May 13 - 19, 2012: Issue 58

 YokoHama and The Koowiltoo show

Shinkansen to the Snow monkeys

 Babies at the hot spring

 Yokohama and Yudanaka.
by Paul Wheeler

Even if you don’t have a word of Japanese travelling in Japan is not necessarily difficult. Many Japanese people speak good English, many more have a smattering and nearly everyone you meet will be as helpful as they can. A word of warning here, for train and bus directions it's best to ask someone in uniform because people will want to help you but they may not know much more than you. If your train timetable says to catch your train at 10.47 don’t get on the one at 10.43. Your train will arrive at 10.47 precisely. For inter urban services, especially on the weekends, book seats in the reserved carriages. Japanese people love to go out or go on excursions and there are an awful lot of them ... Book your seats early. 

Train travel in Japan is a buzz, the trains, particularly the Shinkansens and the Nozomis are brilliant. They are so fast that it would be as quick as a jet travel over two or three hundred K plus you can see so much of Japan. You have to buy a J.R. pass (Japan Rail) before you leave home, cant get them in Japan and if you going to go to a few cities they become economical. There may be some local trains and a couple of lines that aren't J.R. but generally speaking J.R. goes everywhere you'll want to go. There are displays in English inside most carriages concerning next stops and on the platforms there is nearly always written in English,  this station’s name, the next station’s name and the previous station’s name, plus of course, they operate to the second so if you know your arrival time, that’s when you  get off the train. 

Underground can be a little trickier, the ticket sales are automatic vending machines. Sometimes there are English language instructions, sometimes there aren't but you'll work it out with a bit of help and there's always an attendant somewhere. With buses watch the locals. When you get on you take a ticket from a little machine that marks where you got on and when you want to get off there is a signboard with western numerals where you can cross reference where you got on with how much to pay, so you go out past the driver and throw your money in a little tray, don’t worry they're a very tolerant people when it comes to strangers. 

Out of Sydney J.A.L and Qantas arrive at Narita early evening. Once you clear formalities there is a large, well organised bus terminus 1 minute from your bag pick up and inside the airport there is a ticket office for the limousine buses. We were going to Yokohama the first night because Kerry wanted to go to the Yokohama quilt show the next day ...sigh... It was about 2 hours by bus from Narita. You can’t really tell where Tokyo stops and Yokohama starts, it's one big urban landscape. We'd google earthed it and we knew our Hotel was on the waterfront and close to the convention centre and our travel agent Ayako Mitsui from Mitsui travel had told us how to get to the centre. Ayako was very helpful, she advised us on which order to visit each area so that we maximised the chance of seeing the Autumn colour, which was spectacular, very beautiful. Just like Grafton goes purple with Jacaranda in spring, all of Japan goes red with Japanese Maple in autumn.

There are things you might like to see in Japan that you can't just walk into, you have to book, possibly you have to book in Japanese and in advance. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been to was like that. It's an Imperial property, Saiho-Ji, The Moss Temple in Kyoto, and those sorts of properties tend to be very formal so it does help to do your research and engage someone with local knowledge to organise things. 

I like port cities, Yokohama is a port city but we didn't have enough time there. On the first day we had to catch an underground to Yokohama to validate out train passes and get to the Convention Centre as soon as humanly possible because it was a quilt show silly and there are no prizes for being second through the front door. So off we toddled to Yokohama station. It's quite large (Yokohama station), but eventually we found a very helpful young lady in the tourist office who said yes there is the J.R. ticket office over there, but no they're not open till 11. At which point a very enthusiastic quilter was about to commit murder because it was my keenly argued idea to validate first thing. Now Japan stays open late often but it starts late too, Department stores don’t open up at 9 and neither does the J.R. ticket office. Anyway we'd had a practice run at Yokohama station and when we got back to the Hotel Monterey Yokohama, which is a very nice and not too expensive hotel on the water with a terrific breakfast buffet, they had finally located the Koowiltoo show tickets that Kerry had prepaid and Ayako had had sent to the hotel. It was looking as though I would survive the day, I no longer found it necessary to remind Kerry that screaming at people "where are my &*%$## Tickets" is considered bad form in Japan, and the man who delivered the tix to our door said we had kind hearts which was very nice. 

The show was excellent, there are lots of photos here that do it more justice than I can, except that you're not allowed to photograph the most sensational things, as is the way of things. “Shashin o totte mo ii desuka” ; “Is it permitted to take photos here”.  The worst thing about trying to string together a sentence in Japanese is that the person you are talking to immediately assumes you're a linguist and starts babbling at you. I found it was best to mumble a word or two with a begging look on my face, that way they knew I was an idiot and didn't expect too much from me.

