Saturday, October 20, 2012

Japan Part 2: The Japan Alps

After 3 exciting days in Tokyo it was time to head into the central mountains of Japan - the Japan Alps - via 2.5 hours in trains including a speedy bullet train to Nagano. Our first destination of three for this area was Matsumoto, a small and charming city with an old castle as a highlight.

Matsumoto castle (featured heavily in the photos link at the end) is Japan's oldest wooden castle having been built in the 16th century. Quite a feat not to have burned down in all that time! It comes complete with moat and is quite beautiful. For a bit of fun there was even a guy dressed in actual samurai armor. Hokey? Nah, pretty cool actually.

You are able to walk around inside the castle including going all the way up to the top level of the tower - very interesting indeed. And as with most historical places in Japan you can't wear your shoes inside while walking around. So you remove your shoes at the door, slip them in a bag to carry around with you, or leave them in a cubby. Sure they provide one-size-fits-all slippers to wear instead - but as you can imagine my feet came nowhere close to fitting in them. Quite comical, really. So if possible I just walked around in socks. :-)

The jovial samurai?
A highlight of our two nights in Matsumoto was using the free bicycles our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) had for use. We rode all over this very bike-friendly town and it was a handy way to get to and from the ryokan since it wasn't right in the town center. We were skeptical about it at first but it turned out to be really fun and an unexpected delight!

While in Japan we wanted to be sure to have a little bit of time out in a remote, beautiful area so we chose Kamikochi, a national park "village", but not really a village, about an hour and half by train and bus. Just a few places to stay and eat. Our "onsen hotel" (with traditional Japanese baths) was right on a river surrounded by mountains and was a lovely place to stay. And it's not often that one can be in a place with both black bears and monkeys, but this is such a place! Very strange. We did see some monkeys - so close in that one walked right by me on a trail - but thankfully no bears.

We had such a nice time walking the trails and enjoying the wonderful, warm weather. There is no shortage of other visitors here - almost all Japanese - so at times it can feel a bit crowded. But it doesn't take much to get on a trail with no one else around. Not surprisingly, that is where we saw the monkeys. And everyone you pass on the trail offered a cheerful "konichiwa!" or "ohayo gozaimas!" (good morning). So friendly.  And since no cars are allowed in this area (you can only get here by bus) it makes it a very enjoyable place to be.

One side effect of seeing a country by train (and the occasional bus) is hauling one's luggage on and off the trains and to/from the train station on foot. Yes they have taxis shut up. Wheeling a suitcase for several blocks in Tokyo? Not too troublesome actually. Finding nooks and crannies on the train cars to stick the suitcases? Sometime tricky. (It sure seemed like we were the only ones with bags bigger than carry ons!) But the most unusual was toting our bags a half a mile through the forest on walking trails to get to our Kamikochi hotel from the bus stop. Can't say as I've done that before...

After our one night in the wilderness we hopped back on a bus for an hour and a half ride to Takayama, another charming little city in the mountains. Our first night we stayed at the most wonderful little ryokan that was impossibly charming and wonderfully traditional. It felt like stepping back in time. And the host was a very funny and delightful older woman who spoke a little bit of English and made sure we really enjoyed the Japanese breakfast and dinner she served us in our little room - complete with tatami mats (socks only!), low table, antiques abounding, and a futon she rolled out on the floor after dinner to sleep on.

Takayama is full of lovely street markets, lovely shrines and temples, and traditional Japanese architecture. It's easily navigated on foot and there is no shortage of places to see and things to do. Very photogenic, and very Japanese. And no shortage of funny little things like this oddly worded hat and the sugary vitamin water bottle with "Let's Vitamin!" on it.  I laugh.

We wanted to stay in that perfect little ryokan for our second night in Takayama but...they were already full. So we found another one that, while also really lovely and traditional, suffered only from following our first one so it just wasn't quite as awesome. But the food was good (as always) and they were so very, very nice. Even gave us a ride to the train station when we were ready to go to Kyoto!

These five days in the mountains, whether actually in the mountains or in the charming cities surrounded by mountains, was a highlight for me. Spectacular, perfect-as-can-be weather helped I'm sure, but I really loved the places we stayed, the beauty of the mountains, and the people we encountered. Lots to do yet easy going and relaxed pace. Just lovely.

The place we went next - the last three days of our trip - was Kyoto. And that will be the topic of my next blog entry. Just as soon as I get those photos done. :-)

In the mean time, click here to see some more photos from Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama.


  1. Can't wait for part 3. Is everything as clean as it looks? What a wonderful trip.

  2. Yes indeed - everything is very clean and tidy most everywhere you go. Pretty nice.