We have just installed ourselves in a cosy hostel in Hiroshima after a day of Shinkansen travelling, and after having had all staff on hand (and those finished shift) up in our room helping us decipher the wireless internet (conclusion: our computer just doesn't like it), we've found a little nook in the common room to update ourselves from. Fortunately the large group of Aussies who spoke of eating Spanish pa-ella (pronouncing that just as is, now) has retreated to their testosterone-soaked room to drink themselves into a total stupor, allowing us old folk some quiet time :)
From Takayama we moved on to Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Our Lonely Planet (read: Bible) told us there was close to nothing to keep us occupied for our planned 3 days. That was before we met Mama-san, our "parent" in the Zenko-ji temple. We finally found the place after consulting what turned out to be the neighbor, and after entering the dark gateway we were greeted by what I can only describe as a small, efficient, and eccentric lady. Mama-san. She proceeded to hurry us through the details of checking in (aha, aha aha, yaaaaaaah oh aha) because did we need to eat? Only 5 minute walk. But close at 7pm (it is now 6:45pm). You like soba? Soba nice. You eat soba. You walk (hand motions the Italians would be jealous of)... I take you. You ready?
We are shuttled off to what became our ultimate Japanese experience- A proper family-run Japanese noodle restaurant, where we sat on tatami mats at low tables and were served by people speaking NO English (fortunately, 'sake' is international). We had eaten a rather large lunch in the train (just wait till we explain those box lunches! See later on...), and up till now the serving sizes had been rather small (according to Daniel-san in particular) so we rather enthousiastically ordered the 800 yen type of dinner after some confusion, which turned out to be the biggest bowl of buckwheat noodles you have ever seen. Times two. Delicious, but thought I was going to explode half way though. We resorted to drinking the broth, as it looked like we had eaten more.
After rolling home to the hostel (a huge house connected to the Zenko-ji temple, a rather impressive temple complex in Nagano), we talked to Mama-san about all sorts of things, including the onsen, Japan's hot springs. We'd been looking to try them but had not yet had the opportunity... Mama-san carted us off to the local, where we were separated (as the Japanese mainly believe in gender-seperate bathing rituals), and then stripped down to enjoy the wonders of what is Japanese onsen! I can only speak for myself, as Daniel was on the other side of the wall, but it was a bloody fantastic... After extensive cleansing (which made me cringe, eczema-lly... But when in Japan.....), you head out to the baths which in this case were salt baths and baking soda baths, outside and in. Loverly indeedy. Daniel even went into some dark room with a shallow pool of water to relax, which he thought was wonderful. So we shall be frequenting the onsen, that is one thing that is certain!
The next day we took the train up to Yudanaka, where the famous Monkey Spa is. We'd seen it on tv, and almost couldn't believe it- it's a national park, where a family of Snow Monkies (or Macaques) are housed, and they tend to get cold and want to take an onsen themselves. The park was insane- once we entered, we were literally tripping over monkies. They totally ignore you, but aren't afraid of you at all- they almost walk over your feet. A little futher along they've built a bath (onsen) for them to soak in, which is really odd- they seem so human! Unfortunately you can't bathe with them (which we both really wanted to do of course), but watching is enough. Wow! We also spent a day in Matsumoto, where there is a famous castle which was pretty nifty. We also really enjoyed the town museum, where we learned a lot about the local culture.
Today we took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. The Shinkansen is, in itself, an experience. While waiting on the platform, you stand in the correct line and wait for you car. Then you find your seat, and the fun begins... The conductors bow before they enter and leave a train carraiage, the ladies who sell food from a cart are super polite and bow when you buy something (or even look at them, as far as I am concerned)... But there's also the chance that someone behind you might clear their nose audibly- it's not a problem to hock a loogie here (as long as you have a penis), and the train is no exception. We did think however that the guy behind us in the train was perhaps nasty even for Japanese standards... I think we got to know his inner nose better then he might even know it himself. Yeesh.
And now, Hiroshima... So far, we like it!