Kanto Maigo 關東迷子

Kanto Maigo – Day 5

I think 4 days may be my limit travelling alone. The excitement wears off and places where the plan goes awry piles up. Tedium and lethargy always set in around this time.




The breakfast at Villa Fountaine had changed a little, the sausage became a meat patty and the fried rice became curry flavoured fried rice. Taste about the same.


Villa Fountaine的早餐沒什麼變化,只有熱狗變成漢堡肉排,炒飯變成咖哩炒飯。味道差不多。

Villa Fountaine breakfast

After breakfast and checkout since it was still early, I decided to head to the area in front of Tokyo station for a walk.




Some of the ginkyo trees in the open had already yellowed or fallen while ones in the Marunouchi were still mostly green. The autumn leaves was very uneven this year, likely a result of the swings in weather.




Tokyo station

In retrospect I should have gone to Meiji Jingu Outer Garden since I knew it would rain tomorrow morning. I could have at least done a full walk to Yurakucho, it would have delayed going to the exhibition but there was time. The brain had mostly shutdown though and I just went numbly through the schedule for most of the day.




Nogizaka station connected directly with the art museum. Similar to Roppongi station the line was built very deep beneath the ground and it took at least 5 flight of escalators to get to the entrance.




Excitement floods back into me once I was handed the beautifully printed ticket.




The art museum’s outward facing side was a wavey lattice of glass wall. The inside was an empty space occupied by two upside down cones where upon sat a cafe and a restaurant.



Toward the art museum


This is where Taki and Okudera had their date.




A line was beginning to form outside the exhibit entrance. I rushed to go in before I could get a better look of the art gallery.




Sadly there is no taking photo inside exhibit. In addition to the ticket I also got the audio guide (always get audio guides). The Japanese audio guide is voiced by none other than Kamiki Ryunosuke, Taki’s voice actor and long time big fan of Shinkai, and every section had a track where Kamiki would describe his own experience and thoughts toward the particular piece of work. Since this is a huge selling point, the English guide would leave in Kamiki’s Japanese voice for a sentence or two before fading out and the English voice takes over. The English voice also did its best to mimic Kamiki’s soothing, cute, calm, dreamy mannerism.




At first the line to around the exhibit moved very slowly as everyone took their time to go through the sketches, storyboards or magazine articles. A few would meticulously note down things in their notebook and one person I noticed would even sketch down the storyboards.




While waiting for the lines to move I also wrote down the more notable features of the exhibit on the phone.




While each of Shinkai’s film would have a dedicated section, they would all focus on a slightly different theme, be it experience, technical detail or thematic message. In addition to the storyboards there would also be a short clip or two showing the end result in the film.






Perhaps as a call out to Kimi no Nawa, the very first thing upon entering the exhibit is an OP. It is essentially using various cuts from Shinkai’s films to the soundtrack Dream Lantern from Kimi no Nawa. It’s great and brings a smile to the face.


(There will also be an ED)






Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star) 星之聲


The first section is Hoshi no Koe, Shinkai’s debut film. The section goes into the story that led up to it, how Shinkai created She and Her Cat during his spare time.




Hoshi no Koe was a remarkable story, it stunned the world with its beauty, its mix of CG and computer graphics editing, and everything except the music done by his friend Tenmon was done by a single person. It redefined what was considered possible in the industry. Right from the very beginning Shinkai stood out as one of the few who would be seen to have the potential of someday being compared to the great Miyazaki.




On display was a recreated work desk when Shinkai worked on the piece by himself, a crowded small desk upon which sat an old PowerMac and a huge drawing tablet.




Articles from the time about the film were shown, to help understand how it was received at the time. When Hoshi no Koe was shown in theatre there were people lining up everyday. Even when the last showing had ended there were still people waiting outside, so the theatre decided to put on another showing. Then another, then another, well into the night.




Kumo no Mukou (Place Promised in Our Early Days) 雲之彼端


Hung from the ceiling was a small scale model of the plane that the protagonist built in the film.




This section described Shinkai’s first experience working with a production crew and the struggles he faced. This was a trial by fire for Shinkai. Although the film barely came out and was flawed in may aspects, it laid the foundation for Shinkai’s subsequent work and gave him a core of staff to rely upon and together improve throughout the director’s career. Most notably background art director Danji Takumi who would go on to work on every Shinkai film.




It explained Shinkai’s love with clouds, where he fell in love with from looking at the skies in his school years during commute. The mountains surrounding his hometown created a great different variety of clouds and he would sketch them down in his drawing book.




