新年明けましておめでとう! (shin-nen akemashite omedetō! Happy New Year!)

New Year's Eve was pretty uneventful for me, as it was supposed to be. A very nice and informal dinner with a Japanese family followed by the hatsumōde (a visit to the shrine, to pray for a good year). The hatsumōde is not very remarkable, so I didn't bother trying to photograph it. Just imagine the biggest crowd of the year going to the shrine to pray in the usual way and buy amulets and predictions written on small pieces of paper. In the middle of the night.

What was more remarkable was what followed: I spent my first days of 2009 in the Nagano prefecture and more specifically in a ryokan (旅館, "traditional" Japanese inn). That was one of the most important things on my todo-list. Most ryokan are higher-end accommodation, usually in an old wooden building and almost always with tatami rooms. Add to that two usually excellent meals and either a sentō (銭湯, Japanese-style bath) or, even better, an onsen (温泉, hot spring) and you get what many consider to be the quintessential Japanese experience. Ours, korakukan jigokudani (後楽館地獄谷), was a definitely very welcoming one, if a bit on the rustic side. Set away from everything else (but the snow monkey park, which I'll mention again later in this post), on a forested hill. Being the Nagano prefecture in the winter, the whole area was covered in snow, giving a bit of a fairy tale feeling to the place. And here is the proof (the last one is the view from our room):

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The staff was very friendly, the room big and cozy and it was so delightful to go bathe in the onsen, surrounded by snow-covered nature. The food was really nice too, varied and tasty. We even got to taste cricket. Believe it or not, it's crunchy ;)

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One disappointment was not to have bathed with the monkeys. For yes, they sometimes come to the outdoor onsen. Unfortunately, they didn't while we were there, though they did at other times during our stay. We did get to see them, though. First on our way to the ryokan, then from our room and finally in their park. You see, jigokudani is famous for its snow monkeys, which you can go and see in a small park that's not much more than a small outdoor onsen reserved for the monkeys. They're the only ones bathing there but they're certainly not alone:

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However they don't seem to mind too much:

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Or do they?

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Stay tuned for more pictures from Japan!