By David Armstrong
I have been traveling to and around Japan for 15 years now, but for the first 10 years or so, 'around' wasn't quite the right word. Bedazzled by the bright lights and fast-forward style of Japan's great cities, I rarely ventured beyond Tokyo or Kyoto.
In time, I realized I was limiting myself. I wanted to see another side of Japan. So, I journeyed to the upcountry town of Yamanouchi by way of Nagano. I began to understand how much more there is to Japan. I found Nagano city, with 375,000 people, very manageable, and Nagano Prefecture blessed with abundant fresh air, mountain vistas, tidy, productive farms, a relaxed pace and a form of wildlife found nowhere else in the world: the snow monkeys of Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park.
I knew Nagano as host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Indeed, the city and nearby mountains boast superb infrastructure for winter sports, a legacy of the Games. Hopping off the shinkansen from Tokyo, I immediately saw another legacy of the Olympics: Nagano's handsomely updated, vaulted-roof train station. It is a prime gateway to central Japan. I had a bowl of hot udon noodles there.
Changing to a slow local train, I chugged into the spiky crown of mountains ringing the city. Bare ground gave way to patchy snow and then to snowdrifts and pretty evergreens as we approached Yamanouchi, a low-slung town strung along both sides of the swift, clear Yokoyu River. Yamanouchi, only 45 minutes from Nagano, gave me the first glimpse of an old Japan I thought was gone. This was especially true in the tradition-minded Shibu-Onsen quarter. No one seemed to be in a hurry. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. It felt far away from the anonymity and adrenalin of the city.
The following morning, I hiked into the monkey park, up ice-covered footpaths, through glittering snow, inhaling great drafts of crystalline air. In 20 minutes, I was at the mineral hot springs where the snow monkeys - gray and white wild macaques who live in the surrounding woods - come to take the waters and get out of the cold. They had unexpectedly soulful eyes: heavy-lidded, with pooled depths that made them look philosophical, and beet-red faces. They soaked contently, occasionally skittering out of the onsen onto the wet rocks, as we humans took photos and videos with glowing cell phones and stomped our feet to warm our toes.
Back in town, I soaked-up Kokuya Ryokan and its traditional touches: tatami mats, sliding doors, snug futon, generous breakfasts and dinners with Nagano specialties such as huge, honey-sweet apples and earthy wasabi root grown next to clear-running streams. Outside my room, a wooden deck with an outdoor bath was draped in snow. Steam poured off the tub, the water drawn from the hot spring directly beneath the building. Kokuya has been operated by the same family for 16 generations, on the same spot. Now, when I think of Japan, I think of this.
1h 45 min to Nagano Station by JR Nagano Shinkansen Line.
1h from Shin-Osaka to Nagoya Station by Shinkansen, and 2h 47 min from Nagoya to Nagano Station by JR Chuo Line.