Three nights in Nagano

Monday 16/02/2015- I woke up early and checked out of Juyoh Hotel. As I had previously missed my Willer Express bus to Osaka earlier in the month, I wasn’t going to miss my bus this time. I got to the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building an hour early, and chilled at Starbucks with a Sakura latte before boarding the bus.

Konbini sushi from Family Mart- consistently cheap, fresh and delicious
Konbini sushi from Family Mart- consistently cheap, fresh and delicious

I came an hour early for my bus this time, so I got some sushi from Family Mart for breakfast for less than 500 yen. We boarded the bus 15 minutes before departure time and set off exactly on time (around midday I think). It was a 4 hour bus trip with two 20-30 minute stops in between for toilet breaks and buying snacks.

When the bus arrived in Nagano, at Nagano JR station, I walked to my hostel and checked in, and paid the full amount (8,400 yen) upon arrival. I had booked a hostel called Moritomizu Backpackers, primarily for its cheap price. This hostel wasn’t as cosy as the hostel I had stayed at in Sapporo, and the people weren’t as friendly either. The best thing about Moritomizu was probably the location and the price. It was situated just 5 minutes from Nagano JR station, so it was extremely convenient to go out from. I spent the afternoon uploading photos before going out for dinner at a nearby yakitori restaurant.

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Complimentary salad

I sat at the counter and had some difficulty ordering as everything was in Japanese with no English menu. No one in the restaurant spoke English either. I got by by saying to the restaurant staff that I would have two of everything.

It wasn’t long before a Japanese couple came in and sat down next to me and began drinking. I can’t clearly remember how it happened, but I remember the woman had been looking over at me with some interest and finally, she began speaking to me in Japanese. I didn’t understand all of it but I’m pretty sure she was asking if I wanted to drink sake with them.

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Negima- chicken and shallot

Every time I go to Japan I end up drinking pretty heavily, and I decided it would be in the best interest of my health to refrain from drinking that night, however I decided to take the woman up on her offer of one sake shot. One of the things I love so much about Japan is the potential for spontaneous experiences at every corner.

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After the never-ending onslaught of yakitori that followed, I definitely regretted ordering two of everything. The couple sitting next to me had also invited to me to share their food. Me being me, of course I accepted.

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The above dish is one that was offered to me by the couple next to me. This is one of the most delicious Japanese foods I’ve ever tried, and unfortunately I’ve forgotten the name. The man described it to me as ‘Japanese soul food’. The soup was like a thick beef gravy, with tender, fatty pieces of meat and tofu.

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Taking alcohol from strangers
Taking alcohol from strangers

After having one shot, the woman proceeded to keep trying to get me to drink with them, to which I told her in English that I’d been drinking too much lately and wanted to refrain. Her husband spoke better English than her, and tried to tell her I didn’t want to drink, but after awhile it seemed like they were having an argument about me drinking. Some Japanese people can be very persistent.

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And the food just kept coming...
And the food just kept coming…

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Streets of Nagano
Streets of Nagano
Snacks from the konbini
Dessert from the konbini

My first night in Nagano was a pleasant one due to the new friends I had made. After finishing dinner, I walked back to the hostel and planned my activities for the next day. When I went up to bed, it was so cold in the room that I thought it might be okay to leave the heater on, but I was sharing the room with someone who clearly didn’t operate on the same body temperature as me. As soon as I had turned my light off and it was clear that I wasn’t going to turn off the heater, I heard an admonishing female voice say in Japanese that it was a bit hot- code for turn off the heater. This was the first and only time I’ve ever had trouble with anyone in a hostel, and it wasn’t a particularly bad experience, but I felt uncomfortable, and also almost froze to death that night.

However, the next morning, my roommate was kind enough to turn the heater on before leaving the room.

Tuesday 17th February: The first thing I did when I went out was to get a bowl of soba at a small restaurant at Nagano JR station.

Kinoko soba
Kinoko soba

After eating, I boarded a bus that was packed with Australian tourists to go to Yudanaka, where the snow monkey park was located.

View after getting off the bus
View after getting off the bus

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From the bus stop, it was supposed to be half an hour or 40 minutes walk to the monkey park. At the bottom of the mountain, there was a shop that had hiking boots which were free to hire.

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Being in Nagano reminded me of Sapporo, except more rural. I’d never seen so much snow in my life.

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Piles and piles of snow
Piles and piles of snow

While I was hiking up the mountain, I bumped into a boy from the hostel and we walked to the snow monkey park together.

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The area surrounding the snow monkey park was quiet, serene and beautiful. Like all scenic nature places, I always feel calm and relaxed in my surroundings. There was a steady group of tourists both hiking up and down the mountain so we knew that we were going exactly the right way.

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While walking up the mountain, we passed a few monkeys on the way.

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The monkeys roam freely around the park, and even come quite close to humans on occasion. They seem to be oblivious to the presence of people. However before entering the park, there are signs warning people not to get to close to the monkeys, touch them, feed them, or look them in the eye.

