Landing in Japan after 24 hours with no sleep, and navigating 5 back-to-back trains to get to our first destination gave us a chance to hazily absorb first impressions:
- We are really tall.
- About ⅓ of the population (at least on trains) wear masks.
- Everywhere is extremely tidy, but there are no bins, so where does the rubbish go?
- Locals are very proactive and generous in helping lost foreigners.
- Toilets on trains are positively delicious (I could spend whole journey in there enjoying the warm seat, and the pristine floor).
- Bento boxes can contain scary unidentifiable things that may or may not be food (by our definition).
- Japanese trains run as punctually as Swiss ones, and outdo them with their orderly queueing/boarding systems.
- Its baltic.
Our first hotel in Shibu Onsen was ryokan (trad Japanese) style to give us a more immersive first experience. We quickly got used to the shoe policy (none to be worn beyond the entrance hall of the room), but less so the ‘low living’. Beds are packed away during the day to offer a very aesthetically pleasing minimally furnished living space, but sitting on the floor all day is hard (literally and metaphorically) for us vertically challenged and tight-hipped adults (the girls loved it!). Futon style beds were laid out in the evening which were bearable if doubled-up (single thickness felt like sleeping on a camping rollmat).
The motive for this first destination was to visit the Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani Yaen-Koen.. I was expecting it to be some fairly hideous tourist trap and ended up very pleasantly surprised. We enjoyed an early morning hike up the hill to find the monkeys in a very free and natural environment. They spend the night in the forest, and upon waking make their way to the area of the hot spring pools to have a warm-up dip, and to avail themselves of plentiful food scattered around the viewing site. The babies in particular were joyful and playful, and it felt like a truly genuine experience.
The local town Shibu Onsen is a sleepy tourist/retirement town, which proved to be a fun playground to start exploring local food:
We had our first delicious ramen, sushi and yakatori meals in tiny family run restaurants:
As divulged by its name, Shibu Onsen is also famous for its Onsens (Japanese baths) which are fuelled by an abundance of hot natural springs scattered around the prolific volcanoes of the region. A good soak is supposed to bring all sorts of relief to stress and fatigue plus there are specific springs to alleviate gout, eye infections, ‘womens issues’ (if only a bath could nuke those!), and more. There are 9 public baths in and around the town. Some kind of luck is associated with getting round all 9 of them in a day (which we failed on), but we DID visit what I think is the most spectacular of all. We worked up a sweat hiking for 3 hours up steep hills to the Toomi-no-Yu Onsen enjoying beautiful views of forests and apple orchards bathed in thick blankets of snow. On arrival, per tradition, we parted ways girls to the right and boys to the left, stripped naked, and sat on plastic stools in communal shower rooms to have a good wash and get fully cleaned. Only then could we enter the outside Onsens to enjoy the outstanding view of snow-capped peaks and the (very) hot bathing experience. Our ladies bath was attended by groups of young women and families, all unabashed by their nakedness, enjoying the collective experience. James reports that on the male side there was a little more posturing and posing on the rocks when blokes had to emerge for some relief from the extreme heat of the water, but the female side was pure unselfconscious relaxation.