En route to the Tokyo area for a conference, Soeng and I decided to make a weekend pit stop in Nagano. Although we had only recently been to Sapporo for the snow festival, we weren’t able to meet our skiing quota there. There are also a number of unique sights that had long drawn my attention, but the distance from where I live had made it neigh impossible to justify going there. Catching it on the way to three day conference worked perfectly though.
As a former Olympic host city from back in ’98, I was greeted by a thick blanket of snow upon my early morning arrival. Soeng was fortunate enough to enjoy the night in a hotel room, but the best I could manage was an overnight bus. After meeting up we scarfed down some Mega Macs at McDonalds and then boarded a train bound for Yudanaka.
The view as we tore across the countryside
We spent the hour ride chatting and taking in the snow covered houses and vineyards. Yudanaka is a small mountain town famous among tourists for the numerous public baths and Japanese style guesthouses. Many of the tourists that come here use the town as a sort of entry point into the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, which was exactly our intention as well.
Here we checked into the Shimaya Ryokan where we met the quirky hotel owners, dumped our bags, and rode off by bus into the mountains of Japan’s second largest national park. The aim was to spend the day on the slopes of the Shiga Kogen resort, the largest winter resort in Japan and also the location of a number of the Nagano Olympic events. Shigan Kogen is 21 separate resorts spread across a number of of mountains and laced with 71 chairlifts. There is no way to see it all in a day but buying a lift pass grants you access to the whole place. We only had just the day to make the most of it, so we took a recommendation and spent it onYakebitai. By the time we left there were still several runs we hadn’t even made it to.
Not my photo, but indeed the view I was enjoying.
Our bus wound up some roads with incredible views out over Nagano as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains and cold. We arrived at about 11am and were anxious to try our hands at some of Japan’s best skiing, though fearing for our lives we stayed well clear of the Olympic caliber runs. Once we were both equipped with our gear and boarding passes, we were ready at last to go. I’m not sure if it has become the standard practice, but this was the first time I’ve ever been issued a card that utilizes a radio frequency to grant me chairlift access. It saved me the hassle of having to show a lift ticket every time and also saved them the need to hire someone to demand it.
Now Soeng had mentioned to me that she was not a strong skier, which is fine, but this wasn’t her first time or anything so I figured that she was selling herself short. Wrong. We went on over to the bunny hill for her to practice, but even that proved to be a bit of a challenge. Having fallen at the top of the ski treadmill, the infants were left to assume she was joking and I took a seat on a nearby bench, knowing that this could very well take some time.
It wasn’t long before she was back upright again and after that she made it down the hill just fine. She didn’t feel ready to tackle any of the proper runs yet, so we just spent some time using just the grade near the bottom of the mountain to get a feel for the equipment. When she was ready for the real deal, we went up and took a beginner course that sort of looped around and back to the bottom. Soeng’s primary issue was controlling her speed, and especially knowing what to do once she had it. Her instincts seemed to tell her to fall as painlessly as possible. We went up and down the same run a numerous times, but I could absolutely improvement and that her rate of falls per run was decreasing.
Spirits running high at least
After a few more trips down the same slope, she said that I had paid my dues and was free to go off on my own as she worked on it a bit more. Of course I wanted to be supportive and help her out, but she insisted I have some fun too. I was enjoying my time with her of course, but I’m also comfortable with higher speeds and rougher terrain as well and the prospect and challenge of some of the more daunting runs was calling out to me. I will confess that I wasn’t much of a teacher though, but not for my lack of trying. It’s just that for me, skiing was something I’ve always been able to do and thinking about what effects tweaking technique and posture might have are beyond me. Of course I would critique as best I could, but after a fall the only thing I could really think was ”Stop doing that, just don’t fall and be better”, which of course would not be the most useful thing to suggest.
Having bestowed unto her all of what little I actually knew, I took off to explore and see a bit more of the mountain. I decided to go to the far side and back which required zigzagging a number of lifts and runs. The whole process took a while and was not helped by my getting lost. A number of the lifts only go halfway up the mountain and afford access to only a couple other lifts, so getting from Point A to B often necessitated a few different connections and a lot of time in consultation of a map. One of the lifts was a fully enclosed gondola that took me to the very top of the place, which at 2000m was the longest continuous skiing I’d ever had. Going down those long runs caused my thighs to absolutely burn though. When it takes a minute or two its fine, but five minutes or more to go from top to bottom definitely becomes a fitness factor.
This was our mountain for the day, we spent a lot of time on the left side.
I worked my way back to where Soeng was still diligently practicing. Through sheer determination and refusal to give up, she had made great strides in her ability to turn and had a lot more confidence with her speed. Falls were not infrequent, but we were ready to level up and more on to something more difficult. The next run over had a small portion of it set aside as a terrain park where I was able to challenge myself to some jumping while she could content herself with going around it. We stayed here for another while, both having a lot of fun. One highlight was a Japanese guy at the lift shouting at me ‘NICE JUMP!’, followed by ‘NICE BLUE JEANS!’ It is probably worth mentioning that I was the only only guy on the mountain in anything less than the best. Renting snow gear as so many do in this country seems like a waste of money, so I was out there in my jeans and a leather jacket. There was a bit of a nip, but because I don’t fall much getting wet wasn’t really a concern.