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While walking around taking pictures, I spotted a familiar face. It’s funny that there are so many crowded places in Japan, and yet I find myself constantly bumping into people here. I had met Leanne only a week or two earlier in Tokyo, and we both found it the funniest coincidence that we bumped into each other here.

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We spent a good deal of time walking around here, taking pictures and enjoying the pleasant atmosphere. After we’d spent about an hour here, the two of us hiked back down the mountain and caught the bus back to Nagano.

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After catching the bus back to Nagano, I decided to walk from Nagano JR station to Zenko-ji temple.

Walking from Nagano JR station to Zenko-ji
Walking from Nagano JR station to Zenko-ji

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From Nagano JR station, it was a straight road up to the temple, and it took me around 15 minutes to walk up.

I didn't know what this was supposed to be
Some sort of animal
Kurogoma (black sesame) soft serve
Kurogoma (black sesame) soft serve

While walking up to the temple, I paused to look around the small shops in this area and got a soft serve for myself for 200 yen.

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As with basically all of the touristy spots in Japan, Zenko-ji was crowded that day.

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I enjoyed strolling around the temple and the surrounding zen garden before walking back down to Nagano station. Since my hostel was located so close to Nagano’s city centre, it was easy and convenient to go back for a break after I went out. The price of this hostel was really cheap, but because the rooms were so cold and somewhat shabby looking, I wouldn’t consider staying again. Another con of this hostel was their daily lockout from 10am to 3pm. I’ve encountered other hotels with similar lockouts, but I find it extremely inconvenient since I like to sleep in a lot, and also because things in Japan generally open late (around 10am or 11am).

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The hostel also only had wifi in the lounge area, which is pretty standard as far as hotels/hostels go. When I came back from Zenko-ji, I sat in the lounge area and chatted to one of the hostel staff briefly about good restaurants in Nagano, and he recommended a soba restaurant nearby, which I decided to go to for dinner that night.

Plastic models of food outside Aburaya
Plastic models of food outside Aburaya
Basashi
Basashi

I’d eaten basashi last year at a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo and liked it so much that once I saw it on the menu at Aburaya, I didn’t hesitate in ordering it. What I got paled in comparison to the standard of meat I had eaten last year. As you can see from the photo, the meat was an off-putting colour. In my experience, when I’ve eaten raw meats, such as raw chicken or raw horse, the quality of meat is the deciding factor in what makes it taste like raw meat. On the occasions when I’d had good quality basashi and torisashi, it was pleasurable to eat and the texture wasn’t slimy. Eating basashi at Aburaya that night was a culinary experience to turn me off eating raw meat altogether.

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Since Nagano is renowned for its soba, of course the soba noodles were good. After finishing dinner, I went back to the hostel and planned my activities for the following day.

Wednesday 18th February: The next day I woke up exhausted, got ready, and was the last one out of the hostel. It’s really ironic that vacations are meant to be relaxing, but I always find myself more drained then when I’m back home. I caught a bus to Togakushi, which was mostly filled with schoolkids that looked like they were going skiing/snowboarding. It took 50 minutes from Nagano to Togakushi on the bus. I was lucky that on buses in Japan, they have voice overs announcing the stops in both Japanese and English, otherwise I probably would have missed the stop. The bus stop for the skiing location was after Togakushi, so I was the first one off. Togakushi is the location where there are three main shrines located: Hokousha, Chusha, and Okushairiguchi. I had intended to hike from Hokousha to Chusha in one day, but I remembered speaking to someone about it, and being told that it was difficult in winter conditions.

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Nevertheless, I tried anyway. The first thing on my agenda after getting off the bus though, was a good meal.

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I went into the first restaurant I saw, since it was a fairly isolated area. There was no one to be seen walking the streets, so I couldn’t ask anyone for directions. The restaurant I ventured into was deserted and I doubted whether it was open until someone came out to serve me.

Another situation of not knowing what I ate
Another situation of not knowing what I ate

After ordering, I was brought out a complimentary starter by the waiter, but as he didn’t speak English, he had trouble communicating to me what this was. All I know is that it was some kind of vegetable.

Tempura soba
Tempura soba

The soba I’d eaten around Nagano city had been good, but the soba at Togakushi was amazing- it was hands down the best soba I’d ever eaten in my life, and I doubt whether I will ever eat soba this good anywhere else, ever again. The price was average, around 1500 yen.

After finishing my meal, I went back to the main road and attempted the hike to Houkousha but got lost and ended up falling on my butt about 10 times because of the snowy, slippery roads. At this point I was glad that there wasn’t anyone around to see me. Outside the restaurant, there had been a cute map of how to get to the shrines, but it wasn’t much of a help to me as it was all in Japanese.

They make everything cute in Japan
They make everything cute in Japan

After walking around for about an hour, lost in Togakushi, with no shrine in sight, and sore from repeatedly falling over, I decided to give up and catch the bus back to Nagano. Obviously I wasn’t cut out for hiking in the snow.

