Winter in Summer

Arriving at Nozawa Onsen – yes thats a snowflake!

You may recall that when we decided to stop circumnavigating, one of our goals was to take the opportunity to travel. With that front of mind, this time last year we booked to ski at Nozawa Onsen in Japan in February, and so in the middle of a very hot Australian summer, a few days before Australia Day, we found ourselves in chilly Tokyo.

Arrived Tokyo 5am. Shattered. Not a huge amount of sleep on plane and unable to check into hotel until 2pm! However, we did get our heavy suitcase sent on to Nozawa Onsen and found the bus to get us to the hotel. Left our bags there and wandered the very cold streets after a quick coffee to try to revive us.

We went to Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building 45 floor look out. Free and full of tat shops and kids on tour, but amazing views over the vast expanse of the metropolis that is Tokyo. Unfortunately Mount Fuji was not visible, but it didn’t worry us. We had warmed up enough to head back outside after an hour, and so walked back towards the enormous department stores. We were in search of cables for Stu, so found an electrical shop and wandered the floors until we were again warm and found the camera cable Stu needed.

We found Memory Lane, aka “piss alley”, on the way back to the hotel, and though it was just lunch time there were a few places open for “things on sticks”. We picked one tiny place with just enough room for about 8 stools and the serving counter, but some locals already eating, and ordered things on sticks and beer. Typically there is a single beer or whisky, and a selection of different sticks. Though we avoided offal (chicken gizzards, tongue), we had a variety of meats and veg on sticks and a big glass of saporo.

Did I mention it was cold in Tokyo? It didn’t get above six degrees and with plenty of clothes that was ok, but with gaps from my ankles to the bottom of my pants, my feet and legs were cold. When we finally got to check in to the hotel at 2 pm, the first thing I did was run a bath. I couldn’t get in it though because the hot water felt scalding on my very cold skin!!  Eventually after adding cold water I slowly acclimatised and managed to lie in a wonderful deep bath of hot water.

After warming up and settling in, a few hours sleep, we headed out to find the Golden Gai – a warren of tiny alleys filled with even tinier bars, known for their music and whisky selections. After strolling through a Don Quixote store of minute aisles, the Golden Gai was easy, but difficult to select which place to stop at. Eventually we chose a first floor place, where there was the chance of food. We were first there, while the sole barmaid finished her hair and makeup and took our sake order! The other five seats in the place remained empty while we ordered our food and drank our first sake, but numerous deliveries arrived to the welcoming call of “mushi mushi” from our bar girl. As well as getting ready, serving drinks, taking deliveries, she also cooked us dinner, in this tiny bar that was no bigger than our current bathroom! We had chips and mandarins as an appetiser, the best dumplings I have ever eaten, fantastic grilled chicken, as well as kimchi. By then some locals had filled the joint and we were offered some more refined sake as we showed an interest.

After dinner and three sakes, we thought we should call it a night, both wilting at last nights lack of sleep. We made the walk home via a convenience shop to buy some tea, milk and chocolate, then made it back to the room, had tea and choc and were fast asleep by nine pm!

Day two we started early and after hotel breakfast, we stopped at a segafredo coffee shop near the hotel and finally had a decent cup of coffee. We then headed for the underground to get to central Tokyo to purchase our Shinkansen tickets to head to the snow tomorrow. After few test runs on the ticket machine, we finally bought the tickets and then had to work out how to get to the Sumo tournament. Whilst it was a mission on the subway, it was interesting finding our way around and we did get there, via a shrine!

We had wanted to see a sumo tournament and there happened to be one on, with the last day tomorrow. We decided to see if we had any chance of getting in, but unfortunately it was sold out. We did get to see some of the big men heading into the tournament, dressed in their kimono, but there was no chance of getting into the competition arena. So we went from there to the Tsukiji markets. The market was fascinating. It was terribly busy, it being Saturday, but so much to look at and taste and wonder at. We decided that we would eat lunch as we went around tasting anything on offer and buying the interesting substantial items. We ate raw tuna, probably the best we have ever tasted, eel and scallops grilled on sticks, wagu grilled on sticks, tastes of condiments like dried scallop with citrus, dried pond fish, wasabi beans and purchased dried bonito and konbu as well as rice crackers and condiments. Pete found a chefs knife shop and treated himself to a fabulous knife, which we were able to claim the tax back on.

