100 Happy Days / Day 51: Nagano to Hakuba

Key, our friendly host at 1166 Backpackers, had a breakfast recommendation for us – “Go try the pancakes”. If you had eaten taiyaki – fish-shaped pancakes before, you would be able to imagine koiyaki, which are specifically shaped like Koi.

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Soft and beautifully crafted, they were oishii! The owner of the cosy little Koiyaki store greeted us with typical Japanese hospitality, and proceeded to explain the various different flavours of Koiyaki. We ordered everything since we could not understand a word he was saying, but they were all delicious! We could not help noticing too that he had exquisite taste in his wares as well. This iron stove is used to boil water to make tea. Even the sanitary fittings in his toilet (which he showed us because we were “so interesting”) were intricately and beautifully painted!

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When I shared that I am in Japan to also learn pottery, and that I hope to one day make a nice chawan like the one he was using, he said, onegaishimasu, which I think can be translated to mean “yes, please do. I look forward to it”. It’s a simple expression, and perhaps a common polite response, but nonetheless I was still touched and encouraged by it! Goes to show the impact that even the smallest offhand remark can have on people! Here is a picture of him and his beautiful counter:

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Nagano was snowing and everywhere was beautifully spotted in white. We also noticed that the city took care to beautify their firefighting water points embedded below the roads!

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Another recommended place in Nagano is the cat cafe. Not really knowing what to expect, we headed to the shop. It turned out to have 14 really cute and pretty cats! There is a cover charge of 750 yen per person and you can order tea or coffee while playing with the cats.

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Cats are cats. Sometimes they ignore you, and sometimes they don’t mind you fawning over them. Sometimes they also give you a look, just to show who is really the boss!

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We could have stayed as long as we wanted, but we had a bus to catch to Hakuba. Nagano is a nice city, and spending about 1-2 days exploring was just nice for us! Snow mountains, here we come!

Tetsu-san, owner of Meteor Lodge came to pick us up from Hakuba station. He had a jovial and genuine smile and we liked him immediately. We learned that he had moved from Tokyo to start this lodge in Hakuba over 30 years ago, and coincidentally it was open for business just 3 days after I was born! Each time we meet someone like Tetsu, it really encourages us to keep alive our dream of one day opening a nice lodge in a beautiful place, and share our joy with every traveller who comes our way.

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As we reached the lodge, Tetsu-san exclaimed, “present for you!” and pointed to the blanket of snow descending upon us. That is what we want to see for our snowboarding tomorrow!

We met Rika, who is from Taiwan and working at the lodge for this season on some kind of working holiday arrangement. She studied Japanese in university and as part of her staff benefits here she gets to snowboard every day for free! Not bad at all since she also enjoys free food, free lodging and a stipend pay. I really wish I did something like this during my university days instead of taking summer classes or temporary vacation jobs.

We also met Tetsu-san’s wife, who always has a warm smile. She was watching the evening news and at this moment, there was just something that was timeless about the entire scene. The snow falling outside, the TV switched on, the fire crackling nearby and her, sitting with her back straight. I can imagine this same scene happening 30 years ago and probably 30 years later.

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We headed to the onsen again and thankfully it was empty. Sitting in the outdoor bath, I watched the snowflakes fall as the hot water warmed my body. It is so strange to experience such extremes of temperature all in one place; both natural gifts from Mother Earth. The moment felt like Christmas; even though we are already in March. There is just something magical about gentle snowflakes descending upon earth.

After treating our muscles, it was time to heal our empty stomachs. We headed to Hie Izakaya which is recommended as good value for money in this tourist district.

One of the outstanding items was this dish called, unremarkably, “salad with fried potato”. It was nothing like we have seen or eaten before! The potato was shredded into vermicelli-thick strands and tasted like rosti. It was quite a sight so much so that the couple sitting next to us couldn’t help ordering one for themselves after seeing it.

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The food was good but it also turned out to be the most expensive meal we have eaten so far on this trip. Looks like we have got to rethink our dinner options for the next few nights!

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