Thursday, May 05, 2016

Japan 2016: Matsumoto

After our customary early breakfast, we checked out and proceeded to walk to the bus stop, which would take us to a relatively small JR train station. When you're traveling with luggage, buses are actually easier than subways as you don't have to lift the luggage up and down stairs. The bus stop was also much closer than the subway station, and provided a direct connection to a JR station. Once there, I bought the train tickets for Matsumoto from a person at the single counter available there (it was a small station), and we got onto the next train for the Shinjuku station. We changed there to catch a local express train, but Xiaoqin missed the train! Fortunately, the Tokyo express train came every 5 minutes, so she simply boarded the next one and then we got onto the long distance train together with almost an hour to spare, thanks to our being super early to begin with.

Once in Matsumoto, I walked over to the rental car company with my international driver's license to pick up a rental van (with car seats), and then picked up everyone else at the train station and then drove to Matsumoto castle.

From Japan 2016

Matsumoto wasn't at peak display either, but it was much closer to the peak than Tokyo was. Matsumoto castle itself provided a beautiful backdrop for the viewing, and we got a chance to enter the castle and examine both historical artifacts, and see what it was like in an ancient Japanese castle first hand.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
The ticket for the castle also included a tour of the city museum, which wasn't nearly as impressive, but still worth a visit, given how close it was. Our stay that night was at Sugimoto Ryokan, a high end traditional luxury (read expensive) Ryokan whose service and hospitality was unmatched by any Western hotel I'd ever stayed at. For instance, the minute we parked our car in the parking lot, they'd jumped out and took our bags from us and delivered the bags into the room, even before we'd even checked in. When Bowen saw that we had gi and he didn't, the Ryokan provided him with a gi:
From Japan 2016
The room was huge, the hot springs (real hot springs!) had both indoor and outdoor rooms, and the food was nothing short of fabulous.
From Japan 2016
My Japanese instructor back in college had raved about Basashi (horse sashimi, and yes, that means it's raw!), but this was my first time trying it and wow, it was yummy! I ate everything the rest of my family couldn't finish, which unfortunately still left me quite hungry. The reason for this was obvious in hindsight: all the days in Japan, I was carrying Boen (23 pounds) on a Deuter Kid Comfort backpack (8 pounds) that was also loaded with baby food and diapers. That was at least a 35 pound load, and on some days closer to 40 pounds. Walking about 8-12 miles a day with a 35 pound load would leave me in a constant state of hunger not unlike my condition during the 2009 bike tour.
We reluctantly left Sugimoto the next day to drive towards the Shinhotaka Ropeway. On the way there, we took a detour to visit Shirahone-Onsen. The milky white character of these hot springs are apparently famous, but the place was exceedingly expensive so we didn't stay.
From Japan 2016
Not realizing that Shirahone-Onsen was on a detour, we found a tourist information center and booked a Ryokan for the night. We ended up back on the road to Shinhotaka Ropeway and being surprised that we'd seen it before! Well, we'd already paid a deposit, so we gritted our teeth, drove the rest of the way, and went up the ropeway, which did grant us nice views of the Japanese Alps.
From Japan 2016

We hiked around near the top of the ropeway, but it was mid-Spring, and there really wasn't that much hiking you could do without making an overnight trip out of it. The Ryokan we stayed that night was half the price of Sugimoto, and so not nearly as nice. But they nevertheless gave us decent food. The next day, it was cool and windy, and the hiking wasn't going to be good anyway, so we aimed to visit Obuse. On the way, however, we found a little village with cherry blossoms in full bloom!
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
That alone made the cost of the rental car worthwhile. Japanese mountain roads suck compared to European or North American ones. They're full of tunnels so you can't see any scenery, they're narrow, with no interesting views whatsoever. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover nice views from the Japanese freeways (well, toll-ways).
At Obuse, we visited the Hokusai museum as well as the Kozan Takai musuem. Both museums are small (under 90 minutes each if you don't rush), and well worth the visit. We tried some chest nut specialty food which Obuse was famous for, and then I set about looking for lodging on my smartphone. Due to a Tripadvisor app screw up, I ended up searching on booking.com and found a place in the Yudanaka Onsen area. Once I read in the guidebook that this was where the opening sequence of one of my favorite movies Baraka was filmed, I was sold!
Finding Yudanaka Onsen was easy. Finding the hotel we'd booked online wasn't. But we did eventually find it after some help, and then settled in. Yudanaka still had plenty of cherry blossoms in bloom, so in the evening before dinner we did a cherry blossom walk.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
I also did laundry in the most sophisticated coin operated laundromat I'd ever seen: each single machine could wash, rinse, spin, and dry your clothes in fully automated fashion, without you having to pour in detergent, etc. It was super expensive ($10 per load), but you could walk away and then come back in an hour without having to do anything.
From Japan 2016
The next morning, we drove the precarious single-lane road up to the Monkey Park. In Chinese, the park's name was: "Hell Valley" park. We had a limited time to visit the park as I had to drive back to Matsumoto that day, return the car, and then we all had to pile into a bus that would take us to the night's stay, but the trip was worth it, as we got to see the snow monkeys bathing in the pool, the scene which Baraka had made famous.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
We then made the drive back to Matsumoto, where I returned the car with a minimum of fuss and we found ourselves boarding the bus for ougatou. Set high in the mountains at 6000' feet, Ougatou was billed by the guidebook as a hotel above the clouds. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate and it was either clear or raining, so we didn't get the experience. Still, for the price, the service was excellent, even if the views were disappointing.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
We did a bit of hiking, but it was cleary not the best season for it. Summer, Fall, or Winter would be preferable to Spring for this. We left the next day in the rain, heading back to Matsumoto for the train to Kyoto.
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