Suddenly we have a car in our possession and we can go on a road trip, how cool! Destination: Japanese Alps. We start driving north to go see the Snow Monkeys. Then the drive takes us past breath tlaking views with lots of autumn colors to Obuse. After seeing Zenko-ji temple we take route 464; a mountain pass that leads us into the snow! Matsumoto castle is next up, after which we go for Takayama and characteristic Shirakawa-go. Our trip ends in Kanazawa on Japan’s west coast where we visit the enormous castle and the Kenrokuen Gardens.
From Mount Fuji we drive north in the car we borrowed from our Airbnb host in Fujiyoshida. It’s a small pick-up truck with fully equipped camping ear and two foldable bikes and in the next two weeks we will take it all the way to Kyoto and Osaka through the Japanese Alps.
Off to the Japanese Alps
Today we want to drive all the way to the first point of interest we want to see in the Japanese Alps; the Snow Monkeys. Unfortunately driving here isn’t really like we’re used to. And we have to drive 220 kilometers today, because we’ve already booked a hostel for tonight. It takes all day to get there with an average speed of 40 kilometers an hour and some stops here and there. Add all the traffic lights and mountain passes we have to take to skip tollways and you can guess how slow we’re going. But, we really shouldn’t complain. The drive is absolutely gorgeous with deep valleys, high mountains with snowy peaks and we even see the first true autumn colors we were so deeply hoping for in Japan.
Autumn colors in Japan
You would think that in October autumn has started in Japan, but so far we’ve really been in to warm regions. Autumn is just around the corner but in Tokyo every tree was still completely green. Now we’re in more northern, colder parts and on an higher altitude, we don’t know where to look. Almost every single tree we see has beautiful, deep, autumn colors, it’s like one big, colorful painting. Nothing you can compare to autumn in the Netherlands, or anywhere else in the world as far as we know. Red, orange, yellow, green, even pink leafs decorate the trees and cover complete mountains. When the sun sets all colors are enhanced and we can take some amazing pictures.
Sleeping on traditional Japanese futons in a Ryokan in Nagano
Sun sets quite early here, so soon we’re driving in the dark. Luckily we arrive at 8 pm, still a decent time. Tonight we’re staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan; a guesthouse with traditional Japanese beds that consist of futons on the floor. We’ve already experienced this during our WorkAway in Ome, but this one is really something special. The whole atmosphere in the building is great and our room is beautiful. We enter into something like a porch, and after that there’s two\o rooms separated by very nicely decorated doors with little wood and paper ‘windows’. One rooms has the beds, a small table and an electric blanket, and in the other one are the windows and there’s a sitting area and a sink. In most houses different rooms are separated by these very Japanese sliding doors, which is why you can hear everything in the whole house.
Bathing in a Japanese onsen
Nozaru hostel even has an onsen; a typical Japanese bathing house. In this region you can find a huge amount of onsen with natural spring water, inside hotels and also public ones. It’s an old Japanese tradition but many people still go to these public onsen because they don’t have a bath (or even a shower) at home or they just want to socialize with their neighbours. There are separate spaces for men and women. The bathing is, logically, completely nude and you can enjoy the onsen,which is a natural bath, and you can shower and wash yourself sitting on a little stool in front of a small mirror. There are a few of these ‘washing stations’ and your only 20 centimeters apart from your neighbour. For us it’s a strange phenomenon, but it’s quite a funny and unique experience. Riny really enjoyed talking to some other travelers because he stayed in there for at least an hour.
We sleep very good on our futons and the next morning it’s time to get up early and go see the snow monkeys in the beautiful Jugokudani Snow Monkey Park. In winter, when there’s snow, these monkeys bath daily in their very own outside onsen. It’s made especially for them and wild monkeys come and go as they please to use them. The feeding at noon of course helps attracting them. Not completely in line with my values but at least they’re not imprisoned.
Unfortunately today it’s not cold enough for the monkeys to take a hot bath, but there are still a few around to take some nice pictures. There’s even a few baby monkeys, so cute! We recommend this place any time of the year, but make sure to ask your hostel beforehand if they expect there to be any monkeys today. If you haven’t seen this species before it’s really fun. It’s the kind with thick, warm fur and a highly red face, Japanese macaques. Entrance fee is 800 Yen and you can check out more info here.
