukan near the monkey park with Japanese style tatami mats (which we prefer). Japanese breakfast was also included. We opted out for the dinner, but kinda wished had gone for it as it was difficult to find restaurants open in the evening. The park is near Yamanouchi, which is a very small tourist town. Seems everything shuts down in the evening. We had to do a konbini (7-11) dinner one night.
On the drive up, we stopped at a cool old castle (Matsumoto). We got there pretty late due to the Tokyo traffic, so we had to rush though. We didn't get to the top floor as the lines were so long, but it was pretty cool nonetheless.
We arrived at our ryoukan (Miyama), checked in, and promptly left to try and find a place to eat. It took us a while to find somewhere with a parking lot, and when we did, it was an old mom and pop place. The food was ok, but what was awesome was the apple they gave us for dessert. Humongous, and amazing! Apparently they grow apples in the region and they are some of the best we've ever tasted. We bought flat of them before we left to enjoy later.
The next morning I hit the public onsen attached to our ryoukan for a shower and soak. It was outside and extremely hot! The hottest onsen I've ever been in, I couldn't get close to the water sources without it starting to scald me. Needless to say, I stayed as far away as I could. But it was delicious.
We then headed up to the monkey park, parked outside and proceeded to hike about 20 minutes up to the final waystation. There we waited as others gathered. We didn't know exactly what was going on, but eventually figured out that the monkeys all spend the night up higher in the mountains, but come down sometime in the morning to the onsen area where they can get a bite to eat (from the park caretakers) and soak in the onsen if they want to. It was getting a little chillier, so we were hoping they would. Eventually we spotted them climbing down the mountain toward the little valley with the river and an onsen that had been built for them. I assume that there are natural onsens where the snow monkeys typically soak in the winter, but this one was built so there would be easy access to view them.
Unlike any other wild monkey involvement I've had previously, here all the people were permitted to simply walk by, around and through the monkeys with no protection whatsoever. The rules are strict (no feeding, looking at, talking to, or otherwise harassing the monkeys), and because of that, the monkeys just ignore humans completely. They ramble around us, through legs, etc... with no indication they care two hoots about us. It was charming.
They did in fact get in the onsen, as you can see in the pictures above, and there were some fun antics involving the dominant male asserting his dominance by mounting his female frequently (probably just for fun, as Rowan pointed out), harassing other monkeys, and at one point snarling at a young toddler girl who was making a little too much eye contact at his level. Otherwise, it was just fun to watch them do their thing, mainly looking for food and grooming each other.
After a couple of hours, we headed back and located some food. There was a sort of road-side store with goods from the area where we bought our apples, persimmons, some local beer (tried that later, very good) and some other food for later. Then back to the inn where we crashed for the afternoon after soaking in the onsen again. That evening, we headed back to a restaurant we had thought would be a good candidate, only to find it closed, which was when we decided to eat at 7-11. Good thing is you can find some pretty good food there, so it was fine.
The next day we checked out and headed back to Tokyo, by way of the Daio Wasabi farm. We were delighted by this place with its carefully cultivated riverbeds used to grow the wasabi root. We bought some fresh wasabi in a tube there and tried it out a couple of nights later with some local sushi. It was amazing! I've never had fresh wasabi before it turns out. Hard to describe, but sweeter than you'd think, and with less of the horseradishy harshness most people think of with wasabi.
After that we drove back home in about 4 hours and that was it. Good fun all around and enjoyable weekend trip.
Posted by Jesse at 9:58 AM