For Christmas we headed to the mountains in search of a Christmas-y atmosphere to stay at Hakuba ski resort. Our first stop was Nagano city, home of the 1998 Olympics and yes, they are still riding the ‘We hosted the Olympics here!!’ wave.
We went to the town’s main temple which was for once a peaceful reprieve. Usually we don’t appreciate the beauty or significance of the shrines and temples we go to because (well besides we aren’t Buddhist or Shinto) usually there are so many people and it’s really busy and crazy and requires standing in line-ups even to get to the front of the shrine. But Zenko-ji temple was impressive architecturally and surrounded by very quiet, peaceful gardens, void of hustling bustling humans.
So we enjoyed walking around and even did a ‘cleanse’ of sorts which involves giving a donation and then taking a bundle of incense sticks, lighting them and then tossing them into this big burning incense pit, then smoke pours out of the top, which is this monsters mouth.
Then you are supposed to rub the smoke that comes out all over your body. We just copied other people doing it and it smelled nice but seemed really funny to being patting ourselves down with smoke as a symbolical cleanse. It is also supposed to bring good fortune and health. Anyway the temple is known for being the final destination each year for millions of religious pilgrims. Since the 7th century it has been a ‘non-sectarian’ Buddhist temple and has accepted believers of all faiths and admitted women when other temples forbade it.
Next we jumped on a bus that was supposed to take us to Hakuba within an hour. After about 40 minutes we came across a semi that had jack-knifed and was completely blocking the road. This delayed us an additional 3 hours and those extra 3 hours involved crying and the ruining of Andrew’s Christmas surprise by me. Not me at my best or most mature, but sometimes the fact that 90% of things I try to do in this country don’t work here for some reason or another, sometimes I just feel like exploding at feeling so incompetent. We were suppose to arrive with plenty of time in Hakuba to get settled and then find the base of the mountain because we were going on an evening snow shoe tour and it was supposed to be Andrews surprise Christmas present. After 1 hour of waiting behind the stuck truck, the bus put on some chains, turned around and started heading somewhere completely unknown to us at a painstakingly slow pace. I assumed we were doomed and that I’d loose my 100% ‘deposit’ I had paid on the snowshoeing. I wept that everything was ruined because we wouldn’t make it in time. So I spoiled Andrews surprise since I assumed it was hopeless, which guaranteed that we arrived with 15 seconds to spare and caught the snow shoe group before they left without us. It was a beautiful clear night for snowshoeing and was quiet and peaceful in the forest. We spent most of the time eating chocolate fondu deep in the woods. It was awesome.
The next day was Christmas, although it honestly felt pretty much like every other day except we called our families and missed them lots because they were having fun being together without us.
We went skiing which was great, and the funny thing was the ski hill was full of Australians. Lots of the employees were foreigners as well. Leave it to Australia to infiltrate and take over any ski hill anywhere in the world. It’s actually really awkward running into other foreigners here. Well, especially in Nagoya, mainly because there are so few of us, but also because we are so visibly identifiable. Whenever I see someone else that’s white, I sort of have this reaction to go hug them and say “Hi! Isn’t it crazy living here? How are you finding things?”, but when I smile at other white people, generally they are really unreceptive. I feel like they glare or quickly avoid eye contact. My guess is that I get this response either because they are thinking A) “why are you smiling at me? Just because I’m white?! You don’t know me!” or b) “I’m supposed to be a minority and a precious rare specimen stop cramping my style, I came to this country to get away from you.” Its a bit weird and I’ve opted for ignoring people and avoiding eye contact, although sometimes it gets the better of me and I can’t help smiling as if I’ve recognized an old friend.
Anyway, we had a great day in Hakuba, it just felt so strange not being with family and at home or around anyone that we knew. We tried to celebrate a bit and our hotel made us a ‘special’ Chrismtas dinner which included tripe and beef cheeks, both firsts for me!
As well as this crazy desert that our host whipped up.
Our hosts were this adorable Japanese couple that tag teamed everything at the bed and breakfast. The woman was so tiny and friendly. Her husband told us she is known in the area as the ‘onsen Yokozuna’, Yokozuna being the word for the ultimate sumo champion, the highest rank in professional sumo. And there can only ever be one Yokozuna… Onsen is the word for natural hot springs. She holds the title because she never gets hot and can soak for hours. Crazy little lady! We had an onsen (well we thought it was an onsen…I’ll explain) in our room and spent a lot of time in it, it was such a lovely way to warm up.