Eating chestnuts in Obuse
After the monkey watching we drive to Obuse. We take a small detour to see a little bit of the beautiful view from route 292, which according to Lonely Planet is one of the most scenic routes in Japan. Unfortunately this road goes eastwards and we have to go west towards Kyoto, but the small part we do get to see is indeed pretty amazing.
Obuse is a very touristic town with a nice atmosphere and many cute little houses. Tourism here consists mainly of eating, and there’s also a few museums. Not our cup of tea, but we do enjoy the chestnut pastry called Dorayakisan, at a bakery called Chikufudo. It’s sort of a waffle dough with chestnut paste inside. Chestnut is a real speciality here and you can get a meal at any time of the day in any restaurant with some chestnut dish. Have a look here to find the best place for you. Don’t miss the chestnut flavored ice cream in the street of the Hokusai Museum.
Zenko-ji temple in Nagano city
We drive to Nagano city to see an enormous temple; Zenko-ji Temple. This city is know around the world for hosting the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. It’s located in a beautiful valley, surrounded by snowy peak mountains. The temple is truly amazing, I think it’s the largest one we’ve seen so far. It also has a nice Japanese garden and some impressive Buddha statues. On the inside it’s a little bit disappointing though, not very special, except for the space. When you exit through the main entrance you’ll find a pleasant street full of little souvenir shops and snack shops. Don’t miss the street parallel to this one on the left. It’s a very picturesque street with cute houses full of wood carved decorations and the typical Japanese trees that look like a lollypop.
It’s already the end of the afternoon and we still don’t have a place to sleep for tonight. We stop t one of the many Lawson convenience stores for the free WiFi and clean toilet, but unfortunately no luck on WorkAway or Couchsurfing either. For some reason there are so many tourists in this region right now that it’s impossible to find any affordable accommodation on short notice. As we don’t feel like spending 50 dollars on a room we decide to just go to our next destination.
It’s almost dark already, but since we have to go back the same way tomorrow it ok to miss the view today. After an hour on very windy mountain roads we arrive at the first Shrine we want to visit tomorrow. Unfortunately one of the few guesthouses here don’t have any vacancy and we are forced to sleep in the tent tonight. Luckily, the lady from the guesthouse let’s us use the toilet and WiFi and points us to a parking place where we can sleep without a problem.
First night in our tent
The lovely lady of the guesthouse let’s us use the toilet and free WiFi and point is into the direction of a parking lot where we can park overnight without a problem.We also find a tiny store where we can buy some bread and tuna. Unfortunately no hot meal today… Where are those convenience stores when you need them? A microwave meal would have been great right now.
We put up the tent in the trunk, which goes surprisingly well. Our friend in Mount Fuji even got us 4 futons, 2 sleeping bags, 2 pillows and a huge pile of towels. We put one sail on the floor for a little bit of isolation and to prevent the water coming in. The we put 3 futons in the tent on top of each other, the sleeping bags and for the very cold nights the last futon to sleep under. Let’s hope it won’t freeze tonight..
Luckily we weren’t cold at all last night and it wasn’t loud or busy at the parking lot, which made us sleep like babies. It feels a little pathetic to wake up in the trunk of a car in this cold though, especially on Riny’s birthday! But hey, the view could be worse. We are surrounded by beautiful autumn colored trees and snowy peak mountains.
We start the day at Togakushi Shrine, which we reach after climbing a very long staircase. Even at this early hour already a few buses of Chinese have arrived. It’s a nice temple, but to be honest all temples start looking very similar to one another at this point. By the way, I call everything a temple, but just to be clear, a shrine is a Japanese Shinto temple and these are different from Buddhist temples, which you can also find here. Half of the time we don’t see the difference, except for the gates in front of a Shinto temple; a tori.
Second stop is a shrine in the middle of nowhere, where we end up by accident. We were actually here for the ninja museum, but since we’ve already been to the Samurai Museum in Tokyo, we didn’t think this would be worth the money. Across the road there was a nice lane leading to some shrine, so we decided to go there for a nice walk instead. Which ended up taking at least 1,5 hours, haha whoops!
