Sunday, April 6, 2014

Nagano: Skiing, Craft Beer, Monkeys in Onsens (part 2)

Music and Beer

On Friday night in Nagano, we went to a music & craft brewing festival called Snow Monkey Beer Live, which was held at a concert space tucked behind some of the hotels. The genre-less lineup of bands gave us a diverse first taste of popular Japanese music, including The KeysNabowa, and Kaji Hideki (definitely check out the Kaji Hideki video).

Dozens of Japanese craft breweries lined the walls of the venue, and included in the price of admission were five drink tickets per person redeemable at any of the stalls. So, we tried a lot of beer (and as the night waned, we found two additional tickets dropped on the ground, and with no obvious owner in sight, we had two more beers). The beers we tried came from all over the country and we walked away thinking we found some big winners, and at least one loser.


Yoho Brewing Company- Yona Yona IPA
These beers are among the most well-distributed in Japan. The brewery is based in Nagano prefecture.
The Yona Yona IPA, Yoho's flagship beer, hit all the right notes and was Vince's favorite of the night.

North Island Beer
This brewery (which seems to be owned by a Canadian company?) scored big with two of the three beers it offered. Our agreed-upon favorite was the Imperial Stout. The company also offered a coriander black beer, that was as dark as Guinness with a similar taste but was considerably less thick, which made it more drinkable by my standards.


Johana Beer
This brewery offered an amazing Earl Grey beer, which was light, refreshing and tasted like earl grey tea. For those who like tea, this beer was awesome.

The rest of the beers varied from horrible (one only) to pleasant (most of the rest), but they didn't leave the same impression.

- Yona Yona - Indo no Ao-oni

- North Island Beer - Smonkey Lager
   This beer was smoky, very smoky. While it was interesting to taste, neither of us imagined drinking it by the pint.

- Ise Kadoya - Serachi IPA

- Minoh Beer - Pale Ale

- Minami shinsu Beer  - IPA
   I would have ranked this beer higher, but my lesser half was not impressed, and I try to run a democracy here.

- Coedo - Kyara

- Sanktgallen - IPA
  This was the only beer we both tried and decidedly disliked.

 Snow Monkeys

On Sunday, it was finally time to see the Japanese snow monkeys (Japanese macaques)! They were awesome, although I found it a bit terrifying to realize just how similar they are to humans, both in appearance and in behavior.

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to discover that the habitat was artificially enhanced in ways that took much of the "wild" out of the wildlife experience. There was a viewing deck and  a rope swing of sorts that had been installed for the monkeys to play on. More troubling, the human attendants fed the monkeys! The monkey pictured with Vince below has learned that if he sits on that fence post, he (or she) will get fed, creating an easy photo-op for visitors.

The financial motive behind all the human intervention is undeniable. However, we spotted dozens of monkeys in the natural course throughout the weekend. My first morning skiing, two macaques jetted out across the slope just 15 meters in front of me. On our way back to Tokyo, we spotted well over a dozen in the trees just off the side of the road. It seemed entirely possible to see macaques in the wild outside of the park, and seeing them in the park felt more like seeing an animal at a zoo than an exhilarating chance encounter. That said, it was an amazing photo opportunity, and I was happy to pull out my camera and refresh the basic skills I learned in the photography class Vince gifted to me back in NYC.

All in all, it was the best weekend away... so far.  =)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Nagano: Skiing, Craft Beer, Monkeys in Onsens (part 1)

Our first out-of-town trip since we arrived was to Shiga Kogen ski resort in Nagano prefecture. We joined a pre-arranged outing offered by Tokyo Snow Club, one of the well-known outdoor event organizers in Tokyo.

The itinerary for the weekend included two days of skiing, an all-weekend craft beer/music festival and a Sunday outing to see Japanese snow monkeys (Japanese macaques). How perfect - a weekend that blended things I love with things Vince loves. I assume I don't need to clarify who prefers which activities.

Staying at a Ryokan: A Traditional Japanese Inn

Upon our arrival to Shiga Kogen, we realized that we would experience more firsts than we had bargained for. We were staying at a traditional Japanese inn, called  a ryokan.* This means:

  • We stayed in a tatami mat room,
    No beds, just thin, futon like mattresses and some covers. The pillows were filled with some type of beans. 

  • Had our first Japanese-style breakfast,
    It consisted of cooked noodles (later learned they were cooked with beef, sigh), a selection of fish pieces, salad and green tea. 

  • Showered in a communal washroom, and
    Taking a Japanese communal bath properly requires following a detailed set of rules. A complete guide can be found here, and are worth reading if you plan to visit. Here, I highlight key points to emphasize.
    1) Men & women take onsen separately because it is done in complete nudity. Each sex enters their respective onsen through a changing room in which everyone
     gets completely naked. Just you and your birthday suit.
    2) Naked and proud (or naked and terrified, but definitely naked), enter the communal bathing room. Feel free to introduce yourself to everyone who is already in there. Just kidding (sort of .. strangers will occasionally strike up small talk). It also seemed common for people to cast a casual glance at new entrants. And, yes, I mean casual as if you had just walked into a coffee shop, fully dressed. No one cares that you're nude.
    3) You will be faced with a row (or several) of 6" inch tall stools, each of which sits below a removable shower head and about 18 inches from the next stool. Take a seat and wash up (some onsens offer soap, others expect entrants have their own).  --Spend a minute imagining trying to wash completely, while seated on a 6" tall stool.--
    4) Fully washed, move from the shower area into the onsen (which is a pool filled with geothermally heated natural hot spring water) and relax. But, don't get your hair wet and definitely don't put your wash cloth in the water! (Many people put them on their heads)
    ** Do not be frightened by the floating translucent white particles throughout the water. This is not the skin of every bather who preceded you. It is mineral powder called yu no hana, which means water flower. It is cultivated in Japan and made into powder, which is put in all onsen and is widely available for purchase. It is improper to scrub in the onsen, so it's functionally more like a hot tub than a bath.
    5) When you finish your soak, you may return to the shower to rinse off the onsen water, although many say this negates the water's healing benefits. Whether you rinse or not, dry yourself with your wash cloth as best you can before leaving the communal bathing room.

    It's a strange, but also really lovely experience once you shed your clothes and prudish Victorian hang-ups. The only other option was to ski for three days and not shower. 

                                        Courtesy of

  • We were exposed to a traditional Japanese toilet in the ryokan's communal bathroom. 


Skiing at Shiga Kogen

The skiing at Shiga Kogen was quite good. We were lucky to get 30 cm of snow the day before we arrived and a full day of snow on our first day on the slopes.

Day 1

In the morning, Vince took a half day ski lesson. In the afternoon we skied together in heavy snow with low visibility and strong winds. Challenging but still fun!

Day 2

... was perfection... 

And there was a guy boarding in a head-to-toe Tigger costume.

* I have had the pleasure of staying at a ryokan once during my first trip to Japan. Thanks, dad! But for ease of writing I have adopted "we".