However despite Hakuba area being notorious for being rampant with onsens and myself book this specific hotel because I thought it had a private onsen, we found out it was just a fancy hot tub and the water was heated by gas like all other normal water in Japan and not from natural springs. Ace Kels! Hakuba is much colder than Nagoya, but I was warmer in Hakuba the whole time since they had figured out a bit better how to the heat the building and stay warm. The tub was made of Japanese cypress which is a traditional type of soaking tub, popular because it’s supposed to provide a luxurious comfortable soak and give off a pleasant aroma. Its also an ideal wood because he has natural bactericidal agents and therefore resists mold and insects and does not rot so it lasts a long time. Despite feeling a bit jipped about the water not being natural hot spring water, it felt amazing to soak in the tub with a beautiful view of the mountains after being outside.
Last stop on our Christmas trip was Matsumoto, which is supposed to be really great but besides the castle we were a bit underwhelmed. The Castle was impressive though, built in 16th century, it is one of the National Treasures that maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework.
During the Meiji Restoration, many former powerful castles and household items were sold at auction for redevelopment, but this one was one of the few that was saved. It was the first castle we had been in that I felt that strange feeling of being in the same room where something significant had taken place centuries ago. I could imagine samurai had run down the halls during battle and peered out the same windows, and ate and drank and slept in the same rooms we stood in. I felt the preciousness of the history here like I have felt before in certain castles in europe, but this is the first time here in Japan. You could tell how strategically the castle had been built for defence, with sweeping views across the valley to see oncoming attackers, and behind mazes and moats and with well positioned windows ideal for attack and at the same time protection. There was also a ‘secret floor’ hidden to the outside that could store things and potentially hide things. It was a great trip.
For New Years we made every attempt to celebrate the way Japanese people do, which is difficult since most people tend to return to the house they grew up in and and spend time with family. But we attempted some of their other traditional things. However, due to what I can only assume is things being lost in translation we botched New Years a bit. From what I understood (from asking multiple people) we needed to go to shrine for midnight on New Years eve and there would be a huge celebration with a big fire and drinks and food and many people. Maybe this is the case at some shrines, but we went to a shrine by our house and got to bring in the new year in complete darkness and isolation! There were none of the festivities or people. Just us. So we messed up big time, I guess only some of the major shrines have this type of party, but even now I’m not sure if its on New Years eve at midnight or during the day or the days following New Years.
We also missed getting our fortune (which you buy from the temple) which is a common practice to do at the beginning of the year, as well as we missed ringing the temple bell (108 times, each bell ring to signify one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome in order to achieve Nirvana. Its also mainly become a main symbol to indicate the ending of an old year and the brining in of a new year). Also because everything is completely closed pretty much for the week of the New Year, a tradition of food has evolved. Traditionally women did a complete clean of the house and cooked relentlessly in the days leading up to New Year to make enough food for the whole family for the week that everything was closed. Since that’s an obscene amount of work, it is rare anyone does all the cooking anymore, and most people buy their new years food, called ‘osechi ryori’ from the supermarket. There are tons of different osechi ryori and they all are symbolic of different things and are eaten only at this time of year. Funny enough most people I talked to don’t particularly like osechi ryori, it’s just a custom and I guess the easiest way to feed everyone over the holidays. I went shopping for osechi ryori and a couple of other things to get us through this notorious week and I went the day before everything closed and the supermarket was a nut house. What made matters so much worse was that the place I normally go to get groceries is this sort of warehouse type place that sells things in bulk (but nothing like costco, but you can never buy a single item, you always have to buy at least 2 lemons or 3 garlic bulbs or whatever) and the store marks down the prices of their products every hour, so near the end of the day things are getting cheaper and cheaper and people are getting crazier and crazier. Also, it’s mainly me and ever Japanese senior citizen on the block fighting for deals and to top it off, for some reason, really loud North American pop music is always blaring from loudspeakers that no one except me seems to hear. I hear ‘Call me maybe’ literally every time I go into that place regardless of what time or day I go. Here is the link for those of you less pop-culture savvy readers (Dad) so you can understand and visualize the ridiculousness of these lyrics blasting in this incongruent environment.
