The local train was slow, stopping to let other trains go by, and we went up and over the mountains, following a single river as it varied from wide, to stream, to trickle, to dam successively and repeatedly up the valley. There were lots of bridges, most of them steel, in various shades of blue and red, although there were also green, pink, brown and vermillion examples, as well as unpainted wood and concrete.
Takayama was small, and we could see a range of snow-capped mountains well away from us in the distance. We didn't see any of the town much on arrival - it was dark early in the evening, and it was very cold at night; the temperature range for the day we arrived was 1-21 degrees centigrade.
Spent the next day out looking at all the things tourists should look at:
Takayama is well-known for its old buildings. The "Old Prefecture Offices" sounds dry and boring, but they were one of the more interesting preserved buildings we'd yet visited. We were also very impressed with the "floats" museum, with its display of juggernaut-like carts. One of the walks took us well out of town, and revealed a range of snowy mountains in the distance. Getting from Takayama to Kanazawa involved three different trains. The first, to Inotani, was another sequence of dam, trickle, stream, river, but this time we also swapped from valley to valley. A second local train took us to Toyama, this time with fantastic views of mountains covered in snow. Then a third local train completed the journey to Kanazawa. The entry statement for the railway station is fairly amazing - a gate to rival those at many of the more spectacular temples, and a clock and welcome message fountain - all the writing in both English and Japanese was formed by water spouts.
The guesthouse we wanted to stay in was unattended, so we looked for a hotel near the station and found the Oka, a classic business hotel. Booked in, then walked to the Kenroku-en garden, our reason for going to Kanazawa in the first place. The garden is really quite beautiful, well worth going out of our way to visit. We also walked around the old castle park before walking back to our hotel. We were back on the train again - we really didn't do justice to Kanazawa! The air was very thick and murky, and the mountains were only there as a suggestion of something looming over us, quite different from the crisp snowy peaks of the day before. Our journey took us up to Noetsu then we transferred to a slower local train that went up into the mountains. In fact, it went through the mountains, and into a wide, flat valley surrounded by hills without snow. Nagano is smack bang in the middle of this valley.
We tried to find a backpackers place up near the temple - we did find the place, but it was very far away from the station and in any case it was closed. We trudged back to the station area and had trouble finding a hotel that had a non-smoking room available for 4 nights, but finally found one across from the station. In general our policy of not booking and just finding somewhere to stay works well, but sometimes it can be a bit trying.
We walked back to Zenkoji Temple; it was quite splendid! We spent the rest of the afternoon looking around the temple buildings and grounds. We found a Korean barbeque place for dinner - I felt very nostalgic for South Korea and kim-chi.
We had decided to use Nagano as a base for seeing a number of different places in the mountains, and it turned out to be a good decision. Train connections let us get to quite distant places with ease. We planned to visit the castle at Matsumoto, the snow monkeys out from Yudanaka and to walk along the old post road in the Kiso Valley. Caught the train to Matsumoto, passing what Geoffrey thought was called the "American Super Girls Conception Hotel" along the way. We were intrigued; perhaps it was a hotel dedicated to assisting women to conceive!
By the time we de-trained it was raining, and that kept up all day and into the night. Matsumoto castle is well worth a visit. It is another original building - Japan's oldest wooden castle, complete with a "moon-viewing pavilion". We went to the associated museum, then walked around the castle grounds and outside, along the moat. The gardens, approached through a wonderful gate guarded by samurai, had one of the biggest and most beautiful azalea bushes we've ever seen. Outside the castle we watched as a beautiful wedding party posing at the edge of the moat with the castle in the background, rain pounding on their multitude of desperately-needed umbrellas. We had lunch in Matsumoto, hoping the rain would stop. It didn't, so we employed our own dripping umbrellas to walk around the old streets before heading back to Nagano. The long day at Matsumoto took its toll and we woke up late, but managed to get the 9:08 private train to Yudanaka. We messed up the tickets, but someone at the station very kindly fixed it all up for us. The weather was better, giving good views - there were lots and lots of orchards along the way, some with very old trees. We were greeted at the station by someone with lots of information on how to get to the monkey park; this was very useful, since we needed to get a bus then walk. We caught the bus out to the start of the road, then walked to the monkey park along a very beautiful path through the forest.
Since we were travelling well into spring, with the snows of winter long gone from this area, we had no expectations of seeing monkeys at all, let alone monkeys in the hot pools. Not so. There were lots of monkeys everywhere, babies scampering underfoot, old serious monkeys brooding amongst the rocks, and some macaques obligingly sitting in the water (when lured in by food).
One of the most amazing things was to watch several of the monkeys "duck diving" for food on the bottom of the pool, confidently swimming fully underwater for a considerable distance and time. We were unaware that they would do that - we had thought that they just huddled in the warm water to counteract the cold.
We walked back through the forest and had a very long wait for a bus back to the station - got very bored. I wanted to walk back but Geoff wouldn't. We caught the train back to Nagano and finally had lunch at 3:30. We had the rest of the afternoon to have a bit of Nagano - up until then we'd hardly seen anything but the temple. Our last foray out from Nagano was further away, requiring the train to Nakatsugawa, then a bus to Magome. We walked up through the old town of Magome, then did the 7.6km walk to Tsumago. I had thought that the towns would be the highlight of this trip, and that the walking would be less interesting, along roads. This wasn't the case; the walk was good, mainly off-road through the forest, ringing bells to scare away the bears. The two towns are small, and interesting enough, but to go there without walking would be a great pity.
We caught the bus down to Nagiso station, then took the train back to Nagano. With no Japanese language, eating in Japan can be interesting. We took a chance on a restaurant that didn't have pictures and ended up with an interesting mixture of food: