Snow monkeys, a mountain village and Japan’s most beautiful garden offer a more scenic way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto.
W e just got back from a 4-day-3-night escape to the Japanese alps for some cool, fresh air before the Thai summer really arrives. It’s the perfect way to escape the bullet train between must-visit destinations Tokyo and Kyoto and see Japan’s natural and provinicial side. If you don’t have time for Kyoto (count 10 days total) just head straight back to Tokyo at the end and make it a week-long trip.
From Tokyo, our first stop is Yudanaka, a little village surrounded by natural hot springs (onsen) that lies close to Japan’s famous snow monkeys (500 yen entry to Jigokudani Monkey Park). These macaques spend the winter lazing in a big, natural hot tub, surrounded by pine trees blanketed in snow. It’s a gorgeous walk to their “Jacuzzi,” following a narrow path running through the forest, and there’s a wooden lodge nearby to have a hot cocoa to warm you up. Back in Shibu, which is between Yudanaka and the monkeys, you can admire the narrow winding streets, the wooden homes and the public bath houses. To get into these indoor onsen, you need a key, which is provided by your local hotel (or ryokan, the name for a traditional Japanese inn). People will dress up in their yukata (cotton robes), head out of their ryokan and let themselves into the public bath, a charming sight in the evening. Inside the onsen, you have to bare all though, so men and women are separated. But there are private onsen that can be shared by couples, just inquire at your hotel.
Getting there: From Tokyo, hop on the JR Shinkansen train to Nagano (covered by the JR pass). Leaving at 8am, you can then catch the 10:20am train from Nagano to Yudanaka (1,130-1,230 yen, not part of the JR pass).
Stay here: Shimaya Ryokan, in Yudanaka, is one of the more affordable options. It’s a concrete building, so none of the wooden charm of the older buildings in Shibu (there’s a 1.6km walk between the two towns), but the owner will drive you to the monkeys for free, rooms are super clean, and they have their own onsen. Around 12,000 yen per night. www.japanhotel.net/shimaya/
Our next stop is the city of Kanazawa. There’s a lot of history here so simply get a day-pass for the local bus (500 yen) and hit all the sights. The old part of town is called Kazue-machi Chaya District, and its wooden tea houses are perfectly preserved. It’s beautiful both by day and night, when you can actually spot the occasional mysterious geisha, along with men in dark suits or even a somber kimono. The two other major highlights are the castle and the garden. Kanazawa Castle is pure samurai movie goodness, with its foreboding towers and thick, tall walls. It’s right across from the Kenrokuen Gardens (500 yen). Particularly famous for the little stone lantern that sits in the corner of one of its ponds, the garden is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful. Still within walking distance, you can pop into the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, which showcases artists active from the 1980s until now, including some big names like Anish Kapoor and Pipilloti Rist.
Getting there: There’s some train-hopping involved here: Yudanaka-Shinshunakano, Shinshunakano-Nagano, Nagano-Naoetsu and Naoestu-Kanazawa, which means you’ll have to leave at 6:30am to be in Kanazawa by noon.
Stay here: Castle Inn Kanazawa. Again, at 7,000 yen a night, we’re ready to forgive the complete lack of charm in exchange for the location right by the train station (and the myriad restaurants it houses), a tidy room and a big granite onsen (always nice after a day of cold weather). www.castle-inn.co.jp
Shirakawa-go is a tiny village that tourists access by foot, crossing a suspended bridge over the Sho River. It’s lost in time, surrounded by a province that is still 96% forest. The thatch-roofed farms are surrounded by rice paddies, and it’s all blanketed by snow in the winter. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s one of the best preserved visions of rural Japan. We also really loved the food there, elaborate kaiseki served at your ryokan (see below) or in restaurants, such as Shinji Noda (05769-6-1268, www.bunsuke.net). Apart from the wonderful views on the farm’s property, Shinji Noda serves fish kept in ponds on site that are smoked by the farm’s hearth.
Getting there: From the Kanazawa Rail Sation, inquire at the Hokutetsu bus ticket office to get your tickets. The ride to the village is 1.5 hours.
Stay here: Again, there are some truly outrageously expensive options here. Instead, hole up at Minshuku Kanjiya. Run by a diminutive grandmother who cooks amazing food, it’s 17,800 yen a night for half-board (you get dinner and breakfast), which is actually a really good deal given her culinary skills. The meals are these intricate, Michelin-star worthy multi-dish affairs with slices of beef cooking on a leaf, delicate foams and freshly harvested mushrooms. Look her up on www.booking.com.
Flights to Tokyo are around B30,000-35,0000 roundtrip in March, but local carriers ANA and JAL can be a bit cheaper: B25,000-B26,000. Try ANA (www.ana.co.jp), Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com), JAL (www.jal.com), Delta (www.delta.com) or United (www.united.com).
Buy a 7-day Japan Rail Pass in Bangkok before you leave for Japan. They cost around B11,000 (but will save you much more) and are sold by local travel agencies (try www.tvair.co.th). You get a receipt and then pick up the actual pass at the airport or in any JR office in Japan.
WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO
Mercure Ginza. Tokyo has a great subway system, but it’s still best to stick to the big railway stations to avoid lugging your bags all over the place. On your way in, you can get off at Tokyo Station and hole up in Ginza, which is home to some of Tokyo’s greatest contemporary architecture and luxury shopping. The Mercure Ginza has almost direct access to the Ginza Itchome metro station and is a short walk from Tokyo Station. Its breakfast buffet is great: French patisserie, Japanese fish and American standards. Rates are 13,600 yen per night (free Wi-Fi). www.mercure.com/Tokyo
Ibis Shinjuku. On your way out of Japan, for your last night(s) in Tokyo, head over to Shinjuku, for its neon jungle nightlife that has a little something for everyone—and a direct JR Express line to the airport. Another extremely well-located hotel, the Ibis Shinjuku is right in the middle of this lively area, home to Japanese goth boys touting girly bars, a mammoth Muji store, the gay district and electronic emporiums. Rates start from 9,000 yen (no breakfast, single bed, 10,000 yen for a double), which is quite cheap for Tokyo. www.accorhotels.com
Visas are necessary for Thai nationals. Apply at Japan Visa Application Centre (JVAC), 15/F, Unit C, Silom Complex Building, Silom Rd. 02-632-1541-4. For more information and visa requirements for other nationalities, go to www.jp-vfsglobal-th.com
1 Thai baht = 2.6 Japanese yen