Bus tours are the Hamburger Helper of travel.
Hamburger Helper is deceptively convenient. Everything is already contained in the box (just add meat!) except a few essential ingredients...namely flavor and nutrition. Yet, at 5PM, in a crowded grocery store, with no discernible plan for dinner (and rapidly losing the will to live, much less cook), one's decision process can potentially become "compromised". One might just forget about the nauseating effects of dried, prepackaged food.
This phenomenon also happens when you suddenly become a single parent. Two months in to this glamorous lifestyle, travel in a box (just add YEN for souvenirs and lunch!) starts to look...well...palatable.
Thus, my neighbor and I decided to take the kids on a military bus tour to see the "legendary" snow monkeys in Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics). I had seen numerous charming pictures of these little creatures, relaxing zen-style in the mineral hot springs, little tufts of snow piling up on their furry heads. The girls were excited to see cute animals instead of those immensely BORING temples and shrines. I liked the fact that someone who was not illiterate in Japanese would be driving.
The bus left the base at 5AM and immediately got stuck in stop-and-go ski traffic outside of Tokyo.
The lovely tour guide warned us that the bus toilet could be flushed only 50 times, "so be velly calefur."
Six hours later, we arrived in Nagano where we had a half an hour to view the monkeys, after a thirty minute muddy hike in each direction.
In a dirty little canyon at the end of the trail, a billion (I counted) monkeys obsessively/compulsively foraged for seeds in the snow and hot springs. Those that weren't foraging were either fighting or engaging in hot monkey love. This unappetizing scene looked nothing like the picture on the front of the box. There were no monkeys kicking back zen style in the hot springs with little piles of snow on their heads. Plus, there was lots of poo. Everywhere.
Next we enjoyed a leisurely 25 minute lunch at a rest stop before moving on to historic Matsumoto Castle, a world heritage site. We only had an hour to tour this gorgeous wooden structure surrounded by a moat before returning to the smelly bus. The 50 flush threshhold was rapidly approaching.
The tour guide treated us to her own Japanese soprano singing on the 5 hour trip home.
Just as I felt my very last nerve snapping, we pulled into the gate at 9:30 PM.
I didn't have to scrape the whole meal down the drain, though. I took some interesting pictures and the girls had a blast playing 11 hours (!) of DS games with their friends while eating Japanese junk food. However, if in the future it even looks like I'm heading for the Hamburger Helper aisle at the travel agency, do me a favor and trip me. That might actually be helpful.