Autumn in the Japanese Alps

October, 2000. Nagano and Gifu Ken.

After all those extra hours at work, training our kids for the Speech Contest, we got let out early so off David, Mackie and I(Kim) trotted to the airport to catch a flight to Nagano. We arrived in Nagano, Japan's fourth largest city, early in the evening and decided to explore a little before checking in to our ryokan. Nagano was pretty much what you'd expect from a big city: big, ugly, noisy! We found our self a nice little Italian and partook in a little people spotting during dinner, the fashions are definitely far more extreme in the metropolis. After studying the map we set off for our ryokan, it took rather more time than it ought and we only managed to find it after a kindly gentleman went out of his way to help. Proving that it is indeed a small world the owner of the ryokan was from Saga, only a few streets from our apartments!

When we arrived at the ryokan we could see there was a large temple across the road so in the morning we decided to investigate. Although it was very large it wasn't very interesting, the point of greatest interest were the young kids practicing cheerleading to the tune of 'Yellow Submarine'. Sometimes it's just safer not to ask why?! We then made our way to the train station to find out about hiring a car, she was very helpful and sent us a nearby dealer, who sent us to another, who sent us to another until we made a full circle. A little demoralized we popped in to a travel agent to see if they could help, after a lot of leg work she managed to come up with something. Finally at 1:30 we were able to pick up our Mazda Familia and get on our way. We arrived in Matsumoto, at the foot of the Alps, just before nightfall and decided to make our way up. Road works and traffic made it slow going and about half way up we gave up hope of seeing anything interesting that evening so we opted for an onsen (hot spring) instead. Refreshed and relaxed we headed back down to Matsumoto for dinner, we had Indian in a bar whilst a Japanese man sang an interesting interpretation of Copacobana! Time to turn in, we made our way back to a Love Hotel we had seen earlier, 'Horn'. We chose a room and the phone rang instructing us to put our money in a capsule, thence it was whisked away and five minutes later up popped the change. The room was really big but we were all disappointed to find there was no free porn!!

As soon as we mentioned the Japanese Alps to anyone they always made us promise to visit Kamikochi so off we went. We made our way through dense traffic until there was a split in the road about 10km from our target, here we were approached by a rat-like man telling us that private traffic was not permitted beyond this point and we would have to turn around and go back to the nearest bus stop. Mistake corrected we finally arrived at Kamikochi around midday. Everyone was right - it was beautiful; a river valley at about 1500m with wonderful views of the mountains in autumnal colors all around. We got dropped off at one end and walked along the river trying to admire the nature and forget the throngs of Japanese tourists accompanying us along the way. The water was clear as glass, it made you wonder what atrocities happen down stream to turn it the muddy green color we are more used to. About half way along we were joined by some monkeys, at first there was just one and everyone was battling to get a shot then family after family crossed the path until we were avoiding them rather than seeking them out! At the end of our walk was 'Kappa Bashi' (a bridge dedicated to a mythological Japanese creature which resembles a goblin of sorts) this was touted in all the guide books as 'the place' to view the Alps. Unsurprisingly it was no more or less beautiful than anywhere else yet the number of tourists quadrupled. It was another hour before the last bus was to leave so we wandered a little further upstream and had the nice feeling of leaving the hoards behind. Eventually we had to turn around and go back to the bus, stopping on the way to take a few shots of the moon coming up over the mountains. Back in Matsumoto we avoided the previous nights bar singer and headed next door to a little Italian place. Happily replenished we wandered around the nice little traditional town. At 10pm we decided it was time to start our Love Hotel hunt. It proved far more problematic than the night before after an hour and a half with no luck we were ready to give up hope until a policeman stopped us! After first rolling down the wrong window Mackie finally got the right window down, he looked slightly bemused but managed to compose himself to ask if we'd been drinking. With chocolate milk cartons strewn all over the car it was pretty evident we hadn't. I decided to ask if perchance he knew of any hotels in the area, he directed us to a really seedy Love Hotel, the 'Crab Park' it was full but as we arrived (12.30am) we heard someone scuttle away then the owner appeared and told us if we waited 10 minutes the room would be clean!! We tried to forget about that and instead appreciate the free porn!!

The day before we had seen a map of the area with a ropeway marked on it which lead up to the peaks so we made that our destination. If anything the traffic was even heavier than Saturday and we crawled through the traffic this time taking the other branch of the fork, still manned by Mr. Ratty. Soon after there was a choice of two routes, tunnel or high road seeing as we had got away at a reasonable hour we plumped for the high road. Switchback after switchback took us higher and higher until we reached some pretty impressive scenery which would have been helped by thinner cloud cover. Nonetheless it was still thoroughly amazing. The descent led us in to an area of spa towns and a bear park! The ropeway was in one of these spa towns at the end of a long, long traffic jam. We'd only just arrived at our destination and it was already 2pm. The map depressed us even further when we realized that we wouldn't have time to reach the summit. We ate our sorrows away, or at least tried with a bowl of sloppy curry and rice. At the ropeway we were torn about whether to go up in spite of the clouds or just to puddle around at the bottom. We decided to go up and although at one point we couldn't seeing anything, scaring the middle aged Japanese half to death, we passed through it and at the top we were greeted by some magnificent views. Here we were able to truly appreciate the autumn colors and David and Mackie saw there first jay. On the way home we stopped at a little coffee shop to decide where we were going to stay and what we were going to do with the little time we had the next day. The wasabi (Japanese horseradish) farm got the majority vote so we returned to the 'Crab Park' to see if they had any free rooms. Unfortunately by the time we arrived they were already full but the owner directed us next door to the 'New Crab Park" where we were able to get three futons, rather than share, which was a relief but we had to do without the porn!!

We were up bright and early in order to get a couple of hours at the farm, it was really peaceful and relaxing after all the traffic jams. The wasabi is actually grown on the river, in slightly raised stone beds. After watching them plant and harvest and buying a root to take home we were on our way. Stopping by at the Denny's in Nagoya for lunch. I didn't really understand but Mackie and David found this very amusing. We dropped the car back and were at home by nightfall.

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