Switching through Nagano, we stopped for a soba lunch, buckwheat noodles eaten like cold pasta, dangled into a small bowl of soy based soup and slurped noisily. At the entrance to Zenkoji Temple, handmade straw sandals hung, brought as offerings to the gods. On the train, we passed bare vineyards and groves of chestnut and apple trees.
The celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai created ukiyo-e, or woodblock, images that have travelled the world - the huge foamy blue wave tossing wooden boats and colorful shapes of a solitary Mount Fuji serene or stormy. These are part of his series of 100 Views of Mount Fuji, most telling stories in detailed scenes of country life and culture, with just a tiny pyramid of Fuji in the far distance, and many of the originals live at the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, along with paintings, scrolls and sketches. We trudged through blowing snow to see his fiery orange phoenix on the ceiling at the Ganshoin Temple, painted when Hokusai was in his 80s.
Hokusai's patron in Obuse owned a sake factory, now housing the museum, with a smaller brewery and restaurant on the main road. We sat at the counter to watch blue robed young men preparing the food, chopping quickly and precisely with big sharp knives, and steaming rice over an old stone oven. We sampled three different kinds of sake, including a thicker milky wine similar to Korean makgeolli, each one better than the last.
The earth seemed to be smoldering under the town of Yudanaka, dotted with steaming hot springs. Our hotel had an underground passageway to several natural spas, so you could wear the robe-like yukata and slippers supplied in our room, without stepping outside, and, as usual in Japan, men and women bathe separately, in the nude. We soaked in hot pools in rock basins, fresh water dribbling down rock walls, pouring in from the side, bubbling up from the bottom, both before dinner and after. My friend declined to join me on my morning trek, I was on my own. I was just hoping there would be a few monkeys around on this slightly warmer morning to make the journey worthwhile.
It was a thirty minute walk from the trailhead, on a snow-packed path through dense forest, to a group of older wooden buildings along a river, where I was thrilled to encounter my first Macaque monkey, a large reddish-brown male strolling by me without a glance. The sign pointed up steep stairs to the park entrance. Jigokudani Yaen-koen, Hell's Valley Monkey Park, follows the river up to a steamy natural pool. Suddenly monkeys were everywhere: playful youngsters rolling and frolicking in the snow, chasing each other up the hillside, bouncing off rocks and also my camera bag and my head(!), hanging off signs, lone monkeys digging in the snow for morsels of food, sitting on rocks in the river, mothers nursing babies, and, across a rickety bridge, mellow pensive looking monkeys lounging in the pond, reaching down now and then to pick up things to eat from below the surface. These wild creatures ignored the human gawkers, avoiding eye contact, as if we were just other grazing animals in the valley. It was enchanting to be able to share their remote habitat, if only for an hour or so.
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