I had Monday off of school this week, so I took advantage of the three day weekend to hop down to Nagano prefecture. It’s lovely there, with hills and trees just on the edge of turning – in another week or so it should be a riot of color.

It turns out that there’s no real convenient way to get to Nagano – by the express train it takes about 4 hours, by the local trains it takes about 5, so my friend and I decided to save the 2000Y each way and take the local. It was less comfortable, and more crowded, but really just about the same length of time. We got into Nagano City at 1-ish, and headed straight to Zenkoji, the city’s most famous attraction and a very beautiful temple. There’s a very worn statue of a famous buddhist doctor, revered sort of at bodhisattva levels, that clearly is not old because people keep touching it. (It doesn’t have much of a face left, but given the number of people who vigorously rub it every day, it’s probably not more than 10 years old. I’m sure they have an old one tucked away somewhere and the statue available for touching is a replica.) Supposedly, he will grant you luck and freedom from aches and pains.

We went inside the temple, where we caught glimpses of the various statues and ornaments, and could see the Triple Holy Buddha statues who share one halo. (Only just barely, they were behind screens and .. stuff. These were also only replicas, replaced every 7 years in a special ceremony, and modeled on the REAL holy statue that is kept far from the eyes of peons like myself.) We were allowed to go into the basement area of the temple, which is pitch black and presumably some sort of meditation aid or something – you walk the path and search for a HUGELY SQUEAKY large metal door latch. Supposedly, touching the latch will bring enlightenment. (I don’t feel any change, maybe I was already enlightened? And here I was hoping I would miraculously learn the means of fixing our plummeted economy. SO MUCH FOR ENLIGHTENMENT.) Of course, it’s not so much of a “search” these days, since you basically just follow the person in front of you and listen for the sound of the squeaking handle.

It was lateish by that point, and we had hostel reservations in Matsumoto, a town about an hour away by train. So we wandered back to the train station, getting some miso ice cream on the way.

Okay. So Japan has all the standard ice cream flavors, all the Baskin Robins 31 and Haagen Daas options. But they really love their soft serve cones, and those are a little more limited. Usually they have chocolate, vanilla, and chocolate-vanilla swirl. Some places substitute green tea for chocolate, and of course have green tea-vanilla swirl. (Hugely unfair substitution in my eyes, but then, I’m not so fond of green tea ice cream.) Every now and then, you run across a place – or a region – that has a special option. In Kamakura, that was a violently purple sweet potato flavor, which I thought was kinda.. meh. We read in the guidebooks that the specialty in Nagano, miso flavor, was very popular in the summer months. I was hugely doubtful – miso is definitely a savory food, made from fermented something-or-other (best not to ask) and used in soups and as a marinade and smeared on grilled riceballs. It’s delicious – but so is mustard, and mustard flavored ice cream could only end in tears. But I was pleasantly surprised because:

Miso ice cream is unbelievably delicious.

No, really. It was incredibly good. Unfortunately, it was also freezing in Nagano, and we weren’t really prepared for 50 degree weather because it was definitely at least 65 in Imizu. So the ice cream made us sort of uncomfortably cold. (We had sweaters, and some layers, but really? I could have used a scarf. And a jacket. And after the sun went down, a hat.)

The specialty of Nagano prefecture is soba. And apples. And a tasty seven spice mix that comes in distinctive colorful tins and is usually used with soba dipping sauce.

Sadly, I hate soba. But I love apples! I bought a ridiculous apple almost as big as my head, which I planned to eat on the train ride home but then discovered really really needed some washing, so it’s sitting in my fridge. I’ll probably eat it tonight. (I’ll take a picture. It’s HUUUUGE.)

Anyway, we got back to the station and huddled happily in the warmth, and dozed a little on the ride to Matsumoto. We met our hostel owner at the station – they offered free rides too and from the station if they were organized beforehand and if they were available – and it turned out that the hostel we booked was pretty nice, actually. For the first time in Japan I was in a western style hostel, with bunk beds and mixed dorm style rooms, and everything was clean and comfortable if a little tiny. However, as a beginning connoisseur of hostels, I was disappointed by the absence of lockers in which to store valuable items – not that I really brought anything that needed locking up, except my wallet, which was only ever there while I was also there. But in NZ I often had my laptop with me, and it was nice to be able to lock that up safely while I went other places. Still, it was a nice hostel with free internet access and a helpful, English speaking owner.

In fact, the very first night we asked for advice on restaurants, and he directed us to a cute little izakaya (like a bar, but with more food options) – unfortunately, I thought I’d asked for a place with a picture menu, and the place he told us definitely had no picture menu, no English, and lots of incomprehensible kanji. However! We eventually conveyed that between the two of us we had 4000 Y to spend, that we would enjoy one alcoholic beverage each, and that the rest could be used to bring us delicious food of the owners choice. And also we would like some onigiri.

We feasted.

I guess when I’ve gone out before, there has been a lot more alcohol involved? Because I paid more than 2000Y the other times, and had less food. Or maybe this izakaya was cheap? Hard to know. But they brought us fish, and tempura, and fried chicken, and rice balls, and a hot pot stew thing, and sashimi, and booze, and maybe something else? I’m not sure. There was a lot of food. And it was all delicious! (Well, the fried chicken wasn’t super great. But everything else was!) And the owner brought us another two rice balls to take away, which we ate for breakfast the next morning.

