When I just started this blog I thought I would post only camera photos here, but then I realised that the story might be incomplete if I exclude all phone snaps and the associated memories. So, here I am, writing this post illustrated with iPhone pics only.
Last spring in the middle of March I had my last day at my previous work. After the farewell cake with my former colleagues I went home, packed my suitcase and flew to Japan. It was a long flight. Sergio was still living in the Netherlands, and we found a reasonably priced connection from Amsterdam over Hong Kong.
The flight operated by Cathay Pacific was quite pleasant. The air at the Hong Kong airport was warm and humid. It felt weird suddenly seeing so many people dressed in summer clothes. We did not have much time to go to the city, but enough to explore the airport and all its small shops and food places until we finally got on our plane to Tokyo.
I managed to sleep a little during the flight, but because of switching time zones we did not get a proper night. It was already noon of the next day in Tokyo when we arrived. Despite us being extremely tired, it felt so good finally being back after almost three years! First of all, directly at the Narita airport I charged my Suika card which I still had from my previous stay in Japan, and then, also at Narita, we activated our JR Passes which we pre-ordered before in Germany.
Such a JR Pass provides a great opportunity for foreign tourists to explore the country: depending on a chosen period of time one can use it for unlimited number of rides on Japan Rail trains including (with some exceptions) the famous bullet trains Shinkansen.
I always wanted to take a Shinkansen trip through the country, but was not eligible for a JR Pass with my previous kinds of visas. In order to be eligible, one has to be on tourist visa or to be a short-term visitor (for the nationals who do not need a visa). So, finally we got this opportunity and booked the longest-lasting JR Passes (back then it was 14 days duration, but eventually there are also 21-day passes now).
Being familiar with the public transportation in Tokyo, we took a subway to Asakusa, where we were staying in an inexpensive ryokan for the first night. The tatami-covered room was so tiny that when I opened my suitcase it felt like it took the half of its area, but we could not be any happier to be there. It took us another couple of hours to rest after the long and exhausting trip until we got ready for a dinner and an evening stroll.
Back to Asakusa
During our previous stay in Tokyo we actually lived in that area, so every corner felt very familiar. Asakusa is a nice touristy place with numerous interesting shops and restaurants, many of which have landed to my personal list of favourites. That evening we both had a craving for ramen. We went to Ippudo, our favourite chain restaurant. Oh, I wish they had a shop in Munich! The akamaru modern ramen I ordered that day was as always delicious.
After our great dinner we went to Don Quijote, or donki, a crazy chain store where one can buy literally everything: from ordinary groceries and cosmetics to cosplay costumes and the weirdest electronic devises. It is always fun to spend time in the shop exploring all these unimaginable goods. I enjoy its bright and loud ambience. And the huge aquarium with moray eels at the entrance is an absolute highlight! Having bought just umbrellas and milky puddings that time, we took a little walk in the area.
Feeling nostalgic, we decided to check on the house where we used to live. It was an old one and we were guessing, that it has probably been demolished like it happened to our very first place where we stayed in 2013. Surprisingly it was still there! We saw light in the used-to-be-our window and it felt strange.
The journey continues
On the next day, being terribly jet-lagged, we woke up very early, checked out of the hotel and took the subway to the Ueno train station. We got on a nice vintage subway car with cherry blossom motif advertisement. That reminded us that the cherry blossom season was about to start. On the way to the train station we stopped by at a convenience store, or combini, and bought almost all local snacks we missed. Well, I am a little bit exaggerating, but the fact is, in our plastic bags, we had a way more food that the two of us were able to eat for breakfast and for lunch together.
We had some snacks outside right next to the Ueno station. The morning was warm and sunny and the coffee from Seven-Eleven couldn’t have tasted better. Then we went to the Hard Rock Cafe to buy a pin for my collection. I chose one with cute pandas. All was set to continue our journey.
After some searching, we located the Shinkansen platform. Before our trip I have read that passengers with JR Passes do not require seat reservation. In theory, it is true, but soon we discovered, that it can be very challenging to find a free unreserved seat. It took us some time to figure out what we were supposed to do: we went up to the registration desk and reserved seats, and then we had to run back not to miss our train.
Arriving to the Hell’s Valley
So, we got on the shiny Shinkansen and our JR Pass journey has begun! Our first destination was Yamanouchi, a natural hot spring area in Nagano surrounded by the Japanese Alps. Its main attraction for us was Jigokudani, or ‘Hell’s Valley’, which is populated by wild Japanese macaques, also being referred to as snow monkeys. We got off the Shinkansen in Nagano, where we switched to the local train with a cute name Snow Monkey Express and a monkey on its logo.
After almost one hour of observing the beautiful rural scenery from the train’s window we arrived at our destination. From the station we walked to the ryokan Housei where we had a reservation. A pleasant surprise awaited us there.
For whatever reason they upgraded the room with a separate bathroom to a suite with a private onsen. From the friendly staff at the reception we have learned that the hotel also provides a free transfer to the monkey park and to the train station as well! Wow, just wow! We decided to go to the park straight ahead and it was an amazing experience. I will tell you more about the park and the monkeys in my next post.
At the agreed time the driver has picked us up at the park and brought back to the ryoukan. If I wouldn’t have jet lag, I would go for a walk in the beautiful surroundings, but suddenly I felt extremely tired (also very unluckily I got sick just before the trip and had a terrible cough). Sergio went to the onsen and I was just enjoying green tea in the room and watching the photographs I took with my SLR. Despite being tired and sick, I felt very calm and happy at the moment.
Then we had a kaiseki dinner in the common room of the ryokan. The food was delicious, all made with seasonal local products. All people but for me in the room were wearing yukata. Oops! After the dinner we went back to our room, where we found a nice futon bed prepared for us. I went to the onsen which I truly enjoyed, and after went straight to bed and fell asleep.
I woke up at 3AM and could not sleep anymore. At 4AM I gave up trying to get more sleep and decided to go and check the big public onsen which also had an outside pool. That was a truly pleasant experience. At that late (or early?) time of day the whole place belonged to me. Seating in the hot water outside and looking at the starry sky, I could not believe we had to leave that place soon in order to continue our journey. I could have stayed there for another week!
The morning slowly came, and we went for breakfast to the common room. This time I was also wearing a yukata. Sergio even took a nice photo of me in it, but only after I saw it much later, I realised that I totally messed all up by wrapping its right side over the left (which is used for deceased). I am not superstitious, but, what the heck, another Oops! Someday I will probably learn all Japanese traditions and formalities. Someday 🙂
After the breakfast we packed our suitcases and hit the road again. Another exciting day has begun!
Photos taken in March 2018