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My name is Lisa and I'm a crafty girl with wanderlust working as an engineer by day. My blog chronicles projects in my home as well as pictures and stories from my travels.

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Entries in Nagano (2)

Monday
Mar092015

A Winter Morning in Karuizawa (軽井沢)  

On a recent trip to Japan at the end of February I decided I wanted to visit the famous hot springs town Kusatsu Onsen on the weekend. After I finished work on Friday evening I took the train to Karuizawa (軽井沢) to spend the night since it was too late to continue on to Kusatsu Onsen that evening. As long as I was in Karuizawa I decided to do a little exploring the next morning before catching my bus to Kusatsu Onsen.

Karuizawa is known for being a tranquil place in the mountains to escape the summer heat in Japan and it seemed to be fairly quiet in the winter while I was there. As I set out walking in the morning it was really lovely strolling along the tree lined streets with remnants of a recent snow fall.

My first stop was Kumoba Pond (雲場池), which is known for its beautiful views in the autumn reflecting the colored leaves on the still water. The name Kumoba means "Cloud Place" and refers to the frequent mists that linger over the pond but while I was there the sky was bright and clear. 

As lovely as the pond was, I found the little stream that ran beside the pond to be even more enchanting with its moss lined banks dusted with snow.

From Kumoba Pond I headed through more tree lined streets toward Kyu-Karuizawa (旧軽井沢), the old part of town. The main street through the area, Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza (旧軽井沢銀座), was fairly deserted with most shops indicating an eleven am opening time but I could imagine quite a bustling scene in the summer.

I turned off Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza to visit St. Paul's Catholic Church (聖パウロカトリック教会). Built in 1935 the rustic wood church was designed by Czech-American architect, Antonin Raymond, who had also designed a summer house for himself in Karuizawa a few years prior.

I returned back to Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza and stopped for breakfast at French Bakery (フランスベーカリー). John Lennon used to frequent the bakery when he and Yoko Ono stayed in Karuizawa and the bakery proudly displays a poster of him with their baguettes. As is typical in a bakery in Japan you pick up a tray and tongs as you enter and use the tongs to select the baked goods you would like to buy. I ate an edamame and cheese bun which I don't think is very French but was very delicious. I also couldn't resist buying an apple pastry and a bacon and cheese bun to take with me for later.

Continuing up Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza out into the countryside there was a monument to the famous poet Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) erected in 1843. It displays a haiku that Basho wrote while in the Karuizawa area that reads "馬をさへながむる雪のあした哉". Through looking at a few sources I found that while literally it means something like "even a horse gazing out on a morning of snow" the haiku conveys that on a snowy morning even a horse appears elegant.

I continued along a little farther up the road to the Alexander Croft Shaw House and Memorial Chapel. Shaw was a Canadian Angliclan minister who founded St. Andrew's Church in Tokyo. He has been credited with popularizing Karuizawa as a summer resort when he visited in 1886 and subsequently built a summer home in 1888. Although the buildings were closed when I visited I enjoyed wandering around outside in the lovely setting among the forest.

From Alexander Croft Shaw House and Memorial Chapel I headed back to my hotel to pick up my luggage. My route back took me along a pretty little creek and I couldn't resist taking a few last pictures while I was in Karuizawa.

While Karuizawa was definitely sleepy on my winter morning visit it was a lovely place to walk around for a few hours and I'm glad I had a chance to make the short stop.

Karuizawa Train Station is conveniently located on the Nagano Shinkansen line and takes about 70-80 minutes from Tokyo depending on which Asama train you take. Kumoba Pond is about a 20 minute walk northwest of the the station and Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza is about a 25 minute walk north of the station.

Friday
Feb222013

Misadventures of Lisa and Trisha: Snow Monkeys

While we were living in Japan Trisha and I would often go on road trips on the weekends. We would enlist some of our other expat friends, fill up the FunCargo (my little Japanese car) and head off.

On one of those trips, Trisha and our friends, Martin, Kuan and V-ken, headed up north to Nagano Prefecture. We stopped to see a variety of things on that trip but the main reason was for us to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park. 

