Monday, August 14, 2006


At some point around noon today, our Shinkansen left the mountains of Nagano prefecture behind and we returned to the Kanto plain. Shortly thereafter, we had made our way back to Utsunomiya and were pleased to see the familiar sights and sounds of home. While the heat down here is quite oppressing after 5 days spent in the dry\cool\clean mountain air, there's just something about coming back home after a vacation that makes you go "aaaaaaaaaahhhh".

And what a fantastic vacation it was! Having traveled something around 800 kilometers on 8 trains (most of that distance by bullet train) and 5 buses, we got to see some of the most beautiful parts of Japan.

Our first stop was Karuizawa, summer retreat and cottage country of the Tokyo elite. From what I've read, the current Emperor met his wife in Karuizawa during a tennis match... and John Lennon even dropped by a few times since Yoko Ono's family had a summer home there. It is now a popular summer retreat for those in Tokyo hoping to escape the summer heat. A series of outlets have sprung up around the station, making it a popular day trip for those seeking deals on that perfect Gucci bag. Karuizawa also held events of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

Our hotel was a "pension"-type place, which meant small rooms and shared toilet and bathing facilities. Since we were only staying for one night, this wasn't a problem and made for an up-close and personal stay with the other guests, lol. Since it was conveniently located near the station, we had no reason to complain. As far as shared bathing facilities go, these were pretty nice, complete with a nice, hot, deep bath to soak in after you shower.

After renting a set of bicycles as transportation, we set off for Old-Karuizawa and it's Ginza-esque shopping district. While I'm not one for shopping, it was a nice area to stroll around and do some people watching, and I even got myself a jinbei (Japanese-style casual shorts\shirt combo) and a tie for a good price. Here's a shot of a monk seeking alms from the shoppers walking by.

If there's one thing that's clear about Japan's pet owners, it's that they truly love their pets, and they are probably the most coddled and well taken-care-of animals on the planet. Since Karuizawa is THE place to "be seen", people gladly show off their prized pooches and there were dozens of meticulously groomed dogs and owners walking around the streets. This beautiful golden retriever caught my eye since he was sitting patiently in front of a shop, with no leash waiting for his owner. The guy was just saying hello... smart dog!

After poking around a bit, we grabbed a donair-type thing from a truck\kitchen and had a seat in the shade for lunch where I grabbed this lovely shot of the two of us.

After our walk around the shopping area, we headed into the forested neighborhoods surrounding the center of Karuizawa for a peak at how Japan's upper crust lives. This is one of the first hotels built in Karuizawa in the early 1900s. It was one of the first buildings in Japan to mix both Western and Japanese architecture, and while interesting to look at, probably isn't worth the 400 Yen entrance fee... which we didn't pay.

The cottages and homes out there are simply amazing! And the wooded streets made for some nice cycling.

After touring the wooded areas, we set off to check out a lake... only to discover it was behind a fence and you had to pay 800 Yen to get in. For a while there, I had just about forgotten this was Japan, and that this was one of the more popular tourist resorts... a gated lake with an admission fee? whodathunk? So we biked around a bit more instead, clocking around 24 kilometers in our afternoon bike ride according to our maps.

After stopping in to the hotel to check-in and have a shower, we returned our bikes and headed to the outlet mall to check things out. This mall is, quite simply put, MASSIVE. While most of the shops are geared towards the ladies, I did enjoy some of the outdoorsy outlet stores such as Columbia and LL Bean's, while I didn't make any fashion-related purchases. I was quite pleased to find an Oakley store there which carried a piece which I needed replaced on my glasses I've had for 6 years. A fruitful shopping trip after all! Here's just a small segment of the mall's East wing.

On the way back to our hotel, we were greeted with this fabulous sunset over the surrounding mountains.

Same sunset, seen from the station. This particular set of peaks creates a strange effect whereby a plume of mist of permanently sitting off to the right... it was still there the next morning, almost makes it look like a volcano.

After setting off in search of a restaurant and eventually finding one, we sat down to a well deserved meal, capped with this smiling cappuccino. A good first day.

Nagano city
On the second day of our trip, we made our way up the Shinkansen line to Nagano city, the prefectural capital of Nagano and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Surrounded by mountains and boasting to be one of the best places in Japan for Soba, it was a nice place to stop for a day and relax a bit. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we hopped on the 100Yen tourist bus and made our way to Zenko-ji, a large temple in the middle of Nagano city. From what I understand, this is the largest wooden building in East Japan, and well it's a temple... not sure what else to say. I don't want to say I'm templed out, but I do prefer more natural settings than Zenko-ji. This is however, one of the most visited temples in Japan, with over 4 million visitors annually. The current building was built in the 1700s, but the temple was originally founded over 1400 years ago and houses the first Buddhist statue to be brought to Japan. It is shown to the public only at intervals of 7 years, with the next viewing to be held in 2010.

