We bought what I thought was the right ticket for the journey we wanted to make but it turned out I had overpaid. There was an express option but it left a lot later, and we would arrive at our destination sooner with the local option which was leaving within 20 minutes or so. Unlike the smooth, machine-operated system in Tokyo, I had to show my tickets to a human being who explained the error and refunded me the difference (and printed out new tickets!).
The train was waiting for us on the platform and we got on the first carriage. Other passengers were getting on, most of them foreign tourists but from all over the world. Many had suitcases and ski gear. We were travelling quite light by comparison. One elderly man with a cane fell flat on his face as he was getting on the train (was our journey cursed or something?) – a large, white-haired tourist who happened to be getting on at the same time helped him back to his feet before retreating in the face of profuse thanks. Meanwhile a Japanese girl – maybe a trainee nurse? – was sprinting up the carriage to see if she could be of assistance. It seemed the elderly man was fine now, but she stationed herself next to him, perhaps to keep an eye on him for the rest of the journey.
We took a succession of increasingly older and more clattering trains to our destination. The first few stops were underground, city central stations, then we emerged into a more suburban landscape, and then the streets began to give way to vineyards and fields. The nurse got off but the elderly man stayed on to the end of the line – dozing off at one point to be rudely awakened, along with a few others on the carriage, when his cane crashed to the floor. I was keeping half an eye on him but there were plenty of other people around who were better positioned to offer him further assistance should it be required.
The stations got smaller and more remote, often just a raised platform and a sign, and we got closer and closer to the taller mountains that ringed the horizon. We started spotting unmelted patches of snow in the shady areas of the ground speeding past us, which increased in frequency until eventually it was pretty much all snow. Our train came to the end of its line and we were all instructed to get off, with those of us continuing to Yudanaka changing to another shuttle. Again it was waiting for us at the platform, only the first set of doors were open so the same set of passengers filled up the first carriage again. The elderly man with the cane didn’t join us, I saw him as far as the platform elevator and after that he was on his own.
This second train was noisier and perhaps a little less comfortable, but still heated inside, but the blast of cold air every time the doors opened at each station was not particularly welcome. We also found ourselves getting used to the wah-wah-wah sirens of the railway crossings that accompanied every station, and a few other parts of the route.
Despite the proliferation of snow, we could see fruit and vegetables still waiting to be harvested, or if we were lucky, actually being harvested. There were trees still full of apples, and rows of what might have been onions or radishes, half taken, half waiting to be taken.
We got higher and higher, closer and closer to those mountains, and then all of a sudden we were once again at the end of the line, this time our destination, Yudanaka Station. Everyone trooped off the train and then scattered to their various destinations, be it ryokans, ski resorts or the monkey park. There was a bus service, there were taxis, but by our calculations Shibu Onsen was about a 30 minute walk and without heavy luggage, or any time constraints, it seemed a shame not to take the opportunity to explore. We weren’t too worried about getting lost, we were following a river and pretty much one main road.
Out here, the snow was less ubiquitous. There were some large piles at the station, and a few traces in the shadows behind walls and trees, but generally the ground was dry. The sky was clear too. It was chilly, but the kind of chilly that a brisk walk can easily mitigate.
We got our bearings, located the river, checked the map app on Janna’s phone, and started along the road to Shibu Onsen. From Yudanaka Station, a large welcome sign indicated we were entering Yudanaka Onsen, and it didn’t take long to spot the first signs of onsen activity, a stone pillar with a pool of steaming water at the base which appeared to be some kind of footbath.
Onsen is the Japanese word for “hot spring” and refers to the geothermal waters which are so common on this volcanic Pacific Rim archipelago, and which have been a part of Japanese culture for many centuries. Whether natural (or man-made) outdoor pools for bathing comfortably in the winter, or the plumbing of this springwater into customised buildings, the tradition of bathing in the natural warm waters is ancient, and a deep part of the national psyche. Because the available places to bathe are limited, bathing is always public and communal, although in the last couple of centuries gender segregation has become the rule rather than the exception.
