Travel Notes: The Japan Alps

A view of the Japan Alps from the Noto Peninsula.  The mountains appear to rise up out of the ocean.

A view of the Japan Alps from the Noto Peninsula.  The mountains appear to rise up out of the ocean.

After leaving Tokyo, we headed northwest into the mountainous region known as the Japan Alps. We spent time in a remote village called Kijimadaira northeast of Nagano (where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held), traveled to the mountain town of Takayama by way of Matsumoto Castle, and then headed west for Kanazawa.  We rode bikes in Hida, went to our first onsen at Maguse Onsen, met some macaque monkeys (or snow monkeys) in Jigokudani Yaen-koen, and ate our first soba noodles, oyaki, and roasted green tea ice cream.  

Rob and Blythe watching these two little monkeys play.  This may be a touristy spot, but it really is so cool to just walk amongst monkeys doing their thing. 

Rob and Blythe watching these two little monkeys play.  This may be a touristy spot, but it really is so cool to just walk amongst monkeys doing their thing. 

After eight bustling days in Tokyo, the countryside was a welcome break from the city.  Our time outside of Nagano was spent at a small family inn where we were the only guests.  Yoshihiro cooked us breakfast and dinner each night and he's a fantastic cook and made us both Japanese and Western foods (which all three of us appreciated).  

Rob preparing to eat a delicious Yoshi-created dessert.

Rob preparing to eat a delicious Yoshi-created dessert.

He made this exquisite sweet potato soup, drove us to the surrounding sites, showed us the nearby villages and onsens, and was a tremendous host.  Plus, the inn had a corner filled with children's toys and Blythe spent much of our time here playing with a kitchen set, making soup for bunny, and searching for Waldo.  We "read" a few Japanese books, which was a good exercise for me in thinking creatively and making up stories to match the pictures.  Sleeping at Yoshi's was our first experience with traditional Japanese living.  We slept on a futon on the tatami mats (made of straw) on the floor and used pillows filled with buckwheat (to be clear, the Japanese futon is not like the American version - it is just a mattress that you lay directly on the floor).  I can't say I'll adopt these practices at home, but I'm glad to have had the experience.

Blythe in a foot onsen in the middle of Nozawaonsen. There are ski slopes nearby and I can imagine people lined up to soak their feet in the hot water after a day on the slopes.  Blythe thought it was a personal hot tub and it was all we could do to keep her clothes on.

Blythe in a foot onsen in the middle of Nozawaonsen. There are ski slopes nearby and I can imagine people lined up to soak their feet in the hot water after a day on the slopes.  Blythe thought it was a personal hot tub and it was all we could do to keep her clothes on.

Blythe enjoying oyaki, a local speciality, which is a dumpling filled with savory or sweet ingredients.  Popular flavors include mountain vegetable, pumpkin, red bean, and apple (shown here).

Blythe enjoying oyaki, a local speciality, which is a dumpling filled with savory or sweet ingredients.  Popular flavors include mountain vegetable, pumpkin, red bean, and apple (shown here).

Yoshi took us to several onsen towns, which are towns with multiple public baths for bathing.  It's a huge part of Japanese culture to visit these baths, many of which are scattered throughout villages.  They are gender divided and you don't wear any clothes.  As someone who never used the group shower in the locker room in college, public nudity is not high on my list of things to do, but we went to one with a spectacular view and I think having a baby and spending a fair bit of time in a hospital has made me less modest.  Blythe loved splashing around and even brought her duck in with her (I'm sure this was not proper etiquette but no one seemed to mind).  I'm glad we experienced an onsen, but it really isn't my thing and I doubt we'll go back again.

We spent an afternoon in Nagano where I found a Starbucks (I have no shame in admitting that sometimes one needs the comforts of home, which for me include an iced decaf Americano with milk) and we strolled around the city en route to Zenkoji Temple, which is a stunning Buddhist temple built in the 7th century.   The cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the temple itself was this dark, intricately carved wood.  We ate soba noodles (buckwheat noodles, which are the regional specialty), the ordering of which required us to point at the food display outside the restaurant because no one inside spoke English.  The plastic food creations here are really something, but honestly they are quite helpful in getting what you want to eat!  You are supposed to eat soba noodles in a certain way, which includes dipping them only a little bit into the broth and noisily slurping them up to get the full flavor.  

