Another morning in Japan, another whiskey hangover. The cure is a full Kobayashi breakfast (miso soup, sticky rice, nori seaweed, tofu, pickled vegetables, grilled salmon, noodles, spring onions, an omelet, satoimo potatoes and green tea) and as it gets to work, we pack our bags and put them in the boot of the family car, a Mazda Premacy. The weather is warm enough for me to be comfortable in a long sleeved tee-shirt, shorts & sandals, but our bags are stuffed with heavy coats, wooly jumpers, hats, gloves, scarfs and waterproofs. We’ll need them where we’re going to. From Suzaka, we’re getting a lift to Nagano City bus station, from where a bus will take us up into the mountains, to our overnight destination, Kamikōchi, a scenic nature reserve in a high-altitude valley sometimes referred to as the Japanese Alps.
When travelling to Kamikōchi, our guidebook tells us, avoid the peak season in July when the valley is swarming with tourists and day-trippers. This is no problem for us because it’s only April 28th and the Kamikōchi opening ceremony to mark the beginning of the visiting season only took place yesterday. Despite the presence of a young heart-throb actor (Shun Oguri) and actress (Masami Nagasawa) at the opening ceremony, it’ll be some weeks before the numbers visiting the park start to increase. Another reason we’re predicting it’ll be quiet, is that since the March 11th earthquake, many Japanese have been reluctant to travel anywhere for recreational activities. This is, as far as I can tell, more for reasons of it seeming inappropriate than for any practical reasons, although after-shocks are still quite common.
When our bus pulls away from Nagano City bus station, there’s only one other person onboard. Dressed in hiking gear, the other passenger making the trip to the mountains is an elderly woman, but her age is nothing surprising. After all this is Japan, a country that holds the record for the oldest person to climb Mount Everest (Yuichiro Miura, 75 years old) and where one famous 100 year old (Keizo Miura) celebrated his centenary birthday by skiing down a ski-slope with four generations of his family.
The bus journey takes us across Nagano prefecture. Although known as a prefecture of farmers, there’s plenty of development too. As the bus whizzes along on a two-lane highway, we see shopping centres, small factories and pachinko parlours dotted across the landscape. The sky is clear and to Sachiko’s delight, there are lots of cherry blossoms still in bloom and koinobori blowing in the wind.
After over an hour of flat land, the distant cloud-capped mountains are growing nearer and the terrain begins to incline. We make a short stop in Matsumoto and thereafter our bus starts to pass through an increasing number of tunnels. The route is a steady ascent and the bus’s diesel engine rumbles louder and louder as we pass through tunnel after tunnel, on each occasion passing a few minutes in darkness, before emerging into the sunny light of a new valley. With increasing altitude, the broad U-shaped valleys become more steep V-shaped valleys. The higher land is more rugged and tree-covered, there is less and less development and the few buildings that exist are mostly made from wood. We’ve climbed to true alpine territory, with the narrow road clinging to the side of the sheer valley, high above the deep river gorge below. The road twists and turns. The bus is moving much more slowly and tentatively now, the uninterrupted drop below exhorts caution.
We continue to pass through numerous dark tunnels, drilled deep through the rock. On the mountainside above the road, there are large concrete structures protecting against avalanches. As the road continue to climb, the weather worsens. We’re driving into the clouds that have been hugging the mountains since early morning. The bus driver keeps up a steady patter of information about the route and the tunnels we’re passing through: one of the tunnels is famous for splitting in two halfway through, other tunnels are over 2.5 km in length and there’s one tunnel (Kama) after which private cars aren’t allowed to enter the Kamikōchi reserve. In time, the steady stream of information transitions to a series of announcements about the set-down points of the bus. We’re in Kamikōchi valley now. There are various accommodations and points to disembark but we’re going all the way to the last stop.
By the time we reach the end of our journey, we’ve been travelling in the same vehicle for nearly three hours. When we got on the bus in Nagano city in the morning, the weather was warm and balmy – this atmosphere sustained onboard the bus all the way up to the mountains, we remained cosy and snug onboard. But we’re at 1500 metres altitude now and when we alight, we’re stepping into a much colder world… and I’m still dressed in shorts and sandals. The bus driver, a true personification of a burly cheerful Buddha, laughs with fright when he sees my shorts and bare feet,
“Samui!” (cold), he cries aloud.