We got up very early the next morning after our first experience of a Japanese multi course meal the previous evening, I think they probably invented the idea of a degustation menu. We had an important connection to make to get to Yudanaka via Nagano to see the snow monkeys. No time for breakfast and down to the taxi rank in front of the hotel to get to Yokohama station. We stopped at the front desk to arrange Takyubin for our main luggage to Takayama while we went to Yudanaka. Takyubin is good, it never let us down, when you get to your destination your luggage is in your room waiting for you. Takyubin done, we're out the front door and we only had to wait a second or two for the taxi driver to put his gardening tools away, he'd been making the taxi rank look lovely for the people waiting later on it, my God ...these people... and off we go to Yokohama station. Now Japanese people don’t like tips, waitresses will chase you down the street to give you your tip back .. trust me this happens...  taxi drivers are an exception,  give them a tip and they will  start to think that you just might be a human being after all and in Japan that means that they will try really hard to be nice to you. When a Fox tries to be nice to you, COP IT, they know things. Just my experience folks and at Yokohama station “yokohama eki wa” we got to the right platform no worries.

Once in London because of pressure from family we were required to travel on the tube around sixish in the evening . We somehow managed to get on the same carriage at the same time, not easy and I can assure you that I could have taken my feet off the ground entirely and I would not have moved an inch. At peak hour in the morning from Yokohama to Tokyo is not entirely dissimilar. Peak hour is the wrong time for a tourist but hey we were off to see the snow monkeys, validated and reserved, on our Shinkansen.

Kerry and I shared a bento box  standing on the platform at Tokyo station, waiting for our Train, only discovering later that there was a perfectly comfortable and warm waiting room just a few feet away where we could have shared our bento box sitting down. There is always a clean warm waiting room on a Japanese Station. I like trains, the Southern Aurora from Sydney to Melbourne or vice versa was the most civilised way to travel, nice sleeping cabins, nice food, a bit hard to drop off but it's so cool rocking through the night all tucked up and comfy who cares. 

Shinkansens gave me the smoothest, fastest ride ever. There is NO sensation of movement but you look out the window and you think Jeez we're going so fast we should have taken off by now. I haven't been in a Nozomi because you cant ride a Nozomi on a J.R. pass. They say that Nozomis are better than Shinkensens.  I LOVE SHINKANSENS. It's the most thrilling and awe inspiring form of transport I have ever come across. Once you get your J.R. pass you can go for as many rides as you can fit in.

Nagano is in the Central Honshu prefecture of the Main island of Japan ‘Honshu’. It is, much of it, a mountainous region, they had the '98 winter Olympics there and there are many ski resorts close by. We didn't tarry in the city of Nagano but changed trains to the private Nagano railway line for the trip to Yudanaka. We went from ultra modern travel to a dinky quirky little train, still spotless…still on time to the second, that was just so charming as it rattled virtually through peoples back yards all the way to Yudanaka where we caught a short cab ride up to the Ryokan,  after a delicious noodle lunch near the station. 

We found out about the little family run noodle restaurant because we were approached by a local at the station. There is a tradition of amateur tour guides in some Japanese cities and towns who are willing to show tourists around and we were approached by one such when we got off the train at Yudanaka. They get the chance to practise their English and you get the benefit of their local knowledge. It can be a be a bit disconcerting to be approached this way but you can  pretty well trust everyone in Japan, they take pride in their personal honour.

The taxi dropped us in the national park car park about 10 minutes walk from the Ryokan Korakukan. The Ryokan is the closest accommodation to the monkeys and the only one in the park. No ensuites but multiple Onsen bathing, male and female inside and a mixed one outside which can go as far as to mix monkeys too but not while we were there; I'm not sure whether that’s fortunate or unfortunate. The water is Volcanic water, hot but tolerable and there is a volcanic geyser erupting 24/7 just metres away from the outside bath. Well we arrived and took our shoes off, you take your shoes off a lot in Japan, you will be amazed at the amount of times you take your shoes off , but they're always there when you come back for them. We put our slippers on and made our way to our room, walked in, put our bags down and were blown away to see two juvenile monkeys grooming each other leaning against the outside of our bedroom window. Photo opportunity taken, we sorted ourselves, made sure we didn't have any food on us and went up to the entrance to the monkey park, paid the 5 bucks each and walked in to an amazing experience. 

