A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel. The rooms have minimal furniture and the floor is covered with Tatami mats. The bedding (futon) is usually put away for the day, and there is always a thermos of hot water for tea on the table. Even nicer, almost all Ryokans have a communal bath, which is the focal point of the stay. I already discovered the pleasure of a nice Japanes bath on my last trip, five years ago.

But this Ryokan was offering the most hospitable experience we’ve seen so far. Armed with the map from the tourist information, we were trying to find this place. We were standing at an intersection, looking like rather helpless tourists with our backpacks, when a young man a few houses up was waving his arms. This man turned out to be Mokoto (sp?), and welcomed us with the biggest heart, took our backpacks, and poured us some tea while we did the paperwork for checkin. He apologized profoundly that he had to make a copy of our passports, as it was required by law. Everybody in the place went through great lenghts to make us feel as much as home as possible. After settling in, Maha and I spent an hour in the communal bath (which was private, so we could use it together), where we made the decision to extend our stay from two to three days. Sodo needed some quite reflecting time, and Nagano was offering that.

We didn’t rush anything, and mainly enjoyed the city, strolled through the streets and just kicked back. But there were two highlights that deserve special mention:

On the second day we got up early in the morning – really early, at 5:30 am – to see the morning ceremony at the local Buddhist center. It was very beautiful, with chanting and praying. After the service was over, everybody lined up along the path where the monks would proceed, where we bowed down when they passed, so that we could get blessed. Very beautiful experience.

Mokoto told us about the springs with the monkeys, and described us how to get there. “Just say ‘monkey’, and people will know” he adviced. So we got on the train, where we left the guidance of our guidebook behind, which mentioned the monkeys with two sentences. But, as Mokoto said, the workd “monkey” worked wonder, and after a busride and a thirty minute hike we reached a beautiful valey. Well, they did charge admission, but it was worth it! The monkeys weren’t shy at all and seeing the little ones play was the cutest thing in the world! They have amazing character faces – be sure to check back, once our pictures are uploaded (after the trip). And the highlight was the onzen afterwards – bathing in the natural spring water. This Onzen had separate indoor baths for men and women and, very anusual, a coed outdoor bath (so that both, men and women could enjoy the natural setting). This was an amazing experience.

And to round up a wonderful experience, we tried our first Okonomiyaki, which is similar to a pancake, but much thicker and stuffed. Nobody in the restaurant spoke English, the menu was unreadable, but it doesn’t matter. The randomly picked dishes were simply amazing.