Nagano Prefecture: Ryokan, Skiing, & Monkeys Oh My!

First and foremost Happy 31st Birthday to my hubby!! It was all in celebration to him that we found ourselves in Nagano this past weekend.  I had been bouncing ideas back and forth on where to celebrate John’s first birthday in Japan, and the infamous prefecture of Nagano kept coming to the forefront, so to the north we went.

In case you didn’t know Nagano is famous for the Winter Olympics of 1998.  It’s known for its powdered snow and what is fondly called the “Japan Alps”.  Now I’ve never been to the real alps but these mountains will certainly suffice as being pretty spectacular!  Here’s a pic…or two.

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To be completely honest where we were in Shiga Kogen, the mountain views were pretty amazing, but there are many places in Nagano Prefecture to get “the views”.  We are headed to Hakuba in a few weeks and I’m told the mountain views are unreal! Any way back to the point…

I have to say that it was welcomed to get out of the city and into a snowy mountain town, where it actually felt like winter (not this 51 degree nonsense we have going on in Nagoya). We headed to Yamanouchi, near Shiga Kogen Ski Resort.  However, I had ulterior motives for traveling in that direction.  First, the snow monkeys (more on that later) and second Matsumoto Castle.  Japan is filled with castles and honestly they all start to look the same (sorry Japan…) but this one is nestled in a little valley of the mountains and I think one of the oldest original castles in the country.  To say the least it was worth the stop.

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John has been working himself literally to the bone over the past few months and needed a break, which is why I ended up booking a ryokan instead of a normal hotel.  There is a pretty big difference between a normal hotel and a ryokan.  Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns and are unique to say the least.  They are like nothing I’ve stayed in before.

This wasn’t our first ryokan experience – we had tested one out when John’s parents were visiting.  It happened to be an English friendly (as in they have someone who can speak English on staff between the hours of 8 and 5) one in Hakone, so when booking this trip I felt more comfortable and knew what to expect.  The biggest difference between a hotel and ryokan are probably the rooms.  A traditional ryokan room is very large and consists of a tatami mat floor, legless table and chairs, and in the winter months a kotasu (an amazing Japanese invention where they put a heater under the table and blanket to cover you…google it!).

Ryokans are also known for their onsens, these fabulous little natural hot springs sprinkled all of this country (I blogged about onsens a while back, click here for a refresher).  Lastly, ryokans typically have set meals for breakfast and dinner.  These are usually very Japanese dishes.  What I love most about dinner and breakfast at a ryokan is the way they display each part of your meal, it’s like art with every dish you get.  Oh and the best part you are given a yukata upon arrival to wander around the hotel and grounds with.  Truly a unique Japanese experience that I highly recommend.  Here are a few pictures so you get an idea.

When I blogged about onsens before, I wasn’t able to take pictures because it was a public onsen.  However, our ryokan offered a private one on the roof, overlooking the mountains, and you know all around freaking awesome…basically it was epitome of relaxation.  So here you go, pictures of a real onsen!

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Maybe not ok to be drinking in one…but oh well 😉

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Lastly, some bonus yukata pics, and John not fitting through doors because well #japan and people are small.

After a day of travel and leisurely bumming around the ryokan, the next day we headed up into the mountains for a day of skiing.  So for those you that know me, you know that I don’t ski.  In fact winter sports as a whole intimidate me, but when you are told over and over again that the snow is Japan is like clouds, and it’s some of the best skiing/snowboarding in the world, you are inclined to jump on the bandwagon and just you know, try it.

Well back in the day I had a horrific skiing experience at the trash mound Mount Brighton.  I won’t go into details here, but it wasn’t pretty and basically turned me off to skiing for years to come.  So fast forward and here I was attempting to ski, for what I consider the first time.  Long story short, I am not a coordinated person, skiing is hard, and more than just my ego is bruised, but I made it down the hill…some dignity intact.  John, who was anxious all morning because he hasn’t skied in 10 years, picked it up like a natural and was doing black diamonds by the afternoon.  I managed to make it down the bunny hill and well you know, I’m alive.  At least  I can say that I skied in Japan.  I will say that although I’m still not super fussed about it I plan to try again on our future trips to Hakuba and Niseko, because well I’m a masochist awesome person! I will spare you any more talk of this and just leave a few pics from the day.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY MY LOVE!!!
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Fear is written all over my face

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After soaking in the onsen and enjoying some ice-coldビール I was feeling back to normal and more open to future skiing endeavors…

Thankfully, for me that won’t happen for a few weeks as we were headed home the next day, but not without a visit to the famous Jigokudani Monkey Park.  The most important of my ulterior motives for a trip to Yamanouchi was to see these monkeys, made famous for soaking in natural onsens.  Gah, they were so fricken’ cute and totally worth the journey.  By journey I mean a drive into the mountain, followed by a 1.6km hike down an icy path (in the rain), up to the actual park.  Basically, if you happen to find yourself in Nagano and near Yamanouchi, this is a must see.  Monkeys every which way! Take a look…oh and you’re welcome!

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Through the woods to the monkeys we go
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We were welcomed by this onsen…literally in the middle of this mountain trail

 

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I tried to take a selfie with this monkey, he hissed at me and well I ran…”welcome to my house…”

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Because you know…nature
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monkey photo bomb
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I wanted a selfie so bad!

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Please enjoy the following videos:

Well there you have it our adventures in the “north” this weekend and a great way to celebrate my love’s birthday! Relaxation, adventure time, and monkeys!

Oh and because you know it’s Japan and they have to make sure you have everything you need at all times, including vending machines.  I’ll leave you with this photo a vending machine in the middle of a mound of snow, because you never know when you’re going to need a drink.  Thank you, Japan.  Good lookin out!

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