The other food we all loved in Nagano was a roasted green tea ice cream that was so flavorful and delicious.  The roasted aspect really brought out the green tea and somehow it really worked well in an ice cream.  You'll see Blythe has her own small, chocolate cone - she obviously got that for free at the end of our soba meal. She's got a good thing going on...

We also picked up a rental car in Nagano.  It yells at us in Japanese every time we approach a toll booth and I can't decide if we are doing something wrong or if her voice just sounds angry.  We've had one toll snafu where we chose the wrong lane and couldn't get through because we don't have the Japanese equivalent of an EZ Pass.  This resulted in a lengthy conversation between Rob and a man stationed at the tollbooth, one in which neither person could understand the other.  It was entertaining to observe and we eventually sorted it out.  One note about driving in Japan is something we learned a bit late into our travels (midway through New Zealand): you must have an international driving permit to rent a car and drive in Japan.  The only other time I've heard about this permit is when my Mom and I took a trip to Europe my freshman year of college and she got one for driving in Germany.  We were pulled over by two police officers for driving too slowly (and looking lost, which we were) and they got a good laugh out of the international permit and clearly had never seen one before.  But in Japan, they are a must.  Ours required two express mail packages (NZ to USA to Tokyo) and miraculously awaited us at the Westin in Tokyo.  You drive on the left side of the road here, but Rob's used to that after New Zealand.  That said, neither one of us can read any of the road signs so we just sort of carry on and hope for the best.  I've never been so thankful for Google Maps.

Coming from mountainous areas in New Zealand, one thing that stands out from driving in the Japan Alps is that there are so many tunnels.  We've been through some really long ones (12 km) and they are everywhere.  In Colorado, these would be mountain passes and I'd be fearful that Blythe would get carsick again.  But not here - the Japanese just tunnel through the mountains.  

The view of Takayama from the Takayama Castle Ruins

The view of Takayama from the Takayama Castle Ruins

Takayama was another peaceful city in the mountains where we perused the Morning Market, wandered quaint side streets, sampled various pickled vegetables, drank sparkling sake (delicious), explored a temple, went trail running, found a local playground, ate delicious food, and had a quiet few days.  The town felt so sleepy and it left us wondering if we were there in an off time or if everyone was on vacation... or if it is just quiet?  When we went in search of food on our first night in town, it seemed everything was already closed at 7 PM.  Perhaps it was that we didn't know places were open, but we were beginning to think we'd have to get dinner from 7-11 or Family Mart.  The city is filled with beautiful, old, wooden buildings and the streets are lined with narrow drainage canals, perfect for Blythe to practice her climbing and balancing.

En route to a nearby park, we had to make a quick detour when I spotted a small "boulangerie" sign.  It turned out to be the best bakery I've been to in ages where we ate some of the most delicious bread (seriously, the raisin-nut bread was warm and moist inside and the perfect texture).  We stocked up for lunch and for breakfast the next day and went back again as we headed out of town.  We ate hamburgers twice (at Center 4 Hamburgers and EvilTex), because sometimes you just need to eat something familiar in surroundings that make you think of home.   

Blythe couldn't wait to dig into her croissant.  She couldn't even bother to put on shoes.

Blythe couldn't wait to dig into her croissant.  She couldn't even bother to put on shoes.

Our airbnb was conveniently located across the street from the Takayama Library, which had an entire section of children's books in English.  We travel with quite a few books, but Blythe has memorized most of them at this point so it was nice to read a few new books and some of our favorites (Goodnight, Moon, a collection of Curious George, Bear Has a Story to Tell (one of my all-time favorites), and Toot & Puddle's I'll Be Home for Christmas).  Libraries and playgrounds are our saving grace on this trip - each is a failsafe way to make Blythe happy.

Ready to ride.  As usual, Blythe looks thrilled.

Ready to ride.  As usual, Blythe looks thrilled.

En route to Kanazawa from Takayama, we stopped in Hida to do a guided bike tour of the surrounding area.  The bike ride itself wasn't that long or challenging, but we had a cheerful, engaging guide who told us a few things about the area we wouldn't otherwise have learned.  For example, Hida has canals that run along the sides of many streets, predominantly for irrigation.  However, the main canal is filled with koi fish.  It gets quite cold in Hida, so in the winter they scoop up all the fish and transport them to a warmer pond. In the spring, they scoop up the fish again and move them back to the canals.  

