E7 pulling into the station.
As the last hurrah of Golden Week, little dude and I took an overnight trip up to the mountains of Nagano and Matsumoto. We had a fantastic time exploring a new place- Joe and I visited Nagano Prefecture a few times for ski trips (see here and here), but this was my first visit to Nagano City. We started off our adventure on the new E7 Shinkansen- so fancy and such a luxurious way to travel. After dropping our belongings at our hotel near Nagano Station, we set off for Zenkoji.
The green streets of Nagano.
The gate of Zenkoji.
Guardian at the gate of Zenkoji.
The commercial street on the approach to the temple.
Traveling with little dude means ice cream. All tourist spots in Japan offer the local flavor of soft serve, and he is a pro at spotting these spots. While his four-year old palette goes for chocolate every time, I tend to try the local specialty- which in the case of Nagano is soba- which I swirled with green tea. Mind you, this is at 10:30 a.m., but travel has it's sacrifices, ne?
Kiddos coming from a temple festival.
In front of the temple.
Rokujizo near the temple gate.
Zenkoji main hall- about 300 years old. The temple has a 1,400 year history.
For as many temples as I've visited in Japan, Zenkoji stood out for the active religious activities going on during our visit. It is still an active pilgrimage site, and most of the visitors on the day we went were not tourists, but religious practitioners. Many temples in Japan lean more towards the historic/tourist site vibe, so it was a nice change of pace to see something different. We also visited on a festival day, wherein people were pouring sweet tea on the Buddha, and participating in other religious activities.
Pouring tea on the Buddha.
Scrambling up the steep steps to the main hall.
Our visit included waiting in the huge tatami area of the main hall for a chance to walk through the pitch-black tunnel that goes beneath the main image of the temple. Although the image is hidden from view, it is supposedly the oldest in Japan. The journey through the tunnel was pretty terrifying for little dude, who had me carry him and gripped me the entire time, something like ten minutes walking by feeling a wall and frequently bumping into the people in front of us. And when I say pitch-black, I mean completely black. At the end of the tunnel we found a key attached to the wall. By finding the key, we supposedly found the key to salvation. Also, while waiting we "made wishes," or said prayers, at the small altars in the main hall. As non-religious people I find it more in line with our lifestyle to teach little man respect for religion, but not belief in it, so we make wishes instead of saying prayers. In any case, he told me his wish was for giraffe toys and cookies. Pretty awesome wishes.
Rirakuma prayer plaques at Zenkoji. Not sure why Rirakuma, but it's pretty cool.
As we left the temple, we came across a soba restaurant with noodles being made in the window. Little dude isn't so into soba (he had rice), but the novelty of the noodle-making convinced him that we should eat at this place. And so we did.
Nagano soba making.
Nagano soba eating.
We also happened upon a flower festival on the main street of Nagano City- huge designs were created on the sidewalks with flower petals and plants of all varieties.
Random, but very beautiful.
I was also happy that we passed the spot where the Nagano Olympic torch was lit back in 1998. As a winter sports fan, this was so cool! Also, we were able to ski some of the Olympic downhill ski runs on a prior trip, so this was a nice way to round out my Nagano sports geekiness.
Hanging around Nagano Station chasing pigeons.
After our morning around town, we spent the afternoon out in the mountains near Yudanaka visiting the onsen (hot spring) monkeys! So cool! We took the train up to Yudanaka, and then a taxi out to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where we hiked about twenty minutes to see the monkeys.
Sakura blooming on the mountainside.
Monkeys!!!! I think this pic is amazing and really deserves a caption contest.
There seems to be a mutual understanding going on here.
Although winter is the most popular time to visit the monkeys, it was still pretty neat to see them in the warmer weather. A few of them jumped into the hot springs to play or soak, and we enjoyed watching and interacting with them for quite a while.
Who is watching and who is being watched?
Little dude *loved* the monkeys. Until this moment. When his excitement overcame him and despite all my best warnings, he started jumping up and down and laughing with excitement. The monkey on the bridge did not like that and started to come towards him, screeching. Oh man did it scare little dude! For the rest of our time he bit his lips so as to not expose his teeth, and there were a few times that I thought he would burst from trying to contain his excitement at being in the natural monkey habitat. He also used the word habitat about 50 times, so thanks to the programming at the KC Zoo for that bit of education!
Showdown on the bridge.
Geyser on the hike back.
Hiking! As much as I love Tokyo, it was great to smell the pine forest and breathe the fresh mountain air.
Back near the parking lot where our taxi awaited us. I can honestly say this was the first time in my life I took a taxi to go hiking.
Back at Yudanaka we indulged in a small foot onsen while waiting for the train to Nagano. After a long day of walking and hiking it was the greatest of luxuries.
Countryside scenery from the windows of the Nagano Dentetsu.
We arrived back in Nagano pretty late, so we got a take-out dinner to eat in our room. I was super excited to try oyaki, a dumpling made of flour and stuffed with veggies which is a Nagano specialty. I was not disappointed!
Day two of our trip began with a very cool train ride from Nagano to Matsumoto via the Resort Hybrid Furusato, a two-car specialty touring train with fantastic views.
The hour and a half train ride was mostly spent looking out the front window, where we could see the drivers, the beautiful countryside scenery, and the tracks ahead. For a small child who eats, sleeps, and breathes trains this was a ton of fun. I thought it was pretty cool too.
Looking out a side window.
Train fandom milestone achieved.
The train stopped for a few minutes so passengers could get out and enjoy the view.
Snow capped mountains as we approached Matsumoto.
We arrived mid-morning in Matsumoto and stashed our luggage at the station before heading out to explore the town.
Koinobori along the river in town.
Taking time to throw stones in the river.
We had a fantastic curry lunch at this little spot.
...and some more....
The main reason for visiting Matsumoto was to see the four hundred year old castle.
Snow capped mountains and a castle. So cool!
Inside the gates.
I don't think little dude really had a great conception of what "castle" meant, so he wasn't super enthused to go, but once we got there everything changed. He learned about samurai (which are a bit like the characters of his beloved t.v. show Kamen Rider Gaimu) and ninjas, and all things 16th century. Plus, the super steep staircases were fun to climb up.
Contemplating shooting arrows out the tiny windows.
Pretending to be a samurai.
Yelling out the castle windows.
The view from the top.
Yep, we met a dude in samurai armor. It was life-altering.
These angled walls have floors that lift out so hot oil and burning stones could be dropped on potential intruders. Yikes.
Pretty flowers to distract from tactical defense systems.
Learning about swords from a guy dressed as a ninja. This is history education in action, people!
The view of the castle from the adjacent local history museum.
At the end of the day, a small commercial street where we got.... wait for it.... ice cream! I actually got a taiyaki, but little dude had ice cream.
After dinner near Matsumoto Station we headed back to Tokyo tired and with a little bit of sun on our cheeks. Both Nagano and Matsumoto were great cities, and perfect places for us to do a little learning, a little relaxing, and a good deal of exploring.