Sunday, February 22, 2015

nagano and matsumoto!

After our adventure with the monkeys- we drove down in Nagano!  aside from the ski resorts all over- Nagano isn't all that huge or booming. It was a fun little city- and did have one fabulous temple and shrine that was on our 'must see' list.  Zen-koji. It was built in the 7th century!!

I LOVE the giant historic temples!  all of the religious sites here fascinate me- but the oldest and most historic temples seem to always have long trinket and food shop lined roads leading up to them!! and I love Japanese trinkets and treats.

I had read online about something pretty unique at Zen-koji.  For a few hundred yen (a few dollars) we could enter an underground passage of the temple and search in complete darkness for the 'key to paradise' attached to the wall along a corridor.  It is said to grant salvation  to anyone who touches it.
Our path to salvation was pretty humorous. They weren't kidding when they described the underground as being in complete darkness.  There was not a speck of light.  not one little glimmer. and we took all four kids down into the passageway to try and find the key to paradise!  electronics or phones or lights of ANY kind are strictly forbidden.  You have to use your right hand only to follow along the right wall of the corridors to search for the key and find your way out.  It was ridiculous.  Metta was terrified from the very beginning. She begged for me to hold her- but it was pretty difficult to hold her AND follow along the wall without wandering off!  Ike was in the lead and sped off and ran into a group of Japanese school girls ahead of us  Thankfully they were all giggling and having about the same experience as we were.  I couldn't stop laughing.  Metta was sobbing.  Kent had mack on his chest and was trying to keep hold of Zeb and ike.  And then we found the Key of Paradise.  As we were trying to guide the kiddos to feel it- an old Japanese couple caught up to us and were obviously confused.  the man kept grabbing at me!!  I giggled through several "Konichiwas!!" and "sumimasens!!" (hello!! hello!! excuse me!!) but they didn't seem to do any good.  He continued to grab at me- and then he and his wife attempted to pass our family of six!  all while metta is still sobbing.  and zeb and ike are asking us how to get out and how to turn on a light!
after a few more stumbling twists and turns in the darkness- we saw a glimmer of light and made our way back out into the real world.  All with salvation attained of course!

Nagano is famous for their apples!  the shops are filled with apple treats and apple toys and apple trinkets.  We found apple caramels, red apple hi-chews, and apple KIT KATS!!  how cool is that?!  they aren't very good at all.  but the apple caramels were AMAZING.  They aren't caramel apple flavored- they are apple caramels.  If that makes any sense.  so delicious.
check out this shop filled with lucky cats!!! Japan has made me a LOVER of cats.  seriously.  I love cats.  I want to fill my house with them. It makes Kent CRAZY,
our kiddos were the stars of Nagano!!

the word we hear more than ANY other on the streets is "Kawaii!!!!" (pronounced like Hawaii).  It means 'cute'.  And we hear it NON STOP.  Especially with this little mack.  They LOVE him. so so much.

After our adventures at the temple- we drove down to Matsumoto to found our hotel for the night and have dinner!  
we stayed at the 'super hotel matsumoto' and had dinner at Mcdonalds for hte kids- and Coco's Curry house for Kent and me.  
Hotel laws regarding #'s of guests in Japan are VERY strict.  All laws in Japan are met with complete adherence and strict interpretation.  This makes staying in hotels for our family expensive!  we have to get two rooms because we have four kiddos.  And even if we did get only one room- they charge PER person and are vigilant at counting who arrives and getting passports for each guest.

you aren't allowed to wear shoes in the rooms AT ALL.  It's unreal to me how serisou the Japanese are about shoes and where they are allowed.  It's a BIG deal to them.

