Travelogue Japan 2: Yuzawa

03-07 January 2015

After our exuberant last night in Tokyo, we overslept and missed our intended 10am departure for Niigata and subsequently ended up on the 12h16 train to Yuzawa (they run more or less every half hour).

The Shinkansen bullet trains are incredible – so fast, yet so solid that you don’t feel like you’re hurtling across Japan. Which is exactly what we did. East to West coast in an hour! I had slept soundly the whole way (having woken with the lurgy that had stricken RoRo on New Years Day) but am told that there was nothing to see as the train is parenthesesed by barriers, blocking the view completely.

Arriving in the sleepy winter wonderland valley of Yuzawa in Niigata, we were instantly in love. Beautiful thick snow everywhere; mountain rising up directly in front of us as we exited the station. We caught a taxi to our accommodation, mainly because it would be too hard to negotiate our bags in the snow (and we didn’t realise the journey would be so short).

We’d been told that what we’d booked was previously a hotel – and we had the whole hotel to ourselves! Our arrival confirmed it: we were to be the sole guests of 3 storeys of slopeside hotel. Quite a contrast to our Tokyo home – which could fit into our Yuzawa lounge – it was big, airy and comfortably furnished with plus-sized couches and king-size beds. The hotel has an unassuming roadside entrance, but the living area has wall-to-wall windows facing the ski slope, which serves as very entertaining live TV!

We got a quick tour of the facilities – including the 2 private basement onsen baths and a detailed review of the remote control panel to operate the heated toilet with all sorts of spray options to rinse and blowdry your bits – and settled into our rooms. Michele had been allocated a first floor room (which was described as 2nd floor because Japanese start counting from Ground), but ended up sleeping in the lounge in the living area adjacent to our room because her heater wasn’t working properly and she said the uninhabited hotel reminded her too much of The Shining. And with The World’s Most Comfortable Couch as an alternative, she was spoilt for choice.

It was a bit late (mid-afternoon) by this point to fuss with ski rentals etc, so we took a walk along our road instead to see what there was, get some supplies, scout a spot for dinner and whatnot. Even with the inordinate amount of snow everywhere, the kilometre walk to the Station was easy enough, assisted enormously by the jets of water spurting out from the middle lane of the road and running from side feeder roads, keeping the road clear of the enormous amount of snow. Our host, Gabriel, had explained that the source of this water was the underground spring – same one that fed the onsen. Very clever.

Our initial preview of Yuzawa revealed that it was different to the ski resort towns we’d previously encountered in that there wasn’t an apres ski bar anywhere to be found. Most other resort towns we’d been to had put equal energy into entertainment on and off the slopes. Also, while everything we’d read pointed to Yuzawa being a tourist town, nothing had indicated that it’s very definitely only a Japanese tourist town since the restaurants we passed were all Japanese menu only.

On returning to the house, Gabriel warned us that we’d be well advised to get to dinner early as everything filled up when the slopes close at 5pm and since the restaurants are all small with only a handful of tables, short of waiting (outside, in the snow) the next easy-access sitting wouldn’t be until around 9 o’clock.

Just after 5pm already, he and his family were on their way out for dinner and he offered for us to walk with them so he could point out his recommendations of restaurants and shops.

We were already too late for the tonkatsu restaurant he had suggested to us but, based on the queue of people waiting in the cold for a table, we assumed it must be as good as Gabriel said and noted to return there the next day, early enough to avoid the queue.

We took our chances and went into the first restaurant without a waiting list, which turned out to be a tempura restaurant. What a luck!

We ordered the set menu, which was an awful lot of food! A miso soup, big wedge of tofu, small plate of pickled veg (no idea what it was), bowl of rice and a mountain of tempura veg (including an enormous shitake mushroom), fish, calamari and prawns (each easily 20cm long). Everything is served at once and makes for a very busy table! There are always soy sauce and chilli flakes on the table and often another condiment or two, in this case a cellar of sesame seeds. Salt and pepper aren’t standard table items as they are in the Western world.

Our feast behind us, we returned home for an onsen and a quiet night in, enjoying the comfort of our new home with its warm and inviting living room (and the simple luxury of being able to speak out loud after being repressed in Tokyo!)

