My toes were frozen, my hands were numbing, and I really wanted to climb into the hot water. The problem was that the monkeys had already claimed the hot springs in Yudanaka, a small village at the end of the train line. Tourists with their stalker-esque telephoto lenses tried to push their way through the crowd to take a photo for the next National Geographic, or at least their Instagram account. I’ll be honest, my fingers were cold because I was taking hundreds of pictures too.
There’s no exciting explanation for this tourist attraction, it’s just a place where monkeys like to sit in the hot springs during the winter. And look very cute. I was traveling with a friend from San Francisco and it was high on his bucket list, so I tagged along.
Luckily there were also hot springs in town just for people. There was a specific protocol for onsen visitors: first undress and take a sitting-down shower, then pour hot water over your body so you gradually acclimate to the temperature. I was shy at first, I’m not used to stripping down in front of strange women. But I got over my awkwardness enough to enjoy a long soak.
I was relieved to leave the snow and go to Nagoya, a large city with few tourist attractions but convenient train connections. We amused ourselves for a few days at a light show and a museum called “The Site of Reversible Destiny”.
I continued on my own to Kyoto, a quick ride on the bullet train. I walked around to orient myself and find some dinner, but ultimately I ended up at good old 7-Eleven. In Japan (and other southeast Asian countries like Thailand), 7-Elevens are medium-sized grocery stores with pre-made meals, snacks, anime books, alcohol, porn, and sushi.
I grabbed a few balls of rice, a juice box of soy milk (for protein), and other snacks that looked edible by their packaging, and called it dinner. Back at the hostel I had a picnic in the common room and only remembered the soy milk once I was about to get in bed. I took the plastic straw off the back of the carton and stuck it in the top, just like the juice boxes back home. I took a big sip and coughed, trying not to spit. It wasn’t soy milk. It was sake, Japanese alcohol. I laughed so hard I almost wet the bed, I couldn’t believe my mistake. I had new respect for the “Little Old Man Who Could Not Read”, a children’s book about a man who tries to grocery shop without being able to read the labels. Spoiler alert: he bought soap instead of salt.
I passed through Kyoto twice. During my first visit I spent most of my time cafe hopping and writing another travel guide, the downside of working while traveling. But I met another British Kate and we decided to travel together for the next few weeks. I left Kyoto the day before her, stopping at the Fushimi Inari Taisha to see the lines of torii gates on my way to Osaka. I was starting to get a little temple fatigue so I only stayed long enough for a few dozen photos.