January 30, 2016

2016 January trip to Nagano

HiSE 1000 On the way to Yudanaka A small shrine in Yudanaka Rising moon in Yudanaka shopping street Breakfast Breakfast
2016-01-22 Today I took half a day off to pick up Alan early from Daycare so we could meet up with Eric and Claire at Tokyo station. The plan was to go to Nagano, and more specifically Yudanaka. We are staying at the Yamazakiya Ryokan, which is near the Shibu Onsen area. In fact, the right across from the Ryokan there is an onsen run by the town that is free to enter.

To get there we had an adventure! We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Nagano, and from there we took the Yukemuri express train on the Nagano Dentetsu to Yudanaka station. The Yukemuri train is very interesting - I thought that I had seen a train similar to it before. After some investigation, it turns out that the Yukemuri train is actually the old Romance Car 1000 HiSE trains from the Odakyu line. They apparently sent these older trains to the Nagano Dentetsu railway back in the early 90s. Nice to see them still getting some use! This particular train, the HiSE 1000, was built in 1986 and stayed in service until about 2012. The Japanese wikipedia entry on them is unsurprisingly much more detailed than the English one. I really like that these older trains (but not as old as I thought! I was guessing late 70s!) are still being used on a smaller rail line.

From Yudanaka station it was a quick 5 minute ride to the Yamazakiya Ryokan. The owner Akira is really nice, and came to meet us in his van. It is a nice two story Ryokan, pretty small with the family that runs it living in it. They have two (or three?) cute kids that are running around and look like they would like to play with Alan.

Across the street is an onsen. They warned us that it was pretty hot, 42 or 43 degrees C. That is what we keep our bath set to at home, so I figured it would be fine, but wow, either their thermometer is broken or ours is. That onsen was HOT. After a dip in the Onsen we went out to dinner. Just up the road was a Ramen place, run by an older woman. We were the only customers and she seemed a bit worried at first, but once we spoke some Japanese she was a bit relieved, and we got some ramen, fried rice, and gyoza. Pretty nice! We had a nice dinner, and chatted with the owner for a bit. She was very friendly and happy to talk. As we left she gave Alan two little cookies and a huge Fuji apple. We got back to the Ryokan a bit late, near 9pm. Alan really wanted to eat the apple, so he went at that for about 30 or 40 minutes, and at that point I forced him into the bath. The Ryokan has onsen too, and the temperature there was much more reasonable. It was great actually. Alan enjoyed it a bunch too. We got back to the room and did the standard bed routine, but when I turned on the TV “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was just starting and Alan was super interested in it. We watched for just a little bit before bedding down at 10pm.

Alan slept soundly until I woke him at 7:15am. We agreed at breakfast at that time because the plan for Saturday was to go to a nearby Ski park and play in the snow. We had a nice breakfast at 7:30am consisting of standard Ryokan fare: some fish, rice, a nice soup, maybe some pickled vegetables, a nice mountain yam, a small vegetable salad, and some tea. It was nice quite nice. The grilled fish was Salmon I think, and also great.

First snowball Headed up the people mover Lots of sledding Kid's slope Inner tubes Our ride Pretty high up
We got a ride to the station a bit before 9am (many thanks to the proprietor - he really went out of his way to make things easy for us!) and made it to the station in time for the free shuttle bus to Dragon King Ski area (竜王スキー場.) Eric and Claire needed some time to get their rental gear together. Alan and I had all our cold weather gear with us, so we put all of that stuff on (6 layers for Alan!) and then went up to the “Adventureland” kids area. It was just a bit up the slope, and they had some neat people-mover moving sidewalks that you could stand on. They were quite slow, slower than walking, but of course in the deep, slippery, snow they made a nice alternative. We got up to the area with the kids’ Adventure Land, paid our 800 yen to get in, and started playing. It was just a small slow with one of the moving sidewalks to get back up, with lots of different equipment for sliding down the hill. Alan really liked the sled with a steering wheel. We did that a whole bunch of times.

We also tried a toboggan once, but that didn’t work out as well. The sled has a brake that I can push, and it worked pretty well. The toboggan had no such thing. So I jammed my feet down as we neared the bottom on the hill. Powdery snow flew everywhere, mostly into our faces. I could hear people laughing on the nearby moving sidewalk ferrying snowboarders and skiers up to the lift. Alan really didn’t like the snow on his face, so we made a stop at the rest area indoors. We spent a bit of time there drying off before suiting up again and heading down to the base came to meet Eric and Claire for lunch.

Lunch was Go Go Curry. I really like curry. I was super excited to get a large katsu-curry, and Alan wanted to have some hot dogs, so I thought I’d order him a hot dog topping and we could share the large size. I put my money into the machine, and Alan said “I want that!” and pressed the button next to the normal sized hot dog curry. Well, it would do. The people behind us (noting my exclamation of surprise, and earlier explanation about getting a large katsu-curry with hot dog topping) said that Alan was “super cute!” I can’t argue with that logic.

Lunch was great. Even a non-preferred curry is still curry.

After lunch, I picked up some tickets for the ropeway (“the longest in Japan!” but I suspect that I’m missing some qualifier there) and headed back to the kids’ area. This time I convinced Alan to try the inner tubes ride - which was a different slope with three big curves built up. Those inner tubes really picked up some speed! It was great! Alan liked that enough that we rode that a bunch more times, until it was time to go down to the base camp and wait for the snowmobile to pick us up and take us up to the ropeway station. Normally people would just take the lifts up, but we didn’t get the lift pass since we wouldn’t be skiing. That also somewhat constrained our schedule since we needed to have a way to get back down the mountain, and the free snowmobile shuttle was on a limited schedule.