The street leading up to the temple, after going through a huge gate, is lined with shops which we poked around in a bit.

This is the behemoth of a temple here, on a nice sunny day.

Temple grounds always have statues of some sort, and Zenko-ji is no exception, I do enjoy these reb-bibbed fellers.

While the temple itself is not in a natural setting, the mountains are never far when you're in Nagano. Exiting the temple to the left, this is the gorgeous view that greets you.

The courtyard in front of Zenko-ji also had these Buddha statues, each in a different pose.

After visiting the temple, we headed to a nearby family-run Soba shop and enjoyed cold soba and tempura, a traditional dish for warm weather. Feeling quite refreshed after the soba (and the cold beer) we decided to brave the heat and walk back to the station, checked into our hotel, had a shower and promptly passed out. We were lucky to have good weather for our trip, but with very little shade, it doesn't take long for the sun to sap your strength.

For dinner, we didn't have any luck with my Lonely Planet guide recommendation of restaurants all being full, but ended up at a higher-end french-ish place where I had lovely duck and a decent creme brulee.

On the 3rd day of our 5 day trip, we hopped on the local train bound for Matsumoto. The train ride itself was beautiful, though somewhat disconcerting due to the rain. Some of the views were spectacular however, such as this one of the sun breaking through the clouds over the fog shrouded mountains. Having lived all my life in a relatively flat area, mountains are an endless source of fascination for me. Throughout this trip, I would do double-takes as I rounded a street corner and was greeted by a towering peak. Nice area to visit.

Matsumoto is on the tourist track for two very good reasons. First and foremost, it is a good base for trips into the Japanese Alps since it sits just East of some pretty major peaks. Second, and our focus on our first day, Matsumoto is home to one of Japan's top castles. We began the day by dropping off our bags at our hotel and heading to lunch in hopes of the rain stopping. After a passable lunch of Indian curry, we made our way up the main street and into the Nakamachi area. This area contains old storehouses which have been converted into a variety of shops, galleries and cafes, nice place for a stroll. Along the river, you can find a series of small shops in old wooden buildings selling everything from plastic toys to buddha carvings and soft ice cream.

Luckily for us, the rain pretty much stopped falling at this point, and those were pretty much the last drops of rain we saw for our whole trip.

We finally made our way to Matsumoto-jo (jo is Japan-speak for castle) and... wow. Amazing place. Matsumoto castled was built over 400 years ago and Matsumoto developed into the typical castle town. The castle, and actually most of the town, were surrounded by a series of moats and walls to offer protection from an invading army. Using a strategy by which one falls back to the next line of defense, the castle could hold out for a maximum amount of time while inflicting a maximum amount of damage to the invaders. This is one of Matsumoto-jo's last lines of defense, the main gate. You'll notice that this gate actually consists of two gates set at different angles to each other. This prevented the attacking force from directing their attack directly at the main gate, forcing them to go into a smaller courtyard where they faced punishing attacks from archers stationed above.

This is the view of the courtyard between the gates from an archer's viewpoint.

As you make your way into the castle grounds, you get this teaser of the castle towering over the trees. Lovely setting with the mountains all around.

Finally, we rounded a bend and there it was, Matsumoto castle, surrounded by its moat.

Due to its distinctive black paint, Matsumoto castle is known as the "crow" castle. This is my favourite shot of it I think, the sky is just the right tone of blue.

Here be the fearless explorer, complete with Tilley hat, by the red bridge leading into the castle.

After visiting the museum, we got one last view of the castle and I shot this picture. Unknown to me at the time, I was getting a shot of the Crow castle with a crow in flight just off to the right of it. Rather fitting wouldn't you say?

After visiting the castle, we headed back to the station area and checked in to our hotel. Yet again, we were located quite close to the station in a nice business hotel. Here was our view, not much as far as cities go, but the station was quite nice and the surrounding mountains add a certain something.

As I mentioned earlier, Matsumoto is a launch point to many hikes and trips into the mountains. Throughout the day, you can see a multitude of people with varying degrees of camping-wear\equipment. While enjoying a shake at MOS Burger, I was surprised to see these bags seemingly left unattended by the side of the walkway. Sure enough, as we walked by a few times during the evening, there was never anyone around and the bags were not touched. This is one of the bonuses of trekking in Japan I guess, no need to worry about your stuff getting stolen!

We were once again treated to a beautiful sunset on Saturday night, as you can see here from the rear exit of Matsumoto station.

Once back in our room, I played around with my camera for a bit and got some nice shots of the moon. Nice detail on this one, you can see individual craters as well as the Sea of Tranquility in the upper right corner.

