This 7-day road trip took us from our base in Karuizawa to many parts of Nagano. We have managed to exchange a week’s stay of timeshare at the exclusive EKSIV chain in Japan.
It will be the last time we could do this, as we found out subsequently that this chain is no longer available on RCI.
Karuizawa (~200km from Tokyo) can be reached in an hour from Tokyo via Shinkansen.
We picked up the rental car near the train station and the first thing that we did was to visit the Prince outlet shopping mall! Mel: Gents, this is dangerous territory to bring the ladies…
In some brochures on travel in Japan, monkeys (specifically Japanese macaques) are pictured grooming themselves while dipped in steaming spring water.
This is Jigokudani spa park, only most of the spa users are the monkeys…From our parking lot, it was a 1.5km walk to the spa, passing by a geyser that seems to be perpetually sprouting.
There is a large troupe and a keeper to watch over the crowds that come by. This is for safety as the monkeys may turn violent if you are seen to be intruding into their personal space.
Just as you can see in the photos, the monkeys are well – “monkeying” around in the midst of the hot spring and rushing river. We can see the alpha male soaked in the warm waters dozing off while the young ones frolicked and waded in the pools.
Ok, so the monkeys enjoy the spring water too. Well, they did not have the private one like us! For ¥1,800, we had a hot spring private room to ourselves for an hour.
Soaking in the warm water with a view of the gardens in the back is so soothing. And in this temperature, it felt exceptionally good – just like how our primate cousins must have felt.
Another important spa town is Kusatsu. It is renowned for some of the best spring waters in the whole of Japan. Ryokans in the centre of town are very expensive. But that will not stop us from taking a bath in the local bathhouse. The water here has high sulphur content.
In the centre of town is the source of all the spring water, piped to all the surrounding bathhouses. A stay here would be quite prohibitive and probably not easy to book since it is so popular with the local people.
Free foot baths are available, you just need a towel to dry yourself. No need to spend any money! How nice of the town!
The food! (including fruits and vegetables)
Actually it surprised us that in the middle of where we consider to be nowhere (in Karuizawa), there was this little restaurant that served up a mélange that can only be said to combine French, Swiss and German styles. Amazing place, with a large open fire for the roasting. Must be a chef’s dream to have such a facility to prepare the servings. Called the Pyrenees (apt since we are in the Japanese alps), they have this halibut dipped in oil that reminds us of the fresh herring every year during the fresh catch of summer!
As we had driven through mountains to the plains of Matsumoto, we found by chance a charcoal soba restaurant.
Very generous indeed, which we ate with a good serving of wild vegetables prepared tempura style (ie fried in batter).
And speaking of vegetables, the Azumino region is one of those where horse radish is cultivated “industry” scale – ie many hectares of land devoted to this cash crop. We had driven about 30 minutes north from Matsumoto to the Daio farm. Did you know that the Wasabi is distinct from horseradish? And did you also know that to grate the wasabi root you’d need shark’s skin?
Also called “wasabi”, this crop is susceptible to water quality, so the river here must not be polluted in any way. The crop seems to be shy too, as the farmers tend to them under the shade. Interesting tidbit : if you wish to obtain the wasabi from the root directly (ie not bought from supermarket processed), you need a shark’s skin sponge to scrub off the paste. To check off our mini bucket list for this trip, we ordered a wasabi flavoured ice cream, ice soba and grilled sweet fish.
For this journey, we had taken to the JTB magazine to taste the ice cream at various towns in the Nagano region. Checked off the one in Obuse and also at Zenkoji!
At Obuse, the owner of the store was so happy his business was featured in the magazine that he actually made several colour copies.
Fresh fruits are in season and one of Suan’s favorites – strawberries, can be picked at local farms. In Bessho (别所), we stopped at one such farm. It would have cost us ¥1000 to pick the fruits and keep them for ourselves. Being really practical, we thought it easier to buy the pack instead and save some time!
And what surprised us was that the vegetables are affordable (fresh anyway). For just over a US$1, you can purchase a bunch of freshly harvested wild curly fern leaves.
While most dinners were on our own, our dinner during the stay at the Suwa hotel was fabulous. Aside from a Roman style bathhouse next door (which we used), our 4-course dinner featured a well endowed serving of sashimi. The royal family is said to have stayed here before. They even preserved the robes that were used by them!
Who can pass up trying “wa” beef? It never fails to amaze us each time we try. It just simply does not have the odour or same taste as what we come to expect from beef originating from the US, Europe or even Australia.
Other times we ate at the restaurants of the local Ryokan inns near our timeshare resort. For a total of ¥2000, we had a sumptuous feast of soba, curry rice, tempura and mouth watering mashed raw salmon on rice!
How can we leave out the sights?
Zenkoji is located just around Yudanka where the monkeys bath. It appears to be really popular with devotees. We did not realize, but there was a televised ceremony there the day after we had stopped by. Imagine the crowds that would have been there!
Matsumoto castle looks like the typical Japanese style structure – you’d probably seen the same in Osaka as well (read here for more). This one was built by one Sanda clan, one of the many noble families of the middle ages vying against the Tokugawa shogunate.
Enjoy the road
Getting around Nagano to the many little places on the map cannot be easily done with public transport. So, without a doubt self drive is necessary. You will find driving on single lane roads to be commonplace, though the scene that emerges and changes in front of you is very charming. Its rice planting time and in the places we drove, we could see padi neatly manicured with rice seedlings.
A word of caution. Even though it is May, the roads on the higher altitudes can still ice over. Our drive from Karuizawa to Yudanka “spa” to visit the monkeys soaking in hot spring water is case in point. The drive up was fraught with rain, mist and wind.
Nevertheless the drive was enjoyable as we got to see landscape draped in white. The mountain roads wind and crest along and can be really sharp at some points. Not many cars on the road today – guess many stayed at home! Since we could not really stop to admire the scenery, we continued our drive.
Our drive on the “venus” route to Mt Shirakaba was marred by clouds, so we could not peak at Mt Fuji in the distance. Sometimes on the road, you meet interesting characters – such as the witch sweeping the road on the back of a garbage truck.
This is not how the road trip ended. Having stayed a night away from our timeshare, we are on our way to the mountains of the Japanese alps. More specifically, we were intent on walking along walls of snow and ice that can be up to 18m in height, read more here.
The final day of the road trip before heading back to Tokyo was a sombre day, not just because we are leaving Nagano but also because the weather had begun to turn nasty – the mist came in just as we headed out for our breakfast at the station.
In the course of the last 6 days, we had drive about 1100km, “climbed” mountains, shopped till our wallets emptied and eaten so many beautifully made meals that we cannot recall them all.
We want to come back. But as Mel reminds, we also want to give other destinations an equal opportunity to be touched. And so we will take a rain check for our return.