The bright blue water of a river in Kinugawa, Japan. Photo by Shania Soler.

On the second day of vacation, my host family and I woke up in the ryokan. I hadn’t gotten the best night’s sleep as we slept on traditional futons rather than actual beds. They were comfortable, but not something I was used to. Thankfully, the huge breakfast offered was all I needed to completely wake up, and then we went on our way.

 Anticipating having some time to kill before checking into our second ryokan, my host mom, had done some research and found a farm about an hour away where we could eat fresh, soft-serve ice cream and see farm animals. However, because it’s the winter season there weren’t many to see, outside of some sheep and miniature horses. However, my host sister Remi loved it since it was her first time seeing them.

Animals weren’t the only thing that was scarce, though. There were little to no people around which made for great photo opportunities of not just the farm, but of the snow-covered mountains as well.

The air was crisp from the cold, the sky was blue and the scenery was gorgeous. We wrapped up our visit after seeing the animals and enjoying our soft serve. The next destination on the list was Kinugawa, which only took about a half-hour to get to.

The town was very small and there was hardly anyone around, but the abnormally blue water in the river was what caught my attention. Below the bridge we were standing on, we could see another old bridge in the rock wall above the water. It’s clear that it’s been around for a long time, and I was surprised to see it in such good condition. Just looking at the bridge, being in the small town, I could easily picture the people walking across it in feudal Japan.

Of course, because the town was so empty there was a fair share of creepy, abandoned buildings that looked like they were straight from a horror film based around Japanese mythology like “Hanako-San” or the “slit mouthed woman.” The setting and surrounding areas in Japan are so different from what I’m used to in the States that seeing these buildings reminded me of how far from home I am.

We continued our exploration of the town after getting away from the horror houses. Before leaving home in Chiba, my host mom had told me about saru (monkey in Japanese) that will get into the onsen (hot springs) while people are in it. Because of this, I had been super excited to see a monkey. Low and behold, not just one but multiple appeared before us in the town. There was even an adorable baby monkey with its mother.

At first, I was a little upset that I couldn’t have had that full experience of having a monkey just casually stroll into an outdoor onsen, but after seeing how mean they can be, I’m glad that nothing like that ever happened. Of course, the baby and its mother were adorable and I did want to get pictures, but Ran was adamant about us not looking at them for too long as they get mean fast. There was one other monkey sitting on a picnic bench and he swatted at everyone who walked past. Since none of us wanted to be attacked by any monkeys, we continued on our way to what I like to call the Oni (demon) stairs.

These were really awesome to view from below. The stairs sat at the far end of the bridge so the entire time you walk toward them you have this amazing view of the artwork on it. The further away you are, the better it looks. I know that this painting on the stairs is a far cry from some of the other jaw-dropping pieces around the country, but this was still a definite sight for sore eyes.

We wrapped up our sightseeing in the town after that and finally made for the second ryokan. This one took about an hour and a half to get to as it was situated further in the mountains. Now, the first ryokan was amazing. It had already felt like a luxury staying there for the night. This one, though, made me feel like I was part of some ancient Japanese royalty. The place was huge and the front walkway extended far to the main building. There were these lights on either side that had motion sensors and lit up every time you walked past.

In the main lobby, there was a beautiful view of the snowy mountain and a small river below. Even in our room we had tatami flooring and a nice little outdoor seating area that looked out onto a small river and another mountain.

The food at the ryokan was delicious and I was able to try a different style of traditional Japanese cuisine that included skewered fish in which the fish was still whole — scales, bones and all. It was really good and Tatsuya, my host dad, told me about how he and his friends would have this same meal in junior high. They would go down to the river bed, catch the fish and start a small fire and cook them right there. 

After dinner, I checked out the outdoor onsen at this ryokan. Once again I’d found myself lucky enough to have the area to myself. The sun was setting and there were small snowflakes drifting down from the sky overhead. Steam rose from the heated water and, directly in front of me was a snow-covered mountain. The entire onsen had rocks around it and there was a tree directly overhead that had gleaming icicles hanging on them. It was a picture-perfect sight.

Eventually, I had to drag myself from the onsen and make for the room so we could head to a light festival. The light festival was something that Ran, my host mom, had told me about before the vacation. She’d shown me pictures as well. I like calling it the light festival, but the actual name is the “Yunishikawa Igloo Festival” and it’s a yearly tradition in the Tochigi prefecture where people build these small igloos and place little lights inside. The pictures were absolutely stunning, but because the winter this year was warmer than usual only about 150 of the usual 800 igloos could be built. That part was a little sad, but it was still an amazing experience that my host family and I both got to enjoy for the first time.