5 cm per second 秒速五釐米


The film which most Shinkai fans would come to know the director, as Kamiki admits to be one of them in the narration. He talked of how he fell in love with the pure simple portrayal of love, longing and distances.




The film saw incredible success and despite a limited showing was so popular it had an unusually long run in the theatres.




The focus apart from the film’s history, was on how the beautiful backgrounds were created. For people unfamiliar with photoshop or digital painting the section would have been greatly informative.




The example used to illustrate the background composition was the scene with the parked cars and cherry blossom leaves. The whole background consisted of around 30 layers, the sign card boasted. I’m surprised the whole background only consisted of 30 layers.




A common question regarding whether the backgrounds are edited photos or based on photos. This is answered here by showing a series of original real life photo taken during location scouting and their final background art. A fews things can be gathered: the backgrounds are not merely painted over photos, objects in the scenes are shifted and adjusted and the perspective at times changes; Shinkai knows exactly what shot, angle and framing he wants when he goes location scouting, the reference photos aren’t just wide shots to take in the scenery and objects, they are already composed and framed to how the end artwork should look.




Here written on the walls, explained Shinkai’s philosophy behind his films.




When things get tough, the closest source of comfort is scenery. when feeling no one understands, step back and look at big picture, all people connected to larger world.


Even if sad, in the beautiful scenery, you are part of something beautiful.






On the wall the cherry blossoms fell. On the TV flashed through scenes from the movie to the theme song of One More Chance, One More Time. Sadness, regret, memories. I was not the only one in the room with wetness in the eyes.




Children Chasing Lost Voices 追逐繁星的孩子


The exhibit put significant emphasis on how this film came about. Unsaid that this film was not received well by the fans.




After 5cm per second Shinkai went on a world tour to the middle east and London, where he thought about where to take his next film. The answer was Children Chasing Lost Voices where he wanted to return to the roots of Japanese animation and adopted more traditional methods, including designs, palette, and the use of concept visuals which were drawings of a scene, in much more detailed than the usual storyboards, to better convey the fantasy world as envisioned to the team.




The technical aspect explained here was the colour setting and brushes.




Colour setting was new to me. The colours used for the characters have to change to suit the colour tone of the scene. Each item of the character and their skin tones had to be decided and codified to create a consistent look throughout the film.




The different photoshop custom brushes used to paint the backgrounds were shown here. Displayed most prominently was the brush used to draw clouds.




The initial town in the film was based on Shinkai’s hometown.




The item on display here was a replica of the crystal radio.




The section was pain to point out that the film was not received well and this prompted Shinkai to rethink how to balance the message and story he wanted to tell with what the fan wanted.




Timeline, Other Works and Overseas 年表,其他作品,海外


Cleverly inserted after Lost Voices to break up the tedium of going through film after film, is a section on Shinkai’s life outside of the films.




On the wall was a timeline of Shinkai’s life, how his career developed matched to developments in the world. The development of digital technology and how Shinkai was one of the pioneers that took up the medium. The development of the iphone and other major events such as the 311 earthquake. The last point is particularly important given Kimi no Nawa was partly inspired by Shinkai’s visit to Touhoku and his desire to create a more uplifting story for a nation in sorrow.




Shinkai did speed skating in primary and archery in high school, both of which featured in his films.




Also showcased are some of his works outside of the major films, about his works at Falcom and the OP he created there for the games. The exhibit isn’t shy about mentioning his involvement in EF but they did avoid showing the OP…. which is a shame.




Shinkai’s other works also included short features such as the one for NHK about a cat trying to destroy the world, various advertisements (they didn’t show the one for Z-Kai….) and sponsored project like Dareka no Manazashi (Someone’s Gaze).




Shinkai from the very start had a comparatively wider overseas reach than his contemporaries. All the various DVD/BD cases and movie posters from around the world in their respective languages and slightly altered designs. It is a great showcase of an aspect that is really unique to Shinkai. (Shinkai is really loved overseas, I don’t think I’ve seen other directors being called nicknames the way Shinkai is by many Chinese/Taiwanese fans, Makoto ni-san, Big-Brother Makoto)




Shinkai’s literature background. Shinkai studied literature as his university major and is very well read. On display are many books which Shinkai drew his inspirations from. Not surprisingly amongst them is Haruki Murakami.