Check out all the koi in the canal!

Check out all the koi in the canal!

We are now on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa.  We have five nights here and are staying in an airbnb where the details were so carefully thought and we have Western-style beds and even chairs (I'm too old to adjust to sitting on the floor for hours on end).  It makes all the difference when the place where we stay feels like home... but more on that in another post.

Here are observations from the week since we left Tokyo:

  • While we would literally be lost without Google Maps, sometimes they can be incredibly frustrating, particularly in Tokyo where shops or restaurants may be mere feet from where you are standing but impossible to find.  Case in point - I wanted to get to the Starbucks in the train station before we left for Nagano, which you can see from the map below was really quite close to where I was standing. I never actually found it.  I got a beer on the train instead so all was not lost, but it has happened numerous times that we are so close to a shop and never reach it.
  • Restaurants don't have napkins.  They often have tissues, which aren't really effective for getting your hands clean.  For those of you who have eaten out with a toddler, you can understand how this is problematic for us.
  • We have enjoyed the freedom of driving here, but it is surprisingly expensive.  The rental car itself wasn't bad, but add onto that the cost of getting the international permit, the English-Language GPS (which is moderately helpful), gas, parking (we paid $30/day in Takayama - ouch), and tolls, which are costly, and it adds up!  Speaking of parking, that was a mystifying experience.  Using Google Translate didn't help at all so we just parked and hoped for the best! 
  • Our airbnb in Kanazawa is run by a company called Japan Experience.  We have yet to use any of their other services, but this was the first airbnb experience where we were met at our new home by Chris, who happens to originally be from Denver!  He showed us how everything works in our home, walked us through the city map and some favorite spots, and even told us where to find a good playground.  We were able to ask a few questions we had to someone who has lived here for 8 years and it was just so nice to be greeted this way.  The property we are renting in Kyoto is also run by Japan Experience, so we'll see if we have a similar experience there.  The other thing is that they obviously run a lot of airbnbs and have thought of all the details: coffee pot, saran wrap and aluminum foil, extra towels, spots to hang towels (Why don't hotels and apartments have enough places to hang a towel? No one wants a mildewy, wet towel.), washer AND dryer and detergent, outlets that don't require a converter, bikes for us to use, and a new sponge, which is high on my list.  I should mention that showing us how everything works in the house is really helpful in Japan because the homes have all sorts of bells and whistles that we aren't used to.  For example, there is a panel in the kitchen that allows you to remote fill the bathtub at a certain temperature. There is a heater under the table where you eat to keep your feet and legs warm.  Plus, you have to sort the trash a certain way and this changes within each prefecture.  
  • We sent our luggage ahead of us for the first time from Tokyo to the inn outside of Nagano.  It is apparently the norm here to take your luggage to a convenience store (which are everywhere) and arrange for it to be transported to your destination.  Rob took ours to a 7-11 where a very kind Nepalese woman helped him send our massive bags separately so we didn't have to take them on the train (where there is relatively little room for luggage storage).   It's hard enough to wrangle a toddler on a train platform, let alone when you have 3 bags in tow and a stroller.  It was a leap of faith, but our bags arrived promptly the next day for about $40.  
  • For being in the mountains, we didn't do any real hiking.  There is still a ton of snow on the peaks and we mostly explored the villages and towns and did a bit of running.  It turns out that even though we love our hiking backpack, moving quickly with 30+ pounds of Blythe on your back is not that fun.
Rob hiking up to Snow Monkey Park

Rob hiking up to Snow Monkey Park

  • The absence of tables for eating and trash cans in Japan is puzzling and frustrating.  We have eaten out a lot while in Japan, and occasionally we like to go to the grocery store and get food to take out rather than to eat at a restaurant.  We are now in a hotel for two nights and there, literally, was not a single table available for us at which we could eat either here at the hotel, at the store where we purchased food, nor at the train station.  When we asked the hotel, they looked at Rob like he was crazy and suggested we eat in our room, which is quite small and doesn't have a table.  But what is really odd is that at the massive train station, there wasn't a single spot to sit unless you went into a restaurant.  Part of the culture here is to not eat or drink and walk, so the lack of tables makes sense in that regard, but for those of us who like to get food to take away on occasion, it is tough.  There are also no trash cans here.  If you are out and about, you'll often see signs that say "please continue to carry your trash home with you".