It was very early morning when we woke up. I spent 20min luxuriating in the lovely outdoor bath before heading out to explore the neighbourhood and collect the 9 stamps of each bathhouse. Maybe because I had an empty stomach, or because of my high blood pressure but the 20min in the bath left me feeling slightly light-headed.
KH and the kids came with me. Isaac stayed in the room to enjoy his time in the bath alone.
In the early morning, Shibu Onsen was still very quiet. It was so cold we could see our breath misting the air when we spoke. Steam from the hot waters running from the pipes outside the bathhouses rose into the streets. We only saw shopkeepers opening up their shops for the day, school children going to school and the occasional tourist who took pictures of us in our yukatas and getas! Perhaps they thought we were really Japanese?
We walked around the narrow streets to visit the 9 bathhouses. Or at least, I did. The children retreated to the warmth of the ryokan after visiting the second bathhouse! It was just too cold!
We ventured in to see what a bathhousewas like. They all looked similar and after opening the first few bathhouses to have a look, we did not open the rest. To be honest, it looked a bit grotty and I would not want to take a bath in there. With Kokuya having 6 or more baths for its guests, you’d already have to stay submerged pretty much the whole day to experience all of them.
The big wooden plaque is attached to the key to the bathhouse. Guests of the ryokans use the bathhouse for free but have to bring the big key along. Had a lot of fun walking to each bath house to collect the different stamps.
Around the neighbourhood in the early morning, a fresh produce grocer. The hills surrounding the town were flecked with a light dusting of snow.
Almost next to Kokuya is the main bath with a temple just above it. The temple also has a hot spring footbath which anyone can use, free of charge. I can’t read Japanese but would presume some of the kanji (chinese characters) have similar meaning. So I have to stress that I am GUESSING here. The tiny temple apparently, is the place to pray for good loving relationships for husband and wife. This stone carving, calcified by the minerals from the hot spring water trickling down on it for years, is of a man and his wife. Both KH and I touched the water trickling down and said a silent wish that we would be thus blessed as well.
Just outside the ryokan, hot spring water runs over a basket of eggs. These are known as onsen tamago and they are lovely half-boiled egges thanks to the heat of the water. Just drop 50yen into the box if you want one. The money goes towards community-building needs in Shibu Onsen. We were served onsen tamago as part of breakfast.
By the time we returned, we were famished. Cold really does something to the appetite. Breakfast is held in the same big dining hall. Everything was already nicely laid out by the time we came in.
We had (from left clockwise): simmered tofu in vegetable broth, boiled salmon, salad, seaweed, onsen tamago served with a light soya broth, simmered veg, pickles and rice. After breakfast, in the midst of packing, the kids and KH found time to have one last soak in their tubs. KH and Owain are seen here soaking in the outdoor bath in my room, Sakura. The outdoor area shown here is part of the veranda in Ayame, the children’s room. You can see the corner of the wooden tub. The kids liked hanging out here, some in the tub, some playing Monopoly Deal!
All too soon, it was time to go. When we went down to the lobby, our shoes were neatly arranged all ready for us.
The hotel arranged transport for us to Yudanaka station and everything was timed just right so that we did not have to wait long. It was just enough time to get to the station, buy our tickets and get on board.
This was a place we wish we could have stayed longer. Maybe two nghts in the area might have done it more justice. Seemed like a pity that we could not explore the area more, maybe gone up into the hills or into Shiga Kogen or even explored the temple at the top of the hill. What a memorable experience this has been!
The hostess, the staff at the ryokan all exemplified the excellent, quiet, understated service that Japan is renowned for. There was nothing sloppy in the service at all. For a day and a night, we were pampered and lived like royalty. This has been a great first ryokan experience. I just wonder if we would be so spoiled by this that nothing else might come close.
Here’s a last look at the pastoral scenes around Yudanaka:
Back into the real world we hurtled on the Dentetsu train. We were headed for Nagano once again. We had some time to kill before catching our next train so we stocked up with drinks and food. We’re beginning to get the hang of combini shopping. Owain has even learned how to scope out the stores for different types of soft candy and the mentaiko-onigiri gang has learned how to differentiate among the different onigiri packaging for the right mentaiko filling. We enjoy experimenting with different sort of drinks (different teas!) from the combini. On this trip, I bought a pretty-looking bottle of earl grey flavoured tea, but in general, the kids have settled on Ice Lemon Tea as their favourite – its the only tea with sugar or any flavouring in it! So if anyone asks if we did any shopping in Japan, I’d say yes – at the combinis in stations across Japan!
There was a McDonalds at the station and that, as far as Trin was concerned, is pretty much her staple diet for the trip. So we bought some nuggets and fries for the fussy one. While waiting, I noticed that McDonalds had these nifty little carrels for road warriors and their laptops. It was free wifi so all you had to do was plug your laptop to a LAN cable to the point provided and you could surf, perched on a tall stool and slurping your McFlurry. Power points were also provided for AC cables. The carrel was designed in such a way that there was even a small step where you can leave your bag or rest your legs. Now why can’t McDonalds Singapore implement something like this? I like noticing little design details like this but KH thinks I am silly to take pictures of stuff like this.
