Completely out of the blue, Nagano turned out to be one of my favorite stops. When I booked this trip, I had no idea what I was going to do in Nagano. In fact, I only knew two things about it: 1) the Olympics were there in 1998, and 2) It was the end of a Shinkansen line. Given the bullet-train-happy nature of this rail pass trip, I added it as a destination, found a guest house to stay in, and then figured I would decide what to do afterwards, the very latest being on my train ride to Nagano itself. Most of the things to do in Nagano that I found on japan-guide.com required a few hours of travel outside the city itself. However, I did find that the Jigokudani monkey park was within day-trip distance of Nagano, so I decided on that as a start.
I already know this entry will be long so bear with me (text and lots of photos), or just skim through the photos, or run away!
I got onto the Nagano Shinkansen around 10:30am after a ridiculous night in Tokyo, in which I slept for 2 hours on the floor of a hotel room (using my pack as a pillow), woke up still intoxicated and developed a nice hangover by the time I hit the train ride. Getting into the city, the first thing I noticed was there were mountains. Everywhere! In fact, I had fallen asleep during the train ride and woke up to Mt Asama sitting in front of me in the window about 20 minutes prior to arriving. The next thing I noticed was that it was cold. The temperature was probably mid-60s, but given that I had just spent a day in the sweltering Tokyo sun, this was a huge but nice surprise. At night, the temps dropped down to about 36-37 which was another nice change of pace.
I got out of Nagano station and looked around. This was a small city. Did they really hold an Olympics here? My hostel was booked in the nearby city of Suzaka, which required a separate train line to get to (Nagano’s main electric train line). I went into the station and bought a ticket at the machine, and tried to walk up to the turnstiles. They were all blocked, with a message in kanji above. They weren’t electronic/magnetic either. I walked up to the attendant and tried to show him my ticket, and he told me to wait a few minutes and pointed to several rows of chairs that people were waiting at. Then I looked up and saw that the train was only scheduled to come three times an hour. Seriously, this city was a few years back on its transportation tech, or it was just small enough that they didn’t need high-volume systems.
The train came, and it was at least 20 years old. Like I said in the post before this, Tokyo has left me with a very narrow impression of how things (should) work here. As we passed through the stations in the city (about 30 minutes to where my hostel was), everything was older. The stations were rusty and looked disheveled. The train went straight through the town, and we passed house after house, cutting through the streets. The mountains were surrounding us though, and it was a nice sight to NOT see tall buildings and hundreds of people & cars. I dropped off my things at the hostel (more on the hostel later) and was off to Jigokudani monkey park. That train ride took another 30 minutes, which gave me even more expansive and panoramic views of the Japanese mountain ranges around me. It was very pretty. I had to take a bus to the entrance of the park trail, and as it drove up through Yamanouchi town, which was built on a hillside lining a falling river, I felt a huge wave of excitement at how calm this was. I was finally truly out of the big bustling city environments of Japan.
The hike to the monkey park was a good 40 minutes uphill through a thick evergreen forest. The path itself was paved, though. Most of the hike I was alone, and it was quiet save for birds, the river and the wind. Given that I was still recovering from the night before, it was a nice way to keep my mind calm and not overstimulate myself. I got to the end of the trail and there was an onsen resort built in to the mountainside, and slightly above it was the monkey park. At this park, there are tens of Japanese Macaques that lounge around freely with the visitors, and play in an onsen (the main attraction of the park). I went in and a monkey immediately ran across the path ahead of me, jumping down the hill and grabbing some fruit from one of the park rangers. The rest were just chillin in the onsen, splashing around, sitting and enjoying the hot water. This area is supposed to be particularly fun to watch them when there’s snow or springtime; unfortunately early October is not the prettiest (autumn as JUST beginning), but it was still fun to watch them. However, by the time I had gotten to the park it was about 3:30pm and around 4:15 all the monkeys disappeared back into the forest. I got a few pictures and was happy though, so I enjoyed the scenery for a while longer and then headed back down as it was getting cold and I was wearing shorts. I missed the hourly bus so I had to wait about 45 minutes forever alone at a remote bus stop.
I got back to Suzaka, where the hostel was, and checked in. If I thought Nagano was a small city, Suzaka was a miniscule town. It was absolutely quiet. Every once in a while a car would drive through the street, and there were small restaurants here and there, but I was amazed at how silent the town was once then night fell. The hostel I was staying in, “Guest House KURA”, is run by a Japanese woman and her Sri Lankan husband. The house itself is over 100 years old and the floors are all tatami with paper/wood sliding doors. It was a cool feel to be in there. The owners were super friendly and gave me suggestions on where to go for dinner. I went to eat at a restaurant around the corner that specialized in 味噌すき, which is basically a sukiyaki donburi that had a miso base instead of shoyu. The restaurant itself was run by a nice elderly Japanese woman, who cooked everything herself as well as did the orders and register (maybe since it was a slow night, I was the only one there). Something about dishes with raw eggs have really been doing it for me this trip, as this was topped off with one too. The miso base was delicious, maybe similar to how I prefer miso ramen over shoyu, but that and this lady was a damn good cook as well.
As I walked back from the restaurant the silence of the town struck me again; in the dark as well, the town itself was just very pretty. The houses and restaurants had an old-Japanese look, and combined with low-level or no lighting, it just seemed a little surreal to me. And the streets were completely empty! I still can’t get over that. I came back out later with my camera and a tripod to capture some of what I saw; a few unprocessed examples are below.
When I got back to the hostel, the gathering room was full of people and everyone had drinks and food out. I put my stuff away and joined them. It was like something out of a movie, where a bunch of random travelers come together, drink, eat, and talk. As cliche as it is, one guy even pulled out a guitar. The kicker for me is that every guest here was Japanese – so everyone spoke Japanese and I had to do the best I could – and half of them were from Tokyo looking to get out of the city too. The hosts had a few local friends who come and chill each night too. Everyone was incredibly friendly, outgoing and interested in everyone else’s stories and experiences. Despite planning to sleep early and stay sober, I ended up drinking with them and staying up pretty late until I realized I had to wake up at 5am to catch my next set of trains for Mt. Fuji.
The whole day and night were such a complete departure from what I had just gone through in Tokyo, that it was like a nice mental therapy and relaxation period to recharge. Despite only seeing one thing in Nagano, and not knowing much about it beforehand, I definitely think this was one of the best days of my trip. I woke up at 5am the next morning and put on my pack and trudged back to the station with a smile on my face. My next stop is Mt. Fuji so I figure it could only get better.