Monday, 3 August 2015

Nagano - Oshi Ryokan (Japanese hospitality at it's finest) - Part 3

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts about a recent trip to Nagano.  You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

On my travels around Japan I stay in a fair few hotels which vary in style from a simple business hotel to old traditional Japanese ryokans.  I often make a mention of where I stay if the place is especially nice.  Never have I dedicated a whole post to where I stay.....until now.

At the end of my last post I finished by talking about taking a bus from Nagano city to Togakushi.  This is where I was to spend the next 2 nights.

When I had been planning this trip, I was originally going to stay in a hotel in Ueda city where Yuuki and Miwa were staying.  However, we were not able to find a hotel room as Ueda city was having it's festival on that weekend, so I had to look elsewhere for a hotel.  I found a place called Oshi Ryokan right at Togakushi, which was where we were going to be the next day anyway, so I went ahead and booked a couple of nights there.  Oshi Ryokan is in a 250 year old building, and in a country with as many earthquakes as Japan has, that is an achievement in itself!

From the moment I booked, the owner of the ryokan Mr Hidenori Oshi, was in contact with me checking to see if I wanted dinner included in my stay, and providing me with a link to the bus timetable for the bus I needed to catch to get from Nagano City to Togakushi.

When I arrived in Nagano I gave the ryokan a call to let them know when I would be arriving.  Hidenori answered the phone and spoke great English!  He told me to make sure I would arrive with an empty stomach because dinner would be served when I arrived and that there was a lot of food!

I got onto the bus which spent the next hour winding through the mountains outside of Nagano.  Hairpin after hairpin bend followed as we made our way up into the Japanese Alps.  This was the area of Japan that had hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, so there was no shortage of mountains around.  I got off at the stop I needed and Hidenori met me at the bus stop.  We walked the short distance back to the ryokan and the first thing I noticed was the beautiful thatched roof.

I asked how often the roof had to be changed and was told that it is replaced every 40 years and that it is done quarter by quarter with each quarter being done per year so the whole roof takes 4 years to replace.

We went inside and during check-in, Hidenori noticed where I lived in Tokyo and mentioned that he himself used to live in the same area, so we spent some time talking about the things that were still in the area.

Next, I was taken to my room, a beautiful, traditional Japanese room complete with tatami flooring.

I love tatami flooring!!

Next up was dinner.  Each room at Oshi Ryokan has it's own private dining room and I was lead into mine, again, a lovely traditional Japanese style room.

Dining rooms, like the one above, are double dining rooms with both sides separated by a screen.  The second night I was in a dining room like this one, sharing it with an English guy who lives and works in Majorca.  We got talking to each other over the screen which was removed next time Hidenori came in.  The first night I was in a completely private room.

I walked into the dining room which already had the first course ready to go.  Sashimi and fresh tasty melon (described to me as mountain sashimi!).  Both dishes were delicious and fresh!

I may have forgotten to take photos of one of two of the courses, I was too busy enjoying them!  Next up was, quite simply, one of the best fish dishes I have ever tasted!  Now I grew up around fishing towns and did quite a lot of fishing myself when I was younger, so I know a little about eating fish, but this one was like nothing else I have ever tasted!

Simple, yet so many flavours happening inside my mouth.  I would have been happy having this for every course!

Next was some deliciously tender Shinshu beef.  Again, simply cooked which allowed the flavours of the beef to come through beautifully.

The vegetables were beautiful, crisp and fresh too.  It was around here that I started forgetting to take pictures......  I remembered just in time to take a picture of some soba noodles that were served.  Togakushi is quite famous for soba.

With that, dinner was finished and Hidenori came in and we started talking.  He is a very interesting man who has a few different jobs, including being a Shinto priest!  Now there is something I have always wondered about Shrines and Temples and it is something that I have mentioned on these pages before.  What better time, place and person to ask than right here and now with Hidenori.  I asked him why Temples and Shrines are so quiet and peaceful.  The sounds of the city outside seem to fade away to nothingness.  He smiled at me and said that it is because of the wood.  Temples, Shrines and their structures and gates are all made of wood and wood blocks the noise.  He said it is done so that the Gods can hear us talking to them.  After all,  what point is there talking to the Gods if they can't hear us.  Such a simple, yet deep explanation.

Dinner finished I went back to my room and, a few hours later, fell asleep on the comfortable soft futon.

Morning soon came, which meant breakfast and after the dinner the night before, I was looking forward to breakfast!

I'm not a vegetable expert, but this (whatever it was) was good!

simple, yet delicious salmon,

bacon and egg with a little salad on the side,

miso soup,

and some yogurt and coffee to finish things off.

That breakfast of champions set me up nicely for a day of walking around the shrines in the area (which I will cover in the next post).

Dinner that night and breakfast the next morning followed a similar, delectable pattern.  I can definitely say that the food alone is worth the nightly cost of the ryokan.  

There is also a beautifully deep bath to sink into (up to the neck) to wash away the aches of walking through the mountains.

The next morning before I left, I wandered around for a few last photos.

I reluctantly said goodbye to Hidenori and his wife and left to catch the bus back to Nagano city.  (Thank you very much for your hospitality, I will be back!)

It truly was a great way to spend a couple of nights, and at 9,000 yen a night, including breakfast and dinner, an extremely reasonably priced place to stay, especially when you consider the level of customer service and Japanese hospitality (omotenashi) that you receive when staying here.

If you find yourself heading to Togakushi (and it is a naturally beautiful mountain getaway), look to Oshi Ryokan first for accommodation.  You will not regret it!

Thanks again for having a read.  I hope you are enjoying this mini series of posts on Nagano.  If you are, please leave a comment below, and keep an eye out for part 4.