As we walked along the street through Yudanaka and Yamouchi, we could hear the constant gurgling of water beneath our feet. The river was a few hundred metres away, this was the drainage system, meltwater from the mountains, perhaps, or even the heated springwater fresh from its journey underground. At points we could see steaming vents on the street.
Yamouchi Onsen was the second town we passed through, though there was no real break between the two designations. Despite being a (largely) one-street town, there were plenty of amenities – restaurants, schools, a ping pong club, hotels. The road was paved – like a pedestrianised street – but vehicles occasionally rolled up behind us or ahead of us, pressuring us to hug the margins of the street.
We took a slight change in direction at this point which gave us a view over the river we had been following, albeit out of our sight until then. It was a very wide channel, with the flowing grey-blue-white river occupying only a narrow part of the channel. No doubt in the Spring melting the channel would become a torrent.
On our left side where there had been buildings there was suddenly a steep embankment. Part of the pathway in front of us was closed off after a landfall but we skirted our way around it, living dangerously. Beyond that point we were in Shibu Onsen.
The buildings had been still relatively modern – definitely 20th century, and it could have been any suburban street in the outer districts of Tokyo, but for the constant gushing and gurgling noises beneath us. But now, gradually, the nature of the buildings began to change. There was less white plaster and brick, and more aged wood. Everything just seemed to become more – picturesque. The street seemed to get narrower, or maybe the buildings just leaned closer to each other to create that illusion.
The modern vehicles that – more rarely now – intruded on this scene from another time, seemed out of place and wrong. It also seemed like some kind of mistake that the only other people we encountered were other tourists. We were in a little snow-globe world, the only thing that was missing was the snow.
Suddenly the buildings on our left were interrupted by a wide staircase to the heavens. Our eyes followed it upwards, and at the top, standing serenely over the village, was the top of what must have been a very tall green Buddha statue. We made an informal agreement that we would come back and investigate this further once we had settled in.
On we walked and the buildings began to become familiar from the pictures I had seen when I was searching for a ryokan – traditional Japanese guesthouse – to book. We probably passed my first choice which had been fully booked. The one I had ended up booking was called Ikariya. It occurred to me that none of these ryokan had their names prominently displayed in English and I had neglected to memorise either the Kanji form of our ryokan’s name, or how it looked from the front.
We did nearly walk past it – well I did walk past it, but Janna spotted the name in English – in fact they had even put out a little welcome sign name-checking us – but our task was made easier by the numerous signs around the village displaying where each onsen and ryokan was located. We managed to get into the front door but then the rows of clogs, slippers and shoes in various groupings gave us a sharp reminder of how very different traditional Japanese culture is.
An elderly man came out to meet us. He spoke no English at all. I remembered from the reviews of the ryokan that it was run by a very friendly old couple. He indicated we should take off our shoes – we did – and put on some slippers – we did (although even the largest ones were still just a little too small for me!). We were to ignore the clogs for now, they were for another thing. He got us a key, and led us up the stairs to our room.
We had questions, he couldn’t really answer them, so he went to fetch another member of staff, Emi, who was much younger and much more fluent in English. She showed us into the room, which was exactly what you would expect a traditional Japanese ryokan room to be. Weave mats – check. Tatami mattresses – check. Paper screens – check. Low wooden table – check. Floor-level seats – check. There were even special clothes in the cupboard for us – yukatas and accessories.
Fortunately there was also a helpful information folder explaining all about the customs and traditions of the clothing, the ryokan and the villages’ onsen. There were also a few concessions to modern life – a heater, a tv and a fridge. We had a window – not much of a view, mainly the back of the adjoining building, but there were some trees and mountains to the left and the right. Emi left us to settle in for a while but said she would be back shortly to serve green tea.