We quickly make for the large visitor centre. We’ve booked a cabin for the night, but we don’t know where it is, so Sachiko goes searching for a map and in the interim, I put on some long trousers, heavy socks, shoes and an insulated water-proof coat.
When we rendezvous, we study the newly acquired map of the area. Kamikōchi natural park is a valley of the Azusa river and our cabin is located up-river, past the Kappabashi bridge and about a 30 minute walk away. By the time we’ve figured all this out, the rain has come down out from the clouds making walking outdoors an uninviting prospect. So we stay inside the visitor centre and look around.
There’s not much that catches my interest until, glancing up at the high windows and out at the bare trees, I see one of the famed snow monkeys, tucked up in the trees, a lump of inactivity.
The visitor centre does provide lots of information about the geography, geology, fauna, flora and folklore of the Kamikōchi valley, but I mostly spend the time figuring out how to use the camera stand I got in the 100 yen shop. After a successful shot…
We’ve only walked to the other side of the building, when I have my first encounter with a snow-monkey. He’s a small guy, tucked up beside the wall and he’s sticking his hand into the cracks of the wall rooting around for something. The official advice about snow-monkeys, is to stay away, not interfere or get too close and definitely don’t feed them. The little monkey seems harmless and it doesn’t take much for me rationalize that he won’t mind a picture being taken. I get up close and quickly photograph the little animal. He’s very placid and doesn’t react at all as I snap my camera. I come away wondering what all the “beware of monkeys” fuss is about, but I guess it’s best not to judge a species based on an individual.
Leaving the snow-monkey behind, we set-off through the wintry weather and follow the route along the river and up the valley. There’s no traffic, only some other walkers, and each side of the road is bordered with tall, leafless trees. It’s very chilly, the rain is kind of sleety and for the first time since arriving in Japan five days ago, I see snow piled on the side of the road. Only yesterday we were basking in the radiant spring of the cherry blossoms! But just one morning’s travel is enough to reverse the seasons. The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather says it’s winter.
The road becomes a track and soon we’re minding our step to avoid the puddles that have gathered on the ground. After a number of landmarks, we spot the reception area through the tall trees. We’re a few hours early, we’re not meant to check in until 2.00 p.m., but thankfully we’re received hospitably. It’s only the second day of the season and we’re staying in Hut No. 1, so we’re probably the first visitors to check-in this season. We sign our names on a few forms and receive sheets, pillow cases, some pots, a box of matches and a torch. It doesn’t take long to check-in, but in the few minutes of waiting around, we’re starting to freeze.
A nearby thermometer records the temperature, a cool 5 degrees, though it feels much colder. We’re given another map, with our little shack marked at the far end of the over-nighting quarter. As we walk towards it, we pass all the other accommodations, which all look extremely comfortable and warm. However, as we get nearer to our own place, it’s starting to dawn on us that the luxury and standard of the cabins is declining as we go. You gets what you pays for, and when we reach the edge of the accommodation area, we find our cabin, a simple wooden shed with a bunk bed. Its spartan simplicity is, I try to tell myself, a more authentic Japanese experience than I would have had in the five-star huts.
Our shack has no sink or toilet, for those needs we’ll have to use the communal sinks and communal toilets located nearby. There’s zero ornamentation and no luxury, but there’s no shortage of functional quality: it’s a sturdy cabin. In the porch, there’s a little gas pipe and stove where we can heat up food or drink. We deposit our sheets and equipment and transfer some essentials from my rucksack to a little backpack. We use the gas stove to heat up some food, some Japanese curry and a few rice balls and when we’re still feeling cold, we decide to have a cheeky little cup of warm sake too. But we don’t stay indoors for long; there’s no heat in the cabin and it’s too cold to remain anywhere without moving, so we go back out into the chilly day.