Today was a day of travelling, just getting from point A to point B. We were headed for Kanazawa on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The train journey from Nagano entailed a change of train at Naoetsu but apart from that, it was a straight train journey which passed pretty valleys as the track hugged hillsides of cedar, past farms, small villages, distant mountain ranges and snow as the following pictures will show!
Our train with the wide windows for a panoramic view.
The first half of the train journey to Naoetsu was lovely. It was sunny and the skies were blue. Because it was a local train, it was not very crowded and we had pretty much almost the whole compartment to ourselves. The kids, Trinity especially, did not demand for much attention so I even had the luxury to jot a few notes into my journal, look at the passing scenery, snap a few shots.
The pretty scenery lasted until we reached Naoetsu. From Naoetsu to Kanazawa, the train hugged the coast at times but often veered inland and the scenery was one of industry, grey towns, rice fields, some unfinished construction, glimpses of gun-metal grey sea and the feel was generally gloomy. The rainy dark grey skies contributed to this and followed us all the way to Kanazawa.
We arrived at Kanazawa after dark. It was wet, rainy and very cold. Luckily, our hotel is just across the road from the station. I knew that it would have been aggravating to arrive late after a full day’s travel and still have to take a bus, find our way around etc in the dark, so I deliberately chose a place which was very near the station and also near the bus-stop for the Loop Bus which would take us around the key sights of Kanazawa.
The Dormy Inn Kanazawa is a new hotel, just across from the station. It is classified as a business hotel but unlike most business hotels, the rooms are spacious. The generosity of space is a rarity in Japanese business hotels which are usually so small they only have room for a bed and barely anything else! In Dormy Inn, the rooms were very generously-sized.
We took two rooms – each had twin beds and a tatami mat seating area which allowed for two futons. Each room had a small entry-way or foyer with a sliding door before accessing the tatami-mat seating area. The hotel prided itself on being ecologically sound, so lights can be controlled by motion sensors, air fresheners use negative ions, soap and shampoo are biodegradable green-friendly.
On the right, Trin is watching sumo on the flat-screen TV in the room. This is the tatami mat area. The beds are in the foreground (see left picture).
In the interest of space-saving functionality, the fridge, sink, kettle etc are placed in a nook just at the entrance. The shower and toilet is behind the door on the left. Love Japanese showers – piping hot, solid good spray and hand-held shower heads which are useful for bathing small children. Rain showers and all may sound lovely and relaxing but parents of young children on holiday will know how important it is to have hand-held shower heads!
And while I am on the subject of toilets – I will say here that I have grown to be very fond of heated toilet seats. And the Japanese, bless them, have toilet seats that are heated so warm that I would sit on them even if I didn’t have to go. This is not a luxury but a necessity when you live in a cold country like Japan. It is no fun making a midnight run to the loo and facing icy cold toilet seats. So those oh-so-warm toilet seats in Japan, they warm not just my bum but the very cockles of my heart!
I loved the fluffy duvets, the free internet connection in the room (LAN cable provided), the laundry room – very effective dryer! Some hotels, like the Chisun Hotel in Hiroshima, had lemons for dryers – more on that later, but the Dormy Inn dryer – fantastic. I believe either the washing machine or the dryer was free so it was not expensive to do laundry there. The Dormy Inn also had rooftop public baths for both men and women, but we did not use these. As with any business hotel (in fact, all hotels and ryokans in Japan except for hostels), they offered the full range of toiletries, down to slippers and night clothes! Even the kids had PJs. KH loved their lilac and grey PJs so much he swiped them.
We ended the night with a sushi feast in our room, bought from the supermarket in the JR station annex. Past 8.30pm and everything was at least 30 to 50% marked down! I asked for the maguro and salmon fish slabs to be sliced and for 100yen, they would slice, sit the fish nicely on ribbons of daikon, adorn it with a perilla leaf and flower, add shoyu and wasabi on the side. The chef took such great care you’d think he was creating art instead of a cheap sashimi platter that costs only 400yen! Well worth it. We bought an assortment of sushi, sashimi, ikura (salmon roe), negi toro (finely minced tuna belly with spring onions) and others. What a great feast we had that night, chopsticks reaching for fresh yummy fish over the small round table!
I looked out over the Kanazawa skyline and lightning flashed in the distance. Rain spattered against the window but inside, we were safe, warm, dry and full. My children were chattering away watching Japanese cartoons, Japanese dramas and Japanese game shows, comfortable in that element. TV was TV – never mind the language. So far they look like they have been enjoying the trip. I guess if I were to be honest, it does not matter to them – if its Thursday its Kanazawa (or Kyoto) – they lose track of time and place but they have each other and KH and I and I suppose, that’s what matters to them, even if they don’t know it.