I’m not a tea-drinker, and I’m wary of strange cakes and confections, but Janna assured me the tea and special cakes we were served were delicious. In fact she later bought a Japanese-style teapot – with the extra conical funnel – as a souvenir. Emi also showed us the Onsen Key – a small key attached to a huge wooden fob, which would give us access to all 9 of the public onsen in the village. It was supposedly good luck to visit them all. We asked her about Janna’s tattoos – we had read (in fact the information binder said) that these were frowned upon, should be covered up where possible, and it was possible onsen managers could ask someone with tattoos to leave. This is due to the historical association of tattoos with organised crime and gangsters (the Yakuza). Emi reassured us that most onsen were happy to accommodate tourists and their tattoos, and it was unlikely anyone would get upset.
We went out for a walk around the village and found most of the onsen without going inside any at this stage. We were mainly just killing time before dinner. We went to the river and crossed the bridge, and mainly just got our bearings. It wasn’t a very big village at all, really.
We also took time to freshen up in the ryokan’s own onsen. These were in fact the only washing facilities provided, there were toilets on the residential floor but if you wanted a bath or a shower you had to do it in the onsen with whoever else might happen to be there. They were divided into men’s and women’s onsen but the division consisted of 2 feet of wall, 5 feet of frosted glass, and at the top, a gap of about 2 feet over which you could hear what was going on next door.
I can’t say anything about the womens’ onsen, but the mens’ had 3 shower stations, with soap and shampoo provided, and little basins you could sit on, or fill with water to throw over yourself. At the far end of the room (away from the frosted glass) was the onsen pool, maybe 6 feet by 4. On the left side was a rubber tube obstructed by a wooden pump which jumped at regular intervals whenever the water pressure built to a sufficient degree, with a satisfying clack. This continual clack… clack… clack… was the soundscape in which people had bathed here for decades. The arrangements might not be everyone’s cup of tea but for Janna and I it felt invigorating.
There was a bit of a mix-up over dinner-time – Emi had told us the correct time but the information binder had a different time and we ended up trying to go down too early. So we had a bit of down time in our room for updating social media and so on. I was a bit apprehensive about dinner, as I knew traditional Japanese food wasn’t at all something I could handle, and ryokans are the most traditional Japanese places you can imagine. While ryokan owners are in general very accommodating and helpful, there is an expectation that guests have come to immerse themselves in this culture and they aren’t really set up for Plan B.
Dinner turned out to be a very communal affair, all the guests eat together and can talk to each other if they so wish, and we met a couple of Australian tourists who were doing a much longer tour of various Japanese destinations. They were very pleasant company. The food, however, from my point of view was as unappealing as I had feared.
We were presented with a tray with an arrangement of 9 different dishes – a mix of sweet and savoury. Most of them seemed to consist of some sort of fish – some caramelised, some raw, some shredded – and various combinations of mushrooms, vegetables and tofu. We each had a little solid-fuel grill to boil a foil dish of water and make our own soup, into which we could add thin strips of raw beef. In addition we were each given little round bowls containing rice and soup. Later on the staff brought in another individual dish for each of us with tempura shrimp on a salad bed.
Janna tried everything. I left everything untouched – bar some of the fruit – apple, I imagine – that was ok. It did not go unnoticed by the staff (much as I wish it had!) and they asked if I was ok and if there was anything they could do to make the food more palatable for me. In the end they took my beef and fried it up, which I have to admit was quite tasty.
Anyway, to cut a long story short this situation was replicated at breakfast the next morning (I had the bananas and yoghurt and left everything else!) and by dinnertime they did a special chicken steak just for me – it was a little dry but I wasn’t in any position to moan and dutifully ate it.
The first night, we heard howls outside, I was certain they were monkeys, and eventually we got out of bed and went to the window to look outside. It was too dark to really see anything but eventually our eyes adjusted and we realised there was an adult monkey making its way across the rooftop right outside our window! As it headed off to our left, we briefly saw the silhouette of a little baby monkey against the light from another window.
Our plan for the second day was to visit the Snow Monkey park. But it seems the monkeys had pre-empted us with their own plan to come visit the Human Village.