Japanese hotel rooms are VERY small for the most part. this room may look decent sized here- but there wasn't even room for our suitcases! the foot of the bed almost touches the other wall!  we had two of these rooms that were adjoining.  Besides the size- it was a really nice hotel.  and they even offered free breakfast.
mack was a champ and slept well.  he's getting pretty chunky!!

the free breakfast was a pretty typical Japanese breakfast.  Kent wouldn't even try this first dish right here!  lots of fish and rice and miso soup!
they also had a good pumpkin dish and teriyaki chicken with veggies :)
thankfully we found free juice, hot chocolate, pastries, and cold cereal as well.  I was super worried that our kids were going to revolt!!
After breakfast we made our way to Matsumoto castle.  we woke up to a few inches of freshly fallen and snow and more falling snow all day.  it was lovely.

This castle was built in the 1500s and is 1 of only 4 in Japan ( I think!).  They call it 'crow's castle' because it's black.

the kids were excited to see a real moat!  especially since it was full of giant orange koi!  even in all of the cold- they were swimming about!

we got to go inside and climb all of the stairs and ladders to the very top! it was pretty cool.  the kids were not so impressed with the freezing cold floors.  we had to remove our shoes and the kids said their toes nearly froze off!  I didn't think the floors were THAT cold.  but metta's tears and cries about 'cold toes' proved otherwise.
the castle had some cool displays inside with weapons and ninja armor.
we got to peak out the little windows meant for guns and other weapons to see some cool sites of the castle grounds!
they were more than happy to put their boots back on.  i think it took a couple of hours for metta to stop complaining about her toes.
Our kids are pretty good to trek around Japan with us- but Kent and I often dream about how fabulous it would be to travel this country without children. 

Japanese architecture is pretty amazing.  I love that everything is so new and different for us.  I love taking pictures of everything and seeing all of these places.  we are having such amazing experiences.

the snow made everything that much more beautiful!!
here's zeb holding up the castle!  he came up with the idea ll on his own!  he must have seen it in a movie or book or something!

After the castle- we hit one more spot.  A street in Matsumoto known for their skinny alleyways, kitschy shops, and great food!
 we found this amazing shop filled with masks!!
 and we found a French New Orleans bakery called 'sweets'.  We had french onion soup, blt's, and all sorts of baked goods for lunch.

Zeb chose a ramen sandwich/dog. so weird.

metta had a turtle bun. and Ike had a donut :)
 mack was a great kid for our entire trip.  just hung out. and slept. and ate.  like babies should :) he's growing up!!
 we even found an old cash register in the restaurant made in DAYTON, OHIO!!  everybody was pretty excited to see it!

we drove back home through the snowy mountains only to return to lots and lots of rain! I sure wish it would be cold enough here at home to be snowy!!!

we continued our adventures at home for a couple more days that I'll blog soon!  Kent has to go back to work tomorrow but we just booked our next adventure for March! We are headed to Kyoto for my birthday!!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

the Nagano SNOW MONKEYS!!! ahhhhhhh!!

Snow is beautiful.  I love it. 
We went to Nagano for a few days on our 'winter break' to enjoy the cold, snow, and the MONKEYS!!  
Seeing the Nagano Snow Monkeys was at the very top of my Japan bucketlist.  In fact- it was on my life bucket list.
We own the 'planet earth' documentaries with the Snow Monkey feature and every time I watched it- I wanted to go.  We watched it with the kids more than once in preparation for this trip!  It totally freaked out Metta!  she thought the monkeys were going to bite her or attack her for sure!! we had to reassure her the entire drive to Nagano that she was not going to be injured or eaten,

Nagano is nestled in the "Japanese Alps".  The drive itself was gorgeous.  Road trips in Japan are scenic and fabulous.  The development and landscape is so different from the midwest and what we've been driving through the past 7 years!! it's different from anything I've driven through ever, really.

First off- I think you have to see the Snow Monkeys in the snow to capture the true magic of it all.  I loved it more than Tokyo Disneyland.  
We had rented a base van to make the trek because three hours of japanese toll roads made the cost of the rental van with prepaid tolls break even!  and because the vans have snow tires- and even chains if necessary.

