I’m posting this story reeeally late, but better late than never right? It’s about the adventures a friend of mine (a fellow JET from Gunma Prefecture) and I had a few weeks ago when we were graced with a three-day weekend. We decided to meet up and do some exploring in Kusatsu and Yamanouchi. Fair warning before I get into the rest of the story: it is unbelievable the sheer number of CRAZY things that happened over this one weekend. So sit down and buckle up, ‘cause you’re in for quite a ride.
It started with Google Maps. Oh, Google Maps. Wonderful, amazing, messed up, panic-inducing, lets-go-down-roads-that-aren’t-actually-roads Google Maps. After passing the same station three times, Google Maps finally decided to take us the direction we wanted to go. Our first stop was a brewery; nothing special, no tours or anything, mostly a fancy place to buy alcohol. After that we stopped by an abandoned railway that used to be used for transporting iron during WWII. Next it was nonstop to Kusatsu!
Kusatsu was absolutely amazing. After parking the car (honestly one of the most stressful parts of any journey in Japan; there are very few parking lots, and those that exist are usually absurdly expensive), we walked to the Kosenji Temple. I got a temple stamp (I’ll post more on those later), and, when we looked out from the top of the stairs that led up to the temple, we could see the huge hot spring Kusatsu is known for down below!
Having never been to Yellowstone or anywhere else with natural hot springs, this whole experience was very different for me. The air was filled with the smell of sulfur, but I found that while other people were complaining about the smell, I didn’t mind it so much. Pungent, yes, but I was too focused on everything else to be bothered by a little egg smell. The water was an interesting color, clear but kind of pale yellow, the surrounding rocks were covered in a yellow-white gunk, and the amount of steam coming up from the water was incredible (I found out later that the water bubbling up from this spring is over 90 degrees Celsius (194F+)!!). This spring is called ‘Yubatake’ and is the source for most of the onsens in this area.
Later, we got to view ‘yumomi,’ the traditional way of cooling mineral-rich spring water without diluting it. Five women picked up these large, popsicle-stick-looking paddles, put them in the water, and churned the water in time to a song. At the very end, they shoved the paddles into the water and flung it up into the air; not only was it really cool, but you could see all the steam rising to the ceiling.
We also did a little bit of shopping around Kusatsu — we found a Studio Ghibli store, a store with all things cats, and another selling things with samurai emblems on them. When it began to get darker (bringing drizzle, wind, and even colder temperatures), we sent postcards to ourselves, then went into a small café for warm drinks and desserts. It was honestly the nicest little place ever. There was only one guy working that we could tell, and his elementary-aged daughters were there too. They brought over our coffee, almost spilling it (which was really cute, but also dangerous), then handed us our desserts (we ended up switching haha). Upon paying, the guy asked us some of the general questions foreigners are usually asked (where are you from, where are you from in Japan, what brings you here, what do you think of Japan so far), then handed each of us a flaky, éclair-type thing, saying that it was free. He was so nice, and the desserts were fantastic. I highly recommend going there!
Now comes the really fun part – getting to our hotel. It was around 8:00 as we began our way to Yamanouchi, about 45 minutes away. Typhoon Talim was getting ever closer, and it obviously didn’t want us to reach our destination. The winding, twisting road that the ever-wonderful Google Maps took us on put us on mountains with very little cover. My little car would shake from time to time as huge gusts of wind hit it, and with clouds also covering the mountain, visibility was around 5 feet. My friend actually held my phone and told me what to expect up ahead; it was that hard to see. All of these things pushed our stress levels through the roof, and by the end we were laughing and crying, singing songs about gaijin traps (these deep ruts on the sides of roads for drainage; some don’t have covers over them and are the perfect size for car tires) and potholes (no explanation needed), and panicking about being blown off the mountain into a hot spring or becoming food for t-rexes.
When we finally got to the hotel, we were ready to soothe our nerves. It was not to be. Most of the lights in the lobby were off, except for one at the front desk. A man came out, gave us a key without asking our names, and gave us a map to show us where our rooms were. We were like, “ok…… I guess this is fine…” then we stepped in the elevator. And it didn’t work. The doors closed, it didn’t move. We pulled an ‘Elf’ and hit every button on the panel. Still nothing. The guy at the front desk must have heard our hysterical laughing at the fact that we had just survived the drive here only to be beaten by an elevator, because he came and rescued us. He looked at the elevator, confused, then sheepishly gestured towards the stairs. He didn’t have to tell us twice!
Once we got up to the room I realized I had forgotten something in the car. Back down five flights of stairs I went, only to find that ALL of the lights in the lobby were now off. It was dark, and the sounds of the wind howling outside gave everything an eerie, haunted-house vibe. I practically ran out of the hotel (luckily there was enough light from the moon to be able to see shapes), got my stuff from the car, and ran back up the stairs. We were beginning to wonder what kind of a place this was.
The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast; nothing. Everything was closed. The front-desk guy was nowhere to be found, and all of the cars that had been outside last night were gone. We figured it was time to go.