You don’t make extended eye contact with the Monkeys, that’s being a smartar*e and that's a very bad idea. They are as big or bigger than chimps and extremely well toothed, that said, they really couldn't care less . You can, people do, shove a camera right in their faces and it's total insouciance, cool isn't in it. They just do their thing right in front of you. Taking videos is overwhelming at first because it's such a target rich environment that its hard to concentrate on one group or even frame a shot. It's quite overwhelming but wonderful .

After we spent our time with the monkeys it was time for my first outdoor bathing experience in an Onsen. The bath isn't for washing, there is a facility at all the onsens to thoroughly wash yourself sitting on a little stool with hand held showers and buckets to sluice yourself with what soaps and whatnots that you may need. Although you are supposed to be naked Kerry chose to wear her bikini in the outdoor bath and nobody complained, there were a couple of gentlemen bathing when we arrived and all of the comings and goings can be made modestly enough with the judicious use of a small towel, a sort of dance of a thousand veils that they're quite good at and is easy to learn. In the Ryokans we subsequently stayed in that did have ensuites the bathroom hardly got used as we had both quickly become addicted to the Onsen experience and the first thing we did on arrival was to check out the hot baths.

Our holiday style always seems to involve walking all day and there is nothing like a long hot soak in Mineral rich water followed by a cold beer or two before the marathon evening meal typically served in a Ryokan. One vital piece of information Ayako gave us was that Ryokans are very much judged on the meals they served their guests. We had  previously in Tokyo, on our way home from London, stayed at the Ryokan Shigetsu in Asakusa (recommended), and wondered why they kept sort of insisting /asking us were we eating in that night. Of course in our ignorance we managed to blithely insult our hosts by insisting on eating out...doh .

The previous evening’s meal in Yokohama was a multi couse affair but it was served to you bit by bit. The Ryokans we stayed in including the Ryokan Korakukan at the monkey park go about things in a slightly different way. Basically you have your braziers on the table, the ingredients to cook with and the ingredients you just eat, sashimi, sushi, usually some sort of eggy dish in a pot with a prawn or mushrooms in it, miso soup, other sorts of soup, shellfish, often a salted small carp I think (I liked them ), various pickles, vegetables and fruits, often a wine/liqueur. Needless to say we didn't have a clue but needless to say again our neighbours couldn't have been more helpful in getting us going and doubtless having a bit of a giggle at the same time. Once you get the hang it's all fine and at other Ryokans there will be ladies in your room with you providing a similar service. I might add here that they do this on their knees, ladies, and that they seem to like polite but cheeky boys. It's the sort of thing us blokes could get used to quite quickly.

The next morning after an early outdoor bath, the air was crisp, the water was hot, the geyser was roaring and falling on us as a fine mist, the chef came out to the bath and retrieved the eggs that had been boiling in the water on the way to the bath and we were off to walk down into Yudanaka Station to see how long it took and if it was doable as part of my cunning plan to get to Takayama the next day. We had early connections to make and it was looking a bit complicated getting a cab up there that early. Charming town in the morning, many Japanese people going from bath to bath as part of a traditional way of enjoying the town of Entoku, children able to run to little athletics down laneways shared with traffic, shops just opening. Helpful Station Masters getting you the right ticket and we were just footloose and fancy free and heading for THE WRONG TOWN trying to find Obuse but not getting there, as we didn't know the name we just heard someone talking about chestnut wood paths and a famous Japanese painter. Actually it didn't matter in the end, it all looked a bit dodgy for a while but we met some nice people, found an interesting town in the middle of an Apple festival and eventually got back to a railway station and then to Yudanaka and got a taxi to an alternative way of walking to the monkey park and basically had a very nice and memorable excursion.

It was a Saturday so there were quite a few people at the Park but the monkeys didn't seem to mind at all. Kerry and I have come to the conclusion that it's probably a good idea to hole up for the weekends because everything gets incredibly busy and any sort of attraction at all will be packed with people. We think that the thing to do is to get to some sort of resort/location where interesting things to do are just a short stroll away. It's not really a cop out,  it's more a rest while everybody else is out and about and then you can start with serious travelling once all the locals are tucked up back at work.

Well that was our first three days in Japan, from Yudanaka we went to Takayama a small city high in the Central Honshu Alps... more on that very interesting and beautiful town later.          

Japan Rail Pass:

Paul Wheeler Articles on Japan: 

Takayama,  Toba and Kii Katsuura,  The Kumano Kodo,   Nara and Kyomizu dera  

All Photos by Kerry Ritson. All videos and words by Paul Wheeler. Copyright by Kerry and Paul Wheeler, 2012. All Rights Reserved. Paul Wheeler Profile.


Above:  "A traditional reason to travel is to experience different Onsen". Below: Little Athletics. Bottom: Boiling eggs !