Replete with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of this fascinating place, our next stop was the Shinto shrine at meiji jingumei. After a long walk up the street that is like any other major city with designer stores on either side, we arrived at the soothing entrance of trees, space and bird calls. After the full on morning, it was lovely to see greenery and not feel like people were squashed all around you. We had a coffee to keep ourselves awake before heading through the amazing huge gate towards the shrine. Every Tokyo-ite seemed to have chosen today to visit the shrine, and it was hard to imagine the peace and tranquility that could exist here. However, the trees surrounding the shrine and the whole parkland was fabulous, you could not hear the traffic of the never ending city, and it was hard to contemplate being in the middle of a spreading metropolis. Pete tells me that the population of greater Tokyo is over 36 million, which is over 10 million more than the population of the whole of Australia!

On our way out of the shrine and park, we were greeted by an older Japanese man who asked where we were from. We ended up in a long conversation which of course inevitably led to a sale, but of a self published “book” by Hideo Asano. We had an interesting chat and later, back at the hotel, Pete looked him up on line. It turns out that though he said he was currently sleeping rough, he is some sort of well travelled activist with a very colourful past! Let me know if you want to borrow the book!

We decided to head back home and found ourselves much closer to the hotel than we had anticipated. We retired to our room for a rest, and while we researched places for dinner, we drank the first of our Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, with the crab rice crackers from the market. We selected a shabu shabu restaurant over the Japanese pancake restaurant, but could not book same day. We decided to wing it and try to get in, and if not, then we knew there were plenty of other places to choose from. Before leaving the hotel, we decided to check out the bar, and see what sakes they had on offer. To our surprise, there were a million cocktails and whiskies, but just one sake, which of course we ordered. As we left for the evening, so it was darkening and all the various lights and sound of nighttime Tokyo were starting. By night it is so much more fascinating, as almost everything is open, and you can generally see inside, and see just how tiny many of the bars and eateries are. Often, there are about six stools at a bar, and that’s it! These are some of the best places to stop and soak up the local atmosphere, and sample the local food and drink. Often they serve just a single type of food, from things on sticks (yakitori) to stews or sushi, but they specialise in that one thing and these a some of the best Japanese flavours we have eaten.

Despite finding our shabu shabu restaurant, we were unable to get a table as it was fully booked. We wandered back roughly in the direction of the hotel, and found a ramen cafe, where you order on a computer, give your resulting tickets to the dude, then he finds you a couple of seats. There are probably only twenty seats in total, but it’s a quick serve, quick eat type of place. We ordered gyoza, and each had ramen and a beer, though Pete had pork broth and I had fish broth. They gyoza were so good we ordered more! The ramen was excellent too, and perfect food for the cold climate, filling you with warm broth, noodles, veggies and meat. We were replete on leaving and decided to stop at a whisky bar near the hotel before retiring. A strange place, a lot like a refined version of the Golden Gai bar we had eaten in the previous night, but with three barmen, to serve us and maybe two other customers. I had a beer, while Pete had whisky, and I think the bar staff expected me to order a cocktail, but I disappointed them! 

Unfortunately, whilst you cannot smoke in the street In Tokyo, you can smoke in bars and restaurants, so we were finding wherever we ate and drank, we would end up stinking of smoke. It was very unpleasant, and probably the worst part about trying to enjoy a drink or dinner.