I also was kind enough to provide a rather sexy pair of hats for us, which made spotting one another a breeze.
After realizing that we were in dire need of nourishment, we stopped into the mess hall to get some curry. I got the largest size I could and was quite pleased at the heaping trough I recieved. This meal offered us a good chance to warm up and reflect on things thus far, but it also gave us a chance to loosen our ski boots. This was the mistake. Getting excited about returning to the blustery cold is hard enough, but also realizing just how uncomfortable the boots really are makes an early retirement inevitable. We had paid for a couple more hours of rental but decided we could forgo that in favor of getting back to our home base at a more reasonable time. This plan would also allow us a dip in the hot springs before bed. It had already been a full day of skiing and despite quitting early we agreed that we had had our fill. I was very impressed at Soeng’s unwillingness to quit as so many others would have, and also the success that came of such determination.
Once we were back at the hotel, the manager drove us over to a incredible onsen where we then had and hour’s time to let to pain and fatigue melt away from our weary limbs. I had always wanted to bask in outdoor hot springs that had snow around it, so I was very pleased. It was also located quite a ways up into the mountains and the night view out over Nagano was incredible.
The only other thing before bed was a late dinner at a nearby restaurant. The place had a very authentic look and feel to it, foreigners aside. Despite it being such a small place, it seemed as if it were overrun. There were a couple of ladies and a chef and it was as if they were running around to do everything but actually accomplishing nothing. The quality of service was far below the Japanese norm. Being the only restaurant around, my observation was that a lack of competition had made them soft. We became rather impatient and bought locally produced beers from a shop down the street that we cracked open while we waited and and under the table as we ate. The food itself was alright and after a good while we returned to the Japanese style room for some much needed sleep.
Upon waking up we arranged to be shuttled over to where the snow monkeys gather. For as long as I had been in Japan I’ve heard about a troop of monkeys that comes down from the snow covered mountains to spend the daylight hours in the hot springs of Nagao. I been wanting to check it out for myself and now at last my dream was coming true. We were dropped off at a trail head from which we trekked almost 2km through a forest to the Jigokudani (Hell Valley). The snow seeping in through the treetops and the relative lack of people made it quite a beautiful scene. There was a really nice Shinto shrine at the entrance of the trail which was complimented by the snow as well. I feel that these shrines best capture the essence of Japan, more so than the temples.
Once we reached our destination, the snow was really coming down, but that fact and the biting cold were pushed aside when we finally caught a glimpse of the monkeys. While some were foraging and others play fighting, the majority were just relaxing as if it was the perfectly normal thing to do. Since they come and go every day, there are no cages there to keep them there, just a it of food to entice them. We are able to get as close as we wanted but they didn’t seem to notice us at all.
We spent a decent amount of time there, in awe of the ridiculous camera equipment so many of the other people had with them. Photography is a cool hobby, but not one that I’ve wanted t make the financial or time investment into. In the end, I was able to walk away with this shot taken on my wimpy camera that I think turned out just fine.
We started walking back but decided we didn’t want to go the whole way and called for our hotel driver to come get us. We checked out and returned via the 45 minute train to the main city to visit Zenkoji Temple before moving on to the Tokyo area. The temple was only a few minute bus ride from the station and certainly a can’t miss location. The whole city of Nagano developed into what it is today around this 7th century religious hub, which has long drawn pilgrims and tourists. From where the bus dropped us off, we walked up the path, through a couple gates and towards the temple. I could only let my mind wander and ponder what this would have all looked like a few hundred years ago. Although shop offerings was a little bit touristy, the architecture and everything felt quite authentic.
Rain, Sun, and….Snow? Their versatility with the umbrella always amazes me. The structure ahead is the Sanmon Gate.
There are several sects of Buddhism in Japan, but this temple’s roots stretch back to before they emerged. As a result, it is actually a member of two of these flavors, Tendai and Jodoshu, and neither of which I understand. The temple grounds were loaded with various stone carvings and monuments, not unlike the hundreds of other temples I’ve been to, but what set it apart from the rest were the great number of small wooden signs the explained both in English and Japanese what significance and meaning they had. Neither of us had ever seen this done before and were overjoyed since it made the outing less of a walking tour and more a learning one. Did you know that a brothel donated one of the large stone lanterns long ago? Or that the Rokujizo statues represent the guardians of each step along the path to enlightenment? Well, now you know! (and knowing is half the battle).
Here is the main hall, which was massive. It had incredible depth to match the large face.
After a nice walk through the beautiful and snow covered grounds, we deemed it time to hop on the bullet train and get settled in Yokohama for the conference. Though two days is a short amount of time to spend in any one region, we were definitely able to make the most of the weekend and see everything that we came for. I always try to make the most of my weekends and this was a shining example of those efforts.