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New Year’s in Japan

Kyoto was beautiful, that’s all I have to say. It was bloody expensive, but it was beautiful. I felt like I was truly getting a glimpse into old Japan. Or, at least, that I’d stepped onto the set of “Memoirs of  Geisha”. We joined the crowds in the cold in Gion periodically, hoping to spot one of the elusive dancing girls with their long sleeved kimono, but not a single maiko or geisha was to be seen. There were a lot of disappointed tourists. However, we didn’t let it get us down, and decided to don some kimono ourselves and become the talk of the town. There are far more foreigners in Kyoto than I’ve yet seen elsewhere in Japan, so perhaps to the Japanese it was less novel than it could have been, but nonetheless we did hear lots of comments and whispers and compliments as we wandered around the city. By night, although the geisha stayed hidden behind their bamboo curtains and paper screens, we spotted plenty of the more modern and flashy sort of entertainers, likely employees of Kyoto’s numerous “snack bars,” floating about in elegant gowns with outrageously styled hair and thick layers of make-up.

(Of course, as soon as I got back, I had to re-watch Memoirs of a Geisha, and I felt pretty special to notice at least one shot that I recognized of the canal in Gion!)

And then we made our way up to Nagano to see the world famous snow monkies!

No, but seriously….

Nowhere else in the world have monkies learned to enjoy a nice hot bath in the winter. We stayed at this lovely Ryokan (Japanese style inn) near the monkey park.

When I made the reservation, the owner informed me that the place was a thirty minute walk from the parking area. Lach poo-pooed this, sure that it couldn’t possibly be that far. Well, as it turns out, it was. A friendly father with his boy warned us of the length and slippery state of the trail just as we began to head up it. I only had about five minutes to curse and swear and haul my luggage behind me when someone from the ryokan showed up to take our bags on an ATV with chains on the front tires. From then on, at least I was able to enjoy the lovely walk through the snow.

The ryokan, at first sight, looked like nothing more than a confused collection of shabby wooden buildings and I had some reservations about the place. Could this place really get away with charging 12, 500 yen a night? Despite my doubts, it turned out to be quite nice on the inside, with sturdy wooden steps and a collection of indoor and outdoor hotspring baths.

The food was delicious Japanese style cooking, with soba noodles on New Year’s Eve for all the tenants (apparantly Japanese people always have soba on New Year’s Eve – I had no idea!) and a special New Year’s morning Japanese breakfast with black beans, bamboo, and other special foods I don’t know the name of. Nagano’s specialty is honey-glazed grasshoppers, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. Shame on me, I know. Lachlan informed me they were quite tasty, with a bit of a nutty flavor.

I wound up trying the mixed bath on the first night, braving the cold, exposure and potential strange naked man for the sake of snow and hot water – a combination I’d always wanted to try since I’d learned such things existed. Fortunately, it was just my boyfriend and I and one man completely covered in tattoos (this didn’t surprise me at first, until I remembered that tatoos have a very bad image in Japan because they are associated with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and in fact many hot springs will not allow you in if you have tattoos), but he didn’t stay long. Then we had the bath all to ourselves with a beautiful full moon, a man-made geyser just nearby, and snow drifting down softly from the few clouds in the night sky. It’s a wonderful memory. The water, though, was extremely hot and smelled strongly of sulfur, so we didn’t last long.

In the end, I wound up catching cold from going in and out of those baths, from boiling hot to below zero temperatures, and spent the rest of my time snuffling and sneezing and worrying about how we’d make it out alive. As soon as we arrived, it started snowing, and didn’t let up at all the entire two days we were there, and me with my little car and no snow tires! I was convinced we’d either get stuck somewhere horrible or slide ourselves into a ditch.

Fortunately, my worry was for nothing, and with the help of some snow chains (that broke the second we hit the highway, but at least got us out of the mountains), I’m back in Kochi, safe and snowless. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my JTE had written my reference letter for me already, so I sent off the application for my BEd programme today. For all the fuss and worry that went into assembling it, it seemed like such a meagre collection of papers! I checked it about 8 times but I still feel paranoid that I’ve left something out. Say a little prayer for me, guys! It’s out of my hands now.

P.S. All these beautiful photos were taken by Lachlan, because silly me forgot my camera’s memory card!

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