Winter Wonderland Tour •
Matsumoto, Kanazawa, & Takayama
We wanted cold, snowy, beautiful Japan and we got it in spades. After a few days in Tokyo, we set off to explore the wonders of the Japanese Alps. To begin with, traveling by rail in Japan is such a treat because the trains are so efficient, fast, and impeccably clean. We covered a lot of ground, but our travels felt serene thanks to the extraordinary views, the ease of travel, and probably the lack of other travelers. Japan is winter is sublime.
Here is a great travel hack: you can send your bags ahead of you when traveling through Japan. Speak to your hotel because they can arrange to send your luggage so, if for example, you are only spending one night somewhere, you can travel with just a small bag and the rest of your luggage will be awaiting you when you get to your next stop. Like I said, it's all very efficient.
Our first stop was Matsumoto, where we explored Matsumoto Castle, also known as the "Crow Castle" due to its black exterior. You could see how strategic the architectural planning was in the upper windows, which were designed for shooting bows, and a variety of other details beyond the moat and towers. We stayed one night at Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu, which was perfectly lovely and comfortable. We really enjoyed the French/Japanese dinner and the help in planning our next day's excursion to see the snow monkeys. The truth is the snow monkeys were our priority and this stop in Matsumoto was more strategic than an actual interest in going deep in this town.
Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Getting to the snow monkey park is a bit of an expedition, but thankfully our trip was very smooth. You take a train to Nagano Station (about 1.5 hours) and from there, an express bus that takes about 55 minutes. The bus will take you to the base of the mountain and the walk to the entrance is another 30 minutes. I had been watching the weather closely to make sure it wasn't going to be a snowstorm on the mountain and when we got to Nagano Station we decided the weather was ok and we should go for it. We threw our luggage into a locker in the station after grabbing some extra layers and managed to get some umbrellas for the flurries before getting on the bus.
The walk to the snow monkeys was absolutely beautiful and exactly what we'd hoped. Truly it was a winter wonderland, as everything was thickly coated in snow and more snow was coming down softly was we walked. The hike is not hard and in fact, on the way down, I saw some people going about it in an interesting fashion- one in heels, no lie... one dragging a roller suitcase behind him... and quite a few in other states of improperly dressed for the elements. But to each their own.
Quick fact: monkeys scare the bejesus out of me ever since one jumped on me in Thailand many years ago. I had been warned that these monkeys could be aggressive, so I made sure to wear my camera on a strap around my neck so no monkey would run off with it. It was fine.
The monkeys were walking around and playing in the snow. There was a big group of them chilling in the warm springs. It really was an amazing experience and I highly recommend it if you're traveling in Japan in the winter.
From the Snow Monkey park, we retraced our steps to Nagano Station, where we retrieved our bags and then got on a train bound for Kanazawa. We were pretty exhausted by the time we got to Kanazawa and were happy to shower at our hotel, Hotel Trusty. The hotel was super cute and would have been great for two of us, but stuffing a third person into our room made it laughable. We could barely move around with our suitcases taking up the last available floor space. I thought about hiring another room, but honestly didn't want to spend any more money. Thankfully it was not a real problem, but traveling requires an open mind and sometimes the need to just roll with whatever is in front of you. The hotel was in a great location and we went out for sushi at Mori Mori Sushi in a nearby mall. The line was long, a good sign, so we were happy that we were inside waiting because the temperature was dropping rapidly outside.
Our first full day in Kanazawa was great. The sky was grey and it was pretty cold, with occasional snow flurries, but it wasn't cold enough to keep us from walking around. I can imagine how spectacular this town would be in spring with all the cherry blossoms in bloom. We enjoyed walking around Nagamachi Buke Yashiki, which was originally home to the city's samurai. It is not hard to envision that piece of history while walking around the narrow streets. Many of these residences maintain their original earthen walls, which are still covered in the winter with straw mats to protect them from frost and subsequent cracking. A walk through Nagamachi, where an Edo-period atmosphere still lingers, offers a glimpse into the heritage of Kanazawa and Japan.
We also enjoyed exploring the Oyama Shrine, which is right in the middle of town. The gardens are beautiful and lovely to walk around, despite the fact that they are quite bare at this time of year.
The Omicho Market was a fun diversion, as we always love exploring a local market. It's history dates back to the Edo Period and has been providing locals with fresh food ever since.
The architecture and serenity at the D.T. Suzuki Museum was perfect for our cold, grey afternoon. The man to whom it’s dedicated, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, single-handedly brought Zen Buddhism to the west and the museum’s primary purpose is to provide an atmosphere for meditative thought and learning. We watched snowflakes create small ripples on the outdoor mirror-garden water.
Unfortunately our second day in Kanazawa was a little bit of a bust because the wind and cold really picked up and it was truly unpleasant to be out walking around. Every attempt to go out exploring, led us back to a warm, cozy cafe where we parked ourselves for long stretches.
Places we ate:
Aashirwad. Single-handedly the best Nepalese food I have ever eaten. The homemade naan was sublime and the woman working there was so lovely and inviting. We felt like we were welcomed into someone's home for lunch and it was just the break from the cold that we needed. While we were eating, we kept noticing a couple of local girls stealing furtive glances at us. Finally the woman running the restaurant came up to us and said, these girls would really love to take a photo with you- do you mind? It was so cute, they really didn't speak english, but were excited that we were from California.
Curio Espresso and Vintage Design. This cool little coffee shop had a great breakfast sandwich.
Mori Mori Sushi. Well, we liked it so much we braved the long lines to eat there two nights in a row!
Gold Dipped Ice Cream. Soft served wrapped in gold leaf is a Kanazawa specialty and we couldn't leave without trying it. Japan has the most amazing ice cream and we tried it all, even in the cold!
This was our final leg on our amazing winter wonderland tour and I think we saved the best for last! From the moment we got to our ryokan in Takayama, Oyado Koto No Yume, we knew we were going to love it here. The check in process was always so civilized and calming in every hotel in Japan, but this whole place just exuded serenity. They gave us yukatas and kimonos and slippers and little socks with space for our toes to go into the sandals. There was tea and snacks. The snow was gently coming down outside and we were so warm and comforted inside. This was our second traditional ryokan experience in Japan, and a step up from the one in Hakone. We loved the meals we were provided as well. They were so elaborate and delicious.
Mostly we just enjoyed walking around Takayama. The kids found an adorable woman selling dango, small round Mochi balls skewed on bamboo sticks and covered with a gooey sweet and salty brown sauce. We visited her every day. The Miyagawa Morning Market also had some amazing food from crunchy apples to an unforgettable custard pot. Other sights we enjoyed seeing were the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine and the Hida Kokobunji Temple. We made sure to by some popular Takayama souvenirs, sarubobo dolls, before leaving. These colorful little dolls were traditionally gifts that grandmothers would make for their grandchildren, as well as gifts that mothers would give their daughter as a charm to bless her daughter with good children and a happy marriage. Now they make them in a variety of colors, each representing a different wish.
All in all, I think what we enjoyed most was just the feeling of being able to have such a relaxing time in Takayama. We didn't feel like we needed to rush to a lot of sights - our agenda was pretty empty and it made for an amazing few days.