After our fantastic time in Tokyo (which you can read about here) we hopped on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to travel from Tokyo to Nagano in order to see the Snow Monkeys, and explore Northern Japan. The train system in Japan is incredibly efficient and convenient. We were booked in the first class (or Gran Class car) for the approximately 90 minute journey. Before we get to the Snow Monkeys, let me just rave about the Shinkansen experience. Traveling at speeds of almost 200 miles per hour, and punctual within a minute, the Shinkansen is a fabulous way to get from point A to point B.
There are unreserved cars, reserved cars, and 1st/Gran Class options available. We were booked in the Gran Class where the cabin, seats and amenities were absolutely top-notch. I had to include a photo of the bathroom because that too was impressive. The train car was about half full, so we were able to enjoy the full attention of the attendant. She made sure that our glasses were constantly full, and that we were comfortable. The Gran Class puts most airline’s international business class cabins to shame (forget domestic). As we later learned this particular train must have been the most modern of those we traveled on. While we were booked in Gran Class throughout the trip, this particular car was the nicest and newest of the bunch.
Once the train pulled into Nagano we quickly exited (they don’t allow you much time to linger, they have to stay on schedule) and were met by our guide Naoko. She explained that our driver Ryo would not be picking us up until 1 pm to drive us to Jigokudani Monkey Park so we had time to have lunch in the station. The Nagano prefecture is known for Buckwheat Soba, and there happened to be a restaurant in the station 信州蕎麦の草笛 that featured these 100% Buckwheat (gluten-free ) noodles. The Soba noodles are rolled and cut all throughout the day so that they are fresh and springy as can be. They are served both hot and cold and in this case, I opted for hot. It was the most sublime train station meal I have had the pleasure of enjoying.
Once we were filled up with Soba we exited the station and headed off to the Shibu no Jigokudani hot springs where the Japanese Macaques monkeys like to spend their time. They are the only primates that live in such a snowy climate, as well as the only ones who enjoy soaking in hot springs. They are incredibly expressive, and seem completely oblivious to the spectators who are watching their every move.
The journey up to the top of the small mountain was a bit treacherous as it was very icy. Luckily Naoke provided us with spikes to put on our shoes which saved us from slipping into the hot springs ourselves. There were a lot of people who had made the trip to see the monkeys, and no one was in a rush to leave. We kept wandering to different monkey groupings, they seem to prefer to spend time with other monkeys, and there appeared to be many instances of mama monkeys caring for their little ones. Many people head to Nagano to get some skiing in as well, it was home of the 1998 Winter Olympics and is renowned for its winter sports, but we just came for the monkeys, and it was worth it.
Following our exploration of the Snow Monkey’s environs we loaded into the van and headed to Tobira Onsen Myojinkan to experience a traditional Japanese Ryokan. Established in 1931 as a small mountain inn, Myojinkan is now a luxury Relais & Chateaux property. Never having stayed in a Ryokan before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect (aside from the fact that traditional Japanese Yukata are worn during meal times).
Entering Tobira Onsen Myojinkan was a little like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, everything was so absolutely magical, completely different, yet wonderful. First of all, the welcome was so enthusiastic that we felt like royalty. Following champagne and check-in we were led to our room which was very large and very unique. We knew that tatami mats were de rigueur, as well as slippers only, but we weren’t expecting our hot spring fed tub to have such a place of prominence in the bathroom, or the pathway through the river stones to the bedroom.
Because the original portion of the Inn dated back to 1931 there were some hallways that were not well insulated. There were space heaters throughout that helped with the transitions between buildings, but it was chilly!
We settled into our rooms and after a quick soak in our tub (we carefully removed the wooden cover which was in pieces) changed into our Yukata (making sure to cross the left side over the right- this is very important(!), if you fold right over left it means you are dressed for your funeral). Once we were properly outfitted we made our way to dinner. Myojinkan is famous for their restaurants, there are two on property, one that is traditional Japanese, and one that has a French influence. We were stayed two nights so we were able to sample both.
The multi-course meal in the Japanese restaurant Shinshu was both traditional and delicious, and the service was perfection. Aside from giving our dietary restrictions (we had to provide ahead of our visit) we put ourselves in their capable hands. Course after course was presented and devoured, all washed down with bottles of Sake.
Upon awakening the next morning we all decided to go and explore the public baths. There is a very specific way to prepare for a visit to the baths, and luckily the hotel provided us with a cheat sheet.