There’s a small bit on the common themes that exhibit throughout Shinkai’s works. The railway, the use of lighting to reflect mood, the cats (btw there’s a funny quiz in the audio guide about the name of Shinkai’s cat). It seemed like an odd inclusion as its own section, turns out it’s actually really clever, to be seen later.




Garden of Words 言葉之庭


Did it start to rain?


Upon walking into the section, the audio guide springs to life on its and and begins playing the sound of rain.






Rain, is the theme of the film and the theme of the section. A veil of transparent threads are hung from above, with ever changing light projections it created an effect of falling raindrops.




After the reception of Lost Voices, the guide explains, Shinkai sought to look for the way to create something for the fans without compromising his own visions. The Garden of Words was what he came up with.




To create the rain in Garden of Words, Shinkai went out when it rained to study the many effects of rain. From the misty effect to the way rain splashed off stones and trees.




In Garden of Words a new technique was also experimented where the outline of characters was coloured as reflection of the surroundings. This created an effect that allowed the characters to blend in with the exquisitely painted background while still pop out of the scene.




On display is a replica of the shoes Takao made for Yukino. An actual pair of shoes were custom ordered and created as drawing reference but it was later dismantled for sound effect.




It’s interesting to see Shinkai’s storyboard evolve over time. They get much more expressive and the animation instructions ever more detailed, the later may have been a necessity as the team gets larger and harder to communicate face to face.




Kimi no Nawa (Your Name) 你的名字


Finally the breakout phenomenon. The section is less like a Shinkai show and more of an Ando and Tanaka show, bringing the design and animation skills of the two to the fore.




Despite Tanaka being listed as the character designer in the original trailer, it’s emphasized here that Ando had just as much if not more input into it. While Tanaka provided the base of the designs, it was Ando who did the expression references and most importantly the posture references that contrasted how the characters should move depending on who was the person inside the body.




On display was the kumihimo weaving tool.




For the technical aspect they tried to show how the flying transition from Tokyo to Itomori was created using layered drawings placed in a 3D space before a 3D model of Itomori lake. A physical model is on display to illustrate the effect, built using sheets of glass with painted Tokyo buildings and a plastic model (like the model 3D map one often sees in tourist centres).




The creation of the beautiful kagura dance is also explained, how Shinkai recorded actual performance of the dance and used it as a direct reference to animate the sequence.




The exhibit overall goes out of its way to point out the works of the animators and artists. This isn’t just a Shinkai show. Example of works are also displayed to show off how the animators and artists bring the characters and backgrounds to life. The corrections to keyframes made by the animation directors, the comments they made to Shinkai’s original instructions. This goes for all of the films but is most evident in the Garden of Words and Kimi no Nawa sections.




In the Kimi no Nawa section there’s a very amusing series of drawings comparing what the original instruction sketch from Shinkai was, and how Ando the animation director interpreted them. Ando, who famously contradicted Miyazaki several times back when he worked on Spirited Away (and rumoured to be why he later departed the studio), was not shy about correcting Shinkai either. There is one sketch where Mitsuha was moved by emotion had the complete opposite expression of what Shinkai originally sketched. Ando’s take was much better.




A side note. Contrary to popular belief Shinkai can draw characters quite well, unless the character sketches in the storyboards were redrawn by others.






The OP was an appetizing intro to whet one’s appetite for the exhibition. The ED concludes in fabulous fashion beyond imagination. If the OP is a 8/10 then the ED is a 30/10.




Two humongous screens side by side, at times showing a single scene, most of the time showing two scenes from different films containing the same framing, shot, action, message or dialog.




I have never, ever, realized how much common elements there are in all his films. The common themes section from before floods to mind and suddenly each one of his individual films melded into mere acts in a single flowing performance.




The ED sums up the theme of Shinkai’s word up in a grand, spectacular, awe-inspiring, mind-blowing, realization-dawning MAD style mashup of every film composed in Shinkai’s trademark heart stringing rhythmic cuts with crescendos upon crescendos reaching beyond the beautiful clouds and starry skies.




Every cold foreboding cityscape, every brilliant ray of fleeting joy at twilight, every empty landscape that reminded of a better past and uncertain tomorrow, every filled streets that spoke of the loneliness inside, every flash of railway hinting the distance between.




Every call, every monologue, every cry for the name of the longing within, every cry in search of happiness that belonged and would have no other, every defiance, every step and leap to action, every burst of tears of wonder; of lost; of hurt; of emotions that binds us in this beautiful world.






I like this world I think.




The video ends the exhibit with the same words that Shinkai used to end his very first work, She and Her Cat.




