Nagano: Day 1 – Togakushi

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The weather outside is frightful.

Nagano (home of the 1998 Winter Olympics) is only about 85 minutes from Tokyo by the fastest Shinkanesen.  I’d always wanted to go there, but after Red Data Girl so spectacularly showed off Togakushi (P.A. Works should really just do travel advertisements as their main gig) that urge grew even stronger.  Most of the trip is covered by the bargain JR Kanto Pass – which even a visa holder can buy – so I decided to spend Christmas in the mountains this year.

I long ago learned that you can’t really pay attention to weather forecasts for the mountains – the high places make their own weather.  So though we weren’t supposed to get more than a few flurries, it didn’t much surprise me when the snow started falling on the bus trip to Togakushi’s middle shrine, Chuusha.  I get belted pretty hard when I was up there today (check out the video) but that’s OK – I love snow, and rarely see it in Tokyo (and never in San Francisco).  My trip to Kurama-dera and Ishiyama-dera in the snow last winter remains one of my greatest days ever, and these holy places just look that much more amazing when the snow is pelting down.  Plus, this is my first white Christmas in many, many years – even Chicago whiffed most years.

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Unfortunately the upper shrine, Okusha, is inaccessible in winter so I had to settle for the lower and middle shrines.  The stairs at the lower shrine were especially terrifying – really resembling a ski jump more than anything, and judging by the lack of footprints it seems few were dumb enough to risk it besides me lately.  If you read my RDG posts you know something of the history of Togakishi, one of Japan’s holiest mountains, and it’s a mystical and majestic place.

I foundered a bit after learning that there was no way to Okusha either by trail (without skis or snowshoes) or road, but after wandering about a bit in really heavy snow I stumbled on an onsen I didn’t know was there.  They had a ¥1500 set – onsen and soba (Nagano’s specialty) so chalk this up as serendipity.  There’s not much that beats soaking in an onsen, watching the snow fly in front of centuries-old Cryptomerias and mountain peaks, singing “White Christmas” and “Let it Snow” (yes, I was alone in there).  The soba was nice too, though the innkeeper lady gave me quite a grilling about why I wasn’t married yet.  I must confess, that’s the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen much in Tokyo – the layers of formality and distance are much thinner elsewhere in Japan.

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I’m staying in an old and incredibly cheap ryokan (see pics) about 300 meters from Zenkouji, which is spooky at night but figures to be jumping by day.  To call this inn “rambling” is an understatement – it’s a 100 year-old building that shakes when the trucks go by and has at least 10 different unconnected staircases that I’ve counted.  It’s also cold here tonight – the forecast says -12 C.  Tomorrow it’s off to Jigokudani to spend Christmas with the snow monkeys, which will surely bring back memories of Christmas with my sisters.

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19 comments

  1. m

    hahaha why are you not married yet?! XP

    i really shouldn't say this, but god the season seems to change so fast. how long ago was it when you posted about fall!

    although it's budget, the scenery is what's most important, and it looks unspoiled. too much snow though

  2. Bear in mind, this is at 5000 feet up in the Japanese Alps. Tokyo was in full fall colors mode 3 weeks ago.

  3. m

    ahh yes, i was being silly. i'm pretty ignorant when it comes to weather and travelling hahahaha.

  4. t

    WOW, the images and videos are lovely. Thanks!
    so much snow..I love snow! but how did you even get there?the roads are accessible?it's seems like a lot of snow, well, mountains after all.

    looks like you're having a great time. THO you're probably freezing out there. it's the mountains we are talking about..snow and wind..but being in vacation and have so much fun and be in interesting places..who care about the cold all of a sudden 😛

    the buildings seem old indeed. not to mention how it's at night. sure, seems creepy. especially if you wanna take some air or just go for a walk. but I like it. it's so much different. I mean, in the city you don't have the calm and quiet of the mountains. and you're surrounded by so many houses, roads, lights..sometimes it's better be in a peaceful place.

    have a happy holiday! continue to enjoy your time (:

  5. They have skiing there, so they keep the roads plowed as far as Chuusha.

  6. K

    "Tomorrow it's off to Jigokudani to spend Christmas with the snow monkeys, which will surely bring back memories of Christmas with my sisters."

    You didn't just compare your sisters to monkeys?

    Beautiful pictures, I need to see Japan in the snow one of these days.

  7. e

    Guess what I can't download or load a single thing right now so the any videos will have to wait. Yay for pictures :,).
    Hey maybe the innkeeper lady has some cute miko single relatives Enzo, and they might even love your onsen singing ;).
    I second Kim's question above. You wouldn't, would you? In any case waiting for the monkeys pics. And once more happy very white and spooky Christmas up there.

  8. Jeez, it's just a joke…

  9. K

    We know Enzo we were joking with you 😉

  10. i

    Looks beautiful. Way better than the freezing cold of Canada right now. Hope you get my Christmas present in time.

  11. I did – thank you!

  12. R

    ishruns, I hope that you are not in Toronto, but if so, I hope that you didn't get hit by the power outage. Stay warm.

  13. i

    We did for a bit but it came back after a few hours, so we we're okay. Thanks for the concern, ice rain on Saturday and a snow storm Christmas Day are the least of my worries right now. Bulging stomach from all the turkey is worse, lol.

  14. R

    That's glad to hear and for the turkey…I hear you…lol.

  15. c

    I'm in Tokyo in March, I may have to add this to my itinerary, what is the inn called, and just how cheap is cheap?

  16. Chuukan Shimizuya Ryokan. I'm paying ¥3900 a night for a private (actually quite large by Japanese standards), shared bath.

  17. F

    Lovely pics Enzo, as usual. ^^

  18. R

    Merry Christmas to you, Enzo. Just now when we were coming home from our first Christmas family dinner — it's still Christmas Eve here — I was wondering if you were having Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas…lol.

    That's a very beautiful place — very serene, secluded…and RDG… That's quite a lot of snow there. We had a huge dump on one weekend last month — it was like as much as what's shown in your photos — and it's my turn to shovel our driveway. Seriously, it took me over half an hour just to clear off a two-car driveway, and I felt like I just did chaturanga for a 1000 times…! While I felt like my arms were cut off the next morning, I really thought that I could enrol myself in the female weightlifting at the next Summer Olympics…lol.

    Minus 12 is considered pleasant here, but if the heat isn't enough, it's cold. I hope that the futon kept you warm. If you didn't describe it, the ryokan looked pretty rustic, traditional and appealing to me. Seriously, it's quite something to keep a 100 year-old building standing — despite a few unconnected staircases — and you're quite adventurous, if not courageous. Enjoy your visit.

  19. H

    "I long ago learned that you can't really pay attention to weather forecasts for the mountains – the high places make their own weather." Ain't that the truth, I spent my four years of college in the mountains and learned pretty quickly which local weather websites to trust (well, that and to accept the fact that you could go through all four seasons in the space of a week). Absolutely lovely pictures out there, can't wait to see day 2!

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