Once we arrived at the baths my husband and sons entered at the blue curtains, and I at the red. It was early when I entered so for a time I had the entire women’s side to myself. I was concerned with making a faux pas so I made sure to follow the directions to a T. Each side had an inside hot spring, and an outside one. The outside temperature was around 30F which coupled with the hot water created quite a bit of steam so the pictures were quite hazy, but the experience was very relaxing. As I was getting ready to leave several other women came in and went through the prescribed steps before they entered. There was no hesitation or self consciousness whatsoever. My guys reported a similar experience on their side, though they did say that after dinner when they went to soak the night prior it was a bit more raucous then zen.
Following our refreshing soak we devoured a traditional Japanese breakfast which included small savory tastes of many things as well as local mushrooms which we grilled at the table. I really appreciated not only the presentation, but the overall lack of sugar in the meal (aside from the dessert, which wasn’t too sweet ).
Our guide and driver appeared at the appointed time in order to take us to exprience historic Matsumoto, the city closest to our Ryokan. It was the first time viewing the exterior of the property in the daytime, and we caught a glimpse of both the local Shinso Salmon drying in the cold air, as well as local persimmons which are reputed to be extra sweet and delectable hanging in the entry way.
Our first stop was Matsumoto Castle which dates back to the 1500s, and was in use until the mid 1800’s. More like a fort rather than a castle as we know it, the moat surrounding it helped to ensure it was safe from enemies. We were forewarned to wear warm socks as there were no shoes allowed and the stone floors were literally freezing (true). There were also many steep staircases and ladders to climb to get to the top. The castle was beautiful, and well worth the effort.
Second stop was the Matsumoto Museum of Art which features a expansive exhibition of Yayoi Kusama‘s works. Not only is Kusama one of the most famous living Japanese artists, but she was actually born in Matsumoto! There were no photos allowed inside (aside from the room sized pumpkin) but trust me, the exhibit was fabulous.
For lunch we decided to sample more Soba noodles handmade from the local buckwheat, this time from Asada. We had the choice between 100% buckwheat or 80% buckwheat, again hot or cold. I chose 100% buckwheat, cold. The noodles were so delicate and light, entirely different than anything you can get in a package. Once we finished dipping the noodles in sauce we poured the cooking liquid (sobayu) into the remaining dipping sauce cup and drank it like tea. Two thumbs up for this simple and homey meal.
Daio Wasabi Farm was next on the agenda. Located just outside Matsumoto, Daio has been growing wasabi since 1913 and is the largest wasabi farm in the world. The wasabi enterprise is a family business, and all the growing and harvesting of the spicy root is done by hand. The bright green wasabi you may be used to from your local sushi restaurant is not the same as pure ground wasabi root, the true flavor is much more delicate and not as aggressive.
The farm itself is beautiful to behold. The wasabi grows in water, and the fields have been laid out in an orderly geometric pattern. Walking through the extensive acreage is as meditative an activity as you could imagine. We were fortunate enough to see some of the wasabi being harvested. It is a very slow and exacting process which explains the high cost of mature wasabi.
There is of course a gift shop, as well as a soft serve stand selling wasabi ice cream which we had to try, and the flavor was quite delicate.
We finished up at Daio and loaded back in the van just in time for a glass of champagne and a quick soak at Myojinkan. Our return was met with as much enthusiasm as when we checked in the evening before.
As I had mentioned our second dinner was to be at Nature French, the other restaurant on property. This was a smaller space, and didn’t seem to be as popular with the guests as the Japanese menu, but it was outstanding.
It was all so tasty and beautifully presented. After a terrific day of sightseeing we retired up to the room to go to bed, but not before we noticed a bed time snack, just incase we hadn’t had enough to eat.
Since we had dined in the French restaurant for dinner, we also had booked to enjoy breakfast in the same restaurant. It was a French inspired interpretation of a Japanese brekkie, and it was yummy. The scrambled eggs were done perfectly, as was the grilled langoustine and green smoothie.
We loved all of the surprises and friendliness of Myojinkan. We had another Relais & Chateaux Ryokan booked for the end of the stay which would prove to be a little more conventional, but no less special. Matsumoto is most certainly off the “normal” tourist itinerary for travelers to Japan, but we loved the Snow Monkeys, the Wasabi farm, the Kusama exhibit as well as Matsumoto castle AND Myojinkan which was really a unique and very fun experience.
We bid farewell to our friends at Myojinkan as well as our guide and driver (our driver Ryo deserves more of a shout out, not only was he a very capable driver, he was hilarious and a connoisseur of all forms of alcohol; though thankfully not while driving). We were off to board another train which would take us by gorgeous scenery en route to Kanazawa. Stay tuned!