It’s hard to believe that this all happened in one day. I woke up at 7:00 to get ready for breakfast. Breakfast was orange juice with some kind of meat cake and a vegetable cake, uncooked bacon (or something like that, weird ham), salad, and fried eggs on bean sprouts. It wasn’t bad, I just didn’t eat the eggs.
After this I took a shower, and then asked a hostel employee for help in planning my trip. Based on the website and the map, there were a few things I really wanted to see, but it had become apparent that most of them couldn’t be crammed into one day. I had used the internet machine again to double check some things from a website, as well as reviewed the printouts I’d made and the maps they had available at the hotel. With these I produced a basic plan, but I wanted to make sure it was possible.
In a half hour time we basically hammered out the schedule for the entire day, including the last bus that I could get on and still make the cascade of transfers necessary to get home before the last train to Wako-shi from Ueno. I would not have been able to do this without him. I use Hyperdia to plot my courses, but it stopped working on Friday and it didn’t have internet. I could have talked to the JR East phoneline, but it would not have been so comprehensive. Only his ability to quickly read the huge Japanese train timetables saved me. In addition, we also had my whole hiking course planned out, including estimated arrival times. I thought the plan was perfect, leaving me plenty of time to accomplish each task and resulting in me returning home at the proper time.
The most important piece of paper for the day, my way home.
My hostel employee friend, bless his heart.
The first step was to take a bus from the hostel to the Sasshi-gawara lift. I had repacked my bag so that I had just what I thought necessary in my day pack, then I set out to take on Japan. Of course, as my travels increasingly remind me, even the best laid plans invariably fall apart in the field.
I couldn’t find the bus stop that was supposed to be so easy to find. I missed my bus, of course, and then wandered into a spa and tried to ask them where the bus stop was (after asking a bus driver, but not the same bus line). They didn’t really know, but I collected a map from them. I decided that maybe I could just walk to Sasshi-gawara, as I had determined to do before I talked to the hostel guy. I tried this for 15 minutes but , realizing that I didn’t even know how to get there, I swallowed my pride and turned around. There is still some lesson here that I am trying to formulate, because this isn’t the first time this weekend that I’ve tried to just “tough it out” instead of facing the situation and finding a proper solution.
I asked some random guy at a ski shop, and he told me where the bus stop was. The next bus was in like 30 minutes (of course, by this time I was already almost 40 minutes off schedule). The bus sign said that the next bus was a different kind of bus. I couldn’t translate, but it was basically my last resort to just take whatever bus there was, hitch-hike, or give up on my grand hiking plans and just go onsen’ing for the rest of the day. I used one of my ten verbs to determine that the bus was indeed going Sasshi-gawara, and it was then that I realized how hopeless walking would have been. It was much farther than it looked on the map.
Thirty minutes feeling troubled.
A long ride in the mountains.
At Sasshi-gawara I got a ticket for the lift and got inside a capsule to start the ride. I took a video of the first 30 seconds or so. The ride was beautiful, going up a mountain surrounded by fog. The progress of the capsule, however, reminded me very much of the opening scene in Half Life. The ride gave me some time to introspect about the morning, but I still haven’t formulated the lesson precisely.
Pleased to have finally started.
A foggy trip in a capsule to nowhere.
A beautiful view on the way up.
The arrival at the top was again very Half Life-esque, the capsule skidding to a stop and making similar hydraulic noises. Once I had walked out of the lift building I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the surrounding area. It was much cooler on the top, with a mountain breeze but also fog obscuring the peaks nearby. I could see many ski trails from my vantage, and it really made me want to come back to ski there. After some confused communication (I can’t really call it talkï¿½) with a man at the lift building, he at last drove me on the shuttle to the foot of the path that I wanted to take.
I don’t think I’ve emphasized enough how many times I had to try to talk to people to get crucial information out of them, but not been able to talk about it accurately. If this country were less helpful, I would have been lost. I have been so reliant on the kindness of these people. “Soto”, “tatemae”, or whatever, I don’t care, people have been very friendly and I won’t believe it’s just an act.
You can tell this place is a ski resort.
Feeling excited on the shuttle ride.
There was a big rest area at the foot of the path. Many tour buses stop at that place, it is the hub of the hiking trails on the mountain (including some really easy ones that people take with their families). By this time I was still rushing and feeling agitated about the huge (hour and a half) slip in my schedule.
The ski rest area place.