We met some nice Americans in the hostel, a brother and sister who were touring Japan for a month and moving pretty quickly. They were heading off to Fuji the next day, so we gave them some advice about NOT DYING – the girl had a hostel booked, and was going to hike the green part at the bottom, which I actually haven’t done. (We skipped stations 1-4, and headed straight to number 5 to go up to 10, which is the summit.)

The boy was planning on spending the night on Fuji, climbing up to the top. He didn’t have a hostel booked – there wasn’t one available, apparently.

We tried to convey exactly how dumb this was. He didn’t have a sleeping bag, he didn’t have a heavy coat – I needed a coat in July and it is now October, clearly he was going to freeze to death. There aren’t any station huts open – the season is over – and websites all agree that after the first week of September Fuji is for Experienced Climbers Only – which he wasn’t. Also, he was going to be staying up there alone. Also he didn’t have hiking boots, just moderately sturdy shoes.

Hopefully we impressed upon him that this was an enormously bad plan, but it’s hard to know.

For our day in Matsumoto, we wandered in the general direction of the castle in the morning, but got Seriously Distracted by the Modern Art Museum. They had an exhibit by a local artist whose name I can’t remember, but who lived in NYC for years and years and does crazy stuff with polka dots and nets. Some of her stuff is paintings, but some of it is crazy installation rooms with mirrors and inflated things and lights, and some of it is Giant Sculpture. Outside the museum they had Giant Polkadotted Tulips – which, frankly, were awesome.

We stopped by the performing arts center – they’re going to be doing The Sound of Music, and the poster was hilariously similar to the American poster featuring Julie Andrews, right down to the female lead’s hair color and cut. (It looked bizarrely like they’d very skillfully photoshopped the Japanese woman’s face onto Julie Andrew’s body, actually. But presumably they didn’t.) The Performing Arts Center was actually very attractive – I have pictures, I’ll try to get those up soon. Soonish. (Maybe. If I don’t get crazy-lazy.)

By now it was lunchtime – we got really distracted in the museum, also two separate times my companion forgot stuff at the hostel and we had to go back, once for sunglasses and once for camera – so we headed over to a restaurant that was recommended in the guidebook. The guidebook claimed it had “fiery Indian-style chicken curry” which was a tremendous lie, it was definitely Japanese style curry and a tragic disappointment. Okay, it was still tasty. But it was not Real Indian/Pakistani Food. (You can, in fact, find Real Indian/Pakistani Food in Japan, because there is a surprisingly large supply Indian and Pakistani residents, a number of which live in Toyama. But the point is, there is delicious Indian curry to be had, and this was not it.)

So we had lunch, and continued on to the castle, and then once more got distracted by the street vendors who were taking advantage of the Soba Festival to sell ridiculous stuff to tourists and foreigners. We bought cheap (100-1000Y) ukiyo-e prints that were almost certainly clipped out of art books and calendars. We also met a foreign guy who was showing his family around, and who worked in Matsumoto as a freelance translator. He very helpfully brought the slightly more expensive stuff inside the store to our attention – anywhere from 1000Y to 5000Y, as opposed to the stuff outside that was 100Y and 500Y. Those prints – also probably cut out of art books – were admittedly nicer. I really like mine though, and I’m going to hang them on my depressingly bare walls.

I’m really, really bad at decorating my room. I was tragically bad at it in college too. BUT NOW I HAVE STUFF. YAAAY!

We made it to the castle, where the soba festival was in full swing. Again, it is TRAGIC that I hate soba noodles. I just think they’re not at all delicious. AT ALL. And yet, here were very talented men making extremely fresh soba noodles. We spent a short time watching them roll out dough and slice noodles, the mechanics of which were very clever and which I had never considered at all.

As it turns out, they first roll the dough into kind of a square, then they start stretching it out in one direction. They do this by using a lot of flour, and very long rolling pins – about a yard? ish? – and also they use two other rolling pins to hold the ends of the dough like a giant floury scroll. Then they work a section at a time, until it is thin and ridiculously long. I didn’t see this part, but at some point they roll the dough up like a batt of fabric, at which point they whip out an enormous sharp cleaver and start slicing it into noodles only about 2 mm thick. (Okay, compared to some kinds of noodles available commercially, they are a little thick. For slicing by hand, soba is very thin.)

By the time we got to the castle proper, it was about 3pm. Matsumoto castle is extremely well preserved, and lovely. No sooner had we gotten inside the outer walls than we were waylaid by a Helpful English Speaking Volunteer Guide, who kindly offered to tell us all about the castle for free. She spoke English very well – I asked if she’d ever been abroad to study, but no, apparently she just works very hard and takes classes and, of course, leads these English tours which is an excellent way to practice English without the native English speakers getting tired of talking to you. (This can be a problem, actually – whenever I go out with other foreigners to, say, relax in a park, we are frequently accosted by Random Japanese People who wish to practice their English skills, and who usually do not have much. It doesn’t bother me, mostly because it doesn’t happen that often to me, but it happens much more frequently to some of the others and some take it pretty well but some get kind of irritated that they can’t just, y’know, relax and be left alone.)

