After Osaka, the plan was to spend one night somewhere quiet before spending our last four nights in Japan in Tokyo. After a booking.com wildcard search (date, price, country) we came up with Nozawa Onsen which is located near one of the Nagano winter Olympic sites. The village dates back to the 8th century and became famous in the Edo Period for its hot springs. According to legend the first hot spring was discovered by a bear who lead a hunter to the site.
Using our Japanrail passes we booked tickets in Osaka. We wanted to take the scenic train from Osaka to Nagano but had to settle for the hokoruku shinkansen which passes through Kanazawa before heading inland. The route was scenic enough as we saw snow capped mountains on one side and the sea of Japan on the other. In Kanazawa we picked up Ekiben (lunch boxes for train travel) for the final leg to Iyama where we caught a bus to the resort.
There was snow and the ground and it was a sunny brilliant day. The town was a cross between a traditional Japanese town and a ski resort. There were tourist with snowboards and skis walking through the town buying traditional steamed buns. Our hotel – Shirakaba – reflected this duality with its tatami matt rooms and ski/boot storage.
The town itself is spread out over a couple of hills. It has hot and cold streams, bridges, and views of mountains and ski hills.
Eliot and I donned the Yukata’s ( traditional outfits provided by the hotel) and our blundstones and headed out on an “Onsen crawl”. Our goal was to visit as many of the 13 Onsen as possible. The Soto Yu are situated in small wooden buildings with separate pools for women and men. There are no facilities other than wooden cubbies for your clothing and cold water taps for regulating the temperature of the pools.
The first onsen was in a beautiful old building and I was able to snap a couple of photos before others arrived. The onsen had 2 pools and a bathing area on the side. The routine was to enter, undress, crouch on the side and bathe using a bucket, rinse off the floor so that it drains on the side and not in the pool, and then enter the pool. If there were two men, one would pass the other buckets of water in succession. The men would joke about how hot the pools were and tease their sons. They said konichi wa to us and the whole scene was very social and comfortable. I did manage to annoy one older man when I reached for his towel by mistake (my glasses were fogged) but otherwise we all got on well. Eliot was the master at finding the Onsen. We even found one that was only for feet. At another onsen a toothless guy told us to try the free sake at the sampling across the road. However, the combination of hot springs and sake made me swoon so we decided head back to the hotel for dinner.
The next day we visited 4 more Onsen including. We then headed up hill to the temples and saw the source for the hot springs. Locals were boiling eggs in the hot springs and I ate one. It has a mild sulphuric taste and was perfectly cooked. Eliot opted for Ice Cream. After an excellent Yakitori lunch we headed back to the station and on to Tokyo.
In three hours we went from a small town in the mountains to the middle of one of the largest cities on the planet. Tokyo is the cleanest city I have ever seen. There is little air pollution and no trash anywhere. The train and subway stations are very crowded but did not feel claustrophobic. Raised tile lines on the floor separate pedestrians waking in different directions and the bi-lingual signage makes it easy for english speakers to get around.
In Tokyo we shopped, ate sushi and met up with friends. The Japanese are very organized and there are districts for everything. We visited the kitchen supply district- Kappabashi street to buy a Japanese knife. In Akihabara street looked at electronics and gamer supplies. In Ueno we saw the crowds in the park having picnics under the Cherry blossoms. In Ginza we bought french pastries in department store food courts and saw gift fruit like $50 mangos. In Shibuya we had dinner with Ryokyo- Eliot’s friend from UBC. Finally in Shinjuku we went to a gay bar where we met tourists and locals. There was a British guy teaching English in a remote town, an American visiting his brother in the US military and a posse of Japanese guys that swarmed around Eliot. They teased us about our 100 yen store snacks and Eliot teased back. We also saw Koh and my friend from Montreal Adrien Lachance.
Amidst all of the organized urbanism you do occasionally see people that have fallen through the cracks. We saw drunks hanging out under a railway bridge and a couple of homeless people wandering around muttering things to themselves. However, the number of homeless was minuscule compared to what we typically see in Vancouver and Toronto. We really enjoyed Tokyo and only scratched the surface of all that can be seen. We flew out of Tokyo- Haneda on March 31 on a Japan Airlines 787 heading towards Beijing. We had a feeling that we were going to experience a very different culture.
Guide for Onsen