Exit the exhibit and one reaches the only section where photo taking is allowed. The photo wall scene of the Itomori memorial Taki and Okudera visited is re-created, only this one with colour real-life photos and a cheerful tone. There is also an AR booth where one can get their photo taken and be inserted into a scene from Garden of Words.





The goods shop sold many goods limited to the exhibit. T-shirt, postcards, notebooks, clearfiles. Some of the more interesting items included a scarf, the hourglass from the Sparkle MV (the hourglass does not appear in the movie), the kumihimo Mitsuha gave Taki (there are two versions, an plastic imitation and a real kumihimo that required a month wait time), magnets (which I bought) and a exhibition book containing everything that was in the exhibit and various interviews (which I probably should have bought, too tired).



The cafe

I checked my clock and was shocked to find it was 2pm. I had spent over 3 hours in the exhibition.



There was no time to go to Shinjuku to see the real life locations that appeared in the movie. I head back to Villa Fountaine to pick up my luggage and head to Super Hotel Shinbashi.


沒時間去新宿動畫場景朝聖了。我回Villa Fountaine取出行李去Super Hotel新橋。


The Mita line went from Jimbocho to Onarimon, a little bit south of the Shinbashi area.




Super Hotel Shinbashi is in an interesting location, right in the middle of a district and about equal distance of 400-500m from Shinbashi, Shiodome and Onarimon station.


Super Hotel新橋的位置很好玩,在一個町中間,到新橋,汐留,御城門差不多都是400-500m。


The process of checking in was well familiar to me. Super Hotel is unique with its use of keypad locks, it removed the need for check outs and reduced staff workloads and in turn, costs.


入住的手續已經很熟悉了。Super Hotel用的是獨特的密碼鎖,這樣就可省去退房和所需的人工成本。

Super Hotel Shinbashi

After check in it was time to go through the checklist and get everything that was needed for the next few days ahead.




The metro pass, the Hakone pass, the shinkansen ticket and scouting out station layouts and restaurant locations.




Most of these involved Shinjuku so I headed there first.




First item was the Hakone pass from Odakyu railway since the Odakyu Service Centre closes fairly early at 6pm. It is still possible to get it from the other general Odakyu tour service at the south exit (this one closes at 7pm) but they don’t have foreign staff there.




The Hakone pass was sold at the airport, Odakyu Sightseeing Service at Shinjuku or purchased from station ticket machines on the day. The transfers are going to be tight and getting them beforehand was paramount.




There was a huge queue and process was slow. They were mostly Taiwanese (saw a lot of Taiwanese on this trip, not many mainland Chinese) and the service desk had several Taiwanese for that purpose. Progress was slow because many people do not necessarily realize that Hakone pass that included travel from Shinjuku to Odawara does not include express charges for one to take the romance cars, so there’s a lot of back and forth explaining, then once that’s explained people had to make a reservation for the romance cars (they are reserved seats only).



Odakyu Tourist service

I only needed the Hakone pass that covered the basic area. I told the staff the date I wanted, emphasized that I wanted the basic version, filled in a form, received the tickets in no time and I was finally on my way.




Next was the metro pass. The 72 hour subway ticket that allowed unlimited rides on both Tokyo Metro and Toei lines is limited to foreigners and cost 1500Y. I had estimated that we would use at least as much as the metro pass would cost and anything more was just extra savings. Won’t be much if any, but the convenience was nice. So I headed to the BIC CAMERA just on the west side of Shinjuku station.


接下來是地鐵pass。72小時地鐵pass可無限搭乘東京地鐵和都營地鐵,限定外國人1500Y。我估算過地鐵至少會用到那麼多,再多就是多省。不會省太多,但反正方便。我往新宿西側的BIC CAMERA走去。


The man at the info desk was only willing to sell me one of them, to my frustration. The rule was that if one needed more than one pass because one intended to stay in Tokyo for a longer period, one should come back after the first one expires. It was meant to prevent abuse by foreigners reselling it to locals, but I was only asking for 2.




They only checked that one had a passport with the tourist visa sticker and did not make any records. I figured that and realized I have to go to the other BIC CAMERA on the east side and get the other one there.


他們只確認護照內有觀光簽證,並沒有留紀錄。想到這點,我想到我可以到東側的BIC CAMERA買另一張。


Before that though I headed downstairs to confirm the location of the ochazuke (rice soaked with tea) restaurant I considered coming tomorrow. Once that’s been done and I started to head to the east side, I paused and thought I should have something to eat, as I had not even had lunch.




