Our journey to Mastumoto was smooth and easy. The only hiccup turned out to be that we caught our taxi driver’s cold. He sniffled in the hot car both ways from the train station to the ferry and back. As he said goodbye to us at the train station in Okayama he handed us each a package of Kleenex, foreshadowing the cold symptoms that would begin the next day. Oh well, we hear almost everyone has a cold back home too!
The train to Matsumoto was a special “wide-view” train. Jim was giddy when he saw the big, wide, front window with a 180 degree forward view of our surroundings, including the engineer, who put on a great show with dramatic gestures noting every track light (green, yellow or red) along the journey.
From the Matsumoto train station, we took a small bus out of the city through ever narrower curvy roads up the hills until we arrived at the Tobira Onsen Myojinkan Inn. This small “traditional” Japanese resort and hot springs is an enchanting, magical place. We were the only Anglos once again and the other visitors who could speak a little English kept asking us how we found it.
Our room was very large and had a beautiful winter view of the nearby stream and the snow covered trees. It felt a little like home, except for the lack of beds. This was our first hotel where we slept on mats, rather than beds. It wasn’t as bad as we thought, but a bed is much more comfortable. For our dinner we enjoyed another delicious work of Japanese “food art.”
This place is also famous for their public (although gender separated) hot spring baths. It was extremely hard for us to leave the next day and take the bus for a day trip back into Matsumoto to visit the historic feudal castle, but we did and it well worth the time. Once again the weather cooperated with a sunny sky that allowed us to see the beautiful mountains that overlook the city.
Jim and I climbed the 6 stories up the interior castle steps. With 3 levels of moats and a first story built from large stones, the castle’s design is strategically imposing. Before artillery, airplanes or very large catapults, it would be virtually impossible to capture it and its hundreds of samurai defenders.
After our excursion we returned to the lodge and rested and enjoyed the pools before repacking our small bags for the next 2 days in Tokyo. We love the Japanese process of shipping big bags ahead so that the train travel the s only done with small overnight bags.
It turns out the weather in Matsumoto really turned a few hours after we left, blocking the winding narrow road with snow, ice and falling trees, stranding the guests.
Although it would be a great place to be stranded, we were glad to make our 2 day trip to Tokyo with a quick 3 hour stop in Nagano to explore the Zenko-Ji Temple. After arriving at the Nagano station we followed our instructions and put our luggage in a locker. It took a bit of time to find a place to get change because the lockers took only 100 yen coins, but a quick juice purchase solved that problem. From there we proceeded to the appropriate bus stop for an easy bus ride to the Temple.
Although it was a rainy cold day, the walk through the grounds up to the Temple set the stage for a perfect visit. We had hoped this trip to find a meditation bell for our travels with no luck until Zenko-Ji.
The little shop just outside the gates of the Temple had a great selection of small bowls that make a deep, resonate bell sound when struck with a little mallet. We chose one with a pitch we both loved and the shopkeeper was very helpful, even though he spoke no English.
The Temple is large with an enormous incense burner before the entry. Once in the Temple you can walk through a pitch-black tunnel under the alter to touch the “key to paradise”. Of course this was a must do. It was absolutely dark, and as you walked (no shoes of course) we were instructed to keep our right hands along the wall until we felt the metal bar on the door to the under-alter chamber. We are pretty sure we accomplished the goal. On the way back to the bus and train we stopped for some warm noodle bowls to take the edge off the cold rainy day.
After we checked into our Tokyo hotel, we got to meet and have dinner with Leif and Natalie Mortenson. They are the son and granddaughter of our friends Dave and Pam Mortenson. After meeting us at the hotel we walked to a fun local spot and enjoyed good food while getting to know them both.
We stayed in Tokyo at the Four Seasons Hotel and it is a perfect hotel. Perfect location, small, tasty breakfasts, comfortable rooms & beds and fantastic service. After a long travel day and feeling the effects of our blooming colds, it was an wonderful and welcome respite.
We woke a little worn out, but once again ready to rally for a guided tour of Tokyo. Keiko Kamei had read some of our blogs and articles about Dick’s Drive-Ins and Jim’s Dad and felt like an old friend as we headed off via the Ginza subway line to the Haraju district for a stroll through the Meiji Shrine. Because much of Tokyo was destroyed in the war, the grounds and imposing entrance gates and Shrine are all relatively new ad surrounded by 120,000 trees brought and planted as gifts.
This is a place where people come for weddings, blessings for newborns, new cars, new jobs, new trips and similar new things. Spending the day with Keiko helped us learn more about our last 2 weeks. For example, we are now able to distinguish between Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples.
We took part in a sacred Shinto blessing ceremony. The priests give blessing to the visitors by name using special prayer sticks. Jim got a healing blessing in the ceremony.
After the Shrine we did a bit of an architectural tour through the Omotesando district, where flagship designer stores are housed in amazing buildings. Japanese love new trendy things and we passed young people cued in long lines for a fashion show and a western-style silver jewelry boutique.
We shared a delicious lunch and then Jim headed back to the hotel for some quiet time, while Keiko and I explored the museum and the Yanaka district. The Yanaka district is home to the Museum of Art. It’s a quiet neighborhood with lovely old shops, and homes along with artists. I liked the peaceful energy. I bought some delicious rice crackers from a shop that has been making them the same way for 100 years.
We had the opportunity to visit Allen West’s gallery. He’s an American who uses an old Japanese technique of mixing deer glue with ground stone pigment to create beautiful pieces of art. For winter his themes are plum tree blossoms and bamboo in snow representing beauty and success in harsh times. . Birds in pine trees are another theme. Like our last artist visit in Kyoto, it was very special. Allen, his wife, Keiko and I chatted about pigments and painting, his recent commissions, the states, families and life. I purchased a small Shinto-themed horse painting that reminded me of our morning Shinto service at the Temple.
By the time Keiko and I worked our way back to the hotel, I was pretty exhausted. jim and I went out for a quick simple dinner from the collection of small restaurants in the massive Tokyo train station next to our hotel. With Keiko’s help we purchased some NyQuil-like cold medicine to help clear our nose and help us get some sleep. We both woke the next morning feeling much better, and then enjoyed another yummy leisurely breakfast.
Before heading to our train we went for a quick (& successful) excursion to buy some casual Japaneese robes (called Yukatas).
As I finish this blog we are sitting on a small local train during the 30 minute trip from Nagano to Myokokogen for our final week in Japan, all of which will be devoted to skiing. Skiing was the reason we came to Japan in first place. If the skiing is anywhere close to the rest of our trip, it’s going to be epic!
We have arrived and settled at the lodge . It’s rustic, small and has a great skier feel. It’s certainly very different from the rest of our trip. But it feels great! This is definitely an interesting out of the way sky area. It’s snowing and the adventure continues.