The castle was great, and our Helpful English Speaking Volunteer Guide had great things to tell us and was generally awesome. Japanese castles are both younger than I thought – this one was only built in the mid 1500s, as opposed to the much older European castles – and more defensible. Oh, sure, they’re not made totally of stone, there’s a fair amount of wood there. But the sturdy mud/bamboo/plaster walls are about a foot thick and not flammable, the wooden shutters are thick and sturdy, and the slanted stone bases are protected by openings from which defenders would drop rocks on attackers – the Japanese equivalent of Boiling Oil. They had tiny windows for shooting arrows and muskets, and they had larger windows with clever sliding shutters – one section was fixed, and had wooden slats, and one section moved only about 5 inches, so that in one position its slats lined up with the fixed shutter and they could shoot arrows and muskets out, while in the other position they were closed and the defenders were safe while they reloaded muskets or waited out a volley of arrows. Like European castles, the stairs were very, very steep – and staggered so that attackers had to look for the next staircase rather than just running straight up.

Anyway, surprisingly defensible. And in excellent condition – of course, it was renovated almost completely twice, but it is largely made of wood and mud. This is only to be expected.

Also, there was a gable added later, in peacetime, that is completely indefensible, with much thinner walls and giant open windows and balconies well within easy climbing distance. But that’s what happens in peace time.

We wanted to go to the Ukiyo-e Museum, but sadly, it wasn’t in the downtown area. It was sort of a hike out, and it closed at 5pm. We thought about going the next morning, but it didn’t open until ten and we wanted to see some more things back in Nagano City. (Also, traveling companion brought a really big bag, and we’d bought some things, and we couldn’t just leave those at the hostel because we had to check out. We decided carrying them around the city and museum would be a huge pain.)

Back in Nagano, we stashed our stuff in lockers and wandered back in the direction of the temple. The first stop was a brewery. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot to see in the brewery itself – there are apparently only 3 people who work there now, the rest is done by computers – and the attached restaurant (recommended by the guidebook) was kind of expensive. We stopped in the gift shop, where I tasted 5 different kinds of sake, at which point I decided a) I should stop drinking because wow, it was only about 11:30, and b) I should probably buy one of the tiny bottles rather than just accept a bunch of samples and then run. So now I have a tiny bottle of delicious sake, to drink at some future point. Huzzah!

We had some sandwiches at a delicious western style restaurant, and man, I have missed sandwiches a lot. Japan doesn’t really do sandwiches, for the most part – at least, not delicious sandwiches. They have some weird ones and some really really bland ones available at convenience stores that are universally soggy.

Our next stop was another art museum. This one was not at all what I was expecting, as the exhibit was entirely chairs – crazy artsy chairs from all of the 20th century and some modern ones too. They were from countries all over the world, though a disproportionate number were in fact from Denmark – I guess Denmark has a lot of crazy furniture designers. Some looked very comfortable, and some looked impossibly uncomfortable. Some were very clearly SIXTIES or FIFTIES or SEVENTIES, and some were boring, and some were fabulously ugly. And then some were TOTALLY CRAZY and others were timelessly lovely. It was pretty cool, though it definitely made me want to sit down and stop walking. There was a section of modern chairs that we were allowed to try out, which was awesome and we ran around sitting on most of them.

The other half of the museum was a Japanese artist who did a lot of Japanese wilderness landscapes, interspersed with some European cityscapes, and some Crazy European Signposts. I liked almost everything he did, except for a period where he sort of ruined otherwise beautiful paintings buy adding a Totally Random White Horse. Like, Beautiful Forest Scene…with a White Horse! or Ocean Scape…with a White Horse! or Mountain Scene…with a White Horse! It felt a little like maybe he had a daughter about 12, who really liked horses, you know that phase some girls go through where they’re obsessed, and she talked about them so much that they found their way into everything without his conscious decision.

I ended up buying a print of one of them – not the one I really wanted, which was a brightly colored autumn scene only available in the larger size, or the other autumn scene I wanted which was only available in the Framed and Tiny size, but a foresty waterfall print in the medium size that didn’t require me to buy a frame. They had some calendars, but they were full of the Horse paintings, and didn’t thrill me.

On the way back to the station, we bought more miso ice cream. This time it was not freeeezing outside, so we didn’t mind eating the cold, cold ice cream. (Cold and delicious. That ice cream was unbelievable.) We made our way back to the station just in time to catch the 4:11 train, which seems a little early except that remember, the train ride home was about 5 hours long.

The trip was really fantastic. Nagano and Matsumoto don’t have tons to do, but they’re perfect for a quick visit on a long weekend. I could have spent a little more time in either place – both have popular places to hike just outside the city, but we decided not to do that given how much colder it was in Nagano than Toyama and how were weren’t quite prepared for the temperature drop. I want to head back out that way in another week or two anyway, more warmly clad and prepared to hike/wander the Alpine Trail when the leaves are in full color. Emphasis on the “More Warmly Clad.”