Quickly we continue our trip, because the plan is to have birthday cake for lunch at a place in the mountains that looks like a great picknick location. It’s a 100 kilometer drive, so with the speed limit of 40 km/h we should be there around 1.30 pm. Unfortunately, that was a little bit optimistic. We indeed ate the cake on the top of that mountain, but we watched the sun set in the meantime! So in the end Riny basically spend his whole birthday in the car. Luckily he doesn’t mind and route 464 is quite amazing. Riny even gets to stand in the snow on top of the mountain for the first time ever on his birthday! If that’s not a nice present it beats me…
From the top of the mountain it’s only about an hour to Matsumoto, where I’ve booked a fancy hotel as a surprise. Since all cheap accommodation was already booked I thought I might as well spend a bit extra to have something chic. Might be good for his back ache as well, because sleeping on Japanese futons surely isn’t.
Even though it’s way too expensive, the hotel is gorgeous en the bed is super comfortable. We even have a bath, in Japanese style though, meaning it only fits half a person, haha. There’s tons of free toiletries, even tooth brushes, a brush, razors and hair oil (let’s stock up!) and bath ropes and slippers to use.
Also the hotel has remembered my request to do something special for Riny. He’s really surprised to find a basket full of sweets, tea and coffee on the bed, together with a ‘Happy Birthday’ decoration, a balloon and a card. A great success. We got some nice snacks at 7-eleven and spend the rest of the night folded in the bath tub.
After a lovely night we check out at 11 am and go for a sightseeing tour around Matsumoto by bike. Especially the giant Japanese castle is very worthwhile. It’s in the middle of a lake and on a sunny day you can make very pretty pictures with the reflection of the castle and a red bridge in the water. We also see some traditional Japanese houses in Nawate-Dori (dori means street) and of course the well known frog statue of Matsumoto; a hilarious statue of two frogs. Unfortunately at some point the weather changes dramatically and we decide to pick up the car from the hotels parking garage. Trying to pack everything dry takes more time then we expect since it’s the first time we have to do this, so we don’t leave for Kamikochi until the end of the afternoon. Luckily we can still see a lot of the nice route of today, but the last part of the way is suddenly blocked by a traffic agent so we have to go the other way. Probably because there’s another typhoon coming.
Since Kamikochi is off the table we have to drive a bit further to Takayama. By the time we arrive we’re exhausted so we park the car somewhere in the outskirts of Takayama in a quiet neighbourhood. Unfortunately it started raining heavily and it costs some time to put up the tent sort of dry, covered in a large sail.
It rains all night and morning. Riny made the tent as waterproof as possible with the two sails, duct tape and garbage bags, but one of the futons got wet anyway. Luckily we slept very good again. We get up early to go and see all the sight in Takayama; Sakurayama Hachimangi Shrine, Hida Kokubunji Temple, Takayama old town, Nakabashi bridge, Takayama Jinya, Takayama castle ruins in Shiroyama park, and last but not least Hie Shrine.
Then shopping for some food, because we’re going back into the mountains and it wouldn’t be the first time that there’s no market to be found anywhere. First up: Shrikawa-go. A nice route past cute, little traditional houses, wild flowing rivers and misty, colorful mountains. At some point we’re suddenly at a point where they blocked the road again, so we have to go back the same way that we came from. Too bad! We were almost there…
Another attempt to avoid the tollway also fails, so we end up going all the way back to Takayama to enter the tollway. It’s about 30 kilometers of tunnels and costs 1010 Yen, but it’s very fast and goes straight to Shrikawa-go. It actually safes a lot of time, but it’s still too expensive for our taste.
Shrikawa-go is very touristic but also nice to see, even in the rain. There are many characteristic houses with reed roofs, a lily pond, rice fields, green hills and vegetable gardens. Again many Chinese, but that shouldn’t kill the fun. After walking around for half an hour though, we seek shelter in a souvenir shop (not a very good idea, bye bye money!) and then decide that we’ve absorbed enough rain and go further to Suganuma Village.
It’s a similar village, but a lot less touristic. We take the road parallel to the tollway which is fine for this short distance. Luckily there weren’t any blocked roads on this route. The rain is a bit less and this town only consists of traditional houses, so it’s more worthwhile than the last village. Definitely go and see Suganuma when you’re in the area. We would have skipped the first town if we had known this beforehand.
