Japan Post #8: Nagano & Yudanaka

Disclaimers:

1) These are just tourist pictures, the cheesy ones that everyone takes on vacation, and are not meant to be viewed as professional photography.  We took only one camera, a couple of zoom lenses and no lights: we were on vacation afterall!  We’re definitely not seeking employment with National Geographic here.  

2) We’re not experts on Japan, Japanese culture or religion so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Estimate that I’ll have my facts right about 54% of the time.

3.) To see our pro work (like weddings and portraits) and skip vacation pics, feel free to browse our blog by category!

Back to Japan!

We knew that we wanted to travel north and spend some time in the mountains on our trip so Nagano, site of the ’98 Winter Olympics, seemed like a logical choice.   As we exited the train station we wondered if we had made a mistake: from the depot, Nagano looked like any other Japanese city but with mountains receeding into the background, no ski lifts or cabins in sight… harumpf.  It was a very pleasant surprise when Nagano turned out to be one of our favorite stops on our journey.

Upon arriving, we stopped by the tourist office to find a ryokan to stay for the night.  We were given a map with the name of the ryokan both in Roman script and Kanji.  We were told it was near Zenko-ji temple, the city’s main attraction and it sounded good to us.  But please, our travel agent asked, honor the reservation you have made because foreigners she had sent there in the past didn’t show up.  How rude, we thought, of course we’ll show up for our reservation!  As we got off the bus and followed our map to the relative spot, we realized why the other foreigners had bailed: all signs and addresses were in Kanji!  Because it was a somewhat residential spot, we couldn’t find anyone to ask for direction.  At first we tried to match the characters on our map with the characters on the buildings.  That’s how we became aware of just how many fonts there are, the characters looked too different to an untrained eye.  We finally found someone to point us in the right direction and his finger pointed to the back of a building within the temple gates!  Would you have ever guessed that this was a hotel?

The shrine in front of our ryokan is the most common that we saw in Japan, it looks like a Buddha with a red cap and bib, sometimes you will see a row of rocks with red caps and bibs with or in place of the Buddha figure.  Here’s another example on Zenko-ji’s complex:

We were told that these shrines were for children, both born and unborn, who had died.  The shrines on the grounds of Zenkoji temple were extremely moving, parents had left children’s toys and other affects behind in memory.  We spent some time on those grounds saying our own prayers. 

Of all the beautiful temples we had visited in Kyoto, Zenko-ji was our favorite simply because it seemed less like a tourist attraction and more like an active place of worship.  In one of the buildings I sat and listened as two monks sang and played drums in a ritual style.  In the quiet of night, after the temple’s doors had closed to the public, we watched Japanese men and women getting their nightly exercise by running up and down the steps in bright colored sweat suits.  The temple seemed an extension of life in Nagano rather than an historic building or point of interest.  We were grateful to be able to stay in such close proximity to it for one night.  Here are some shots from inside and just outside the temple gates:

(Cultural note: Don’t forget that Hitler stole the swastika from ancient Eastern religions.  Shaking the negative Western connotation of the symbol takes some effort when you are traveling around Asia where it is not only prevalent but considered auspicious.)

We wonder how ancient this tree is:

The cutest little Buddha…. ever…

In addition to the peace we found near Zenko-ji, we were happy to finally find really friendly people.  Perhaps we have become too Southern in our exchanges, back home we expect the giving and receiving of at least a “hello” when passing a stranger on the street if not a full blown conversation.  In Japan we found ourselves feeling quite invisible, foreign and isolated except for our encounters with school girls (see previous posts for details).  But in Nagano, a woman said good morning to us while we waited for the bus and we were almost too surprised to return her greeting in a timely manner.  Our hosts at the ryokan gave us the gift of an apple when we departed and a bartender we met struck up an enthusiastic conversation with us as he poured our beer and offered us various snacks.  (Sam, in return, may have taught him how to play roulette, long story but a great night).  

The next day we boarded a train for Yudanaka, the most remote area that we visited on our trip.  The reason for our visit?  Snow monkeys – Sam’s request.  I have had a mild fear of monkeys ever since living in India, seriously, you can’t trust a monkey.  Out of love for my husband and a bit of curiosity too, I followed Sam to the monkey park where the animals run wild and enjoy their own natural onsen. 

Here’s the sign that greets you at the monkey park.  I would love to know what the caption beneath that 3rd panel has to say.  And yes, we did see examples of scene #3, I will spare you those pictures since this is a family channel.  

Sam will be equally disappointed to see that I am omitting his (admittedly brillaint) poop portraits.  But come now, let’s not proliferate popular stereotypes about monkeys…

Awww…. Aren’t they cute?

Mmm-hmm.  Until the group violence begins:

Here’s a rather uncomfortable Mel demonstrating just how close we are to these things.  If focal length helps you photo enthusiasts to understand our proximity, we didn’t bring anything longer than 105mm with us so they are hanging out at our feet:

A few more shots from in and around Yudanaka, including some Christmas lights on a restaurant and a sign from a strip club.  We love Japan.

Wouldn’t you just love to check out the ladies at Butterfry?  More on Tokyo to come…

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