Our first authentic ryokan experience in Japan’s snow capped alps05 July, 2014 by Chad
We were finally headed over to Nagano today. Since the cities cease to operate during the New Year, the lot of us would be spending the holidays over at a traditional resort in the northern snow covered Japanese alps. On our 3 day itinerary was a nice onsen ryokan stay, skiing, and a visit to wtiness the famous hot spring monkeys.
Been wanting to visit the Japanese alps for years after learning of the Tateyama Kurobe Snow Route, but unfortunately the snow route was only open during Spring. We had initially hoped to visit Shirakawago or Ainokura as well to stay at one of the grass farmhouses there, but given that buses there only operated twice a day during winter, it would be too much of a risk to attempt both Nagano and Shirakawago in one trip.
The day begin with us heading over to Chisaki’s new house to drop off our luggage before the four of us headed over to Ueno to catch a bullet train to Nagano. On the way there we stopped at Takanobaba to draw some money for the days ahead (they didn’t accept cards over there) and to see if we could find some fireworks at a Don Quixote outlet.
One of our crazy ideas was to set off some fireworks in the countryside but we had trouble finding any in Tokyo, especially in the winter. Ought to had done more research perhaps. In the end we failed to get the fireworks, so the plan would have to be put on hold for another year. It was a pity we couldn’t bring the amazing ones we had seen in Nagasaki.
The Shinkansen Asama connects Tokyo to the main city at Nagano in just 90 minutes, where a slightly cheaper coach ride would take over 4 hours. At the Ueno shinkansen terminal, we picked up our tickets (7,470 yen each) with only a few minutes to spare and hurried to grab our first meal of the day from a gourmet onigiri shop in the station.
The boss and his wife had warned us yesterday about the crowds, with a lot of people heading home to their villages to spend the holidays. Still, we underestimated the amount of people that would be taking the train today. The train ended up being completely packed, so much that all of us without reserved seats had to stand at the exits of the train for the journey. This made eating the onigiri slightly challenging, and perhaps slightly rude to the rest of the passengers on board. On one hand, we could had gotten seats for an extra $7 or so, but then again, it was a really short ride. If you’re holding a JR Pass, you’d want to reserve seats ahead of time during such busy seasons however since it’s free to do so for pass holders.
It was raining at Nagano city, where we left the terminal to transfer over to a separate line on the private Nagano Electric Railway. It was another 1,260 yen and 45 minutes from Nagano to Yudanaka, the mountain resort where we would be staying at.
The “Nagaden” railway used old Romance Car stock from Hakone giving it a very nice aged feel with lots of character. There were few people on board the train to Yudanaka so there was abundant space this time. There were nice wide viewing seats at the front of the train for an amazing view but those had been taken up.
Enjoyed the scenic trip to Yudanaka. The Nagaden limited express travelled north, passing through residential areas and lots of farmland with a long mountain range spanning the entire horizon. At some point it dawned on us that we were actually heading towards the mountains and the closer we got the more snow there was on the ground, until we evenly reached the completely snow topped mountain village of Yudanaka.
This was our first time staying at a ryokan, part of the reason being the costs often associated with real traditional Japanese inns. Real ryokan in or near to main cities usually cost a premium, while affordable options are mostly crammed motels and otherwise modern 4 tatami budget share houses using the term to attraction unknowing foreigners. For a real and affordable ryokan experience, you have to get out of the city to in onsen resorts like Yudanaka.
The inn we’d be staying at, Seifuso Yudanaka was located just around the corner from the train station. We were tight on choices by the time we had gone around to booking our hotel but found Seifuso to be our best choice based on its affordable price and great location. It’s a really old homely place, so if you’re looking for luxury, may be disappointed. But still the rooms were spacious, clean and well kept.
It was a good thing that the hotel was located so close to the station, since it was difficult to walk about in the cold weather. After reaching the hotel, the owner made a little casual conversation, before promptly informing us of the basics and his wife showed us to our room, a spacious suite with its own balcony. Usually the toilets here were shared but to our surprise, we had an entire separate building to ourselves since the other rooms in the block were unbooked.
A room for 4 cost us just 10,000 yen ($120) per person a night, and included both breakfast and dinner. Definitely a steal. I had contacted the hotel directly for the booking, but bookings for up to 3 people can also be done online. For large groups, you could fit up to 6 people in a room, but the majority of the fee goes toward innkeeping and meals so it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
The sun was down, so we’d spend today just chilling and counting down to the new year. We had some time to kill before dinner so after settling down we suited up to take a look around the rest of the inn.
Maybe it was the cold, but we didn’t get far. Some guests, or possible the inn owner’s family, were playing Go in the lobby. We found an old activity room in the basement of our building with a table tennis table set up. After a few rounds where we basically debunked the stereotype of Asians being able to play ping pong, we headed back for some warm tea and found that our dinner was already being set up in the room adjacent to ours.
Dinner was great. It had a bit of everything: some sashimi, steak, tempura, grilled mushrooms and plenty of pickled bits. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. The lady innkeeper was really friendly, and told us to drop her a line if we needed seconds of rice (we did), in which case she came over to our building with another pot. We also found our that she was Chinese when she asked if any of us could speak Mandarin, since she mostly communicated with Chisa in Japanese and feared the rest of us would have trouble understanding. Comedically, only Chisa spoke any Mandarin. With the traditional losing out to the allure of city life, it is not uncommon for the heirs of such family run businesses in the rural areas to wed foreign brides.
After dinner, we felt warm and confident enough for an attempt to Lawson. The convenience store was located just next to the station and would be the only store open this New Year season. Since we were planning to stay up for the count down we’d need some provisions to last the night.
It was a short walk back to the comfort of the inn, though the rest stopped seemingly at every chance to toss some clean snow at each other.
Just like that we’d spend the last day of the year chilling out in the cosy ryokan. Randy and Gage bought more ice cream again, while I got some eclairs and daifuku to share. We also found some HKT48 branded lemon candies that had random printed “messages” from one of the members on each individually wrapped piece.
Spent the rest of the evening chatting away and watching the Kohaku Uta Gassen, and later Johnny’s Countdown. The Kokahu New Year show is usually watched only by the elderly (in part thanks to its “uncool” reputation due to its older enka guests) but they’ve been trying to attract younger audiences with more contemporary guests.
We also got our chance to have our first onsen experience. The inn had 2 public hot spring baths which rotated between men and women at different hours, as well as a private one. Since we weren’t brave enough to bare all at the public ones, we’d go ahead with the private bath. It was a smaller bath, but was still large enough for a full sized person to lay flat inside, well should they wish to do so.
Never been much of a believer in hot springs, since couldn’t believe they could be much different from regular baths. Was a convert after just this first try. Apart from completely warming us up, the spring water felt great on the skin, with a seeming moisturizing effect. Was already glad that we made the decision to stay here.
Couldn’t get much sleep that night. But didn’t really expect to since I’m a really light sleeper. Randy and Gage managed to catch sleep just fine however, with Randy determined to make it a point to wake up early the next morning for the onsen.
We’d be traveling higher into the mountains tomorrow for our first skiing experience.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.