A Winter Wonderland: Nozawa Onsen, Nagano

Where do you travel for your first year anniversary when you’re already living halfway around the world?  Why, Nagano of course.  Buying the tickets for our trip to Nozawa Onsen, Nagano was an ordeal, to say the least.  Fortunately, our local travel agency is staffed with very nice people who treat us like they do any other and speak to us normally (albeit, only in Japanese).  Unfortunately, due to Christmas season procrastination, we were unable to book our stay for as long as we would have liked.  This meant that we would have an extremely compressed adventure to celebrate our first-year anniversary.

10:03 p.m., Thursday – On the night bus: Call it anything but sleep…

A ride on the night bus is not conducive to sleep.  The chairs are narrow, air stuffy and ride bumpy.    Getting rest is nigh impossible.  In fact, by the time we arrived at Nozawa Onsen, I was more sore than an entire day of riding would normally render me.

Unfortunately, our ride on the night bus was prolonged.   Accumulating fresh snow had caused many of the roads to disappear.  We awoke around 8 a.m. to overhear our bus driver and his partner discussing various strategies.  Although jovial, they were unsure as to whether we could make it.  At one point, the road was choked by both an accumulation of fresh snow and a miniature avalanche. There was barely enough room for a single car to make it through, let alone a bus.  Thanks in large part to nature and dumb ass kei-car drivers attempting to drive featherweight cars in fresh snow, we were stuck for quite a while.  But never fear, our bus driver, his partner and several virile old men arose to the challenge.

Their challenge was as follows: 1) defeat mother nature, 2) rescue the stranded kei-car, 3) contend with the arrival of a second kei-car, and 4) widen the road without causing a second mini avalanche which would ensure we were completely stranded.  They did all this with a pair of tin dust pans and a broom.  Yah, this is why we didn’t get involved.  That and you can only fit so many fully grown men around a kei-car.  Five is definitely more than enough.  Besides, the wives of the three old men were so proud of them.  They had all the bases covered.  After a further 45 minutes, we were back on track.

9:00 a.m., Friday – Check-in and hit the slopes…

We made it to our hotel shortly after 9 a.m..  After checking in, ditching our gear and changing, our friends set off to locate their rental equipment while I set up our boards.  We agreed to meet at the base of a particular chair sometime around 11 a.m..

Unbeknownst to us, our friends were not having the greatest time picking up their rental gear.  Although one of them was given completely new gear to use, the other was given 1980s trash.  Remember those hideous white boots with the single faded purple buckle?  I swear, they were manufactured in the bowels of hell itself.  Equipment issues aside for the moment, the snow conditions were fantastic!  An empty mountain with fresh powder under sapphire skies: it doesn’t get any better than that!

6:30 p.m., Friday: Dinner, the rental saga & a much needed onsen visit…

At dinner, we found out our friends had complained to the rental company about one of their sets of ski equipment.  You see, during the day the equipment had caused nothing but problems.  The boots were an injury waiting to happen and the skis were thrashed.  Telling the rental guy that the he provided shitty service didn’t go over too well.  From the sounds of it, the complaint quickly turned into a standoff which eventually lead to a stalemate.  After arguing in Japanese, pseudo swearing in Japanese (there aren’t really any swear words in Japanese), and shedding blood, sweat and tears, our friends were routed by the rental guy.  They were given the run around, told to give back both sets of gear and received only a small portion of their money back.  The chances of finding two sets of gear, including humongous boots (Japanese standards: anything above 10US is huge), on a Friday night are extremely slim.  Luckily, they were able to find newer equipment at another rental place.

After our horrific night bus ride, an awesome day on the slopes and our friends’ stressful encounter with the rental shop, we were all ready for some down time in an onsen.  For those who are unaware, an onsen is basically a public bath-house which utilizes natural hotspring water.  So far, so good.  Some onsens become famous for their ability to heal particular ailments.  Pilgrims will travel from afar in order to soak in the holy grail of their choice.  However, there is very little empirical evidence to back up the healing properties of onsens.  Regardless, according to my observations, they are really good exfoliants (oh, the floaties!).

I won’t get into the details of onsen etiquette here.  We might have broken one or two rules and were possibly yelled at just as we were leaving.  It should be noted, though, that onsens are generally split by gender and are nude.  The water was scalding hot!  Apparently, it was 72 degrees C.  It was nearly impossible to soak in, although all the locals and non-Western visitors seemed to have no trouble at all.  Needless to say, with this being my first onsen visit, being boiled and yelled at can hardly be considered relaxing.  Ah well, there’s always a bottle of sake to turn to when all else fails.

5:45 p.m., Saturday: An unsuspecting dish…

I woke up to an announcement by our bus driver, completely starving!  From what I could decipher, we only had 20 minutes to cram some sort of food into our bellies at the rest stop we were pulling into.  He kept mentioning something about sakura niku, which perplexed my groggy head.  First of all, sakura is what cherry blossoms are called.  Niku is meat.  I believed the two to be mutually exclusive of each other.  I chalked up this simple misunderstanding to just waking up.  Big mistake.

With a time crunch on my hands, I rushed into the rest stop, abandoning genkiduck en route and made for the nearest ticket vending machine.  These machines offer a variety of food selections, but no food.  They print a ticket which is redemeble at the designated vendor.  As it takes me quite a while to decipher kanji, I focused mainly on the two kana’s and accompanying photographs.  I also looked for the kanji signifying niku.  I settled on a nice bowl of soba with some kind of shaved meat on top.  I bought my ticket and was about to walk towards the vender when I noticed something odd about the hastily drawn sketch taped to the photo.  Initially, I took this sketch to be a cow.  However, something about this particular cow just didn’t seem right.  It had buck teeth, no horns, a tuft of hair between the ears and a white mark running down its chocolate-coloured nose.  Unfortunately, there was no time to critique an artist’s rendition of a cow.

I ran up to the vender, handed over my ticket and waited for my food.  With less than 10 minutes to spare, I received my piping hot food and made my way to a table.  The soup base was sweet and the meat tender.  As I ate, my curiosity got the best of me.  I pulled out my keitai and pumped 桜肉 (sakura niku) into my translator.  Ever hear the saying “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse?”  Well, apparently I was just that hungry…

12:20 a.m., Sunday: Second dinner…

We stumbled through our front door of our house in Sakura starving, exhausted and freezing cold. We quickly realized there was no food in the fridge, our house was 3 degrees and our car hated us.  As I got the house heating up, we drove to McDonald’s (with the check engine light on) for an early morning dinner.  This involved us attempting our first drive-thru in Japan.  I only nominally screwed up the ordering process.  Ah well, what’s one extra Quarter Pounder packed into a completely empty, rumbling stomach?  At least I know it wasn’t horse…

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