After fleeing our sketchy accommodations, we headed for the city of Yamanouchi which is in Nagano Prefecture. We got there, managed to find cheap parking, and began our exploration. We had heard that one of the onsens that served as the inspiration for the one in Spirited Away was located in Yamanouchi, so we decided to find it. But first: we needed coffee.
Eventually, we found a small café, walked in, and silence befell the establishment. There was an old woman standing behind the bar, and a group of about six or seven men in their 20s or 30s were taking up most of the seating. We began to get nervous. We stared at the old lady, she stared back. Finally, I spoke. “We would like two hot coffees please.” Silence. I was beginning to wonder if she was going to kick us out, when she waved us closer. “I am very old,” she said, “so you have to speak very loudly.” “WE WOULD LIKE TWO HOT COFFEES PLEASE…” I repeated, louder. “Ok!” she replied, and went over to a staircase hidden behind a curtain. “Oniisan. ONIISAN! WE HAVE SOME GUESTS THAT WANT COFFEE!” *thud, thud, thud* this old man came from behind the curtain holding trays of sandwiches which he took to the men, who had resumed their conversations. Then we sat at the bar, waiting for our coffee, while the old man and woman talked to us. They wanted to know where we lived, where we were from, why we were here, if we liked Japan; simple questions, with simple answers. (The coffee was very good; if you like adventure, go to this place!)
It was amazing to walk down the narrow street lined with ryokans and onsens. As guests left, ryokan workers would stand outside and wave at your car until it disappeared from view. It was in front of one of these ryokans that we saw a small basket with eggs in it, onsen water streaming over them! My friend had to try one, and when she cracked it open, we discovered that it was still slightly raw in the middle. She said it had the texture of jello…
A small walk later, and we had arrived at Shibu Onsen, one onsen that had helped to inspire the bathhouse in Spirited Away. There was a small area in the front for pictures, so we took a few and headed on. Soon, there was a tall staircase that led up to a temple; can’t pass that up! So up, and up, and up we went. There were a few people up at the temple, all of whom were taking pictures with a white towel with blue writing and red stamps on it. I was still watching this, when suddenly I heard my name. I looked over, and my friend was excitedly waving at me. There were monkeys! Two monkeys were just chilling, and one was being cleaned by the other. Soon after, a family came up to the temple. I made eye contact with the father and told him there were monkeys; in no time at all, he, his wife, and his two daughters had grabbed cameras and were snapping away.
Suddenly, the monkeys departed. One ran in front of the kids, who immediately followed it. It turned around and walked toward them, threateningly, and the kids stopped dead in their tracks (foreshadowing). Then he hopped up onto the roof of the temple and began looking around. My friend was still taking pictures of them, so I decided to take some videos. The monkey on the roof found a friend and they were wrestling around in the bamboo next to a path, so we followed them on the path, watching them.
Rapidly, the monkeys changed course, slid down some bamboo, crawled through the fence, and were in front of my friend! One monkey went up to her, put his front hand on her leg and looked up at her. Then he backed up, and his friend came over, did the same thing — then bit her next to her knee!! We backed up, they followed, we backed up, raising our voices, they decided we were no longer interesting and wrestled their way down the path. I got the whole thing on video (unfortunately I cannot share it here without paying, so I apologize). Immediately we were swarmed by a group of concerned Japanese women who had seen the whole thing. Luckily, my friend was wearing jeans; the bite still took some skin off her leg, but there was no blood.
We got back down those stairs so fast you’d think the monkeys were right behind us! After catching our breath we entered a shop near the stairs, and I saw one of those towels the people at the temple had been taking pictures with. I asked the shopkeeper where we could buy them and what they were; she told us there are 9 onsens in this area with a stamp. Upon collecting all the onsen stamps, you go to the monkey temple and get the tenth stamp – and a wish! We did not want to go back to the monkey temple. But we got the towels anyway. We were almost done getting the onsen stamps when the sky finally opened and the rain began. We had come too far to quit, though, and got the rest of the stamps (including the one at the monkey temple) before running to the car.
From there it was back over the twisty, winding mountain road of doom from last night, which was somehow MORE panic inducing than it had been in the dark. Typhoon Talim was now in full swing, and the gusts of wind that had buffered my car last night were now a constant assault from seemingly every angle. It was the wind that caused me the most stress, and while my car seemed to be handling fine, my friend and I wished, for the first time, that we weighed more than we did. However, the foggy nothingness that existed on either side of the road was pretty terrifying too.
Mentally and physically drained, we finally made it to the train station in one piece, where we said our goodbyes. Just as our journey had begun with a crazy adventure with Google Maps, it ended with one too. We agreed to never again plan an adventure when there’s the threat of a typhoon, never again book sketchy hotels, and never again get anywhere close to monkeys. On the flip side, we believe our ‘Gaijin Traps and Potholes’ song could someday be a number 1 hit.