Japan Trip Day 3


THE DAY IN A NUTSHELL:USA: November 8, 2003: Saturday
Japan: November 9, 2003: Sunday

        • Met with Patricia’s Japanese teacher and her husband.
        • Drove a very long way to Nagano in the next prefecture.
        • Went to Zenkoji temple.
        • Ate soba noodles for lunch.
        • Drove a long way to go shopping at Karuizawa.
        • Drove a long way to go to the hot springs (onsen).
        • Drove a long way to come home.

Riding the train

We got up bright and early to go and meet Mrs. Ogawa, who teaches my sister Japanese. She and her husband had graciously volunteered to drive us around to some rather far-away places (the original plans included seeing Mt. Fuji), thus sparing us lots of money in train tickets and probably hotel fees for staying over.


Cultural Note:

It’s customary in this
sort of situation to buy
a really nice gift for
someone. Japanese people
usually buy something
edible or something that
gets used up, so that their
houses don’t clutter up with
junk from this custom.

We met Ogawa-sensei and she was very, very nice, and a couple of times along the way she talked to me in English and I talked to her in Japanese. We stopped at a rest stop, where I got my first exposure to Japanese-style toilets, and everyone but me had a snack. We decided along the way that seeing Mt. Fuji today was impractical because of the weather; we probably wouldn’t even be able to see it well. So we decided to go to Nagano instead. (Well, I say “we” decided because there was a long conversation between Patricia and the Ogawas in Japanese, after which she gave us the short version of what was said and asked, “is that okay?” Communication was not easy.)

We spent a very long time in the car on the way to Nagano, and ended up in the next prefecture (which is kind of like crossing state lines). Along the way the Ogawas pointed out nice scenery and we did our best to talk about it together. We saw volcanoes and beautiful fall colors and lovely landscapes. It really is a beautiful country.


Cultural Note:

The Japanese pride them-
selves on their four
seasons. Some even believe
that they are one of the
only countries that
truly has four seasons,
so they show it off. (My
sister’s teacher is not in
this category, of course,
but she did enjoy showing
us the changing leaves.)

We arrived in the city of Nagano, and apparently this area was famous for three things: The Zenkoji Temple, the soba shops, and the GIANT APPLES. Our activities during this day did involve all three of these things. We spent a little bit of time wandering the cute shops that lined the avenue on the way up to the Zenkoji Temple, and we noticed a lot of little kids running around in formal “traditional” dress. It was interesting.


Cultural Note:

There is a traditional
festival in Japan at the
time of year I happened to
visit: 3-5-7 week. There
is a tradition for children
of those ages to get dressed
up and go to shrines and
temples for blessings.
3-5-7 week was actually the
next week after I visited, but
many people, due to time
constraints, celebrate early.


I bought some souvenirs for my friends in the shops, and Ogawa-sensei bought us one of the big apples (which we ate for breakfast the next day). Soon enough we approached the temple.


Patricia, me, Mom, Zenkoji Temple

At Zenkoji Temple

At Zenkoji Temple

Waving smoke at Zenkoji

Waving smoke at Zenkoji

We got to stand outside and try to get incense smoke on us for luck in money, and we got to see some national treasures that were in the temple. We had the option of paying ten yen to make a wish to the Buddha, and so we did that and learned the proper way to do it. We then decided to go through the tunnel thing that this temple is famous for; we bought tickets, took off our shoes, and got in line.

As a quest for enlightenment, you’re supposed to go down these stairs and walk through a hallway that is pitch black. You put your hand on the wall on the right side and just walk in the dark, looking with your hand for a wall-mounted key which guarantees enlightenment if you find it. It seems like it could be a really enlightening experience, except that you’re doing it with lots of people who are probably talking and bumping into you. Anyway, it’s a neat experience.

Next on our agenda was the soba. As mentioned, the area was famous for it; soba is a type of buckwheat noodle, and they make it from scratch in many of the shops. We found a shop and argued over what to eat for a while (complicated by my mom’s slight squeamishness of some Asian food, my vegetarianism, and the fact that neither of us could read the menu). My mother ended up getting oyakodon and I got zaru soba. Mine was basically cold noodles with dried seaweed on the top, and I honestly think it was the BEST thing I ate in Japan.

Cultural Note:

Oyakodon literally means
“mother and child.” It has
that name because it is egg
and chicken, which is a bit
morbid. Zaru soba is
dipped in a soy-type sauce, and
after you’ve finished the
noodles, you are provided with
some water the noodles were
boiled in, to add to the sauce.
Then you drink it like a tea.
It is nutritious.


The Ogawas insisted on treating us at the restaurant, and afterwards we took another long, long ride. We went shopping at Karuizawa, where I acquired some more good souvenirs, and when it started to get really chilly and dark, we left for the onsen, also known as a hot spring.

Obviously there are no pictures from this, but my account should be sufficient. When we arrived at the onsen VERY ready for relaxation, we put up our personal things, left Mr. Ogawa on his own because he had to go to the men’s side, and went into the bathing area wearing and bringing nothing but small towels. We had to choose a washing station and scrub down, then we were allowed to get in one of the four available springs. (Your hair and your washcloth are not allowed to touch the water, so if you have long hair like ME you have to put it up!) This bit was frustrating for me because the washing station I chose did not work correctly, and of course since it was my first time using one I thought it was my fault! (When I used one again after the fact, I realized that mine had been very stubborn.)


Cultural Note:

A lot of Japanese people
wash themselves first and
then soak in the bath even
at home. At the onsen
this is compulsory; no one
wants to soak in water with
dirty people. However, since
very young children ARE
allowed in, I’m sure it’s
unavoidable that kids pee
in the water. ^_^;;


The four pools available to us were the main one (with a waterfall!), an herbal bath, a jacuzzi, and an outdoor. We all went in the main one first, and I used the waterfall eventually to give me a little massage because I was VERY sore for some reason. And incidentally I had kind of expected that people might stare at us because we were the only foreigners, but as far as I could tell no one cared. I started getting VERY hot and almost fainted, so I tried the outdoor spring with the others, but I still felt like I was going to black out so I went back indoors and just sat on the side for a while. The others tried the different pools and finally we decided we wanted to finish up. So we rinsed off and got dressed again. It was only THEN that someone stared at me, when I was doing my hair. Some little girls were exclaiming over my hair color and length. That was not the first or last time, though–they seem to really like my hair over there. 🙂

The onsen we visited is famous for its homemade beer, so it is traditional to sample the local delicacy. I chose not to do so of course (I’m not a beer person), but everyone else had something, there was ice cream and noodles and a bunch of other stuff you could order and eat and drink while sitting around low tables talking. My mom and I kind of zoned out because we didn’t know what the others were talking about really, but there was a neat little conversation between my mother and Ogawa-sensei when they shared photographs and Mrs. Ogawa thought the old pictures of Patricia were fabulously entertaining. (Incidentally, I get the gist of most conversations in Japanese, and know just enough of the language to be annoyed by not being able to glean specifics.) Eventually we decided it was time to leave. The Ogawas refused to let my mother pay for the onsen, also, because they insisted it was Japanese tradition. I’m glad we got them as nice a gift basket as we did.

It was very late and very dark on the car ride back, and most of us slept at some point while Mr. Ogawa drove. (He was really a trooper!) They opted to drive us all the way back since it was raining instead of making us take the train again, and we thanked them profusely and went up to Patricia’s apartment. I hadn’t eaten anything at the onsen because we’d had vague plans to meet up with one of my sister’s friends and go to a place called an izakaya, but my sister decided it would be better to save that for another time. Patricia fixed me a small snack and then we fell asleep.

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