The onsen isn’t what I expected. I’d thought it would be a sort of warm swimming pool, Turkish Bath style, but its more a hot bath suited to shorter dipping. Our house had 2 onsen – one “personal” one about a metre by a metre and a half and a group one about twice the size (and the perfect width to sit back against the wall and toes touching the other side). Both follow the same format with a small reception room with wooden shelves to undress and redress, hand showers in the onsen room to clean off before entering the onsen, and the onsen itself a simple rectangular bath like the swimming pools of yesteryear when they were still tiled.

Each bath is fed by a continuous trickle of hot spring water and the bath simply overflows like an infinity pool when it’s filled to capacity, draining from the bathroom floor (probably on to somewhere useful if the cistern-basin idea is anything to go by). The onsen also has a plug, so can be emptied if the water gets icky (which shouldn’t be too often since the rules are strict about showering beforehand and there is a constant flow of clean spring water entering the bath). It is very hot so, contrary to our expectation that we’d spend hours languishing in it like a Jacuzzi, we only lasted about 10 minutes.

The next morning we went to the ski hire shop, conveniently just across the road from our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at the rates – R420 for 2 days equipment hire! – and were soon on our way with skis, poles, boot and for Christian and Michele pants and goggles too. I went to secure a ski pass (R700 for 2 full days) while the others went to find an intructor to give them a private lesson.

As promised on our “ski in/out” hotel’s write-up, there was a ski chair lift right outside our door and our pass covered not only our slope, but the whole mountain including the gondola that ran from the Ropeway Station a few hundred metres down the street to midway up the slope which had a few restaurants and shops.

Having snowed all through the night before, the powder was perfect! The slopes aren’t busy at all – not like the mayhem in Europe when I’d learned to ski – so it’s an ideal training ground and a pleasure for the already initiated.

Alex was having her turn at being ill that day so had, wisely and with remarkable restraint, stayed in for the day. I took on the mountain as a solo mission and worked out a run from the gondola station to the very top of the mountain that had me entertained for an hour at a time through a variety of green, red, black and blue routes.

By the end of the day, we’d all fallen in love with Yuzawa and asked Gabriel if we could stay 2 extra nights (conveniently, he was our landlord for our intended next stop so we simply traded properties). I guess we’ll never know what Hakone would have been like but since its main attraction was its private onsen and we had two at Yuzawa anyway, we were very motivated to stay at our lovely hotel.

After a brilliant full day’s skiing, we were at the restaurant for 5 o’clock… and were still second in the queue! Fortunately the wait wasn’t very long though and since they had taken our order while we waited, the food was served to us as we sat down. It was another set menu type thing with the standard miso soup, pickled veg, tofu and rice and the most incredible tonkatsu, which is a breaded pork fillet along the lines of a schnitzel but thick and tender and juicy, served with a mountain of shredded cabbage, carrot and watercress. Its partner condiment was a sticky sweetish barbecue sauce which matched perfectly and there was a creamy light sauce that we only realised afterwards was likely a sort of salad dressing to make a coleslaw type effect with the veg.
Since Alex was still quarantining herself, we made short work of dinner and picked up some beers and sake from the bottle shop to take home for a quiet night in. Made for a really nice evening.

Day 2 of skiing was even better because I had Lixi with me – and it was a great feeling just knowing we’d extended our stay so there would be no mad panic to pack and leave later on.

We made arrangements to all meet at the Alpine restaurant at the top gondola station for lunch and each spent our morning making the proverbial hay while the sun shone.

The slopes were brilliant, so much snow, wide and long runs and, with relatively few people, no queues at any of the chairlifts. Alex and I managed all the runs before lunch, including her first go on a (steep and narrow!) black run ever!

We were pooped by lunchtime so had a lovely long and lingering pizza/pasta lunch at Alpine, comparing notes on who had done what in the morning and watching Ski TV through the big window (although we witnessed far fewer and less spectacular bails than our house’s view).

Alex and I skiied for about another hour and caught the gondola down rather than risking the long black slope in the failing light.

Our onsen awaited and was practically a religious experience for our tired bones and aching muscles! The water was 44 degrees so it took little more than 10 minutes to get to watershed invigoration.

