Snow monkeys, onsen, and Zenkoji temple – where I missed finding the key to salvation!
Following a facebook post recommending a visit to Nagano (thanks Angela) I decided to leave Minakami behind and make my way to the city of the 1998 Winter Olympics. At the tourist info centre I met up with a G Adventures tour guide, who I travelled with for the next day and a half. Charles and I took the train to see the snow monkeys (Japanese macaques), where appropriately it snowed on our walk into the park. It wasn't enough to create a scene as pretty as the postcards, where monkeys are leaning against snow-capped rocks with steam rising from their outdoor hot tub (onsen), just enough to make it tempting to want to climb in with them.
It was a smaller area than I had pictured, with only one little pool occupied by a few monkeys, on the banks of a river with a tall fenced cliff behind. And the monkeys are paid to be there – by an attendant whose job appeared to be occasionally shovelling monkey crap, cutting up apples and throwing grain to the band of hangers on. Although it was cute to see them soaking and warming up.
On the way back from the monkey park I got to have my own onsen experience, with free entry into a public bath by the train station. This turned out to be very different from my radioactive onsen in Minakami – there was a clear protocol to follow for showering prior to entering the bath, and the water was not hot – it was scalding. Instead of blue I turned lobster red in seconds as I slowly tried to ease myself in. I didn't last long in the small indoor or outdoor pool. If I wasn't sure of the health benefits of my suspect radioactive onsen, this one left me feeling like I'd cooked my insides.
The next morning was an early visit to the famous Zenkoji temple for morning prayers. It was a beautiful (fast) walk to the temple in the quiet dawn-lit streets before 6am. The ceremony was full of the sonorous chants I've heard at temples across Japan. After several groups of tourists in front of me got up and left part way through the ceremony, I was left sitting completely alone on the right side of the platform, wondering if I was doing something wrong. The left side was full of Japanese people praying. I felt awkward for a while before I slunk out to the underground passage that holds the key to paradise. Apparently if you find and touch the key in the darkness, you will find eternal salvation. It was really dark in the tunnel (after a woman behind me turned off her flashlight) and I was worried that someone would bump into me if I stretched out my right hand along the wall, which I had felt very tempted to do at one moment. I didn't touch the key, and it wasn't until returning to the hostel afterwards that I found out that there really is a key that you can touch. I thought it was metaphorical. So I missed it. But, the hostel worker told me, it won't matter until I'm dead anyway, so who needs to worry about it then. Hopefully he's right.
After that I went on a hurried visit to Obuse, the birthplace of the famous Japanese print artist Hokusai. The main thing to do there is go to the Hokusai museum. I sat in a little shop and ate some very tasty raspberry yogurt instead. Then I made my way to Matsumoto.
Fun Fact: In addition to snow monkeys, Nagano is also home of the soba noodle. And soba noodle restaurants are more expensive than most others, even for dishes of cold noodles and sauce. Buckwheat seems to be a pricey grain in Japan.