Outside, we walk across the winter accumulation of dead leaves and needles, a thick, uneven forest carpet. As we step to avoid the puddles, Sachiko spots a tiny little plant on the ground. Popping up out of the winter leaves is the fukinoto, also called the symbol of spring, though it’s a far cry from the cherry blossoms. Fukinoto, also known as bog rhubarb, is apparently quite tasty when fried in butter with miso paste and sugar and served on top of rice.
We continue on in the direction of the Kappabashi bridge, the number one landmark in Kamikōchi. If by some miracle you ever visited Kamikōchi, without having first seen a picture of the Kappabashi bridge, on arriving at it, you’d instantly recognize the bridge as the premier landmark due to it being festooned with tourists pointing their cameras every which way. When we come upon the bridge, the rainy weather has made it distinctly unphotogenic, but that’s hardly a reason to not photograph it. The cameras are out, we take a pile of pictures, but don’t hang around for long. It’s too cold and at any given moment on the Kappabashi bridge, some part of you is in the backdrop of somebody else’s photo. It’s an unnerving feeling.
The bridge is named after the kappa, a mythological Japanese creature that always lives in rivers and is apparently rumoured to have lived somewhere in a nearby pond. In modern times, the kappa has become a quite friendly, cute creature that often features in cartoons in a helpful guise. This is far from its origins, in the past the kappa was a creature that often got humans into trouble, even sometimes killing them with quite gruesome methods. There’s no sign of the kappa today though. He’s too smart to be venturing out on such a day of lousy weather.
After coming off the Kappabashi bridge, we’re slightly rudderless and the prospect of a day wandering about in freezing cold, windy, wet weather starts to make my heart sink. There’s the option of visiting some outdoor snack bars near the bridge, but the respite they offer is fleeting. I’m starting to get cranky and instead of savoring the experience of being in the Japanese Alps, I’m pining for familiar comforts such as tea and an open fire. There’s a five-star hotel right beside the bridge and I leer longingly in at the restaurant. It’s way outside our budget, but I’ve had enough of the cold, so I suggest we go inside and just have a drink. When I state that I’ll pay for everything, Sachiko agrees to the idea. Goodbye bad weather.
When we enter the lobby of the hotel a smiling, but curt woman says something to us in Japanese; it’s short and to the point, I know the Japanese for welcome (irashaimase) and this isn’t it… for a moment I’m fearful we’re being barred because we clearly don’t have five-star wallets. Thankfully, I’m just paranoid and it turns out she’s just asking us to leave our umbrellas in the special umbrella holder, they don’t want any lowly rain droplets gaining access to their pristine premises. When we enter the restaurant, we’re greeted with a chorus of “Irashaimase” by the beaming small army of waitresses.
It’s blessedly warm. On soft cosy cushions we sit back and are waited on by several staff. The restaurant is atmospherically lit and it’s real comfortable. Money has functioned like an Abracadabra, a magic password instantly transporting us from the shivering outdoors, where refrigerated souls pose for pictures on the Kappabashi bridge, into a world of warmth and luxury. The chimes of the waitress’s voices fill the air around us. We inspect the menu. The drinks are expensive, as we expected; less expected is that the word drink is spelt wrong on the menu: dirnk! I order black tea, Sachiko, a cafe latte.
As we enjoy our drinks, I get to witness what Sachiko often describes as “obachan power”. An obachan literally translates as aunt, but it is much more commonly used to describe a certain type of women about 50 years or older. This kind of obachan is usually either retired or has raised the kids and tends to go on excursions with her obachan friends in groups of three, four, five or many more. They bustle about with great energy, confidence and mirth and they often raise a lot of noise with their indomitable, good-natured spirit.
On the other side of the restaurant, there’s a table of five obachans having tea & coffee. They’re talking and laughing happily to each other, they’re clearly out for the day and are having a great time. At a certain point, they ask a waitress to take a picture of them. When this unlucky woman picks up the camera to take the picture, she is subjected to a torrent of instructions, requests and advice from the five obachan: what background to include, which way to point the camera, when to shoot, etc. Each obachan simulataneously delivers her message without any regard for the waitress’s inability to process these five voices at the one time. The waitress seems paralysed about what to do and is becoming contorted as she attempts to please her elders. At times she looks set to drop the camera from nerves, but her professional steel holds through as she is repeatedly asked to take another picture, with another camera, from another angle… all the while, the obachans never let up their jolly, boisterous bossing.