Let me make this clear. I wasn’t concerned about my schedule out of anal retentiveness or something, it was that it was very important that I stay on schedule. If I got bored of hiking I couldn’t just drive into town (or even call a taxi). I was alone with just my backpack, many kilometers from the hostel where the rest of my stuff was, and even further from the bus station. I was at the mercy of the bus schedules in order to prevent myself from getting stranded in Kusatsu or someplace between there and Tokyo (the trains stop running at a certain time). The hiking paths take an appreciable amount of time each to traverse. By the original schedule I would arrive at the hostel with just enough time remaining to visit an onsen or two and then leave.
Regardless, by this time I was very hungry so I ordered a bowl of tempura udon and rapidly scarfed it down. I talked to a shopkeeper and figured out where my hiking path was (my map was in romaji, so I couldn’t read the signs much at all). I was walking outside in the direction he pointed when he ran out to me and said he’d made a mistake (or I assume), but he excitedly pointed in a different direction.
I took the Yoshigadaira trail first, to the top of Mt. Shirane (or something like that). It was a very easy trail, with many people returning in the opposite direction. Most of the people were elderly Japanese couples, usually with matching full body rain jackets and sometimes with camera tripods. It seems that the favorite past time of eldery Japanese couples is to go hiking and take pictures. Hmm…it is strange that this is one of my preferred past times. Regardless, the trail was beautiful. Stark terrain populated mostly with grasses and mosses, mountain peaks, and the occasional stream. It was very desolate, but also beautiful.
Does it say Yoshigadaira? Probably.
Mosses always remind me of Andy.
Later on I was in a store and they had this exact picture on a postcard, I excitedly tried to convey this to the clerk.
Turning the corner I stumbled upon this huge white mass covering part of the stream. At first I thought it was strange sort of salt deposit, but under further inspection it was snow. It wasn’t the first that I saw, these huge snow clumps were all over, but especially near streams. I don’t know why they don’t melt, it didn’t seem cold enough up there. Perhaps there is some chemical process going on, what would raise the melting point of water?
Some of the concrete Alex Kerr is so fond of.
Framed by dead trees.
What do you think?
I thought the flower was pretty.
Gradually the path changed to more wooded scenery, with many green trees in valleys. I came upon the fork where the main trail I planned to take began, the trail that would take me back to the hostel. First I wanted to explore the ike (marsh) trail. It was a loop that split off at the same fork. I walked with the couple whose picture I had taken earlier for a little while. There were some broken exchanges. I wish I had talked to them earlier, instead of at the marsh, because it distracted me from the marsh.
Let me say that the marsh was the most beautiful thing I saw on the whole trip. The walkway was a wood platform going over a huge open area. There were island type things that had trees on them, but mostly there was just nice, green low grass with beautiful oblong ponds. The ponds had perfectly still, mirror-like surfaces. They reflected the trees and mountains in the background. The whole route had dozens of these, they were absolutely beautiful. In one I saw a duck and her chicks, it was quite a sight. I don’t know what lives in these ponds. I hope that shrimp do, but I’m not sure. Regardless, they are supposed to be filled with rare species. I hope that these pictures can capture even a small sliver of the beauty. Hopefully some day I can visit them again.
Me standing with the couple.
Context: a foggy mountain top.
It was absolutely serene.
A seat on the edge of nowhere.
Another view of the seat, I think it would be nice to picnic here with someone special.
The rain only made it more beautiful.
There were trails that split off of my main trail to mountain onsens at more than one junction. I wish I’d had days to explore, it would be amazing to go visit these onsens that are many kilometers from the road up in the mountains.
My main path was for the most part less beautiful than the first path I took, and certainly less beautiful than the ponds. However, there were some opportunities for photos, and it was an interesting experience nonetheless. The path was about 8 km, and more rugged than the first one. However, in typical Japanese construction style, they had placed stairs in all the hard parts. Regardless, it took me most of the afternoon and I was hauling pretty hard.
This is called “ant’s path.”
Something seems to be blocking the stairs.
One of the prettier sights on my hike.
I thought it was pretty, too.
One of the reasons I took that path in the first place was the chance to see ”Jofu-no-taki” waterfall. It sounded amazing. However, on the part of the trail that split off to see it, it was so foggy that you couldn’t see anything. I think that maybe the actual viewing site is from a different trail, maybe one that split off to an onsen. It’s too bad, I wanted to see it.
As I continued, the path changed from a hiking path to a concrete framed water runoff ditch/road to nowhere. The trail came to a fork, one side continued with concrete and what looked like a road, the other went into the woods. It looked like a detour, like the original trail had continued and turned into the road. I could hear loud water noises coming from what I presumed was the original trail. Feeling deprived of falling water sites, I ignored the warning and keep out signs and decided to explore the “original” path.
Sumimasen, A-go to Nihon-go ga wakarimasen!
