A few little bits of vocabulary in case you want to treat yourself in Japan:
Ryokan – traditional Japanese accommodation with tatami mats, paper screen doors and little elves who set up your futon while you aren’t looking.
Onsen – luvverly hot baff. Technically the one I took in Kyoto was a sento as it was artificially heated, onsen should be natural thermal springs, complete with healthy whiffs of sulphur.
Kaiseki – hella expensive Japanese haute cuisine, involving seemingly endless courses of baffling but tasty dishes.
Back when I was in China booking my accommodation online I got distracted and started reading other travel blogs and stumbled across a hearty recommendation for the Kamesei ryokan in Nagano prefecture. I think the idea of paying through the nose for dorm beds for the rest of my time in Japan must have been getting to me because I thought ‘well, if it’s going to be expensive anyway I may as well splurge for my last day’.
Clearly I didn’t have my planning head on straight as I didn’t think to check quite how far from Tokyo this was – only a couple of hours if you’ve paid for a train pass but quite a trek if you’re sticking to buses and local trains to save money! So far in fact that I left in bright sunshine and arrived in my first snow off the year. (Don’t get me wrong, still totally worth it, but I might consider spending a little more time in the area next time!)
I arrived in the afternoon to discover a lovely log fire in the lobby where I sat with the American manager Tyler (who runs the place with his Japanese wife) as he explained the local area to me, before checking into my enormous private room (with complimentary homemade cookie, which of course makes everything ten times better)
All guests are provided with yukata robes, which it is perfectly acceptable to walk around town in, if you so desire. After my sulphur soak however I had bigger things to look forward to with dinner.
In the dining room I met Steve, Rob and Stan, who were kind enough to invite me to pull over my little loner table from the corner and join them. (I considered eating in my robe, but since I knew I would be sitting cross legged it didn’t seem like the best idea. Of course, I could have been sensible and worn pyjamas underneath like Steve, but that felt a little like cheating to me, like wearing boxers under a kilt)
There were already quite a few plates on the table, but before we’d even started eating more and more kept being brought out – I think we ended up with around 12 different dishes, plus rice! We had a quick explanation of each dish before we all dove in head first.
This was my favourite – some sort of trout I think, with potatoes and apple sauce. Not everything got finished since the meal was so huge but I made a special effort to finish this!
Almost all the ingredients are local, apart from the sashimi. Tyler explained that a lot of their guests are domestic tourists and would feel hard done by without their shrimp, tuna and octopus. The marigold isn’t decorative – the petals are supposed to be added to the soy sauce and it supposedly fights off any bacteria that might be in the raw fish.
If by some miracle you have room after that there’s alarmingly solid pink mousse to follow. The guys were struggling to finish this, and yet half an hour later were talking about going off to find some ice cream (it was about 11pm by this point, I’m not sure how much luck they would have had)
After breakfast (which was…interesting. Still good food but not really things I associated with breakfast) I had time for another soak before a relatively early checkout, but had the rest of the day to look around the town of Chikuma. By the way I don’t think I’ve ever been as clean as I have here. You have to shower before getting into the baths, as I mentioned in Kyoto, but with the added sulphur here you also want to wash again afterwards, which means I have showered 4 times in less than 24 hours. I’m a little surprised I haven’t turned into a walking prune.
The ryokan really is wonderfully hospitable – the guys and I all checked out in the morning, and even though we weren’t technically hotel guests anymore, Tyler offered to drive us out to see the local apricot blossoms which were just starting to open. It was still a little early for the blossoms to be really spectacular (this one was an early bloomer because it was stealing the heat reflected from the metal wall), but what really made it worth the trip was the apricot flavoured soft serve ice cream up the hill – an unbeatable inside tip!
The highlight for me though, from the moment I saw it on the map, was always going to be the piggy bank museum. Yep, that’s me and my love for out of control collections again.
I fear this might actually turn into a Gundam blog at some point.
Lots of Hello Kitty, naturally.
Happy little coin purses.
Mostly everything is behind glass, but on my way out the owner ushered me back in, handed me some coins and started bringing out mechanical money boxes for me to play with. I wish I could embed videos onto the blog, but you’ll have to just imagine my glee at the joys of dancing dragons, cats in boxes and Marilyn Monroe.
Sadly, that was it for my trip to Japan, 3 nights of buses and ferries later I was back in China and mourning (there’s nothing like discovering your hands down favourite country for making you incredibly ungrateful about everywhere else)
I will be back, someday, and next time I’ll give myself more time to enjoy the mountains.