Japan Part Ni: The Hills

My friends, I’ve accumulated quite the story since my initial Japan post. Like to hear it? Here it goes!

LAKE NOJIRI

Look it up on a map and the location seems a bit random - it’s the second largest glacial lake in Japan, north of Nagano in the mountains, not on the way to anywhere in particular - why Lake Nojiri? Well, as a matter of fact there’s kind of a funny story behind that. Back in February, MG got shafted by Expedia after booking a Valentine’s weekend getaway, and consequently wrote a… well, let’s just call it a bitter account of what went wrong (for the record, we still had a lovely time). Anyway, because of that post someone from Tablet Hotels reached out to him, kind of just to say “hey, not all online hotel booking sucks, give us a look”. We ended up liking Tablet’s website and using it to research their featured hotels in Japan, one of which just happened to be on Lake Nojiri. And it seemed weird and off the beaten path enough to sound like a good idea. So we booked it for two nights, figuring that after four days in Tokyo we’d welcome the change of atmosphere.

Our first Shinkansen (bullet train) experience took us from Tokyo to Nagano, and we barely made that mofo because Japan’s trains leave exactly when they’re scheduled to, absolutely no exceptions. If you’re not in your seat by 11:34, too bad, because your train’s pulling away without you. Great for dependability in keeping to schedule, stressful if you can’t find your platform in one of the biggest train stations in the world. We ended up boarding within a couple minutes of departure in a sweaty frenzy. Good times.

Shinkansen trains aren’t just fast (really really fast), but also efficient and classy. I spent three months traveling via India’s railway system so believe me, I know a pristine train toilet when I see one. It’s like what airplanes should feel like, but never do.

We had to switch to a local train line once we reached Nagano, which was totally ok with me as I love trains and, truth be told, have a particular affinity for the less-glossy variety. This particular route got rural, quickly. You may recall that Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics back in 1998, but getting out of the city it’s obvious that much of the greater region remains undeveloped, especially to tourism. As we trudged up a grade through little town after little town, we passed through apple orchards adjacent to the train tracks! Now, this probably isn’t that exciting a view for most people, but I grew up among apple orchards in Northern California, so to see the Japanese version was a real treat in a bizarro-world sort of way. I learned later that they were mostly fujis (duh). At our train stop, a representative from our hotel picked us up in a shuttle van, which was not only appreciated but probably necessary. It was a windy drive up a small mountain road to reach our hotel, we really had no idea where we were, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t a whole lot of local taxis doing business in April, because up there it’s still snowing.

We were upgraded to a suite upon check-in at our hotel, which we absolutely did not pay for. However, we were also the very first guests of the entire season (they close down for the winter and we arrived on opening day) and the hotel staff made a huge fuss over us and took pictures and put us in a suite they obviously weren’t using anyway. Kanpai to that!

A couple hours later, we were back in the shuttle van on our way to a local ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) to enjoy our very first onsen (Japanese hot spring) experience. Except that now there was an old couple in the van with us. No idea where they came from. Maybe they were locals? Or checked into the hotel after us? Anyway, their presence turned out to be a blessing because not only is the onsen experience very specific ritual-wise, but also gender separated. MG and I would have been totally clueless without that old couple to guide us through the various steps of the process on our respective sides of the wall.

The old woman and I got to be fast friends, as you tend to do when you’re squatting naked next to someone dousing you in hot water out of a wooden bucket. She spoke no English, and I spoke no Japanese, but she was really nice and I followed her lead pretty well. We managed to communicate to each other our ages, our names (June-ko and Sarah-san), agree that we both liked skiiing, and that she lives somewhere in western Japan and is familiar with San Francisco. The actual onsen was an indoor-outdoor soaking bath/shower/scrub ensemble and totally relaxing. Apparently MG and the old man got along fine as well, because he enjoyed his onsen, and while comparing notes afterward it was obvious we’d gone through the same rituals.

For the next couple of days, we stayed at our hotel in the middle of nowhere on a lake eating, drinking, and being merrily slovenly. The hotel meals were over the top. We took a footpath partially covered in snow down to the water one afternoon, but that’s about it as far as physical activity goes, unless you count eyeball lifts watching snowflakes fall through the window. In a word, fantastic. Oh, and after the restaurant and lounge closed, we had access to a vending machine on our empty floor stocked with beer. So.

Our next destination was Nara in the Kansai region (way south), so it was a long day of travel back down to Nagano, then south to Nagoya via the Shinano Express - if you’re a lover of trains, please take this route someday if you find yourself in Japan, you’ll thank me, I pinky promise. From Nagoya we took a Nozomi train (the fastest type of Shinkansen) to Kyoto, which was so fast it made me slightly sick in the way a wobbly plane might, and then transferred to a local line for our last leg from Kyoto to Nara, filled with schoolkids on their way home who stole glances at us and giggled amongst themselves. So cute.

A word before I sign off on this post, because this seems like a great time to stop blabbering on about nothing - I blame Veronica Belmont for making me go to Nara, because she’s the one who told me about some deer park where the deer come right up to you and you can feed them little crackers, and I freaking love deer and deer have never come up to me, ever, and so because of her story I was forced to go to Nara to feed the deer BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. And I fell in love with every single one of them and am now extremely upset that I can’t bring them all back with me through customs. But that’s a whole nother post.

Write soon.