This is how we travel. Backpacks on our backs. This trip, we packed three big backpacks for everyone. We used compression bags, one per child, each clearly labelled. We brought extra bags for laundry. KH, Gillian and Isaac each took one backpack. Caitlin took a smaller backpack. I was in charge of all the travel documents, hotel reservations, train reservations, the JR passes, money and all admin duties. You see above on the left, Gillian in red, holding Trin’s hand while Owain, in his red hoodie trails behind. In the right picture is KH, Isaac and Caitlin in orange far in front.
Just a note to readers: from this point on, all my posts will be very looong because there is just so much to say and to show. So much so that I may split each day’s details into two posts – such as this one. I will focus on Nagano and Zenkoji here and devote the next full post to Shibu Onsen.
Today, we’d be travelling to Tokyo, then taking the shinkansen to Nagano, high in the Japanese Alps, and then move on to Shibu Onsen where we have reservations at a lovely onsen ryokan.
I’d say that from this point on, this is where our journey really began. From the time we arrived and throughout our Disney experiences, it had all been familiar and ‘safe’ but from here on out, we would travel an unfamiliar path so I was really keyed up and excited about it.
We left Family Fifty’s later than expected that morning and as a result, although we huffed and puffed in a brisk 15min walk to the station, we missed the train. But at 8am in the morning, this was Tokyo rush hour in all its glory and we watched in fascination as people literally shoved themselves into the trains.
The trains heading into Tokyo were packed solid. Just when you think there is really no more space, someone comes along and crams himself into the tiny toespace left before the doors close. When it came to our turn, we took down our packs so that we’d be better able to squeeze in. We also waited at different doors giving us all a better chance at all getting on. Somehow, we managed to do this – squeeeeeze into the train compartment. There is no such thing as personal space. Everyone was up against each other’s body so tightly that there was no need to hold on for support, we just all swayed as one with the train’s momentum!
Could not help thinking about SMRT measuring our trains’ capacity and people ratio or the Singaporeans who complain about ‘no space’ on the MRT trains during rush hour. These guys should just come see the real definition of rush hour in Tokyo!
We provided a burst of colour in the train with our jackets and packs. Everybody seemed to have the same ‘uniform’ – dark suits – even the ladies. For someone like me who works in the suburbs and who is easily impressed with Shenton Way’s brisk energy, seeing the waves of dark-suited salarymen and OLs making their way to work is really like something out of a movie. It all added to the thrill of knowing: we ain’t in Singapore anymore!
We arrived at Tokyo station too late to catch the shinkansen where I had reserved seats. This being my first time actually using the pass and making seat reservations, I did the kiasu thing by changing my seat reservations to a later train. Only much later in the trip did I actually relax enough to forget about reservations and just take the unreserved seats.
Don’t these kids look homeless to you? Its very embarrassing to note that while I was making my seat reservations on the Asama shinkansen for Nagano, my uncouth family was sprawled all over the floor in a corner of Tokyo station. Once again, my neanderthal husband’s idea to just sit down, not giving a hoot where they are.
Since we still had time to kill before our shinkansen left, we headed for the nearest convenience store to buy food. Here’s where I fell in love – with onigiri! To be specific, mentaiko onigiri! Onigiri is a triangle of rice, wrapped by seaweed with assorted fillings inside. I loved the mentaiko onigiri which had mentaiko (spicy cod roe) as a filling inside. Very very yummy!
We also bought drinks (the first of many bottled ‘teas’ – typically green tea or barley tea which was sugar-free and in some cases, tasted like stale coffee mixed with dishwater – ugh!) and a couple of bento sets.
This is the zero km marker on the shinkansen platform. From this point, our journey radiates out from Tokyo.
On the shinkansen platform, we found the right queue for the right door and compartment. The Japanese have train travel down to such a fine detail that queue lines for the respective compartments and doors are clearly drawn on the floor. Being newbies to all this, we managed to find the right door and the right compartment and the right queue. The train was there but its doors were closed. It was about 5min before the train was scheduled to depart.
