I woke up and took a quick shower before grabbing a taxi to Kanazawa Station. I feel like I use the same action words a lot: grab, head, etc, but I guess they’re descriptive. We had a little time before our train (I always want even more time in the station, there’s usually so much to see), so I grabbed a bento with local beef, onions and rice and a box of pressed salmon sushi that looked better than it tasted. The bento was delicious, and I also got a “cold brew” from the best looking coffee stand, and it actually wasn’t bad. The barista left room for milk and I asked her to fill the cup completely, which she did. I’ve found that often here, the answer is no, as things are the way they are and changes aren’t generally accepted (just talking in terms of food and drinks but applies more broadly too), but this was a happy exception!
We made the train with just a minute to spare and found our seats in the green car. The Kagayaki (the even more express superexpress on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line that opened in 2015 from Tokyo to Kanazawa, as opposed to the slightly slower Hakutaka) is shiny and new, and the seats were great.
I could write about (and ride) the trains for days. The green car is really wonderful. The recline is unreal, the legroom is infinite, there are cup holders I keep finding and hooks for your jacket. Some trains even have heated seats. They don’t even check your ticket on the Shinkansens, somehow they just know you’re meant to be sitting there. Curious to see what, if any, differences there are in the regular seats when we return to Tokyo on Wednesday without the benefit of our green rail passes. Happy to be getting a bit more use out of it today before the pass expires, and I’m going to miss it.
The train only made one stop (at Toyama) before arriving in Nagano in just over an hour. It took a beautiful coastal route and we were on the left, which is the water side. A lot of the route is just through tunnels, which is how it can get through the mountains so quickly, but we emerged from one tunnel a few minutes after Toyama to find ourselves just a few hundred feet from the water, and a giant rainbow arching over the sea! On the other side, snow-capped mountains rose in the distance. I didn’t know whether I should switch sides or just enjoy the coast, but I chose the latter and was content. We’re going into the mountains and away from the water, so I’ll have more chances for mountain scenery.
We only had 9 minutes to transfer in Nagano so we hustled to get to the Wide View Shinano, which would carry us to Matsumoto. The train gets its name from the green car, which offers a full view through the cab (and probably from the generally huge windows), although we were facing the wrong way on this leg, and it was dark on the way back, so we didn’t really get to take advantage.
After arriving in Matsumoto, we put our stuff in coin lockers and walked up to the river and alongside. Two quaint pedestrian streets line the Ta River on either side: Nawate-dori on the northern side and Nakamachi-dori a block to the south. There are nice shops and cafes and it’s very pleasant. It’s kind of what I expected Kanazawa to feel like. The rivers here for there most part are small, with high walls and a lot of careful architecture, but they’re designed nicely. I looked in a few of the shops but didn’t find much. I did find the amount of support for the local soccer team (Yamaga FC) interesting, especially given they don’t even play in the country’s top league.
We had lunch at Kobayashi Soba, which has been a Matsumoto staple for over 100 years, and is located right next to the Yohashira shrine by the river (I think there’s a newer branch near the station). There’s a nice view of the shrine through the floor to ceiling windows, and nice long wooden tables. The place is famous and consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in Matsumoto. I had the tenzaru soba (zaru is cold, with dipping sauce) with tempura (a huge, flavorful shrimp and 4 big veggies that turned out to include an enormous shishito, sweet potato, squash and shiitake mushroom, very nice). The soba comes with daikon, green onion and whole wasabi that you can grate yourself, with the cutest little metal grater. They also give you more already grated wasabi.
I got omori (more soba, larger) because I was hungry, and it was indeed large. There was plentiful good green tea and when we finally finished our noodles, the waitress brought us the soba-ya to pour into the sauce. I really liked the wasabi, too. One of Japan’s largest wasabi farms is outside Matsumoto, and the wasabi is not like the typical wasabi we get; rather, it’s sweet and flavorful and just a tad spicy. I’ve been working on my slurping—I think I’ve improved, although I’m still not at the point where you hear it from across the room—and after Jake described it as more using your lips than your mouth, I definitely got even better. Sometimes you just hear the loudest slurp and you’re so impressed.
After lunch, we walked to Agata Forest Park, which was a quiet, if boring, park about a kilometer east, through a shopping mall and a quieter residential area. The park was disappointing, especially in winter, but it was an interesting walk, and Jake and I had some thoughtful discussions about Japanese culture. We talked about weeaboos, a generally derogatory term (but not always) that describes westerners obsessed with Japanese culture. I associate it with the most stereotypical image of a nerdy white guy obsessed with anime and Japan, who maybe has a Japanese girlfriend but doesn’t necessarily speak the language, and really is just obsessed with a lot of the stereotypes of Japan and more superficial aspects rather than truly engaging with the culture. Obviously, that’s a stereotype too, and there are all kinds of weeaboos. It’s also a funny term.
