0312 + 0613 = 0405 Shin-Hotaka Ropeway and Fukuji Onsen
It’s a blog post about our day on 05 April in Osaka, written on 12 March and 13 June (I know! I can’t believe I’m still writing about it in June!). 12 March is in black. 13 June is in red italic. But trust me, this was the most exciting, adventurous, authentic Japanese, and holiday-like day of the whole trip.
It’s 12 of March today and I’m thinking about one of our most exciting days in Japan, because it will be different! No more old and neat streets. We’ll see mountains and hot springs!
We’ll take a bus from Takayama to Shin-Hotaka after we have a stroll in the well-known morning markets in Takayama. It didn’t happen somehow, probably because of the rain. And we spent a bit of time deliberating on bus pass and time to set off. The lesson was, no matter how well you prepare beforehand, things wouldn’t all go smoothly (have you only just learnt that?!).
The bus went through villages and occasional ski resorts and headed into more and more mountains. It was on this bus journey that we worked out how bus fare was calculated. And the bus fare machine was so clever that I spent the whole time watching people buying tickets.
The first destination is Japan’s only double decker cable car station! If you follow my blog every now and then, you would know that I love hiking in mountains. I’ve only done that in the UK so far. I’m looking forward to the day that I can walk on a mountain path in Japan.
In my opinion, cable car is a “dishonest” way of climbing mountains. But as a sightseeing tourist rather than a proper walker, I have no objection to see Japanese Alps from a mountain top by cheating. And you can get to about 2300 metres altitude in about 10 minutes! It’s too tempting to miss the chance.
The highest mountain I’ve walked so far is Helvellyn in the Lake District and that was about 950 metre altitude. This was two and a half time higher! It was a bit difficult to imagine two and a half Helvellyns on top of each other on an island just like Great Britain (Japan is slightly bigger though).
We arrived fairly early, the whole place was empty. The cloud hadn’t lifted at all. I hoped that the cable car would take us above the cloud, but that didn’t happen. It was freezing cold, wet and miserable.
When we got onto the top, there was a viewing platform. There was a staff photographer who was supposed to take photos for tourists against the view. We met one when we were on the viewing platform in Shiragawa-go Village one day ago. We had amazing weather in Shiragawa-go. In comparison, I felt really sorry for the photographer here. He was standing in the wet, freezing, miserable weather on top of the mountain, still with a smile, a bit embarrassed to ask if we would like a photo, but still trying to do his job. Poor guy should have a day off!
I don’t plan to walk for hours because something else exciting is following – a ryokan (Japanese style inn) with proper Fukuji onsen (hot spring)! Fukuji is one of the Okuhida Hot Spring Villages east of Takayama, snuggled right in the heart of Japanese Alps. So far we’ve been staying in hotels and hostels with cheap price tags. But this one is different! And 5th of April 2015 will be memorable.
I wasn’t so keen on the idea of an onsen (hot spring in Japanese). It’s the most foreign concept of all. I may not have seen thousands of cherry blossoms, but I’ve seen a few of them. I haven’t been on a Japanese mountain, but it can’t be that different to the ones in the UK. I haven’t tried much Japanese food, but what can you do wrong with food, just put them in your mouth. But have you been to a public bath before? Have you been to a mixed gender public bath where swimming suits and towels are not allowed (i.e. completely naked)? I haven’t!
Unlike any other subject, there’s no “tutorial” on how to take a bath in Japan with detailed instructions and picture illustrations, for obvious reasons (maybe not that obvious). There are general instructions like leave all your clothes in the basket, take a shower first, do not wear a swimming suit and do not put your towel in the water. However, the information is not sufficient for my imagination. Do you walk around naked between bath area, shower area and changing area (I guess the answer is yes)? How do people take a shower sitting down, with shower head waist height and a bowl on the floor? Etc etc. I really wasn’t going to risk it.
Until I found something called “private/family” bath that can be hired for a short time just for two of us. How considerate! After reading a few travel blogs about onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese style), I decided (pleaded with my husband) to splash out on this night, for a multiple course Hida beef dinner and a couple of good soaks in private onsens. The one we chose in the end wasn’t the most expensive but not the cheapest either among two thousand other onsen ryokans in this area.
I imagine the evening to be relaxing and luxuriously nice, with a real fire, quality food, hot onsen under the stars with a mountain view, drinking cold milk and snuggling in futon bed on woven mats with a fresh smell of grass. Sweet dream!
The reality was exactly as I dreamt if not better.
We got off the bus at the top of the village and walked a little distance. The village was silent with no sign of people, let alone tourists. We followed rustic signs and found this was where we were staying. The ryokan was called Yamazatonoiori Soene. I was screaming with excitement inside if I didn’t scream out loud. A young Japanese couple arrived in a car at the same time as us. We guessed they were on their honeymoon. This really was a perfect place for honeymoon and I would also bring my parents if there’s ever a chance in the future.
A young girl greeted us with a dainty tray of green tea and sweet snacks, a hand drawn map and a book of rules in just enough English. We were soon led to our room, through rustic but luxuriously decorated entrance hall and corridors. And this was the first thing that jumped into my eyes.
The thing in the middle of the room is called kotatsu (炬燵), which usually is a coffee table with a duvet on top, and is heated inside. I’ve seen this piece of furniture in many many Japanese cartoons. There was one specific one, where the little girl would fall asleep under it on purpose when the rest of the family watched TV together on winter nights. Then her father would carry her to her bed. I always remember that bit of the story, where she enjoyed “floating” in the air in her dream, from kotatsu to bed. This was the first time I saw and experienced the real thing. How exciting!
I also loved the big cupboard in the wall, where I could stuff everything in and keep the room tidy.
We wasted as little time as we couldn’t help taking photos in our room, before with great uncertainty, we got changed into yukata (bathing clothes, although not limited to after-bath wear) and headed towards the onsen. There were three private onsens, which we tried two. There was a big separate gender one which we didn’t have time to try. There were also two outdoor ones (separate gender) with special characteristics, which we tried at night, right next to a rushing river, the husband enjoyed it thoroughly, I wouldn’t help thinking about horror movies, especially Japanese ones, and got really scared.
The dinner started at 6pm and lasted for about 2 hours. I never had so many different dishes in one meal in my life. I have to confess I wasn’t sure what I was eating for some of the dishes. But everything was pleasing to the eye as well as to the stomach. Here are just a few dishes we had:
The honeymoon couple had dinner in the same room with us at the same time. It was really funny and reassuring to see they were as excited as us, wow-ing and ooh-ing every few seconds. We ended up laughing together across the room when we heard each other’s camera shutters snapping at the same time.
We went back to our room with bellies sticking out, sat down in the heated and duvet-ed table and saw this exquisite beautiful snacks:
After long soaks and satisfying dinner, we snuggled under the table like lazy cats. The thing made me feel so relaxed and holiday-like was the fact that we were watching TV before bed! We flew over continents and oceans to this place not to squeeze into museums and galleries, or measure the distance of the streets and parks with our feet, but to watch a silly and funny Japanese film about an ancient Roman man traveling through time back and forth to modern Japan and amazed at the hi-tech bathroom facilities and bringing them back to ancient Roman bath houses. We couldn’t understand a word they said, but it didn’t stop us understanding and enjoying it. Somehow it made me very happy.
And that was the best day of my holiday in Japan.