Two businessmen stood in front of us in the queue. To be sure we were in the right place, we showed them our reservations and they confirmed it. But just then, the train slowly started to move. Next thing I know, KH panicked and ran forward and banged his fists on the door, shouting for it to stop!! He assumed this was our train and thought we’d missed it. The businessmen gaped at the Neanderthal until I found my voice and said: It’s not this one! Ours is the next one!!
That. Was. So. Embarrassing.
Businessmen didn’t know where to look and there was an awkward discomfort in the air. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I think I laughed. It was just too funny. In the next couple of minutes, the correct train pulled up and sheepishly, we got on. We should have had more faith in Japanese punctuality. Trains are never there waiting. They pull up right on time and they will leave punctually too and a minute is about all you’ve got to make it. So if you need to catch one, better be early or right on time or you will miss that brief window to board it.
Here we all are on the shinkansen. Finally. On our way to Nagano!
My food on the shinkansen. Dish-water tasting barley tea (which grows on you after a while) and sandwiches. Let me say that the sandwiches sold at the combini really are hands-down among the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. It’s always fresh, crustless and the combination of fillings are always tasty. My onigiri is not the picture cos I already chomped on it.
The first leg of the journey passes through Tokyo’s sprawling suburban area but towards the end, as we near Nagano, you could see snow-capped mountains and whole hillsides swathed in brown, yellow and orange as the trees have turned colour. It was beautiful.
We arrived at Nagano in one hour and 40 min. The weather was clear so far with a temperature a frigid 6 deg Celcius!
TI (Tourist Information) at Nagano station was very helpful. I think I must have asked impossible to answer questions like: Is it snowing at Shiga Kogen today? because all I got was a hesitant look and carefully crafted “I am not sure.” Anyway, it did not seem likely so we shelved the plan to go to Shiga Kogen. I also think it would have been difficult to manage and not worth the time or effort since that would mean taking a bus-ride of more than an hour, heading up there. Also, we were not sure where to go and did not have much information on Shiga Kogen. With so much uncertainty, we ditched the idea. We were a bit early to go to Shibu Onsen so we decided to store our bags in the lockers and visit Zenkoji instead – Nagano’s main star attraction.
The very reliable Japan Meteorological Agency had predicted snow for the day with highs of 6 deg and lows of 3 deg. But here in Nagano, while the skies looked dark and swollen, the air seemed still and there was no sign of snow.
Cute eh? This is a fire hydrant cover. If you look carefully enough, there are interesting manhole covers throughout Japan. Will post one from Shibu Onsen later. I thought I took a picture of one in Ameyoko in Tokyo, but disappointingly, it did not come out.
It was easy to get to Zenkoji. We took a public bus (100yen per adult), but there’s actually a designated Zenkoji bus. We didn’t see this so we took the public bus, which made a few stops before getting to Zenkoji. But just as the ox led the old woman to Zenkoji (as the legend goes), so does practically every bus stop at Zenkoji – just look for the chinese characters “善光寺” on the top. (see picture on the right)
Zenkoji is an important Buddhist temple which was built in the 6th century. In fact, Nagano was a village that sprang up around the temple to cater to the pilgrims. Today, it is still a pilgrimage site.
The sign you see on the right is on the huge Sanmon that leads to the temple compound. Do you see the ‘doves’ in the chinese calligraphy? Visitors enjoy standing below the sign to try to spot the five hidden doves in the lettering. The kids and I did the same.
Okay, getting ahead of myself here. Before you actually get to the main temple, you walk through a ‘shopping street’ (as is the case with many major temples in Japan – Sensoji in Tokyo, Kiyomizudera in Kyoto). Then you get to the Niomon. In Zenkoji’s case, the Niomon’s two giant deities guarding the gate and the temple compound are carved out of wood. These are huge statues but magnificent in their workmanship. See the curves and the grain of the wood. The lines are so fluid and organic, they were awe-inspiring and beautiful.
Once past the Niomon, you get to a ‘bridge’ – okay, more like a drain to me, but symbolically a bridge and this is the – I kid you not – ‘buck off’ bridge. Here is where the visiting shogun fell off his horse while crossing the bridge and it was decided from then on, regardless of one’s stature in life, whether emperor or shogun or citizen, the approach to Zenkoji should only be made on foot.
