Monday, June 9, 2014

Central Japan - May 2014

Day 1 - Nagoya airport - Gujo Hachiman - Shirakawago - Takayama

Gujo Hachiman 

A small town of rural Japan - best known for its historic waterways.  The town has many small museums and galleries

Shirakawago - UNESCO World Heritage site

Shirakawago, a secluded snowy mountain village retains the historic landscape with some 150 traditional farmhouse-style houses called Gassho zukuri.  The shape of the roof is like two hands in prayer and the act is called Gassho in Japanese.

Open air museum - Gassho zukuri Museum

Main hall of a folk house 

Traditional crafts such as dyeing and weaving were done in such folk houses in the past

25 folk houses with roofs thatched in the gassho or "praying hands" style were transferred from the Shirakawa village to the open air museum.  

Takayama - Yamakyu ryokan

This warm and cosy ryokan is located near the temples and shrines area north of Takayama town centre.  Nice food, friendly owner, decent onsens, though room is a little small - good value.

Shrines and temple area behind the ryokan

Day 2 - Takayama Morning Market, San-machi - Shinhotaka Ropeway - Omachi City

Takayama - Miyagawa Morning Market

A pleasant morning walk around the Miyagawa morning market - roadside stalls selling fresh produce - vegetables, flowers as well as stores selling titbits, crafts, cafe, restaurants lined the single street market.

These 2 famous statutes - one with extra long legs and the other with extra long arms flank the bridge at the entrance to the market.

A popular store selling hot buns with hida beef filling - yummy.

Centre of the old town of Takayama - 3 main streets lined with stores selling traditional wares, crafts, inns, breweries and restaurants

A store selling crafts of birds

The faceless Hida doll is symbol of Hida Takayama

Brewery with a ball made of cedar leaves hanging outside

Store selling crafts of rabbits -simply adorable

Shinhotaka Ropeway - Okuhida

Japan's only double-decker gondolas. From the observation deck (2,156m), one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Northern Japanese Alps - the Yari and Hotaka Mountains


Omachi City
Omachi City is one of the gateway to the Alpine route. We stayed 2 nights at the Kurobe Kanko ryokan, using it as a base to do the Alpine route.  The ryokan is about 20 min drive to Ogizawa station - our starting point for the Alpine route.  The ryokan offers buffet dinner and breakfast, has good size room and nice onsens.  The buffet dinner is good value - skip the keiseikei dinner though.

Day 3 - Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

The route for crossing the Northern Japan Alps is accessible by various means of public transport (no cars allowed).  The Alpine route span between Nagano and Toyama.  One can start the route at either side.  We started from the Ogizawa station at Omachi in Nagano. Bought a return ticket (9,050 yen per adult) from Ogizawa station to Murodo.  The ticket covers all type of transport along the route.

 First type of transport - Tunnel Trolley Bus - 15 min underground trolley bus from Ogizawa station to Kurobe Dam. 

The picturesque Kurobe Lake

The magnificent Kurobe Dam (1,470m) completed in 1963 is one of the largest dam in Japan.

Kurobe Dam water discharge period from late June to mid Oct.  The view of water discharge from a height of 186m  is supposed to be quite stunning.  On a fine day, the spray sometime creates a rainbow.

From Kurobe Dam, take a 5 min  ride on the Kurobe Cable Car (running through an underground tunnel) to Kurobedaira (1,828m). From Kurobedairo transfer to the Tateyama Ropeway (7 min) to Daikanbo.

The Tateyama Ropeway overlooks Kurobe Lake and provides stunning views of the Tateyama mountain range.

The Observatory at Daikanbo (2,316m) provides an unparalleled view of the Alpine route

From Daikanbo, take a 10 min  ride on the Tunnel trolley bus to Murodo (2,450m).  Murodo is where the action is.  There are restaurants, a hotel, souvenirs shop near the Murodo station.  The Snow Corridor is just 5 min walk from the station.
Lunch at a restaurant at Murodo

The snow in Murodo starts to fall in mid October and melt by mid July. The Snow Corridor is open to public around mid -April to mid-June
Bulldozers and GPS are used to plough through the Alpine route covered 20m with snows.  It takes roughly 7-10 days to clear the snow.

Yuki-no-Otani means "big valley of snow" is one of the area in Mt Tateyama with heaviest snow fall.

                       The highest point of the snow wall is 13 m. 2390 m above sea level. 7 deg.

We ended the Alpine trip at Murodo and took a return trip back to Ogizawa.  Alternatively, one can complete the whole route and end in Tateyama Station at Toyama.

We went in late May and weather was getting hot. Warm clothing is still required at the Alpine route although it was very hot and sunny the day we were there.  Thick winter clothing is not necessary but layering is recommended and put lots of sunscreen and wear a cap.

Day 4 - Nagano - Zenkoji Temple - Obuse Town- Shibu Onsen

Zenkoji Temple
Founded around 1400 years ago is a national treasure.  Every Japanese who visit Nagano will visit the temple.

Shops lined along the street in front of the temple selling souvenirs, soba, ice-cream etc.  This area is famous for wheat stuff like wheat ice-cream and wheat soba

Different flavour of wheat soba

A quaint little town rich in art and culture way back to the Edo period. Obuse is famous for 2 things - the famous painter Hokusai and chestnut.