We’ve finished our beverages and before leaving, I pay a quick visit to the toilet. Such an experience as a trip to the toilet, will in most countries not normally be something to recall, but in Japan, as always, normal goes out the window. In every category: hygiene, comfort, dignity and efficiency, the high-end Japanese toilet scores a perfect ten. Although there are many variations, the Japanese toilet is very distinct: it’s a marriage of technological ingenuity and cultural idiosyncrasy, which makes something that is common to all human civilizations, into something entirely unique. The five-star hotel’s toilet is a particular highlight, but the description that follows is a compilation of the features that any visitor to Japan is likely to encounter when they “use the facilities”.
Upon entering the cubicle, one finds the toilet seat down, never fear, a sensor quickly detects your presence and the toilet seat lifts automatically: an immaculately clean toilet seat presents itself. Upon sitting down, one is comforted by the pleasing sensation of a warmed toilet seat. Next, a real innovation: whereas toilets everywhere are rendered visually private by the high dividing walls, the cubicle screens, the privacy of a Japanese toilet cubicle extends to the acoustic realm. So as to avoid every Tom, Dick & Harry hearing the nature of your business, a selection of sounds is played throughout: running water and bird song are the two most common, classical music isn’t uncommon. One’s business done and one’s dignity intact, the next stage: ablutions. Turning to the panel of buttons alongside the toilet, one can turn on the fountain of one’s choice (male or female), finds the appropriate temperature and pressure, and remain sitting until the jet of water from below has done all its work. First timers may experience a tickling sensation, nothing to feel worried or guilty about. Once complete, the shower from below is switched off and the appropriate jet of warm air is switched on and the drying is done. Finally, one stands up and the last act is conducted completely autonomously: following an automatic flush, the toilet seat cleans itself (by means of a special cleaning arm) and returns to a closed position. It’s all over.
Back outside and sufficiently fortified with internal heat, we decide to embark on a walk that will consist of a loop down one side of the Azusa river, across the Hotaka & Tashiro bridge and back up the other side. There’s a lot to see in Kamikōchi valley, the Taisho, Tashiro & Myojin ponds, the Kamonjigoya hut, the peaks… but we’ve only got a few hours before it gets dark, so we settle for a short walk instead.
I’m hoping we’ll encounter some more snow monkeys. We’ve also brought our towels with us in case we pass any onsens. Nagano is famous for its natural spring water baths and despite having recently receiving a lesson in how to behave in an onsen, I’ve yet to sample its delights.
Thankfully the rain has stopped and by now we’re able to appreciate a bit more the unique atmostphere of Kamikōchi. A long river valley, formed on each side by towering snow covered peaks, leafless trees cover most of the landscape, and there is still a lot of snow on the ground. It’s far more than wintery than I expected.
We walk along stony tracks, avoiding the puddles as we go. The air is very clear and we fill our lungs with gulps of mountain freshness. There are a few other walkers out too, but the paths are much quieter than the Kappabashi bridge. We’re often out of sight of anyone else and at such times, there’s a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere. I’m glad we didn’t stay in the five-star hotel all day. We pass a number of other hotels, but the onsens are only open for the residents.
As for the weather, while the rain has lifted, and on occasion, there’s a glimmering hope of a clear sunny day breaking through…
… in spite of all, the clouds cling on, but that doesn’t ruin our happiness.
Although high up and quite inaccessible, Kamikōchi valley is no stranger to humans. During the Edo period, woodsmen (kikori) lived here and trimmed and maintained the forests. This ended in the early Meiji period when the hills were becoming deforested and gradually the population of woodsmen left Kamikōchi.
All during this time, the mountains remained mostly unclimbed. Shinto, the native religion in Japan considers many mountains to be sacred and in this cultural climate, the Kamikochi peaks were revered from a safe, respectful distance. There’s an echo of this outlook in the valley’s name: Kamikōchi literally translates as “place where gods descend”.