ANYWAY, I bought some osechi ryori at random (I couldn’t read any of the packaging but I could tell it was new years food), and ended up with 2 of the same thing (kamaboko–which is the stuff that imitation crab meat is made of, fish paste basically, or the white fish version of ground beef. Random fish pulverized into a block. Yum.).
The third thing I bought was very similar to the other two (a sweet egg and fish paste roll).
We were trying to embrace tradition and culture but we both were sitting in silence chewing on tasteless rubbery fish paste-y stuff after our failed celebration at the shrine and were both thinking it but finally Andrew said ‘This is what they eat to celebrate!?!?’ It wasn’t the best, but, when in Rome right? We did do some things properly, I had New Years Ikebana which rocked, and we will be going to something called Hatsu-gama which is the first tea ceremony of the year later in January. We also got up and watched the first sun rise of the year which is a common thing to do.
Lastly I’ll mention that we finally went to an onsen near Nagoya. A public onsen might I add, since I felt I didn’t get the real thing on Christmas after thinking we were in one at our hotel but actually weren’t. There are many different types of onsens, some are in beautiful scenery outdoors in a peaceful environment. Others are known for their impressive architecture or old age or special soothing powers, some are privately owned, but many are public as onsens traditionally functioned as communal bath houses back in the day when having bathing facilities in one’s house wasn’t as common in Japan. Also it is absolutely necessary to be naked and inappropriate to wear a bathing suit as it is thought that this is the only way to relax completely. Anyway, what appeals to me about the onsen is their historical significance and their constancy through time as well as this natural way of relaxing that people have done since as far back as documentation has been possible. It conjures up quaint, beautiful, precious images of rustic onsens in beautiful settings, but the one we went to was just what I found when I googled ‘onsen closest to Nagoya’, and it was similar to a….I really don’t know what. Like a multiplex game centre I guess. There were 30 baths, each with different properties, but the centre also had 4 or 5 restaurants, an arcade room, a movie theatre (specifically for hot spring users that filmed free movies that you got to watch in the special pyjamas that they make you wear the whole time you are there), a relaxation room literally for people to nap in, a massage room, a library, a kids room 6 sauna’s and a steam room. As we were leaving Andrew said ‘gee, I really wish they had a stretching room’ as if they didn’t have enough crap there! So we got changed into our Pj’s and we knew some of the etiquette around bathing but were nervous since it was our first time and we were hoping (naively) that there might be some english guidance since the onsen (called Takara Utopia!) was connected to an international hotel. But there wasn’t. All we knew was there was some serious etiquette and we weren’t quite sure exactly what it was. An excellent position to be in before you strip down and get in a bath with a bunch of strangers. We had to split up, men and women always bath separately (although I think there might be a few rare onsens somewhere in Japan with only one bath that both genders can use but it’s really uncommon) in different parts of the building. The women’s side was so steamy you could hardly see anything, and thank goodness because I was blatantly staring trying to copy people. You have to thoroughly and rigorously wash yourself from head to toe before you get in. This washing step is done in a tiny cubicles that you have to sit at and it’s in full view of everyone soaking in the tubs, no curtains or anything. After I had finished doing this about 4 times the lady I was trying to copy was still scrubbing away. Finally she finished and rinsed and then went to one of the pools. Each pool has something unique, like a different temperature, or ion or mineral content, one was red I have no idea why. Andrew conveniently unknowingly chose the pool with the electric current in it to start with. He had no idea what was going on when he put his foot in and felt it zap and throb after he took it out. When he told me about it I remembered having read something about an electric pool but had completely forgotten. He said he was pretty sure the men in the pool next to the electricity pool were cracking up at him (no one was in the electric pool surprise surprise). Nothing to make yourself stand out more than you already do in your blaring white skin than electrocuting yourself in front of everyone whilst being naked.
Anyway I feel like there’s lots more to tell but this is ridiculously long. For those of you I haven’t emailed back I promise I will as soon as I can. Take care everybody!