Lovely and clean and toasty – and in no hurry for dinner after our leisurely lunch – we settled around our lounge table, with its traditional floor cushions on 2 sides and The Most Comfy Couch in The World on the other 2, and got stuck into the bottles of local sake we’d bought at the shop Gabriel recommended.

Michele was having her turn at the flu, so decided not to brave the cold for dinner. The four of us wandered up the road heading for a restaurant called Yoshi Toshi (one of the few restaurants with English signage) which Christian had spotted and wanted to try. Unfortunately it was closed, but there was another restaurant directly opposite and a peek through the door showed it was quite full – always a good sign – so we gave it a bash.

Much like the other traditional restaurants we’d been to, it was very small with only 4 low tables and a counter of about 10 chairs facing the open kitchen. We were seated at one of the 4 low tables and given menus… all in Japanese. There was one picture, which looked like a set menu so, since we’d done well with those so far, we ordered 4.

We ordered sake too, which was served the traditional way into a small cup to the point that it overflowed and filled the saucer below. This apparently symbolises the welcoming from the restaurant and the generosity that they will display in looking after you.

The meal was excellent! Tasty miso soup and superb chicken katsu breaded cutlets.

We celebrated our success with a visit to Swing Bar, which still appeared to be the only bar in town and advertised on its signage that its operating hours were 8pm to 3am daily. How odd.

We soon made friends – or rather, in this case, were made friends with – a trio of young US Marines. They told us that their deal is 5 years in the Corps and in return the Marines pay for 3 years university education for them. Seems like a great system. Must rack up since there are apparently 5000 marines on their ship alone!

A couple of rounds of beers and Jagers (the killer mammoth tumbler “shots”) and it was hometime. It was so awesome surfacing to the crisp night air, with all the pretty snow and mountain backdrop for the short walk back to the hotel. Such simple pleasures we miss out on at home.

Our last day was taken very slowly with all efforts concentrated on relaxing. It was raining lightly so nobody was keen on skiing and it was an indulgent day of napping, chatting, slothing and of course onsen, all set to the rhythmic “bing-bong” warning chime that the ski station outside our window made every few seconds as each chair arrived.

The first time anyone left the house was close on 6pm, to return ski equipment, do a spot of souvenir shopping and source a place for dinner.

The first 2 were easy, the third not as much so. We wanted to try something that we hadn’t yet eaten and the task is harder than you might think when the display menus are Japanese only and the 1000 words that the accompanying pictures speak are clearly Japanese as well!

The answer came to us in the form of a glowing billboard opposite the station: Kenchin Soup.

The restaurant looked like such a good find. With a charmingly rustic entrance complete with the traditional sliding paper doors, the inside was warm and comfortable but more ‘functional’ than a lot of the places we’d been to. With wooden floors and normal chairs and tables, we surmised this to be more of a canteen for the locals.

As with most places we’d been to, there was only 1 person working the floor (doorman, waiter and bussing functions) with 2 people in the kitchen. Our server was an old man, who was delighted to see us and ushered us into the back into a private dining room with traditional straw mat floors, low tables and cushions. As had been our lure, he pointed excitedly at the picture of the Kenchin soup in the menu, clearly recommending it to us.

Unique to the local area, Kenchin is a thick Japanese stew containing more than 10 different vegetables, soy sauce and miso paste. The picture on the board looked like a hearty beef or lamb stew but, even though all veg, Kenchin is just as hearty and delicious and there are some of the more exotic veg that you’d swear are meat from their texture and flavour.

We had ordered some side dishes too, including tempura prawns (as big as the monster ones we’d had the first night), hire-katsu (crumbed pork cutlets) and negitoro (minced tuna sashimi served as a tartare-style meatball in a bed of Japanese spring onion). Everything is so tasty; really fresh with sharp and defined flavours.

It was snowing properly by the time we left and we all looked like snowmen by the time we got home.

Our evening round-up (“clearing the stocks from the fridge that would be too cumbersome to carry”) had us in complete agreement that staying in Yuzawa had been a genius move that might just have ruined all future possible skiing holidays for us!