I was glad that I was able to find some hot chocolate, because really, what is a Ski trip without a hot chocolate at the lodge?

The snowmobile was pretty crazy. A bit old orange tracked monster, with room for maybe 6 in the back, tall enough for Alan to stand only, which means I had to crouch along with the other two guests. The thing shook and rumbled, but trumbled steadily enough through the snow. We made it in time for Alan to announce his age to a few of the snow boarders waiting for the ropeway (he is quite popular with the ladies it seems) and then were treated to an eight minute gondola ride up the mountain. Pretty high up too. The temperature visibly dropped as we rose, and at the top there was a bit of a snowstorm going on. We met up with Claire and Eric for a bit, before lining up and taking a packed ropeway gondola back to the station we came from, and caught the snowmobile back.

Alan decided that he wanted an ice cream, and there was a place that would oblige. I had a pretty nice Strawberry and Chocolate crepe myself. Before you knew it, Eric and Claire made it down, returned their rental gear, and we hopped back on the free shuttle bus to Yudanaka station. Unsurprisingly, Alan fell asleep pretty quickly.

We got a ride back to the Ryokan, and from there went out to dinner after a bit. We had some really good hand-cut soba, and stopped by a very nice hotel/bar for a final drink. They were showing a program about trains on the TV, and that was a big hit with Alan. By the time we got done with the bath and bedroom rituals, it was another late night - almost 9:45! Well, we head back to Tokyo tomorrow, so we should get back on a regular schedule then.

Snow monkey park Step monkey Snow Monkeys Bath time
The next day we had a relaxed dinner - again, standard Ryokan fare, but quite nice. The Ryokan proprietor was kind enough to drive us to the Snow Monkey park, about ten or fifteen minutes from the Ryokan. From the park, we had a nice walk through the forest to where the snow monkeys like to hang out and relax in the hot springs. There were snow monkeys everywhere! There is a little gated entrance where you buy your tickets, and at the foot of the stairs there was a monkey hanging out. Alan was really curious and kept looking at him, and the monkey really didn’t like that. You aren’t supposed to look them in the eyes. I suppose the Monkey Thought Process was “hey, that kid is about my size. I think I can take him!” We moved on and went down to the hot springs. Alan seemed to really like watching the snow monkeys.

We walked back to the park entrance, and the Ryokan proprietor met us again, then took us down to the train station. He didn’t have to do any of this, but was really great, and was interested in hearing about where we are all from, talking about the region, tourism, what it is like to run a Ryokan, and the like.

Zenkoji gate stairs Zenkoji in the snow Caffe Terra Gelatto Caffe Terra Hokuriku Shinkansen
At the train station we caught our express train back to Nagano. We had enough time for a nice lunch, and then a trip out to Zenkoji. Zenkoji is a very large temple complex not too far from Nagano station, about a ten minute taxi drive. We were able to climb up the top of their gate - up a super steep staircase I might add. I was a bit worried about Alan making it, but he was able to scamper up well enough so no problems there. We got some incense, put it in the brazier and headed inside. The shrine has some really nice big Buddhas, and lots of gold. Unusual for shrines this size it has a large tatami area for people to join the services, so we went and listened to one of the services. Also unusual for a Shrine, I could actually make out what the priest was saying. He was clearly praying for specific people from a specific place for a specific outcome. I suspect that this is a service you can apply for, e.g. you donate some amount and say “I’m XX from YY and would like academic success on my next entrance exam.” I didn’t try to verify that though.

After the service, we went down into a dark path under the altar. The path represents the journey through life, and when I say dark, I mean it is pitch black. You run your hand across the smooth wooden wall as the path twists and turns in the pitch black. Somewhere hidden in the maze is a rod that can be turned, and is actually a key. Supposedly, it is the key to paradise, through which you can find enlightenment. With a young four year old with me, when I found the lock, I didn’t really want to take the time to spin it. I was busy reassuring Alan that Darth Vader wouldn’t come, and that we were on another great adventure. It was so dark that I repeatedly bumped into the person in front of me. It was also quite cold, and my ungloved hand was getting quite cold following the wall. When I finally started to see the light announcing the staircase back up to the civilized world, out of this dark unknowable path of mystery I was relieved. Up we went. Alan was a real trooper, and besides a few worries about Darth Vader, made it through in good form. We were both, in our own ways, enlightened.

Alan picked out a gift for Lisa, and we left the complex. We walked down the shopping street leading up to the complex, and found a cute cafe called Caffe Terra. I was surprised that the proprietor was Australian! That is a bit out of the way for someone to end up at. The place was really cute, they had some picture books and Alan was real happy about that. I was excited to see a chocolate chip cookie, but it was the British biscuit style (not soft and chewy like an American cookie.) They had great gelato, and while you might think it would be strange to get gelato in the freezing cold snowing weather, I’m almost always up for a nice cold treat.

After our break at the coffee shop, we headed back to the station, caught our Shinkansen, and headed back to Tokyo.

It was quite a weekend! I spend many weekends alone with Alan, and while it was the same amount of time as a normal weekend it felt much, much longer. We got a chance to go places we’ve never been, enjoy great company, and try new things. I don’t think our budget will allow for a trip like this every weekend, but I’ve got to remember just how much fun these things can be, and while it can be tiring (I’m still recovering a week later!) make the effort to get out and do new things. This was also a great chance to test out some cold weather gear: in just about a week we’ll be taking a small family trip up to Hokkaidou, so using this trip as a chance to test out new clothes for Alan and myself worked really well!

I need warmer socks.


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