The trail became a mountain road, wrapping around an edge with a huge concrete retainment wall on the right side. I think the reason it was blocked off was that there had been rock slides or something in the last storm (or earthquake, maybe?) and they were afraid it might shift or something, or if maybe they just hadn’t repaired it yet. I kept my wits about me and treaded softly as a result. I don’t know if it is permanently closed or if they would clean it up eventually, but I don’t think many people use that road.
You can see the debris blocking the road.
The retainment wall was gigantic, it gave the impression of Mayan ruins or something.
A wide view of the wall, taken from off the path.
At last I came upon the source of the water sound. It was a river of course. It wasn’t a damn, it was a concrete reconstruction of portions of the river. We heard all about these things from the architectural history talk that Alex Kerr gave. You can read more about it elsewhere, but basically the Japanese government (and associated research universities, government institutions, and construction companies) have gone crazy and built huge concrete structures all over the country. They have too much money and inertia, and now all they do is build unnecessary walls and river “restructuring” like this, ostensibly to help with earthquakes. Evidently most of this stuff makes the earthquake aftermath worse, but their PR departments handle that. You can probably read about it in Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons.”
I can’t say it adds much to the river. But look at the textured concrete!
There were tall peaks on either side of this road.
More evidence for landslide damage.
I thought I could continue to take the path and eventually get back on track, but I panicked and ran back to the fork to make sure I didn’t end up getting lost (or in trouble). The rest of the trip back to the hostel was uneventful, except half way back I realized I only had ten pictures left but the rest of the day in town and on my way back to photograph. I walked quickly while going through old pictures and managed to delete about 30 pictures (mostly duplicates) and a few videos. Partly as a result of my distraction, I for the first time fell down and muddied my jeans terribly. As a result, when I got back to the hostel I switched to shorts and put on some new socks. The new socks weren’t made for shorts, so I was instantly transformed from preppy, stylish collared shirt and jeans man to dweebo tourist in shorts with pale legs. I like wearing shorts, but they are not very popular in Japan, so this is one of the reasons I became a little more self-conscious.
I at last emerged from the hiking trail to a road and sunshine. I actually ended up walking over the river that I’d seen earlier (there was a large bridge). I found the hostel easily, there switching all my wet and dirty stuff into plastic bags and rearranging everything for the trip back. I started out for the center of Kusatsu, about a 15 minute walk. On my way I ran into a group of older-aged Japanese tourist ladies. They were looking at an ant hill and thought it was interesting because the ants were scurrying all over the place. My kind of people, I suppose.
“Sugoi!” they said.
So it turns out that, as in most parts of the world, in Japan, Tyler is a friend of the old ladies. They quickly found out where I was going and immediately turned me around to go to their hotel. There, confused clerk after confused clerk looked at my map. I pointed at the place I wanted to go, and people made confused exclamations. At last the ladies were waving goodbye and a woman at the hotel was walking me to a shuttle, complete with a discount ticket for the onsen I wanted to visit.
I got to the onsen in half the time, though perhaps all of the time trying to convey where I was going to the ladies delayed me enough that it balances out even.
There are dozens of onsens in town and outside of town. Most of them are free, supported by volunteers, with everybody in the community helping out. In addition, they all get their water from a communal source that I’ll get to later. My time extremely limited, and with many opportunities to go to other onsens in the future (like when I go to Sendai), I decided to visit a special onsen called Sai no Kawara.
Sai no Kawara Park, the park with many different ponds of different pH and temperature.
After walking through the park I came to the rotenburo, the main outdoor onsen. As my first onsen experience, this was pretty intimidating. It’s a huge outdoor onsen; there are walls, and different sections for men and women of course, but there were many people and I was the only newcomer (and the only white guy).
I could write a whole post about the onsen. It was quite an amazing experience. I paid my 500 yen, the clerk noticing the discount ticket in my hand. I put all my bags in a locker, stripped down, and for my towel I just used the little tenugui hand towel that they let me keep from the hostel. I washed my self off and quickly got in. There were groups of guys everywhere, and the water was so hot. I felt like I was being stared at because I was the only foreigner there. I settled in and kind of mimicked what everybody else was doing for most of the time. I went to the source inlet where it was really hot. One of the guys also went over there and he asked if it was hot, I said it was really hot. He scoffed humorously at that. I can’t remember if it was in Japanese or English. Anyway, I wandered around more trying to act like everybody else, I got out of the water for a while and looked over the walls at the river. Then I decided to try to stay in the hot end for a while. I was almost completely immersed. After a while I closed my eyes and started counting very slowly to thirty. It seemed to take forever, I was very tired and groggy. Time slowed down, I think I almost passed out. At last I took some deep breaths and got out of the bath. I laid on my back on the rocks next to the onsen and stayed there for what seemed like an eternity, recovering my life. At last I stood up, still feeling a little uncertain in my legs. I leaned against the wall and looked out at the beautiful river and the beautiful sky and everything in life just seemed so beautiful. Finally I started trying to move and, my energy back, decided that my first onsen experience was to come to an end.