I had read about the monkeys and was so excited to see them in person that I could barely contain myself. Trisha took this picture of me to the left waving my hands in excitement as we walked up the hill to the park.

The entrance building was pretty unassuming and after walking through a small exhibit about the monkeys we exited back outdoors into the park. 

The park itself was completely not what I expected. I thought there would be a path with a fence dividing the people from the monkeys, but instead you can freely walk along the valley with the monkeys running right up beside you.

The monkeys at Jigokudani are Japanese macaques, otherwise known as snow monkeys because they live in habitats with snow. Unfortunately, there was almost no snow on the ground while we were visiting because we were there a little too early in the winter, but it was still an awesome experience.

Near the entrance before descending to the river many of the monkeys were occupied with digging around in the dirt for insects to eat.

We also saw a number of the monkeys grooming each other. It was really charming to watch.

The monkeys had such expressive faces and I loved how the adults' pink faces contrasted with their brown fur.

The little babies were my favorite with their large eyes dwarfing the rest of their faces. They constantly scampered around their mothers and I was lucky to catch a picture of this little guy sitting still for a second. 

The monkeys were running around everywhere and were so used to people that they would run right next to you or just continue on doing what they were doing as you walked by. 

At this point we hadn't walked very far into the park and as we looked down into the valley we saw that the whole riverside was swarming with monkeys. They are a little hard to spot because their fur blends in with the rocks, but there are fourteen monkeys in the picture below.

We headed down to the river to get a closer look and saw the hot springs pools nearby where the monkeys were bathing. The name Jigokudani, which means "Hell Valley" in Japanese stems from the hot springs because people thought that the hot steam and water bubbling to the surface looked like Hell. In winter months the monkeys come to the valley to warm up in the hot water.  

In Japanese culture, relaxing in natural hot springs (onsen) is a very popular activity so it seemed very Japanese of the monkeys that they also would enjoy bathing in the hot springs.

Even in the water, the monkeys continued to groom each other. It was so neat to see and I really could have watched them doing this all day. 

I like how the monkey getting groomed in the photo below is giving the stink eye to the other monkey. 

The monkeys looked so peaceful and serene in the water compared to the way they were scampering around on land.  Watching the monkeys warming up in the hot springs with their reflections in the still water was quite surreal and beautiful to see.

We all were pretty camera happy and had so much fun watching the monkeys go about their business as if we didn't exist. Here's a photo of Martin taking a picture of one of the monkeys.

Of course, we had to catch a few pictures of ourselves next to the bathing monkeys.

Even though we were enamored with the monkeys, they really could have cared less about us being there and would get out of the water right next to us if they so felt like it. Luckily, I scooted out of the way before this little guy splashed me.

Trisha was not so lucky, however. I grabbed this cute picture of Miss Trish (it was Christmas time, hence the antlers and Santa hat) but then one of the monkeys decided he was done with his bath and popped out of the water right next to Trisha.

I caught her reaction right after she got soaked. Priceless photo, I'd say!

Before we knew it, dusk had settled on the valley and in a matter of minutes all of the monkeys slipped into the safety of the forest along the mountainside for the night. What had been a hive of activity moments before was suddenly empty. Our time in the valley was brief, but it was so amazing to see the monkeys up close that it ranks among my favorite experiences in Japan.

To get to Jigokudani Monkey Park, we drove and parked there which was very convenient. If you are taking public transit, you can take the Shinkansen to Nagano followed by a local train to Yudanaka. From Yudanaka station you can then take a bus or taxi up to the Monkey Park. Keep in mind that no matter how you get to the Monkey Park, vehicles cannot get all the way to the top and you will have a 15-30 minute steep walk before you reach the entrance. 

Of course, double check the details before you go, but at the time of this writing Summer hours (April - October) are 8:30am - 5:00pm and Winter hours (November - March) are 9:00am - 4:00pm. In the summer months the monkeys will go off into other areas of the park to forage for food, so it is not a guarantee that you will see monkeys if you visit then. Cost for entrance is ¥500 for adults and ¥250 for children and in my opinion is completely worth it!