Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Monkeys, chestnuts and sake

Date: Wednesday 2nd April 2014

Weather: Great! Nice and hot though a little cloudy.

MP3 track of the day: Hey hey we're theMonkeys – The Monkeys

Yesterday I said that I would have a bath at the end of the day. Well, once up, I decided to pamper myself before the day started with a nice hot bath, followed by a shower and ending with a shave. With no birthday cake to eat I therefore skipped '1st breakfast' and got dressed before heading to Mr Donuts for '2nd breakfast'. As today wasn't my birthday I opted for doughnuts within the '100 Yen' sale and ate those quickly. This is the third time, in three days, that I have visited this particular Mr Donuts therefore, the cashier now knows that I always 'eat in' and that I want a glass of water – without ice – to accompany my doughnuts. This is great as it saves me asking for these two standard requirements. With my doughnuts eaten I walked back past my hotel and to my hotel's car park. Having planned the route for today I got in my car and off I went.

It wouldn't be Nagano if I didn't start my trip by getting lost. Fortunately my mistake was minimal and I soon found the road I had intended to travel upon. Also I checked my route home for tomorrow and made a mental note of the junction where I had to turn north. In no time at all I had left Nagano and was entering the small village of Obuse; my first attraction for the day.

The village of Obuse was so small that I actually drove through it. Once turned around, I looked for a car park eventually finding one with it's barriers up; this allowed me to enter said car park without taking a ticket therefore, without paying. Being a little unsure I asked a lady – who looked as though she worked in a nearby bakery – who said that it was 'okay' and she kept saying the word 'service'. I then asked her where I was on my map and she moved closer towards me; so close in fact that she was almost stood on me. With my location pinpointed I thanked the lady and walked in the direction she told me.

It was along this walk that I suddenly realised what the car park I'd parked in was for. It was for customers of the local businesses around it and, I think, 'service' meant that, as long as I bought something, I would be okay. At that point I found a 'pay and display' car park and so I moved my car into there.

From the car park it was a short walk to the train station. Here is where my map's walking guide started with the first 'port of call' being a temple called 'Gansho-in'; 1.6km east. The weather was superb and I found myself enjoying 'village life'; unlike everywhere else I have been, a few people actually said hello to me and I even had a short conversation with one old lady. Soon though the villages tightly condensed streets gave way to a long road which travelled in between fields of some sort of crop; though I had no idea what it was. Whatever it was, it wasn't growing at the moment; all I could see was a field with many metal poles in. These metal poles had wire running from them making a 'criss-cross' shape. Within the field were, what looked like, trees and instead of their branches running upwards towards the sky, they ran along these wires. At first I thought it was grapes however, chestnuts are supposed to be farmed around here.

Soon I got to the temple which, though impressive, was very similar to every other temple I have seen in Japan. The only thing that made this temple different was the mountain range behind it so, with that in mind, I decided not to go in and instead I took photos of it with it's unique scenery in the background.

Once photographed I headed south, along the 'green path' to another temple called Joko-ji. The path wound it's way along the foot of the mountains; the trees here provided much needed shade from the midday sun. Once I had found the temple it wasn't had to work out that this was a lot older than the first temple. After you went through the standard wooden gate a steep, badly in need of repair, stone staircase led up to a small grassy mound with a tiny temple placed on top of it. Surrounding said temple was a forest making the whole place quite quiet. Being tiny it didn't take me long to photograph the thing to death and to leave however, not before having a small chat with some local Japanese tourists who, I think, were trying to ask me if I knew Wales.

Once down I headed back into town a little confused. My guidebook had labelled this place as 'one of the most beautiful small villages within Japan'. This was quite a title and though I had come in the off-season, I could visualise what the fields might look like in full bloom and still, I think Taketomi village (located on taketomi-jima, Okinawa) is a lot prettier. Sure the village was lovely; the buildings and pathways were beautifully constructed out of wood and stone. There were hundreds of art galleries and gardens (which are open for anyone to see) and, if these to things 'float your boat', then I am sure this village would be a great place to spend a few days. For me however, I enjoyed my time here but after almost two hours I was ready to leave. Before I did, I remembered my guidebook stating that, what made this place famous, was it's sake and it's chestnut cakes and confectionery. Being a good little tourist I purchased both said items, even though I don't like alcohol. Actually purchasing the alcohol was an experience within itself; being the off season I entered one of the only shops open, which turned out to be a brewery as well (I could see the latest 'batch' being made through a window to my right). The guy who served me seemed to be the kind of guy who liked a drink or two, and when he gave me an English leaflet on 'how sake should be enjoyed properly' I was certain he knew his stuff. I then set too and asked him some questions so that I bought a sake that was a) brewed here and b) popular. After answering my questions I decided that the blue bottle in front of me was the one I’d get however, having been hit with a flash of inspiration, the shop owner raced into the back room where the fresh sake was being made and came back with two small bottles which I couldn't see on the shelves. He told me that, within his hands, were two bottles of 2014 sake (one slightly better refined than the other). Unlike wine, it appears that the younger the sake is, the better. He then told me that these bottles won't go on sale for another month however, he would sell one to me as an exception. For his generosity I purchased the slightly more expensive bottle and left his shop. I then went to purchase a small 'chestnut cake' before leaving Obuse and heading towards the monkey park.