Can you imagine doing this in the winter, after a fatiguing day of skiing? Also, consider when it’ so cold around you in the outdoor onsen, but so hot underwater. It would be amazing, much more so than a simple sauna.
After the onsen, I had planned on visiting a few of the other free onsens quickly. However, by this time it was almost time for the second to last train. I decided that it would be impossible to outdo that onsen experience, so it would be a waste to visit others on that afternoon. I could have stayed in town for another couple of hours, but I thought it would be better to have a margin of safety on my return in case any of the trains got delayed. Besides, I would have only had time for a rushed dinner somewhere.
On my walk back to the bus terminal I bought a few snacks for my lab group and some post cards and things for other people. There is a Japanese custom of gift giving where basically, after returning from somewhere, it is good for you to bring back a gift that that place is famous for. There are many shops at every train station for this explicit purpose. At the shop I tried to ask for the “Kusatsu no yumei ame.” Candy that Kusatsu is famous for. I ended up buying some weird candy that Kusatsu may or may not be famous for, as well as a box of milk chocolate that said “Kusatsu Onsen” on it, to cover all my bases (in case even the Japanese didn’t like the weird candy, my lab always likes chocolate).
After shopping, I had one more stop before the bus terminal: the famous Yubatake. The Yubatake is in the center of the city. It is the source of the water for most of the surrounding onsens. At a rate of five thousand litres a minute, higher than any other hot spring in the country, scalding water pours out of the earth. It is then naturally cooled by passage from wooden tub to wooden tub. This special cooling process does not dillute the water, which would change its desirable qualities (the pH and the phosphorous or whatever it is). It was pretty cool, though I had to look fast to make it to my bus on time. Evidently they light it up at night, which is supposed to be quite a sight. It’s too bad I missed that.
Natural cooling process.
One of the output spouts.
Dweeb Tyler in front of the output.
Another shot of the center of town.
A statue I found interesting in front of the bus terminal.
At last I got to the bus and the set of transfers it would take to reach home. Compared to the ride there, the train ride back was the definition of easy. Transfer to transfer, everything went fine. There weren’t even any terribly long waits, nothing over a half hour. My JR East Pass made me feel like a king, I just walk through the sides of the station gates and flash my pass to the guard and I’m on my way.
On the train from Naganoharawhatever I was going to start writing my impressions of the day down, but impulsively tried to sew my backpack instead. The hole was getting bigger, and things were falling out. I’ve never sewn anything before, so I was just guessing about the technique. At this point this upper middle-aged Japanese woman walked up and started asking me questions. She sat down and practiced her English, and then started sewing my backpack and showing me new sewing techniques. It was quite amazing. She was interesting. Evidently, a few years back, she had visited her younger brother who was studying in Baton Rouge. This had made her quite interested in studying English more, so she was taking classes at some college because her husband’s company paid for them for some reason. She was also learning piano and computers. She is like one of those power-elderly people who start learning new skills for the fun of it when they are older. Anyway, we had a data-link augmented conversation about our hobbies, and I taught her about the English plural and singular.
My train friend.
Waiii-ting is the hardest part…
The shinkansen ride was nice. Depopulated, as usual. I had some thin noodles (related to soba) from plastic container that I’d bought at the kombini. That’s one thing about this weekend, I never ate at a proper restaurant. I usually just ate random junk from the kombini that I had time to eat during the train rides.
What a nutritious meal.
On the ride from Ueno to Ikebukuro, I was looking into another train car from my car. I met the eyes of some Japanese guy about my age staring at me. I stared back at him for a moment, and then smiled and laugh. He smiled and laughed, too.
Home sweet RIKEN home.
Home at last, my apartment is a mess. I’ve got to get up early for work, but I’m exhausted from a day of hiking and two days of running around. Ah well, another week begins.
I think next weekend I will do something interesting, but I don’t think I will travel so far.
As a final note, your comments are appreciated, folks. The content, style, anything you liked or didn’t like I want to hear about it.
To see a picture of the English map from the hostel that took me up the mountain and back, click here:
%Edit: I’m putting a plug for the hostel here, in case anyone reads this and wants to go to Kusatsu. It was pretty nice (by my middle-class midwestern American college student standards) for the price, with friendly staff when I was there, anyway. It’s called Kusatsu Kogen Youth Hostel. Best for me is that you can easily make reservations online.