Picture at the bottom shows us trying to count the doves on the Zenkoji lettering on the Sanmon roof. Importantly, it also shows us tasting snow! We were trying to count the doves when we saw tiny dots gently falling. At first we thought it was rain. But it wasn’t – too irregular to be rain. It was snow! Tiny snowflakes falling! What a lovely experience to have, to stand at the Sanmon, faces upturned to see snowflakes twirling and falling towards us. The kids were thrilled to see some snow, even if it was not a lot! So again, JMA is spot on in their predictions!
Once past the huge two-storey Sanmon, the vista opens up to Zenko-ji’s honden (main hall). Under grey skies, the golden details on the roof still glistens and shines. Zenkoji is not a showpiece temple but a working temple and a busy one too. The grounds were quite crowded with people – largely pilgrims. Zenkoji receives about 8 million visitors a year so you can imagine that it gets crowded.
As when I visited Meiji Jingu two years ago, I headed for the shop. First, I bought a pilgrim’s book or a shuin-chou or noukyou-chou with the intention of collecting stamps (henro) from every temple or attraction I visited. The Japanese are big fans of stamps and at every tourist attraction, or shrine or temple, you could find these unique stamps. It was traditional for pilgrims to visit temples and collect these stamps and this has extended to even tourist attractions where visitors can collect these stamps as a souvenir. Stamping is usually free but temples also do beautiful calligraphy with the stamps (shuin). These usually cost about 300yen. I thought that getting a shuin-chou and collecting stamps would be a nice souvenir of my travel in Japan. These books have accordian-fold pages so that on every page, you can have a temple stamp and calligraphy done.
I kickstarted mine at Zenkoji. Here you see the nice lady at the counter writing in my brand new shuin-chou. She was very sweet and even though we had a language barrier, she made conversation by asking me where I was from, where I plan to go in Japan etc.
I also bought an ema – votive tablet. Wrote on it, wishing for good health, good grades (hah! That’s the Singaporean in me coming out!), love prosperity and happiness (sounds like the pledge!) for all of us. The ema could be hanged at designated racks. On certain days, the priests of the temple will collect the ema and burn them in a ceremony. Trin threw a tantrum insisting on writing (no way!) and finally was appeased when I let her help me hang the ema.
The forecourt of Zenkoji was crowded with people and pigeons. A man was feeding pigeons and was kind enough to give handfuls of rice to Owain and Trin so that they could feed the birds too. As with Venice, I thought this was nice but at the back of my mind, my mommy-brain worried about bird flu!
Tradition also has it that you waft the incense smoke towards you for good luck and good health and here is KH, doing the same that he did in Sensoji. Note the marvellous lion and ball detail on the incense burner.
In Zenkoji, pilgrims usually line up early in the morning to get a blessing from the head priest or priestess (they take turns apparently to head the temple on different years). We were very lucky that for some reason this time, the high priestess came out at around 2pm for the blessing – perhaps this explains the big crowd of pilgrims who had gathered in the forecourt. There was a flurry of excitement and I quickly called KH to go over. He managed to kneel just in time, with Trin and Owain beside. The high priestess touched his head with her rosary beads. I told him he was very very lucky to have this blessing since most blessings actually take place in the morning and not in the middle of the afternoon!
Inside Zenkoji is a well-worn wooden statue of Binzuru, a Buddhist Arhat well-known for healing. Pilgrims and visitors rub Binzuru for good health and healing so most statues of Binzuru in the temples are usually very well-worn. In Rome, do as the Romans do, so we gave Binzuru a good rub as well!
On the right side of the inner hall, there is a narrow staircase that leads to a pitch dark tunnel where visitors try to find the “key to enlightenment”. You have to pay money to find the key okay! So we dutifully paid up and took our shoes off before going in. Because Trin didn’t want to go, KH stayed with her while I went with the older kids.
There were no other visitors trying this at the time. Single file with me leading the way, we descended. The light at our backs grew less and less as I felt my way along the wall on my right. The ‘key’ is said to be something metallic hung on the wall.
We groped our way through. It was REALLY pitch blackness. You can’t even see your fingers if you held your hand up. Lots of nervous chuckles from the kids but everyone was generally subdued and feeling their way around, holding on to each other’s shirts.