A unique and important exception to custom of not climbing the mountains was the ascetic monk Banryū who lived from 1786 to 1840. Initially a member of a sect of monks, Banryū left after becoming disillusioned with their ways and moved to Kamikōchi where he began climbing the mountain peaks as an act of prayer. Over time his feats and his legend grew and it was ultimately the path that Banryū built, that enabled a 29 year-old English missionary, Walter Weston to first visit the area in 1891, which in time led to Kamikōchi becoming famous worldwide as the Japanese Alps.
Walter Weston now bears the unofficial title, Father of Japanese Alpinism. A Church of England missionary and a keen mountain-climber, he was based in Japan for 15 years between 1888 and 1915. Weston popularized the already coined, but little known phrase, “Japanese Alps”, through his many lectures and book, “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”. Today, Weston is remembered and commemorated with a festival and a number of statues, one of which we come across on our walk. At Weston Point, there’s a bi-lingual plaque tribute to the man for his role in making the Japanese Alps the popular place it is. Of one of his trips to Kamikōchi, Weston wrote,
“The air of the valley was fresh and pure, and the dewdrops trembled like diamonds on every leaf. The sweet scent of the tall straight pines that shaded our road, the murmuring torrent below and the deep blue vault that spread a narrow canopy above the tall sides of the now familiar ravine, made even existence itself a delight. Truly we were in Nature’s Academy, hung with some of the choicest of the Creator’s masterpieces.”
It’s no surprise that so many were moved by such rhapsodical descriptions to visit Kamikōchi themselves. Although Weston is said to have wept at the prospect of mass tourism destroying the unique peaceful atmosphere of Kamikōchi, based on the evidence of our visit, the valley is being well maintained and is nowhere near being overrun.
Although we’ve had no luck finding a hotel that will let us visit their onsen and dip in their hot waters, we do eventually get lucky when we find a free, outdoor natural foot spa.
The weather may be cold, but we waste no time taking off our shoes and socks and plunging our feet into the warm, soft water. It’s a wonderful sensation. We stay for about ten minutes, basking. Having put on our shoes and socks, we discover it’s incredibly uplifting to suddenly have clean and warm feet. I’m bounding around the place like a hyperactive mountain goat. Warm feet is a super pick-me-up boost to the spirits.
Just as we’re leaving the foot spa, a Japanese couple come over and ask us if it’s warm water. They chat briefly with Sachiko, saying that they’re from a nearby prefecture (Wakayama), but that they also love Nagano prefecture, so they visit here very often. We’ll be visiting Koyasan, in Wakayama prefecture, later on in our trip so they wish us well and we say good bye. A short and friendly conversation with strangers is so much easier in the mountains.
Our walk continues and later on, I encounter a sign which gives the phrase, Japanese Alps, a strong personal resonance. It’s a sign for a hotel which is named after Grindelwald, a beautiful little village in the Swiss Alps nestled below the Eiger and Wetterhorn mountain peaks.
Over a decade ago, in the year 2000 and long before I ever planned to visit Japan, I visited Grindelwald and aside from being awed by the village’s location and natural beauty, I was struck by the unusually high number of Japanese tourists. It wasn’t until many years later, and after I made my Japanese connection, that I learned that Grindelwald was twinned with a town in Nagano.
It’s early evening and we’re on the home strait walking towards our accommodation when we encounter another snow monkey. Although normally a pack animal, so far the only ones we’ve come across have all been on their sweeney. This little fellow is foostering about in the leaves and the snow.
Although clearly at home foraging for food in the snow, the name “snow monkeys” is a bit of a misnomer. For this is actually a macaque monkey, a species of monkey found all over Asia, from Japan to Afghanistan. The Japanese macaque (Nihonzaru, in Japanese) is native to Japan and can be found in both subtropical lowlands and subalpine hills, a temperature range of 40 degrees.
It’s a testament to their adaptability that they can survive in such a variety of climates and it is their talent for celebrity-like stunts that has earned them the title of “snow monkey”. In 1963 in Nagano, a female monkey took to bathing in a natural hot spring and very soon her troop were doing the same. This was completely new behaviour and the image of bathing monkeys quickly became a phenomenon with Life magazine dubbing them “snow monkeys”.