Our final full day in Nagano started early with a quick breakfast at the hotel and a bus trip into the mountains. Our destination was the Kamikochi highlands, one of the best known hiking areas in Japan. While this also makes it one of the more crowded hikes in Japan, the scenery here is breathtaking, with clean mountain streams and peaks reaching 3000 meters. You should be warned that this is a heavily touristy and heavily developed area however. Along a 4 kilometer stretch of road, the river was blocked by no less that three separate dams, leaving nothing but a trickle down stream... almost every river I see out here take a little bit of my outdoorsman soul away and buries it in concrete.... Nonetheless, gorgeous area.

One thing I found quite amusing was how seriously some people take their trekking out here in Kamikochi. I saw some people here on day trips from Tokyo, walking on marked trails, surrounded by children and the elderly, equipped with 200$ compasses and walking staffs. Oh and bear bells... yes bear bells... gotta love Japanese outdoorsmen, never do anything halfway.

We started our hike at the Kappa bridge, which spans the river at the center of Kamikochi. The area is mostly flat and the walkways very well maintained to accommodate the throngs of visitors which flock here in the summer. This made for a nice relaxing hike in the woods, and it was nice to recharge my batteries and get away from the concrete for a bit. As we first entered the cool woods, I was reminded of the countless hikes and camping trips of yonder years and yearned for those in the years to come! At the mid point of the loop, we crossed Myojin bridge, which you can see here framed by mountains.

Of note in this area of Kamikochi is Miyoji pond, with clear calm waters, ducks, and a 300 Yen admission fee.

As we were heading down the opposite side of the river back towards Kappabashi, we came across an area teeming with Monkeys! We must have seen a good 20 of them, walking along the shore of the river, in the trees, eating leaves all over the place.

This area must be one of the ones where the visitors are smart and do not feed these critters. This means that while they are used to being around people and are not afraid of them, they are not aggressive and do not attack you in search of food such as in Nikko. This guy was sitting about a meter off the trail, surrounded by 10 people, and just chowing on down without a care in the world.

Near the end of our loop, we came upon another place with a fantastic view of the river and mountains and had our shot taken by a passerby.

When we got back to the central Kappabashi area, it was teeming with people. Hikers were splayed out all over the place, some sleeping in the shade, some eating, some splashing around in the clear and cold water.

Here is the famed Kappa bridge and the view behind... but what you don't see in tourist brochures is the thousands of people who make the trip out here every day. Not to say this was not an enjoyable trip, it was fantastic... but the crowds do get tiring sometimes and with my only vacation being National Holidays, I don't get to avoid them. It will be nice to do my last bit of traveling after my contract ends next Spring without the holiday crowds.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat and resting we made our way back to the central bus terminal where we saw this at the waiting area.

Luckily, we had gotten our ticket that morning upon arrival and were numbers 34 and 35 for the 3:15PM bus to Matsumoto. The rest would have to wait for their numbers to be called... and hopefully make it off the mountain tonight. With no train and the access being open only to buses and taxis, this is a sometimes difficult area to travel during busy times of year. However, let it not be said that the Japanese do not know how to move people... they are experts at it and the transportation systems here are run VERY efficiently. When the bus arrived, we found out that they had booked 2 more to accommodate the crowds and they started calling out numbers. Should you be unlucky enough not to get a bus, or to return late, there is a taxi service for a reasonable rate down to the nearest train station. Regardless, we got on our bus and headed on down the mountains.

With any mountain travel however, you stand the chance of some inconveniences. Ours happened when our bus driver notified us that a car accident further down would delay us significantly. The bus ended up not taking us all the way to Matsumoto, instead dropping us off at the train station a little ways down. We were delayed a total of one hour, which was not so bad. Yoshiko and I even got to help out some stranded and confused tourists who didn't know what was up... unfortunately, the 2 French dudes we helped out turned out to be quite rude... maybe stereotypically French of them?

So that was that, we made our way back, had dinner and turned in for the night. This morning's journey back to Utsunomiya was uneventful. Two more days of my holiday left, just gonna relax and chill out at home... cook dinner for Yoshiko tomorrow night. Incidentally, in 2 months, we will be getting married! How cool is that?

And I am of course loving the camera, though most of the time I don't actually spend the time to set stuff properly and get the perfect shot, I'm still getting some great ones. Here is one parting photo of Kamikochi, stitched together from 4 different pictures. It looks small here but at full size would take up two posters or so to print.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contente de voir que vous avez faits un beau voyage! Quelles belles photo. Sommes de retour du chalet. Chow!

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely photos and a lovely couple you two are. Nice job on the stiched photo.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Sherry said...

Hey you!
I love all the pics, they are amazing! Did you realize there is a face of a gnome in the sunset pic you took ouside the exit of Matsmoto Station? Check it out!

6:14 PM  
Blogger Anskov said...

AMAZING pics my good sir! I'm glad you guys had a great time! I like the Matto style hair cut too - it looks FAB-ulous as we Japanese metrosexuals like to say. See ya maƱana, amigo.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Face of a gnome? I can see something somewhat ressembling eyebrows in the first sunset pic... that waht you mean?

9:55 AM  

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