So, it was another amazing weekend of sightseeing. This time the destination was Nagano, our neighbor to the west, best known as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Saturday morning, I took the train out to Tokamachi to meet Ros and Grace, who had been soaking up the sights of the Tokamachi Snow Festival, reportedly Japan’s second-best snow festival (after Sapporo). If Niigata is famous for snow in Japan, it really says something that Tokamachi is famous for snow within Niigata itself. Anyway, they met me at the train station and we immediately set off for Nagano-ken.
After a relatively short drive, we found ourself in Nagano and shortly thereafter in Yudanaka, a small town famous for hot springs and monkeys (monkeys!). We stayed in a traditional Japanese-style ryokan. The owner of the place was kind enough to chaffeur us practically everywhere, starting with a fabulous onsen (hot spring) up in the mountains – which would have had a *fantastic* view if not for the four feet of snow around the outdoor baths. Still, there’s something indescribably wonderful about bathing in an outdoor hot spring, surrounded by snow and a starry sky. Very Japanese. Very wonderful. The onsen was followed by dinner at a cute little establishment near our ryokan and then an early bedtime. Wonderfully relaxing.
Sunday morning, we woke up bright and early and (again, accompanied by our friend the hotel owner) went to Jigokudani Monkey Park, home of the onsen-bathing snow monkeys. We trekked around an area known as “Hell’s Valley” for about 20 minutes with not another person in sight, and suddenly we were in another world. It was *amazing* – monkeys roaming free, frollicking and feeding and bathing and jumping, unphased by the small number of tourists who had awoken early to observe them. I loved the place for the same reason I loved the deer in Nara – it’s thrilling to be able to just wander around together with wildlife, without the bars (and rather dubious caretaking) of a zoo. You’d be taking pictures of one cute fellow and suddenly someone would whisper “Look down” and you’d see a monkey sitting on your foot. Amazing, amazing, amazing. Five stars. A must-see for Japan. I took a ridiculous number of pictures, but here are a few highlights:
After the Monkey Park, we checked out of our hotel and proceeded on to Obuse, a cute little traditional town where we had an amazing lunch. Rosalind pretty much sums it all up for us in this one:
And then it was just a quick jaunt south to see Matsumoto Castle, one of only four castles in Japan to be declared a National Treasure. It’s reportedly the second-best one, after Himeji Castle and the second-oldest, after Inuyama Castle (what did I tell you about all the ranking?). I visited Osaka Castle in October, but Matsumoto was *totally* different. Whereas Osaka Castle had been last rebuilt in 1931, Matsumoto dates from 1504. Visitors took off their shoes and proceeded up steep wooden stairs and dark castle halls, viewing relics from its heyday. Walking through the castle, I could totally imagine what it must have been like to fight a battle there – amazing. Another must-see.
All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend. I just taught two amazing lessons at school too, so life is looking good.