It took a while but my hand finally grasped something cold and metallic. Had to be the key. So I’ve touched the “key to enlightenment”! The kids were excited and everyone touched it in turn. Pretty soon, we reached the end of the tunnel and emerged into light.
“That was COOL!!” Owain crowed as we came out. “Can we go again? Please? Please? Pretty please?”
Then it was daddy’s turn. KH went in, followed by a gaggle of schoolkids on excursion. How scary can it be when there are so many people in the tunnel with you right? Wrong. First time I ever saw my husband so fervently and gladly hug each of us in turn, so happy to see us after he came out!
KH has a deep-rooted fear of darkness and is a bit claustrophobic. The experience affected him deeply. I think it also affected me and made me think. People say it is the key to enlightenment. What are we enlightened about. I think if we stop to think about it, the experience gives us an insight into how we handle life and its uncertainty, and ultimately death and what comes after.
For me, knowing that there is a key to look out for, I was confident I would find it. Yes, the way was dark and I have no way of knowing if I am going in the right direction. I can only follow the wall, feel my way and hope to find the key. But I was confident I could. I found myself concentrating on my footsteps, the feel of the smooth wall and just moving on. There was no fear, no second-guessing, just calm and serenity. Similarly in life, I trust in God and I know what awaits me on the other side. I believe in the afterlife and in God’s promises. Also, funnily enough, I thought I could see white light in my peripheral vision. I can’t explain it because the place was absolute blackness. But this peripheral ‘light’ calmed me and I did not feel nervous or afraid.
But for KH, the fear was overwhelming. He said he did not know for sure if he was in the right tunnel, he wondered if there was a branch-off which he missed. He fretted about making the right decisions. So many unseen questions unsettling him and growing his fear. When he finally found it, sweet relief! Even sweeter was the light that he walked towards. As I pointed out to him later, so it was for him in real life too. So many worries if he is walking the right path, wondering if he could have taken a different one… Sometimes you just have to let go and trust God, that the path you are on, is the right path. When you live in the present and just feel the wall and your footsteps for the moment, you are centred and grounded.
It was a good experience and exercise. Made all of us reflect a bit. Have to say here that I am Catholic and yet we participate in these Buddhist ‘rituals’. Some may wonder why. I would chalk this down to a combination of respect and curiosity and the deep-seated belief that all religions have the righteous and the good in common. I believe all religions have something to teach the other and in this trip, I have learned a bit more about Buddhism and Buddhism, in its own way, has broadened my spiritual vistas. I guess that is what travel is all about. Unexpected lessons in a dark tunnel. And if that is not some form of enlightenment, then I don’t know what enlightenment is!
Here you can see a bride and groom in glorious colourful wedding finery and little red riding hood oblivious to the wonderful vision moving behind him.
There were lots more that we saw whose pictures are not in this entry. For instance, there were two stone pillars next to the sutra repository. The pillars each had a heavy stone wheel inserted within. Turning this wheel would save some suffering in the world and relieve the afflicted. Sounded kinda like what we Catholics believe in when we say praying the rosary soothes the souls in purgatory. Both are wheels, cycles, circles in their own way. Either way, sounds good to me and the kids and I spent some time turning the wheels!
It was almost late afternoon when we left Zenkoji for Nagano station. We had to take the Dentetsu electric railway to Yudanaka.
We bought our tickets 1230yen one way per adult and this can’t be covered by the JR pass since it is a private railway line.
But first, growly stomachs called for food! We did not have a lot of time to sit in a restaurant and eat. In the station, as in many train stations in Japan, there was a stand-up noodle stall. No seats, everyone just stood and slurped their noodles. But with children, how to stand and eat? Some were clearly not tall enough but too tall to ‘sit’ on the counter. Trin could do it because she was ‘baby-like’ to perch on the counter, share my food and get away with it. But not Owain – so the poor guy literally ate OFF the floor. I have a picture of this but it looks so appalling that I will not post this here.
The soba was hot and welcoming and we slurped it up in good time, just right to hop to the turnstiles and get on the train for the next leg of our journey – to Shibu Onsen.