The end of school, Zenkoji Temple in Nagano and a trip to see the snow monkeys.
Our summer in Japan has come to an end.
We finished our studies at the Hokkaido Japanese Language school, and said our sad goodbyes to our lovely and devoted teachers, and the friends we’ve made while we’ve been here.
There is now a distinct chill in the air in Sapporo.
When we arrived here two months ago, we wore t-shirts and rode our bikes to school.
Now the bikes are parked by our apartment and we wear heavy scarfs, hats and gloves when we go for walks, braving the rain and the autumn winds.
The autumn colors are beautiful.
The ginkgo and maple trees are glowing with beautiful reds and golds.
We use our free time to take day trips to some of the many Onsens (hot springs) around Sapporo.
It is easy to visit Onsens on day trips.
The Japanese culture is in love with hot springs, so there is always a convenient bus or a train, or a combination of the two, to get to the Onsens.
Many Onsen hotels allow day visitors to soak in their hot pools.
The price for a day soak is small, ranging from $5-$15 per person for a day pass.
Some five star hotels only allow day visitors if they buy a lunch and Onsen package.
Even though it is still a good deal, I much prefer to eat at one of the many small eateries in each of those rural towns.
Buckwheat Soba noodles, served cold with a dipping sauce or hot in a savory broth, makes a lovely, simple and wholesome lunch.
The soba is served with a side dish of pickles and vegetable tempura, with or without a small local river fish.
These tiny soba places do not serve dry packaged soba noodles.
They make the soba noodles fresh daily, and only stay open until they finish selling the fifty meals that they prepared for that day.
The water in which the soba noodles were boiled is served as a hot tea to round out the meal.
We have been to many of the Onsens that are reachable on day trips from Sapporo, but we have also stayed overnight at the more remote Onsens, and beside soakings, we have walked along the rivers or lakes, enjoying the carpets of fallen leaves beneath our feet and marveling at the autumn colors.
But the days have been getting colder and colder, and in the last week before we board a plane back to New Zealand, we decided to make a short trip to the Japanese Alps, to Nagano prefecture, to stay at remote Onsen towns and to visit the famous snow monkeys.
It was a hard decision that we had to make, about where we wanted to spend our last few weeks.
On one hand we wanted to go to Kyushu island where it is warm and nice, but after long hours of study daily in school and more hours doing homework afterwards, we did not feel like embarking on a tiring backpacking trip. We wanted to lay on a beach and just rest.
The hotels we were able to find in Kyushu, however, seemed old and not a good value.
We looked into flying to Thailand where we could get fabulous accommodations for great prices, but it felt like too much of a production to leave Japan for such a short time.
After throwing ideas back and forth, and feeling so fortunate that we have so many choices, we decided on visiting the Japanese Alps, due west of Tokyo.
The train system in Japan is famous for being one of the best in the world, and it is so punctual and comfortable that it rightfully deserves its reputation.
The train turned out to be pricier than flying, but it is so convenient that we chose to take a series of fast trains to Nagano.
We left Sapporo on a morning train to Hakkodate, switched trains to go to Shin Aomori, where we took a Shinkansen high speed rail to Omiya, and then on to Nagano.
From Nagano we took the electric rail to Yudanaka Onsen.
It might sound like a long journey, but all connections were timely with no waits and no hassle, and were more like switching seats in different but comparable lounge chairs.
By the time the train left the northern island of Hokkaido through the underseas tunnel and entered the main island of Honshu, the weather had warmed up significantly.
It is still autumn, but the evergreens planted on Honshu are, as the name suggests, ever-green, and the sun felt warm and bright.
I have enjoyed eating autumn food while in Sapporo.
I ate a large bright orange persimmon every single day after dinner and the orange pumpkin called Kabucha at every opportunity I had.
Before leaving Sapporo, we made sure to dine at all our favorite places a few more times.
I will miss the all the good food here when we go back to NZ and Colorado.
As the Shinkansen headed south toward mainland Japan, the sights of old, rural Japan came into my view.
Rice terraces, old houses with curved dark roofs, and small country roads.
The Shinkansen was speeding so fast, that it all looked like a movie through my window screen…
Why do I love this culture so much?…
Through my window I saw persimmon trees standing in long rows in a grove.
The autumn wind had stripped them of their leaves, only the big orange colored fruit hung in great abundance, like beautiful jewels, heavy and with the promise of tender sweetness.
That night in Nagano city, we made our way to Zenkoji temple.
Our Ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) was located in one of the narrow picturesque alleys adjacent to the temple.
It is such a scenic area, with old lanterns, beautiful houses with glorious tile roofs, old temple gates and old guesthouse with amazing gardens, sliding Shoji screen doors, entrance ways filled with indoor sandals and outdoor shoes that guests have left at the entrances before entering the quiet guest houses.
Our Ryokan is beautiful, too.
Our tatami room is large and our futon beds are ready for us.
We have a private modern toilet and I was alone soaking at their public hot bath.
Refreshed, we made our way to a local restaurant and ate soba noodles in the local miso broth.
The streets were dark, and passing through the tall wooden gates I felt a sense of deep reverence.
Millions of pilgrims come here every year, (8 million per year, to be exact), looking for healing and enlightenment.
There is an old tradition in Japan in which pilgrims used to hang the straw sandals that they had worn on their long journey towards the temple, on the entrance gate.
Nowadays the straw sandals can be bought and hung by pilgrims and visitors on the gate, by the two Nio-San guardians standing on both sides of the massive gate.
Zenkoji temple is beautiful, with manicured trees and an underground tunnel located under the main hall.
We took off our shoes and made our way downstairs into the pitch black tunnel, with instructions to keep our right hands on the wooden walls of the tunnel, and to try to find the key to paradise.
A bit into the tunnel, it got very dark.
I felt calm….at home….. I love the silence generated by sensory deprivation.
Jules told me later that he felt a bit of fear but was happy to do it, and he even asked that we go through the tunnel one more time.
As it is in Truth, everyone who searches, who passes through the tunnel, finds the “key to paradise” in the dark. It was attached to a tiny door on the right wall.
We jiggled it a little and moved on.
There are three principles outlined at the Zenkoji temple in Nagano city:
Inori- A place of prayer.
A non sectarian place where all people are equal, regardless of sex, status, etc.
Hikari- A place of light.
The Buddha is not to be worshipped as an idol, it is a symbol of light.
The light within each and every one of us.
Beyond all idols, the light within each of us is waiting to be revealed to us.
We walk a personal path towards enlightenment.
This path, towards remembering who we are, is a process of embracing the truth and walking daily on the path towards wisdom and truth.
Satori- A place of Enlightenment.
In the pitch black tunnel under Zenkoji main hall, all people are equal, and walking in the dark symbolizes the veil of illusions that we believe this world is.
We walk through the dark tunnel of life, hoping to find the key to paradise.
Those who are awakened do not place their goals in the realm of illusions in this world, but are Seeking for enlightenment through self reflection, moment by moment self examination, and a strong determination for self awakening.