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Published: April 14th 2017
The model photo for our trip -- snow and sun.
As we planned our trip, we worked with Inside Japan Tours (www.insideasia.com
) on an itinerary that would follow the blooming of Japan’s famous cherry trees. We started in Tokyo and didn’t move to the very northern areas until early April. While in Japan, we read studies documenting the effects of global warming on the bloom: it’s occurring earlier each year. NOT THIS YEAR. This spring, storms and unseasonably cool temperatures followed us throughout our trip. We’ve been consistently 5-7 days ahead of the blossoms. “Oh, we are so sorry. They bloom next week …”
However, this itinerary also sent us through some of the most beautiful parts of northern Japan, even though we saw more snow than flowers. We caught a few bravely flowering trees in Kyoto and Kanazawa, but most of the time, we saw bare cherry branches and a few plum tree with flowers. Here are a few of the beautiful towns we visited:
KYOTO. We took a tour of this beautiful city with a private guide who showed us temples, the emperor’s former palace, and who educated us about the history of the town. It was another city where we walked our feet off. (We’ve generally
walked 5-7 miles each day, but this was longer!) Kyoto has more temples than any other place we’ve seen, and we’d visited most of them when we were here in 2012. We did seem some cherry trees just starting to bloom.
TSUMAGO. Our plan was to go to the town of Magome and walk 7.7 km over a mountain on an historic post road to the village of Tsumago. It is supposed to be a beautiful hike, but not something you should tackle in the rain. We had rain, sleet and a little snow, so chose to take the train to the town of Tsumago and walk to O-tsumago and our ryokan. The walk turned out to be a chunk of the Magome-Tsumago route and tested our Japanese language skills, Google maps and our mutual patience. The walk was worth it, as the Koshinzuka Ryokan was an amazing old place that had been in our host’s family for about 150 years. It was heated by a wood fire in the dining area and kerosene (!) heaters in the bedrooms. He spoke no English, but we met a family from Singapore who became friends and helped us. The father and
daughter both spoke Japanese and English.
NAGANO . Although the only thing I knew about Nagano was that it hosted the winter Olympics, Nagano is much more famous for Fuchinobo, the Zenkoji Temple. We stayed two nights in temple housing, and attended a 6:00 am worship service. This is a Zen Buddhist temple which is very elaborately decorated and has a high priest who appeared for the worship in gorgeous gold robes, under a red and gold umbrella, and who blessed all the worshipers, including us, with a touch on the head with his prayer beads. It was 28 degrees F when we left for the temple and we sat on the stone floor, so we were happy to get back to our ryokan and drink tea and miso soup for breakfast. Our only casualty of the trip occurred here, however, as I put a large sake bottle to cool in the frame of the sliding window. I hadn’t told Tom, who pulled the glass from the other side, and the bottle fell three stories to its death. In a monastery. Oops. We planned to go see the famous hot springs monkeys the next day, but it was raining,
Our Ryokan in Takayama
This is the town that Tom says he could live in
so we decided to take it easy, knowing we were going to be driving a long way the next day and that we so by the same place on our way. Man plans and God laughs. Luckily for us, the Toyota rental car employee who helped us program the GPS in our Prius phoned the highway department and reported that our planned route was still closed due to snow. He gave us an alternate, southern route, which worked for a while, until the GPS realized that road was also closed and turned us around. We ended up taking a much longer road that did not pass the hot spring where the monkeys live. Learned more Japanese: “yuki” means “snow”, “taksan yuki” means much snow, and “konse” means closed – as in “that road is closed”. We also had a truly Japanese lunch when we stopped at a 7-11. Tom got egg rolls, but I wanted to try a steamed bun. I didn’t know what the stuffing would be, but – what the heck? Who cares at this point? It was a steamed bun filled with pizza sauce and cheese. OK …
KUSATSU ONSEN. We expected another LONG day of
Hida no Sato Folk Village
Thirty-plus buildings moved from all over Japan to preserve and display buildings, crafts, and traditions. A bit like Williamsburg -- but colder.
driving after we checked routes, wanting to make sure the GPS wasn’t going to send us into the snow. A good thing we checked, as we ended up driving six hours rather than two on a long detour to get to our next stop. We were glad to arrive! Kusatsu is famous for its sulfur baths that bubble up in the middle of town. We relaxed for a while, ate dinner, and dressed in our warm yukata robes to wander around town. We encountered approving looks and laughter as we went. Here, we again benefitted from the wonderful attitude of the regular Japanese people. We were lost on our way to our lodging, so stopped and I asked a young woman. She spoke a little English and insisted that, “I guide you!” She ran ahead of our car for about 3 blocks to the correct hotel.
LAKE CHUZENJI AND NIKKO. Another long driving day to mountain towns and hot springs led us to a lake that was formed by a dam created during a volcanic eruption. This area of Japan started us thinking seriously about earthquakes and even tsunamis, but we haven’t yet felt a rumble.
We found a few hopeful cherry trees.
know how you can program your GPS to send you on either the shortest or the fastest route? Well, ours liked short routes and tested Tom’s driving and my navigation skills. We finally turned the car in and jumped on the train to Sendai. But, hey – did you know that
n If you drill ridges into the road surface at the correct depth and spacing, your tires will play a tune? Why don’t we do this in the US?
n Our US Prius gets 43 mpg. Our Japanese Prius got 112 mpg. Yes, I know it has to do with emission controls, but why don’t we do this in the US? Maybe you can’t get 112, but I bet you could get 70 or 80 mpg.
n We visited a wasabi farm! It must be grown in clear, cold, flowing water. We had a chance to buy wasabi ice cream, but it was only about 11:00 am, so we declined. Maybe we can make it at home?
SENDAI AND MATSUSHIMA. We stopped in Sendai and stayed near the train station, mostly to get set for the next set of adventures, but saw some of the
enormous damage done by the 2011 tsunami. We did NOT go to Fukushima, right down the road, to see the abandoned and still very dangerous nuclear plant that was destroyed, but took a boat trip to Matsushima, a beautiful small town with a completely different Zen Buddhist temple (calming architecture and beautiful wall and door paintings).
What’s next? Today, we’re at Nyuto Onsen, a small collection of sulfur hot springs and tiny resorts in the far northwest of Honshu Island at the literal end of a dirt road. The snow here is melting, but still over 3 feet deep, and more snow is forecast for later this week. We’re outa here! We leave tomorrow, heading for Mount Haguro, also isolated and also in northern Japan. Wish us luck.
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