Friday, March 6, 2015

Day 15: Doing the Jig

After ten hours of sleeping, and absent the migraine, Jigokudani Onsen seemed a little more inviting. As we had declined the opportunity the night before to try out the outdoor hot pool, Mindy and I got ready to head out before 7am, catching the sun lighting up Jigokudani valley – before tourists showed up in droves for the monkey park across the river.

Onsen etiquette is that you don’t wear a bathing suit, even when in mixed company.  Of course, reviews online talk about how rare the mixed gender baths are; how they are only in the most isolated and hard-to-reach areas.  Like, perhaps, a place that requires several hours on a train, then a bus, then a 2km hike through a mountain pass. When in Rome……consider the tourists who will be showing up shortly across the river.  Mindy and I broke etiquette.

We also had a third wheel…!!!

Notwithstanding our faux-pas, we were enjoying a “real” onsen.  That is, the original Japanese onsens were those fed by naturally occurring hot springs.  Most public baths which market themselves as onsens in Japan today are simply modified hot tubs, but Jigokudani is the real thing.  

Steaming hot water from natural underground reservoirs is piped in for the baths.  How hot?

When the staff member came out to cook the eggs, that proved another value to Mindy’s bathing suit.  That might have been really weird otherwise…. To be honest, the eggs were only soft cooked, so I can’t say I’ve eaten eggs cooked in my own bath water.  It might be a good thing I not say that.

Cleaned up after the outdoor pool, I poked my head out one last time at the bath where we had been moments before:

Were they waiting for us to leave???  Too shy to join us without their bathing suits? Turns out that our lodging was directly along the monkeys morning route, and in the course of just a few minutes we had dozens of monkeys passing within arms’ reach!

Before the last monkeys passed, we retreated inside.  Ryokans provide amazing insight into traditional Japanese lifestyles, but they are not hotels.  Breakfast is served at a set time, and if you miss it….there are no restaurants nearby! We enjoyed a breakfast reminiscent of dinner the night before, and this time I enjoyed it.  I am really digging traditional Japanese cuisine! I think I want miso soup for breakfast every cold, damp day. Then we ventured across the river again for more monkey-watching. This time, we went straight to the monkey onsen (this one dedicated to monkeys) to catch a better look at the monkeys bathing in the hot spring.

Jigokudani advertises that it allows humans to observe monkeys behaving naturally, and that it is the one place in the world where monkeys bathe. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. The park spreads food on the snow every morning, and sprinkles more in the warm pool reserved for monkeys. Does that mean the monkeys would never venture to the hot springs without that?  Probably not.  After all, the monkeys were coming to the valley before the park ever existed.  At the same time, the monkeys are not exactly wild. So much human interaction, and a feeding schedule aligned with tourism…Perhaps this is just a “less controlled” version of what is available at Iwatayama. Nevertheless, I loved seeing those nearly-wild monkeys up close!

As we prepared to leave Jigokudani, Mindy engaged our host in conversation about his retreat. (I can’t in good conscience call it a resort, as that seems to imply luxury.) He was born and raised in that house, and has never left.  The property has been in his family for 150 years, and it’s all he’s ever known.  Helps to put the whole thing in perspective – the crumbling structure, the ragged and tired look…. For whatever it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the potential of that property.  No matter what, it will offer an experience unlike anything else in the world. Spruce the building up – a good, solid face-lift.  Offer a proper lunch menu to cater to the tourists at the monkey park.  The park doesn’t sell any food, and the nearest restaurant is a long walk away. Invest the time and energy required to make it a tourist attraction in its own right, and it will pay off.

A 2km walk through an icy path, a bus, a train, and finally we arrived at Nagano station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo. Returning to Tokyo feels wonderfully familiar, and so it is a great conclusion of this Japanese experience. (Given that by this time we were planning the New York leg of the trip, I found myself forgetting that we were still in Japan, and not already in the USA.)

While the Japanese seem fitter and healthier than their North American counterparts – certainly no obesity epidemic here like in our part of the world – they don’t seem to embrace walking.  From Tokyo Station, I checked in with a ticket agent to orient ourselves toward the hotel.  He replied that was too far to walk, and we’d need to take a train.  “But it’s just down from Tokyo Station” I replied.  “Not Tokyo Station” he responded, and proceeded to direct us to the Yamanote train line to get where we wanted to be.  Thanks to the JR passes, we walked right back in and headed toward the train.  The Information Desk staff tend to speak fluent English, so we took a moment to confirm our route to Tokyo Station.  ‘This is Tokyo Station” she explained.  Once again I pulled out the map to show where the hotel was….”Too far to walk.  I would estimate 30-40 minutes of walking.” It was less than a mile away…..

We took the train one stop to get a tad closer, and began our (now 1200m) walk.  Slightly disoriented, we stopped a well-dressed couple to ask for directions.  For the third or fourth time since we’ve been here, they simply offered to walk us to the hotel.  Then the man had to stop and ask for directions…. For goodness sakes, Tokyo, start naming your streets!! Named streets or not, the couple found our hotel and seemed as happy about it as we were.  One good turn deserves another, so I promise the next time someone asks me for directions and I have a few minutes to spare, I won’t just point them in right direction; I will take them to their destination.

G&V restaurant was our destination for dinner – advertised on Happy Cow as a vegan, macrobiotic take on Japanese cuisine.  I looked up the route at our hotel and….took us entirely in the wrong direction.  This was only the third time I have taken us on the wrong track in the two weeks here (and Mindy has made it clear that she prefers not to be responsible for holding the map), so I don’t feel too bad.  As no-one was offering to walk us to the hotel, this time we just jumped in a cab.

The food was delicious! Fresh vegetables, lightly fried soy nuggets, an amazake cocktail (fermented rice (amazake) with differently fermented rice (sake) makes for such a tasty mix that I am bringing the ingredients home), and coconut cream ice cream.  More Japanese food that makes me so happy!

We asked our waitress for directions back to our hotel and she – you guessed it – walked us there. So kind and thoughtful, generous….and maybe, just a teeny bit, the knowledge that directions are nearly impossible when there are no street names and nobody seems to know where things are if they haven’t already been there.  Here’s the reality of the situation: cab drivers get lost despite Japanese addresses and GPS systems; bus drivers are only vaguely familiar with addresses on their route; and our delightful server walked us to the street where she thought our hotel probably was, but if it wasn’t this one it definitely was the next one.  She had looked up the hotel online and had the address in her phone as she guided us! (She was right – it was the first street.)

Another adventurous day gone by, and one day closer to the daily grind of my routine life. I’m looking forward to tomorrow in Tokyo, and then more of tomorrow in New York, and I don’t mind the idea of returning to my life after that. Travel is wonderful, but it is fatiguing, and I’m ready to stay in one place for longer than two nights.

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