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When I got back to the bus stop, I saw that there was one coming in an hour, and after that, not for another hour. So at that point, it was a choice between walking around in the snow for another hour, or catching the bus back to civilization. Obviously I’m a sane individual so I decided to catch the bus back. After I got back to Nagano, I went to a pastry cafe to have an afternoon snack. Hiking through piles of snow is not my thing, but eating dessert clearly is.

Creme filled pastry
Creme filled pastry

After having a snack, I walked around the streets of Nagano city for awhile, before going back to the hostel. When I got back, I told the hostel staff about my disastrous day and all of us had a laugh at my hopelessness. I was sitting in the lounge room on my laptop shortly after this, when the hostel got a random visit from some people from the Japanese media, who were shooting a television program. At that time, there was just myself and a European exchange student sitting in the lounge, with some of the hostel staff, and we were asked if we could do an interview about whether English speaking should be promoted in Japan. Being naturally awkward, I didn’t want to do the interview but the television staff wouldn’t take no for an answer. During the interview, the interviewer asked me questions about whether I thought it would be good if Japanese people could speak more English, and so on. It lasted about 10 minutes, and they were probably the most uncomfortable 10 minutes of my life.

Around early evening, I decided to go out to dinner at the yakitori restaurant next door to the hostel. Every night, when I walked home, I was confronted by the mouthwatering smell of cooked meats and this place was on my to-go list. When I walked in to the restaurant, there were a few salarymen inside eating already, and one male chef.

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As was expected, no one here spoke English, so I made do and spoke bad Japanese to the chef. I had learned my lesson from the other night, and made a point of looking at the menu and only ordering meats that I liked. I don’t have a problem eating strange foods, but two things I don’t really like to eat which are common at yakitori restaurants are cooked liver and cooked chicken heart.

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Chicken cartilage and chicken thigh with shallot
Chicken cartilage and chicken thigh with shallot
Tare dipping sauce for the yakitori
Tare dipping sauce for the yakitori
Tsukune- chicken meatballs
Tsukune- chicken meatballs

Tsukune is one of my favourite kinds of yakitori skewers, and the ones here were flavoured with a sweet sauce soy sauce and garnished with sesame seeds- extremely delicious.

Kobukuro- pork uterus
Kobukuro- pork uterus

I’ve noticed that many Japanese people are interested in foreigners because they want to practice speaking English. Then there are also Japanese people who are simply interested in foreigners purely out of curiosity. I’ve encountered this many times in Japan, such as on my first night in Nagano drinking with the elderly couple, and it happened again tonight. The chef and a lone salaryman in the restaurant struck up a conversation with me so it wasn’t such a lonely dinner.

While ordering food, I came across a menu item I had never before encountered: kobukuro. The chef couldn’t really explain it to me in English, except I grasped that it was some sort of inner organs of a pig. The salaryman translated that it was the female organ where the baby was held, which I took to mean the uterus. Since I love unusual foods so much, I ordered this right away after finding out what it was.

Kobukuro is one of those acquired tastes. I won’t say right out that it was disgusting, but I would be hesitant about eating it again in the future. It had a springy texture, with a bloody, metal-like flavour that reminded me of cooked liver.

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Something a little more normal than pork uterus

Dinner at the yakitori place was about 2000 yen.

Thursday 19th February: The next day, I woke up early as it was my last day in Nagano and walked around the city. I checked out of the hostel in the morning, but left my luggage there while I went out.

My hair was badly in need of a cut, so I stopped at the first hair dresser I saw and got a cut, which cost me 5500 yen including the length (Japanese hairdressers charge extra for longer hair). At my Japanese hair dresser in Sydney, I would normally pay about $100 just for a cut, so I was happy with this price. After cutting my hair, the hairdresser also styled it for free. After getting my hair cut, I had my last meal at a random restaurant I saw.

I don’t know what kind of cuisine the restaurant was meant to be serving, but I ended up with a strange ramen dish, that I believe is Chinese style ramen. I have a bad habit of ordering things from menus without asking what they are. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. In this case, I was surprised, but it was not a good one. While at the restaurant, I had a conversation with the restaurant owner about Australia.

Side of fried rice that came with the ramen
Side of fried rice that came with the ramen
Ramen Hancha
Ramen Hancha

I asked for ramen hancha and I got it, but I didn’t know what ramen hancha was. The ramen was served shortly after the fried rice, and there was way too much food for even me to finish. It didn’t taste like Japanese food. I regretted eating at this place for my last meal in Nagano.

Matcha layer cake
Matcha and chocolate layer cake

After my disappointing meal, I wanted to eat something good to make up for it so I bought a matcha layer cake from a nearby patisserie. It was very creamy, and it didn’t have a strong matcha flavour, but it was still delicious.

I went back to the hostel to pick up my luggage, and said goodbye to the hostel staff. He told me that he had seen the yakitori restaurant chef, and that he said he was happy to have met such a nice young girl. At this point, one of the wheels of my luggage had completely broken from my carelessly dragging 25kgs around for 3 weeks. It was the struggle of my life dragging my luggage back to Nagano station with only 3 working wheels. I caught a Willer Express bus back to Tokyo sleeping most of the way.

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