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.
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.
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.