Other behaviours that have kept the monkeys in the spotlight are cleaning potatoes in water, making snow balls and working in restaurants. It’s interesting to consider these behaviours as customs that are passed on from generation to generation, rather than innate practices driven by natural selection. Like humans, they have an inherent adaptability.
The little fellow before us roots around in the forest floor, using his hands and opposable thumbs to pick up various leaves, which he chews on. In the few minutes we stay watching, he displays a range of facial expressions: mostly, complete absorption in his task and no awareness of my presence, but also I suspect, apparent resignation at another damn tourist pointing a camera at him.
I’m adamant about getting as many photos as I can, so I hunker down and snap him from all angles. I don’t make the mistake of looking him directly in the eye, just through the view-finder in my camera, and he doesn’t interpret my presence with hostility.
By the time we’ve reached the restaurant at the end of our walk, it’s nearly six o’clock. Our programme for the evening is some warm food, a warm bath and hopefully this warmth will stay with us after we go back to the cabin, which has no heating. Hopefully we’ll survive the night without getting hypothermia.
The restaurant is a simple, humble joint and for dinner we have a steaming hot bowl of Ramen and some tasty Japanese beer. I’m definitely developing a bit of a taste for the Ramen and quite a lip for Japanese beer. Happily, there’s more Japanese experiences to follow: my first onsen. We fetch our towels, and I review the rules of onsen behaviour with Sachiko. The onsens are segregated, so for the first time on our holiday, we’ll be separated meaning I’ll have to rely on my own wits.
Inside the male onsen changing room, I undress and take my little hand-sized bath towel into the bathing area. The tiled floor space is quite large inside. As I enter, on either side of me are walls with mirrors, with a number of showering & washing posts in front of each mirror, at the far end of the room is a large bathing area with two men relaxing in the hot waters. I was secretly hoping there’d be nobody, so I could relax and swan about without any regard to what is appropriate behaviour, but in an odd way, it was the simple presence of these two Japanese men, that re-affirmed that I was in Japan and must abide by their norms.
So I sit on the little basin seat in front of the shower and using the hot water taps and shower head, start to wash myself with great vigour. After a thorough soaping, scrubbing, washing and rinsing, I feel ready to dip into the bath. It’s hot, so I sink only my feet in first. But quickly, I get used to it and gradually I lower down into the hot water until I’m sitting with the bath waters all the way up to my neck. It’s bliss. I lie back for a number of minutes and as my muscles relax, I feel a great temptation to fall asleep…
After ten minutes, I start to wade out from the bath, but with a super-relaxed head on me, I accidentally dangle my towel in the water. I realize almost instantly my mistake and rapidly recover my towel from the bath waters. I’m terrified one of the men has seen me. It’ll be hara kiri if they have. But nothing is said. Though I clearly look the foreigner, the Japanese men have a way of calmly keeping to themselves without giving the impression of actively ignoring you. I’m feeling quite self-conscious, but I do my best not to come across as feeling conspicuous.
45 minutes after entering, I leave the onsen. A few minute later, Sachiko emerges from the women’s bathing area, looking thoroughly cleaned and fresh-faced. I report success and total enjoyment! Looking forward to many more baths. We’re all warmed up now and feeling strong. The weather has cleared up a bit and even though the sun is setting, there’s enough light to go for a walk. It’s much quieter now in the valley, most of the day trippers have gone home. But it gets cold and we quickly retire to the cabin. Here we use the gas stove to have some more warm sake. We turn in early, wrapped up in as many layers as possible. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, we manage to find sleep.
During the night, nature calls and I have to go outside. In the stilly silence, I tiptoe from the dark cabin and walk the short distance through the trees to the toilet area. It’s completely dark, and when I look up, high above the leafless trees, I see a marvellous carpet of stars covering the night sky. After spending the day under cloudy overcast conditions, this is a crystal clear and beautiful sight. It also bears good news, telling me that the weather tomorrow will be completely clear and sunny. The excitement of waking-up in Kamikōchi to a clear sunlight drenched morning, is nearly too much for to get back to sleep, but soon enough, I return to the cabin and drift back into dream.