See you next time.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Nagano - the Nakasendo and Magome (The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray - Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a weekend trip to Nagano.  You can read Part 1 here.

I woke up early in the morning the next day, the day I had been waiting 6 months for, the day I was going to walk along the Nakasendo.  I woke up to sounds that sent chills down my spine.  I woke up to the sound of rain.....very heavy rain.....  I opened the curtains and looked outside to see torrential rain and my heart sank.  It looked like the typhoon had done a 360 degree turn and come back to haunt us again.

We trudged downstairs for breakfast, an extremely good breakfast I must say!

We had a solemn discussion over dinner about what to do.  The problem was there was nowhere in town to buy a poncho to keep the rain off and not all of us had brought umbrellas.  Even then, a danger in mountain areas that have just received a lot of rain is that there is a small risk of landslides so we decided we had no choice but to cancel the walk along the Nakasendo.  It was a disappointing decision to have to make, but one that was unavoidable.  I immediately thought "Okay, this just means that I have to make another trip back here another time", and that was not such a bad thing.  I was in a beautiful part of the world.

Walking back down the stairs to my room, I glanced outside and it looked as though the rain might be lifting.

It was only brief, however as pretty soon it started up again.

We decided not to let ourselves be totally defeated by the rain and grabbing a loaner umbrella from the ryokan, we headed out into the rain to look around the village in the gloomy daylight.  Evidence of the amount of rain that had fallen came in the way of this.

The previous night as we were walking around, this wheel had not been turning at all.  Today it was spinning so madly that I feared it would come off and go racing down the street leaving a path of destruction in it's wake!

We walked further along the street and we passed what Miwa told me was a place for the upper class to stay on their journey along the Nakasendo in the old days

and a little further along, a place for the royals or the ruling class to stay.

All the way along the street there were examples of the beautifully manicured Japanese gardens that I love so much.

Soon we arrived at a temple that had been closed the previous night when we had been exploring and now we found it open so we walked inside

and poking our heads inside we found this.

Miwa got her temple and shrine book signed by the resident monk (who looked like he had just woken up.  I thought the life of a monk was a harsh life, with early starts and prayers under freezing cold waterfalls!) and we left the temple and headed back out onto one of the streets.  This street was quite beautiful, lined with rustic old houses dating back at least a couple of hundred years.


Continuing along the path, we began to hear the roar of the river, much louder than it had been the previous night, so we walked in that direction and soon enough, the river came into view.

There was much more water and it was flowing much more ferociously than it had been the previous night.  Another sign of just how much rain had fallen overnight.

Soon enough we decided that we had had enough of walking in the rain and found a coffee shop and wandered in and out of the rain.  The owner greeted us and totally surprised me with his perfect English.  He asked me where I was from and I said "Adelaide" to which he replied "Ah, the capital city of South Australia".  Now there are not many people who know Adelaide here in Japan, and even less who know that it is the capital of South Australia!  Naturally, I asked him why he knew that and he said that he had worked for SAFCOL (The South Australian Fisherman's Co-operative Limited) for 32 years!  Amazing, in the middle of nowhere to meet someone who I had a connection with was surreal.  We sat down and he left us to enjoy our coffee.

Most of the shops were now open (I guess they carefully coincide opening time with check-out times of most of the ryokan) and we came across a guy who was working a lathe and making beautifully crafted pens from a huge variety of different kinds of wood.  They ranged in price from about 1,000 yen all the way up to 10,000 yen, depending on the wood used.

We stopped for a quick snack of beef skewers and pickled cucumber

before jumping in a taxi and making our way to Magome.  As we were driving along the road, every now and then we caught a glimpse of the Nakasendo and a reminder of what we were missing out on.....

We arrived in Magome and while it was an old town, just like Tsumago, it had a completely different feel to it.  Part of the reason for that might have been that the rain had eased somewhat and the place appeared a little brighter.  Most of the reason was that Magome was a more polished offering.  It was a more pristine, tidy place, a place that had prepared itself to be an attractive tourist town whereas Tsumago had a much more rustic, authentic appeal to it.  While both were great examples of small country Japanese villages, I think I preferred Tsumago with it's innocence and "this is what life was really like" attitude.

We started out along the main shopping street that was lined with shops, ryokans, guesthouses and restaurants.

As you can see from those pictures, Magome really markets itself to a different kind of tourist than Tsumago does.  Each has their own special charm and while Magome had more of a small town Kyoto feel to it, Tsumago was more like a Takayama or a Narai.

At the end of the street there were some beautiful rice fields.

Stomachs had started rumbling by this time, however, so we made our way back up the street to a restaurant we had see earlier and sat down to a delicious (late) lunch.

The chicken and spring onion rice bowl was great, with the chicken having a beautiful smokey flavour to it.  We set about enjoying lunch being cooled by numerous fans (the restaurant had no air conditioning.  Well I guess that was authentic!), sweating away in the stifling humidity that is the Japanese summer.

Finishing up, we caught a taxi back to Nagiso station and jumped on a train to go to Nagano city.  At this point Lydia left us to make her way back to Tokyo, work beckoning her the following day.

Yuuki and I were able to get front row seats for the ride to Nagano!

A couple of hours later we arrived at Nagano and Yuuki and Miwa made sure I knew where to catch my bus before they headed off to nearby Ueda city where Miwa's parents live.  They were to spend the night there before meeting up with me the next day in Tagakushi which was to be my next destination.

I jumped on my bus for the one hour ride to Togakushi readying myself for the next phase of our adventure, hoping that Mother Luck would finally smile on us and we would have a trouble free day.

Thanks again for reading this update.  Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this post, and please join me back here again soon for my next post.  See you soon.