Sunday dawned clear and bright, and we eventually got up and finished stuffing things in bags, before heading down for breakfast. We decided we would stay here on our way back from skiing, as it was a great location, close to all the things that really interested us. We both tried the Japanese selection for breakfast, and later I wish I had stuck with the western version. As soon as we got back to our room, I was stuck to the loo, thank goodness for all the lovely accessories for cleaning your rear! While Pete ventured out to get some decent coffee, I enjoyed the bathroom for a final time! Very unusual for me, I can only put it down to my fish broth from last night, which was pretty strong.

Dosed up on proper coffee and Imodium, we checked out and booked in for our return, then headed down to the subway for the journey to the Shinkansen. Negotiating Shinjuku station was made easy by yesterday’s test run, but it is vast and you need to know where you are heading. Eventually we were on the subway to Tokyo, then from there we needed to get to the Shinkansen station. We found it with forty minutes to spare, and stood on the freezing platform, watching the bullet trains come and go in fascination. Even the Japanese are fascinated by these amazing trains. Eventually, our 1124 arrived, and we boarded at 1123, after a thorough clean and turn around by an incredibly organised cleaning staff!

We had very comfortable seats and settled in for our ninety minute train adventure into the mountains. We had amazing views of Mount Fuji as we left Tokyo, the first time we had clear enough weather to see it. The train service was great, with a trolley lady delivering us sake, nuts and salami for our mid morning snack! We relaxed and enjoyed the trip, with the city giving way to agriculture, then mountains and snow, as we zoomed along at over 200 kmh. We arrived at Liyama terminal with about forty minutes for the bus to Nozawa, and omitted to join the queue immediately because there was meters of snow outside and it was chilly! More fool us! When we eventually joined the queue, it was so long we were not going to fit on the bus. Never fear, though, the Japanese are always prepared for anything, and another bus arrived for the excess people. Even though two bus loads left, the wee still a few people left at the stop, so we wer a bit nervous about how busy things were going to be.

Pete googled the stop we needed as there were several at Nozawa, and very soon we were rising into the snow covered hills, seeing roofs with meters of snow on top and so much white it hurt the eyes. It was also snowing, heavily, a good sign for our first day of skiing tomorrow. Now we were a bit more used to the fact it was cold, now we had to come to terms with meters deep snow in February. I didn’t think we would have trouble with it!

On arrival at our stop, it was a short walk up the hill to Lodge Nagano, where we checked in, found our very heavy suitcase already in our room, and after a quick town orientation, we met up with Pete’s brother Stu, Meagan and the twins for our first Onsen. This had been weighing on my mind as all I had head and read about it was steeped in etiquette. It wasn’t so much the nudity that freaked me out, as the getting something wrong! However with three experts in Meagan, Caitlin and Sophie to guide me, it was quite straightforward until I felt the temperature of the Onsen. Holy shit it was hot! It was so hot it was really hard to immerse yourself in the water, and when you did, the slightest movement sent radiating waves of unbearable heat on top of the already too hot water you were sitting in! I have never experienced anything like it – it’s a spa, but too hot to stay in! In any event it did revive me, and though we hardly stayed in for very long, both Pete and I found that we had some life back in us after the event. Stu and Meagan and the girls gave us a quick tour of the Main Street, then we all went to get ready for dinner.

We met at the restaurant at 6, and were the only guests for a while, but one other table did turn up. It was almost like eating in a family home, really friendly, but we had to use a bell to call the waiter, and there was limited English. It’s so cool to be somewhere that you have to work to be understood, and when you can’t you go along with local custom! We had a great dinner, washed down with sake for the adults and local apple juice for the kids, then we did a more extensive tour of town, in particular visiting the tat shops, which Sophie is also a particular fan of! Pete finally bought his crabs, and whilst we couldn’t buy the local apples from the apple shop (not kidding – a whole shop selling only apples!) he also bought apple kit Kat – because that’s what you do in Japan!

Back at the lodge, we chatted to some Melbuornians who were about as appreciative of Pete’s crabs as I was (!), then headed off to bed, prepared for our early start tomorrow and a day finally on slopes.