Back in the car with the heater on Sahara to dry our feet, socks and shoes, we drive to the last village; Ainokura. Another village in the same style, but the route goes past this town anyway so we might as well have a look. Unfortunately the man a the parking lot tries to rip us off by asking 500 Yen parking fee for 5 minutes of walking in the rain and taking some pictures of houses that we’ve seen so many of by now. It’s an easy choice to say thank you and drive off.
Tonight we booked a hostel in Kanazawa. Every other night that’s good to have a shower, a good sleep and some decent food if we’re lucky. On the way we stop at the supermarket to shop for dinner and once we arrived at the hostel, an employee even helps us get a free parking. We take our bags and prepare a very nice spaghetti. Hmm, that really tastes like home! We have a good sleep in our own room. Too bad for the Chinese couple next to us who apparently didn’t know or care about the paper walls…
After breakfast we pick up the bikes from the car. Apparently we’re parked at a fancy bank, and staff is not too happy about it. There goes our free parking space for the day. Luckily we can come back here after closing time, but ‘nobody told us’, haha.
Since we’re at a bank now, we might as well ask if we can exchange the plastic bottle full of 1 Yen coins here. This is a gift we received from one of Aki’s friends. So generous! But it’s easier to just have it in notes… This must have looked quite strange; 2 travelers who almost look like homeless people, walking into a fancy bank with a jar full of coins, haha. Luckily staff is very helpful. We cannot exchange into notes because there’s a pretty high fee for that, but we receive all the 1531 Yen back in nice packages of 50 Yen each, so it’s easier to spend them somewhere. Now let’s go and find a free parking lot for the day, so we can take our bikes and go explore the city.
We start out sightseeing trip in one of the many Geisha streets (Higashiyama Dori), where many young women walk around in kimono’s with their hair and make-up perfectly done. In many cased there’s even a photographer with the group to make as many pictures of them as he can in this beautiful, old street with characteristic wooden houses. It’s really quite a funny sight. We move on to Kanazawa station, where there’s the huge Tsuzumi gate and you can have a look at the fountain clock. We make a short stop at the outdoor shop, because after ripping my pants about a week ago, I still need a new one. Unfortunately the sizes are not very European. The only models I fit look more like a garbage bag than a piece of clothing… No thank you!
Through Nagamachi street we continue our trip to Kanazawa Castle, a giant castle surrounded by a huge garden. It’s very well maintained, just as the Kenrokuen Garden across the street. This enormous garden has various ponds, hills and Japanese buildings. There’s even a small waterfall! You can easily spend hours and hours here if the weather permits. Too bad for us we are here on a cloudy day, but as least it’s dry and it still looks very nice. It is a bit crowdy though with large groups of Chinese people and very loud guides. It seems to be very funny what he shouts through the megaphone, because suddenly everyone around us starts laughing. It’s freaking little China here. Luckily we also find some quiet areas and we even see a beautiful Japanese wedding photoshoot (we think).
After this full day we warm up at a Starbucks and then bike all the way back to the car, which is parked at some supermarket on the edge of the city. Back at the hostel, a small surprise awaits Riny. The hostel’s owner bought some delicious Japanese treats for us, as a late birthday present. So very kind! It’s very sweet and sticky, probably made of rice, and inside there’s a mandarin piece. After that it’s spaghetti again and the rest of the night we spend on the blog.
Echizen Ono Castle
The next day it’s time to go into the direction of Kyoto, about 200 kilometers away. We stop at some Lonely Planet recommendations, like Echizen Ono Castle in Ono, but it’s a little disappointing. On the way there though we suddenly drive past 3 large pagodas and temples on a mountain, and a bit further we see a beautiful big castle that was actually worth mentioning Lonely Planet!
We have lunch in the sun and go for a nice walk up to the castle in Ono. A pleasant thing to do after spending so many hours in the car. Unfortunately we cannot see the inside of the castle, because staff doesn’t speak one word of English.
In one long drive we reach Kyoto, passing beautiful lake Biwa where we can make some nice sunset shots. Riny’s quite happy with that because so far, this passion of his hasn’t been getting any attention in the Japanese Alps. We arrive in our guesthouse in Kyoto at 8 pm. Our Japanese Alps adventure has ended, but tomorrow we will start a whole new adventure in Kyoto. After that we will visit Nara, and then quickly to Osaka for our flight back to Nepal.