Jake told me that something he really doesn’t like about Japan is the lack of diversity, both cultural and racial. I’ve definitely noticed subtle differences in the ways people act and dress and move around and so on, and in food, and in other things, but there is a lot that’s pretty universal and certainly a lot of homogeneity. It stands to reason that the third most homogenous country, after North and South Korea, would stand out for its lack of diversity, and I’ve actually found there to be a pretty sizable diversity in personalities and looks and general atmosphere, but I definitely know what he means.
He also said that he thinks all the places we’ve been kind of blend together in some ways, to some degree, which I also agree with, although again, I think there are more subtleties. It’s also true that we obviously aren’t getting the whole picture, as foreigners who don’t speak the language and also in the very limited time we’re spending in each place. As with everything, it’s more complicated, but there is some truth. I wonder whether a Japanese person visiting the U.S. would think American cities are all similar, but I’m really not sure. I’m sure someone has written a book about it.
I wonder why there is such a strong, homogenous culture here (in terms of actions and traditions). Maybe because of the shared language and shared history, or maybe just because of the conservative traditions that are so prevalent here. I really don’t have answers to these questions, but they’re important to reflect on.
We also talked a bit about how people engage with the world. I think a lot of people focus on individuals and their feelings and emotions, while others focus on facts (or what they perceive to be facts). I obviously have my own limitations and shortsightedness, but I really believe that you can’t get the full picture without looking at every level, from individual to systemic. Every level interacts with the others to form a more complete picture. You can’t understand a person without understanding the ecosystems they are a part of, but you also can’t understand a city or state or country without understanding the individuals residing there and making up the population (obviously, to some degree, it’s impossible to completely understand all). Facts and feelings are both parts of a larger whole. I care a lot about facts and like facts, but I’m also interested in how people act and why they do the things they do. Each informs the other.
The best I could explain this view was to use Haverford as an example. I spent a lot of time talking about people’s actions at Haverford, or people’s feelings or emotions. I also spent a lot of time talking about the community as a whole, its norms and challenges. But you can’t fully understand the individuals residing within the community without taking into account the community’s impact on those individuals, and in the same way, those individuals inform the way the community functions. I’m not sure this makes complete sense, but something I’ve been thinking about and we were discussing.
Sadly, the city’s art museums were all closed, as it was Monday. Museums in Japan seem to be pretty universally closed on Mondays, so we didn’t get to enter the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, but we did catch the Yayoi Kusama installations outside, pictured above.
After the park, we tried to go to Amijok cafe, which is supposed to have really great breads and pastries, but it was very closed. So disappointing. We walked back down one of the shopping streets to &s Coffee and Chocolate and I had a pour over which was nothing special. Jake had a hot chocolate that was weirdly thick, but we couldn’t figure out why. I think it was mostly melted chocolate.
From there, we walked north a few minutes to Matsumoto Castle. Matsumoto-jō is one of only five medieval wooden castles remaining intact in Japan (and probably the best of the bunch, imo). Construction started in 1592, and the castle was never taken by force although it was occupied by at least 6 different families. Words don’t really do it justice, so I’m including a lot of different pictures, but the castle was amazing. I think I called it “sick” about a hundred times, and couldn’t stop exclaiming about how cool it was.
I generally like castles and military history, but the sun glistening off the black and white wooden exterior and the wide moat took my breath away. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on this trip, and that’s certainly saying something. I walked all around the outside, snapping pictures from every angle and just watching the sun and the reflection of the castle in the water. After a while, I noticed the moon sitting lazily above the castle tower, and was transfixed.
We crossed the moat and paid to enter the main castle grounds, where there were surprisingly few tourists and a worker dressed as a samurai who welcomed us in. We walked into the castle, which is just as magnificent up close, and climbed 7 or 8 sets of progressively steeper wooden stairs to reach the top. Seriously, these stairs were tall and steep for me. I can’t imagine how Japanese folks hundreds of years ago climbed them. I guess they were meant to be hard to climb, in case of a breach?
Anyway, the interior of the castle was awesome, with a lot of the original wooden structures as well as obviously restored and added pieces. A highlight was the hidden third floor. The castle looks like it has five stories from the outside, but actually has six. Most Japanese castles have a signature hidden floor, which doesn’t have any windows and was used primarily for storage but could also be used to strategic advantage. It was cool learning about the function of each floor, and also the defensive strategy for the castle. We climbed back down slowly and after I finally calmed down from the excitement, we left the grounds and walked around the castle for another look before heading back into the city.
We had some time to kill before the train so we stopped at Matsumoto Brewing, a local brewery I had walked by before. It’s not exactly a microbrewery; they sell their beer around town (and maybe further, although I haven’t seen it), but it was a tiny space occupying two and maybe three floors of a townhouse, with a small bar on the first floor and a little seating area on the second. It was dead silent when we walked in and the bartender was clearly training and spoke not a word of English, but I absolutely loved it. I tried the Setting Sun IPA, which was so surprisingly awesome and could stand up to any beer on the east coast. It was juicy and balanced, with just a hint of happiness. Japan’s take on a really solid east coast IPA. Jake tried a nice wheat bear and the castle stout, which was tasty and also has a great name, but I stuck with the IPA, so happy to have found one I liked here.
