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If you’re ever in Japan, you’d be silly just to limit yourself to the tourist hubs of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Sure, those cities have plenty of things to keep you occupied but if you do have a night or two to spare it’s worth exploring the Japanese countryside.
The Tokyo-Nagano dash was an overnight trip I did halfway through my holiday. I wanted to see the snow monkeys but to do that as a day trip from Tokyo would require some amazing time management skills, not to mention getting up super early in the morning. I wasn’t quite keen to make that sort of commitment.
However, I was cool with an overnight stay in nearby Shibu Onsen, a hot springs area that’s only a short drive from the snow monkey park. Plus, it would give me a great excuse to stay at a ryokan (Japanese guest house).
Senshinkan Matsuya was the place I stayed at. It’s a beautiful two-storey wooden guesthouse that’s been around for more than 200 years and is owned by a lovely couple, Tmomi and Keiko. Tmomi was kind enough to pick me up from Yudanaka Station (the closest public transport stop to the inn) which I was grateful for seeing as it was 5:30PM when I arrived and pitch black (I didn’t have the hindsight to know just how quickly it got dark in the Japanese countryside in the cooler months).
This was my room for the night, complete with tatami mats and all. It was simple, yet beautiful and homely – the perfect place to have a quiet night in, away from the bright lights of Japan’s big cities. I paid the equivalent of AUD$100 for the night – this included dinner, breakfast and a key that granted access to nine hot spring baths in Shibu Onsen.
Senshinkan Matsuya did have its quirks – my room had a VHS player! (despite the fact there were no video stores nearby and people stopped buying video tapes a long time ago)
There were also Nagano 1998 stickers everywhere, because Winter Olympics pride.
Once I dumped everything into my room, I popped on my yukata (Japanese robe) and went downstairs to the dining room basement area for dinner. Holy hell, this was the spread that greeted me. Yup, this was yet another kaiseki dinner but unlike the Michelin-starred spectacular at Roan Kikunoi, this was a much more casual and homely version. Same same but different.
After taking a few sips of my plum wine and nibbling my way through the assorted sashimi, pickles and edamame, I got stuck into the herbal mushroom soup. Given how cold the autumn air was up in the Japanese countryside, this was a godsend. So earthy, so herby, so friggin’ delicious.
I was delighted to see kishimen (flat udon noodles) in the mix. It came in a cute little bowl with a lid on it. See that hole in the lid? It was full of beautiful steaming hot dashi soup.
Like the sashimi, I’d have to say that I didn’t particularly warm up to the tempura. The sashimi was nice enough but after getting used to insanely fresh sashimi in the larger cities, the kingfish and tuna here paled in comparison. Understandably though, we were up in the mountains where fresh seafood is harder to come by. The tempura batter was light but not as crispy as I had come to expect in Japan. I did like the green tea salt though – it injected a bit of flavour to the eggplant, zucchini and green tea salt tempura pieces.
And who doesn’t like a bit of creamy cheesy chicken? I definitely wasn’t saying no. It went down well with a bit of steamed rice.
Finally, some nice peppered salmon to get my Omega-3 fill for the day.
It’s hard to believe that this entire spread was for one person. And yes, I did eat it all!
I felt like a bit of a loser sitting there in my yukata alone while couples and groups around me were chatting and eating away. I’m not sure whether it was because it was such a small and homely environment or whether it was because I was in a small country town. Nevertheless, the host (and chef) was lovely and came over every now and then to converse with me in what limited English she had and with what limited Japanese I had.
After such a feast, it was time for me to go for an evening walk around Shibu Onsen and visit its spas. Sorry, no spa photos – I wasn’t going to be the creep who took her iPhone to a spa to take photos while other spa users were around.