The further we drove up the mountain- the higher the snow got.  At the base of the monkey mountain was this vending machine.  With a little path carved out to make your selection and pay :) the Japanese and their vending machines never cease to amaze.
there's a 2km trek up the mountain to get to the hot springs where the monkeys hang out. To try and get OUR monkeys more eager about the hike I told them that first person to see a snow monkey would get 500 yen to spend at the Zenkoji temple shops.  I should have known better. It only motivated Ike. He ran the whole way while I was stuck carrying metta and 'encouraging' Zeb to keep moving.
the hike was beautiful.  Snow covered trees and mountains are one of my favorite things in the world.

Zeb found this cool truck buried under the snow.
on the hike- you walk around a corner and suddenly come to a big clearing in the mountain.  there's a set of buildings that you pass- and then suddenly you are surrounded by wild monkeys.  it's CRAZY.

wildlife has always been fascinating to me.  And getting this close to it was so much fun.
a lot of the older monkeys are definitely grumpy and can get aggressive and swat if you get too close- but for the most part the monkeys are accustomed to people showing up and taking pictures and they just ignored us.
the monkeys in the hot springs are awesome.  It's a natural 'onsen' (japanese public bath) and the monkeys obviously enjoy relaxing in the heat!!
what I can't figure out is how terribly cold and  miserable it must be when they EXIT the springs.  Look at this poor little sopping wet guy!!
only the highest ranking mom, dad, and baby monkeys get the good spots in the spring.  It made me a little sad for the other monkeys who are just as cold and want to take a dip!!  but I loved the mom and kid monkeys.
I mean- seriously- look at all of these monkeys!  Isn't this amazing?!  I wanted to get in and hang out with them!!

the smaller the monkeys were - the cuter they got.  I think most people think the same thing about humans.  but I think baby monkeys are way cuter than baby humans.
I have no idea what this guy was doing.  they get so relaxed in the hot water in strange positions :)
I think some of them even nap in the water!!
they probably think WE are the crazy ones staring at them so much.

there was a set of four teeny monkeys who must have been siblings :)  they were CRAZY to each other.  We followed them around and played with them for at least an hour.  They were so fascinating and friendly! and so much fun to watch.
they would honestly run right up to me and my camera like I wasn't even there.  those are my feet in the shot.  this guy was basically sitting on my lap!
as much fun as they were- they were the most difficult guys to photograph because they NEVER stopped!  rolling, playing, running, etc.  They were so funny.
this little guy was smaller than baby mack!!  he kept playing with our shoes and wanted our phones!

I could have hung out for HOURS taking pictures and observing.

our kiddos had so much fun, too.  I think this will be a memory from Japan that they don't forget!  Hopefully even metta remembers it!

our zebaroo all grown up.

have I mentioned that I LOVE snow?!
just look at the mountainside dotted with monkeys!

so cute.
the older males had bright red faces.  and were usually the most grumpy. this guy swam right up to me and stepped out of the water directly in front of my camera!
he shook off a little when he got out-
and then walked on past.

on our way back out a few monkeys escorted us along the path :)  I think they were just trying to get past us and were irritated to have us there.
but isn't it amazing how they'll just walk alongside us and pay no attention?!

this was the only pic I got of any of them standing up!

this pic is a little blurry- but I love it.  Like I said- these monkeys were on the move constantly- and moved very quickly!  but I tried to catch this guy as he jumped out of the springs!!

at the park ranger booth we found this stuffed goat of sorts and metta begged for a picture with him.  she kissed him several times, too.  weirdo.
the only bad part of the day was the hike back to the car!  our kids were exhausted from playing in the snow so much and whined the ENTIRE way.
metta cried a lot, too.   Here she is SOBBING about the monkey who mistook her hat for his brother monkey!!  the baby monkey actually jumped ON her head thinking it was a friend monkey.  I wish I'd gotten a picture!  she was momentarily terrified. and now won't stop talking about it or telling people about it.
Our trip to Nagano was seriously probably my favorite day in Japan thus far!  these monkeys totally lived up to my expectations!!  now if I can just find that rabbit infested island that I've seen all over the internet.  These animal adventures are the best :)