I had a couple of pints and a woman who I assume is one of the owners came out and talked to me in very limited English. I told her the beer was awesome and that I’m from New York, which always gets a reaction, and we went back and forth with thank-you’s for a minute. I think she knew she had me reeled in, so she stayed around while I looked through the merchandise. The brewery uses beautiful coasters: thick, bright blue fabric with the Brewery logo and name. I asked if I could buy one but she apologized and told me they were handmade and not for sale. At first I was upset, but I actually think it’s kind of cool. I’ll never again have the experience of drinking off of one of their coasters unless I return to the brewery, nor will anyone else, presumably. There’s something authentic about that.
I did, however, buy a 4oz glass ( I didn’t want to carry anything bigger and I like a tasting glass) and a shirt. I would have bought more shirts, but I’m unsure that even this one will fit, but I took a chance anyway. It fits now, but it can’t shrink at all. I limited myself to the beer and the two souvenirs (and a few stickers) and pried myself away before I did any worse damage. I was so happy we trekked to Matsumoto, for the castle and the brewery, but also for the general vibe of the city, which seems much more relaxed and friendly than a lot of the places we’ve seen recently.
We still had a little time before the train so we stopped at a Namco arcade on the 6th floor of a shopping mall above the bus station and played a few rounds of Mario Kart. Despite not understanding much of anything (everything is in Japanese, except for the big Thank You after the game ends), it was somehow so much more fun than at home. We didn’t mess up and were able to race each other ,and I won 4 in a row. I think we’ll find an arcade in Tokyo when we have more time and aren’t in a rush.
We got to the station and found some cheap Margherita pizzas that looked good for the train. I also found an Awesome! pale ale (no, that’s the name, but it’s also lower-case awesome) from Matsumoto Brewery. I ran to the nearest 7 Eleven to find a bottle opener and an ATM, and then we collected our bags and boarded the train. The pizza was satisfying and the beer was good, and before we knew it we were in Nagano (even with our worst delay yet).
In Nagano Station, I couldn’t really find food and we didn’t have a ton of time, so I just got a couple of beers, which I chose based on the labels as most of them had only English writing. I got one IPA that was so hoppy I almost didn’t want to finish it, and a beer with the cute Matsumoto mascot on it that I think was a pilsner. We walked downstairs to the Dentetsu line, a private line that doesn’t work with the JR Pass, bought tickets and boarded the surprisingly crowded train to Yudanaka. I’m unclear on the distinction between Yudanaka and Yamanouchi. We’re staying in Yudanaka, and maybe the larger area is Yamanouchi.
The train was perfectly nice and it was pitch black outside. When we got to Yudanaka, at the end of the line, we walked down a steep hill and then around the corner to the hotel, Yudanaka Tawaraya Ryokan, just a couple minutes from the station. The two ryokans we stayed at in Tsuwano and Kanazawa remind me more of budget inns (although certainly family-run and friendly), while this one in Yudanaka is more of a full B&B, with better service and facilities.
We checked in with the super friendly clerk, who gave us what I think was seaweed kombucha as a welcome drink and explained everything to us. We declined breakfast for tomorrow because as expected, it’s offered only at 7:30 or 8am, but I think we will have it the next day. I tried to ask to push it back a little but there’s just no comprehension of that possibility. No problem, happy to sleep in for a change. Tomorrow will be a chill day; we’ll go see the monkeys in the afternoon and relax in the evening. I was happily surprised when the clerk (receptionist? worker? Not sure what to call her, I don’t think jobs are as rigid here) told us she had reserved us a private slot for the outdoor onsen at 9:30. One of the reasons we chose this ryokan was the outdoor onsen, and I was excited to try it out.
Onsens are Japanese hot spring baths. There are thousands all over the country, of all kinds. Generally, you wash yourself completely before entering naked into the onsen. Clothes and bathing suits are forbidden (rightly so, they’re dirty), as are towels. I really like wearing the yukata. It’s like a better bathrobe. I sat on a stool in the indoor shower, where there’s also a smaller indoor pool, and thoroughly scrubbed myself before walking to the outdoor onsen.
The hot springs naturally bubble, and some are hotter than others. The one at this ryokan is great, big enough for a few people (plenty of room for the two of us) with rocks around the edge, a little waterfall, some streams of bubbles, and some grass and a fence. Steam rises continuously from the water, which I found to be hotter than a normal hot tub but not unpleasant. Maybe somewhere between a hot tub and a sauna. If anything, it was relaxing and calming. I used a bucket to dump water over me, and I got in and out a couple of times. I felt really relaxed and at peace. I could get used to this. I’ll go again tomorrow, maybe more than once, but I felt very calm afterwards, and got back into my yukata. I relaxed in the room once I figured out the wifi and caught up with the world.