Chestnut alley

Japanese paper crafts

Chestnut rice and chestnut ice-cream are must-try while in Obuse.  The fish was very delicious.

Shibu Onsen
Guests staying in ryokans in Shibu Onsen are given free access to the 9 public onsens. The public onsens are visited by tourists as well as local residents in that area. Separate onsen for men and women. The water is very very hot.  Each onsen has healing effects for different ailments such as eczema, gout, stomach and intestines.  The biggest onsen is No.9 which cure all sickness.  Manage your expectation - the onsens are very basic.  

The fun about "onsen-hopping" is the experience of wearing the Yukata and the Japanese clogs, "clogging" along the narrow alley lined with traditional shops, restaurants, ryokans - like what the locals did in the bygone- era.

This is one of the 9 public onsens in Shibu Onsen.

                                 Hida beef for dinner at the Shibu Hotel - a family owned ryokan

A pleasant stroll after dinner along the alley lined with traditional ryokans, onsens, restaurants. The restaurants were closed but there were tourists and locals bustling around doing onsens-hopping and foot bath.

A very nice ryokan in Shibu Onsen 

The lobby area of Shibu Hotel has very nostalgic decors. Replicate of old-school classroom - note the old-school bags hanging on the wooden chairs 

Old school typewriter, turntable and radio

Day 5 - Yamanouchi - Monkey Park - Daio wasabi farm (Azumino) - Matsumoto Castle - Okuhida Onsen
Yamanouchi - Jigokudani Monkey Park

The monkey park is about 10 min drive from Shibu Onsen.  Most ryokans in Shibu Onsen provide transport to the park.  Advisable to take hotel's transport even if one has a car because the mountain road is very steep and narrow.  From the carpark, it takes about 10-15 min to walk up the hills to the park.

Around 160 wild monkeys live in the forest near the onsen.  They normally visit the onsen in the morning for a bath especially during winter to escape the cold.

The 15th generation Monkey Boss - reining since May 2011

Daio Wasabi Farm - Azumino - Nagano
One of the largest wasabi farm in Japan

Vendor selling fresh wasabi

Wasabi soba, wasabi beer and wasabi juice for lunch.  Of course, followed by wasabi ice-cream for dessert. The juice is very refreshing.

Matsumoto Castle
Built 400 years ago has 5 layers but 6 floors and is one of the 4 castles designated as national treasure in Japan.
Back view of the Castle

View of the bridge taken from the Castle

Armour Samurai

Side view

Front view

View of the garden fronting the Castle taken from the Castle.
The Northern Japanese Alps can be seen in the backdrop.

Inside the castle - certain stairs are very steep and narrow

Hotakaso Sangetsu Ryokan -
Okuhida Onsen

Imposing entrance to the ryokan - this ryokan is touted as one of the luxurious ryokan in Okuhida Onsen

There are a few open air onsens outside the ryokan across the road.  Separate onsens for men, women and mixed as well as 2 private open air onsens for hotel guests.  Here is one of the beautiful open air onsen. Within the ryokan, there are separate indoor and outdoor onsens.  One can also take a shuttle bus to a nearby sister ryokan for onsen bath.

Waterfall feature within the ryokan

Hida beef for dinner


Day 6 - Kamikochi - Takayama - Nagoya


Kamikochi is the perfect place to enjoy the beauty of the Japanese mountain range. Cars are not allowed in Kamikochi.  We parked our car at the Hirayu Parking area (about 20 min drive from Okuhida Onsen) and bought a return bus ticket to Kamikochi (2050 yen per adult).  Bus journey from Hirayu to Kamikochi was around 15 min. Alighted at the first bus stop - Taishoike bus stop. Walked leisurely for about 2 hours from Taisho Pond area to Kappa Bridge. Soaking in the wonders and marvels of nature along the way. 

Taisho Pond - the view is stunning

Kamikochi is one of the Japan's signature scenic spots located at an altitude of 1,500m.  The clear flow of Azusa River, the mystical colour of Taisho Pond and splendor of Mt Hotaka and other mountains in the 3,000 m range are all beautiful creations that are simply awesome.

Taishori Pond - amazing colour

Tashiro Bridge

Kappa Bridge
Our trip ended at Kappa Bridge. Took the bus from the bus terminal next to the bridge back to Hirayu Onsen. If time permits, one can walk beyond the Kappa Bridge area to the Myojin Pond area.  This will probably take another couple of hours of leisure walk.

Takayama - Kitchen Hida
As the restaurant is popular,we asked the ryokan concierge at Okuhida Onsen to make reservation for us. It was not easy to find the restaurant as it was tuck away at a side lane - we asked a store keeper who kindly directed us to the restaurant.

A5 Grade - Best grade Hida beef.  We ordered a set lunch for 2 person which include sirloin steak and filet. The sirloin steak just melt in your mouth. Worth the indulgence. 

The soup was very nice too.
The restaurant serves pork chop as well to cater for those who do not take beef.

A sushi restaurant at JR Tower (13th floor) above JR Takashimaya

Order was made from the touch screen and the food was delivered via the conveyor belt in the round plate.  The sushi were very fresh.

All time favourite - sea urchin - yum
A wonderful dinner to round up the  fantastic trip to Central Japan.

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