As it was now around 1pm I stopped for lunch at another convenience store. I didn't really fancy another 'car lunch' but, being in the middle of nowhere, I felt as though my options were limited. There was one silver lining which was that, after I had paid for my food, I asked the staff for directions to my next sightseeing location; the monkey park. The teenager in front of me looked as though I had just asked him to call in an artillery bombardment on our location; he therefore called for an old man who drew me a basic map on how to get to the park. On said map he drew a McDonald’s. '...McDonald’s! Around here...' I said. Apparently there is a sizeable city just behind the next hill with many restaurants. Slightly annoyed I continued to listen to his instructions until I was clear on which way to go (he must have gone over the instructions five times). I then thanked him and took my lunch back to the car. I then sat down and ate said lunch which was actually quite yummy (I ate the chestnut cake too, which was fantastic). The 'breaded beef' sandwiches were lovely, though the mustard was a little too strong. After lunch I drove out of the convenience stores car park, past the MacDonald's, and on towards the monkey park.

For once the signs were clear and in English. It therefore took me no-time-at-all to find the car park to said monkey park (and I didn't make any mistakes getting there). To get to the monkey park (called Jigokydani Yaen-Koen) I had to walk up a steep hill before walking along a 1.6km trail, which wound it's way upwards through a dense forest. The trees, plus altitude, kept me cool as I climbed forever upwards. Only occasionally did I stop to take photos of the trees, which surrounded me, and the gradient on which they had been planted on. The most bizarre thing about the walk was that it was, completely by accident, a very international walk. I herd European, American, Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese voices all of which, a part from one American woman, said nothing to me as I passed them by.

The monkey park itself was tiny. It was located high in the mountains within a small v-shaped plateau. There were two pathways, one of which lead to a river running though said park and one to a small pool where the monkeys bathe if it's cold (however today was really hot and so most were lying in the sun, searching for food or playing). I really enjoyed the park because it was completely open. There were no fences or nets; in fact if the moneys didn't want to be there then they could just walk out (I did see one on the path on my way to the park). For the first time it would appear that a 'zoo like' attraction had been built around the animals natural habitat (instead of the animals being moved to where the zoo is) and I loved it. Once again I was worried that I would spent too much time behind a lens. There were monkeys everywhere doing all sorts of strange things and, with their red faces, they were pretty cute however, for the most part, they seem to turn their back on me (like most other animals; how many photos of animal 'bottoms' have you taken?). I had taken so many photos on the path leading to the small pool that on my return journey (along the path which lead to the river), I decided to do what I did yesterday and to put my camera way and just look. As the park wasn't that big I soon had enough and decided to leave. The time was around 2:15pm and so I reckoned that I would arrive back at my car around 3pm.

The walk down was just as international as the walk up however, this time, I bumped into the most friendly nationality possible; I met some Canadians. For the rest of the walk I spent my time with two Canadian men and their three children. Both were married to Japanese women, though one lived back in Canada and had come here for a holiday. The other guy came for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and never left. We had a great conversation about travel, food and the positives / negatives of Japanese women (a subject I couldn't add a lot too, but I was certainly taking notes). The weird thing is that I thought that these two guys were old friends, but no. In fact they are both in the 'real estate' business and they met each other about a month ago in Canada. One guy said that he was going to Japan for a holiday when the other guy explained that he lived in Nagano, and that he would show him around if he visited. It's a funny old world.

Even though I was walking at a slower pace, the walk down seemed a lot quicker than the walk up and I was surprised to find myself at the car park. I said goodbye to my Canadian friends, got in my car and drove back to Nagano (which, somehow, evolved me getting on another toll road … it was only 80p). I got back into Nagano just after 4pm. With a little bit of time on my hands I walked across the road and into a huge book store hoping to find a nice photo book of the area but alas, it was not to be (this store had 6 floors too!). Giving up I returned to my hotel room to relax and wait for dinner.

At 7:30pm I put my coat and hat on and headed out into Nagano for probably the last time. Fancying a rice bowl I went back to the same restaurant I dined at Monday night however, I changed my order slightly (I went for a 'miso vegetable' beef bowl with a side order of fish. I didn't have the ice cream this time). Once consumed I walked back to my hotel to have an early night.

So tonight I shall have a shower and pack. Tomorrow I will get up at, hopefully, 6am and leave around 6:30am (to beat the morning traffic here in the city of Nagano). I have already purchased tomorrows breakfast therefore, I hope to be driving until my lunch stop. Unlike my trip here, I have decided to stay away as far as I can from mountains. I will therefore drive north until I hit the sea, and then swing north-east until I hit Niigata. Once there I am a little worried about traffic but, once I get out of the city on it's northern side, I will swing completely east which, trying to cross northern-Honshu in a east-west direction, is always difficult. However, with no mountains in my way, what could possibly go wrong?

So that is my short break finished. Though it has been short I feel as though I have accomplished a lot and I have enjoyed myself thoroughly (though I have spent a fortune). When I think back to my 30th birthday, I am sure that mountains, boulder fields, monkeys and long road trips will come to mind however, above all, I think I'll remember the extravagance that, up until now, I've never really thought about when travelling. If someone would ask me '...what would you prefer; 3 days in a nice hotel with good food or a 6 day break in a hostel on the cheap...' I would go for the hostel every time. In truth, my choice still hasn't changed after this weekend however, every once-in-a-while, a little bit of luxury makes a lovely change.

Toodle Pip!

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