Our last day of snow shoeing we motored along to one final, remote, tiny village. This village was so small there were only 3 children, and two of them were the twins of our local guide! He was a young man and his smile split wide as he nearly burst with pride, showing us his little home town. It’s really hard not to adore these people. He led us through the forest, up and over a hill, and out into the town’s communal rice fields which were covered in several feet of snow, making the landscape look like a clean expanse, a blank, white slate. The snow was heavy and deep and it was exhausting work breaking the trail. Several of us took turns. When it was my turn, I took off all my layers despite the snow falling, and down to my shirt sleeves, put my head down and went into my old “triathlon mode”, not looking at the end, but just taking it step by step, breathing and sweating, finding a pace that I could maintain without stopping. There was so much snow and it was all so white that at one point, I stepped off an edge, not having any depth perception. The file stopped and huffed and waited for me to regain my footing and find my way back up to the path. I think it is very Japanese that instead of rushing forward, everyone looked away, not wanting to embarrass me and let me recover my place in “private”. It was a serene and beautiful place to end our snow shoeing experience.
That night a few bottles of sake might have circulated. I stepped away to use the restroom and when I came back I misjudged the step up to the fireplace. I tripped and found myself on my hands and knees mortified that the others might think me drunk! They turned in surprise, but then so Japanese, never missed a beat and pretended not to have seen a thing. My cheeks were burning, but a moment later I heard a thump. I turned around and SF was on his hands and knees at the same step looking surprised. I bit my lip to keep from bursting out laughing. And I’m not making this up, but a few moments later another splat and June was on her hands and knees as she navigated back from the restroom. Finally our guide Toru burst out, “Why?! Why everybody falling down!?” Then we all laughed till we cried. It still reduces me to giggles thinking about it.
I think a slight melancholy overtook us all as we left the mountains and headed back to civilization and town where we would catch the train back to the big city of Nagano. I would have been quite alright with life going on like this for some time… pleasant companions, beautiful nature, incredible food, nightly hot springs. Our final morning together as a group we walked to the Nagano Zenko-ji Temple, which dating back to the 7th (!) century, is one of the oldest in Japan. It is too old and too huge to have any heat at all and in the literally freezing weather, I must say, I was not stoked to have to take off my shoes. Underneath the giant Buddha statues and chanting monks lies an underground maze, completely dark. For a small fee, you can have the “opportunity” to feel your way through the darkness. They say if you find the door with a key in it, it is the door to enlightenment. What Toru failed to mention is that the door doesn’t actually open and it’s not the exit. Being somewhat claustrophobic, I was sticking to Carol like glue. When she found the door, I could hear the relief in her voice and then the panic rising as she struggled with the key and the handle. I put a hand on her shoulder and urged her forward, trying to keep my panic down as it seemed there were voices ahead, not behind the door. Naturally, all’s well that ends well and there were a lot of relieved smiles back out in the light.
Back at Nagano station it was time to say goodbye. We all thought it would be great to get together back in Singapore or California or on another hiking trip in Japan. Who knows if it will ever really happen, but what a delight to know that there would be friendly faces in another corner of the world.
It turned out that Carol and SF were staying a few days, as was I, and they offered to take me with them to Iiyama to a snow festival where there was music, food, and snow sculptures. That’s one of the fun things about travelling solo; people feel inclined to adopt you. We skittered in their rental car down the icy roads to Iiyama where we ate hot noodles, took selfies in front of giant snow sculptures, and listened to some seriously home town music. A small tent was set up to protect the musicians and the spectators from the falling snow. The musician was a young Japanese man in snow boots and a tuk. He would strum and sing into the mic and at the end of each song, stare at the ground, gasping with embarrassment, cheeks flaming, until a friend (dressed in robes an a man bun) would rush forward from the crowd with a glass of sake. The musician would down the sake gratefully, and thus fortified, be able to proceed to the next song. It was so great.
The grand finale to my winter Japan trip was seeing the snow monkeys. You’ve seen them on TV and in the pages of National Geographic. The furry little munchkins who soak in the hot springs and get all red faced? If I was anywhere in that corner of the world, I was going to do whatever it took to see them in person. Who could resist a fuzzy snow monkey? A long-ish bus ride and a 30 minute slip and slide hike along an icy path, led to the domain of the Japanese Macaque or snow monkey. I stood there for 3 hours, spell-bound, watching the adults luxuriate in the hot springs, grooming one another, a baby learning to swim and hold its breath, monkeys scrabbling through the snow for food, the occasional screech and fight over some imagined offense, youngsters leaping and rolling and playing. I wanted to squeeze them and hug them and call them my very own George. So freaking CUTE!!
The last day, I made my way uneventfully back to Tokyo where I boarded my nearly empty flight (thanks corona virus?) and had 4 seats all to myself. I had dinner, confused by the sight of a fork (where’s the chopsticks?), drank a beer, and took an Ambien. I woke up 9 hours later when the pilot announced we’d be landing shortly. I’ve never had a better flight. Back at home, my first night in my own bed, I woke up in the middle of the night. I mistook the bright, silver moon-light for snow and thought I was still in Japan. I’m sure a little piece of me is still there…