There was a soba/udon shop a few shop up from the ochazuke place, similar to the one I had last night. Seemed like a good choice.




I ordered the daily special. The tempura vegetable patty was too oily, otherwise taste is okay.



Udon place


Now I got something in the stomach I was feeling better. I got the other metro pass from the other BIC CAMERA (which is really really tiny for some reason, I’m used to them being quite big).


胃裡有點東西感覺好多了。我在另一家BIC CAMERA買了另一張地鐵pass(這家不知為何超小,已經習慣BIC CAMERA很大了)


Next up is confirming the layout of Shinagawa station. I took the Yamanote line there and paced several times up and down the concourse from the local JR line to the shinkansen ticket gates. About 4 minutes to the gate at a quick walk, then to go through and up the stairs… 5 minutes transfer at a minimum, 8 to be safe.




Then Tokyo station to get the shinkansen ticket and also confirm the location of the pensta store (which I forgot to check the other days, this morning when I thought about I was already outside the ticket barrier and pensta happens to be on the inside).



Confirm Pensta

By the time I finally checked off the last item on the checklist it was past 7pm. I return to the hotel, did the laundry and went to bed. Tomorrow required a very early start.




Kanto Maigo – Day 4

Morning. I look out the window over the empty intersection. Credits to Villa Fountaine for the comfortable and wide bed. Points off for strangely having the kettle in a cabinet all the way by the door instead of below/next to the desk like most considerate hotels would. The room is big enough, why put it so far away?


早晨。我從窗戶俯視空蕩的路口。不得不誇一下,Villa Fountaine的床大又舒服。至於把燒水壺擺在遠在門邊的櫃子裡而不是像其他旅館放在桌子下/旁,扣分。房間挺大的,何必放那麼遠。

View from Villa Fountaine

Complimentary breakfast at 7am. I’m not sure why they choose to call it complimentary, other hotels are happy enough to just call it what it is, free breakfast or breakfast included. Calling it complementary to make it sound like a gift? Something extra? Perhaps it’s an escape clause in the event they can’t provide it that day?




One can tell what guests a hotel targeted by how early its breakfast is. 7am was for people who were in business but not in a hurry to get where they were going.




Thankfully today I was also not in a hurry to get where I was going.




Kumobaike, a famous pond in Karuizawa was closed because of trail maintenance in the off-season (the word is going to show up alot). Without it there wasn’t much point in trying to arrive earlier than 10am when the shops begin to open. From Tokyo to Karuizawa takes about an hour so I only needed to head out after 8am. That’s plenty of time for transfer at Tokyo station.




The breakfast at Villa Fountaine was barebone. My theory is they are not initially setup to provide breakfast and had to begin offering to compete. Most items were simple to prepare. Yoghurt, cereal, salad, bread, soup. The hot dishes were scrambled eggs, wieners and fried rice. All dishes that could be done without a proper kitchen. There was no Japanese dish such as fish or pickles. Coffee and hot water for tea was served in pre-prewed coffee pots.


Villa Fountaine的早餐算簡陋。感覺上一開始是沒有提供早餐的,在競爭激烈才想辦法變出早餐來。大部分是容易準備的菜色。優格,麥片,沙拉,麵包,湯。唯一的熱食只有炒蛋,小熱狗和炒飯。都是不用廚房就可準備的。沒有日式早餐的漁或醬菜。咖啡和泡茶的熱水是裝在過濾咖啡壺中。

Villa Fountaine breakfast

Villa Fountaine breakfast

They were laid out on fold out tables put out in one side of the lobby, a temporary set up that was cleared out once breakfast was finished.




The food was okay. Above Smile Hotel, below Comfort. About 4 out of 10. The lack of variety really hurt it even if the quality was not bad.


口味還好。比Smile Hotel好,比Comfort Hotel差。大概給40分。主要缺點是沒有什麼菜色,雖然品質上不插。


The nearest metro station Jimbocho was poorly positioned to access Tokyo station. I head to Suidobashi, transfer by walking across the platform at Ochanomizu. There was still half an hour till I needed to get on the shinkansen. I wandered about Tokyo station, checking out the layout and the position of the breakfast place I planned to go to on Y’s first day.


Tokyo Gransta

Breakfast being considered on Y’s first day






Finally with a cup of Doutor coffee (it’s tradition) in hand it’s time to hop on the train.




The train was relatively full. I had to go to the second carriage from the end to find an empty row. Had thought it would be really empty, Karuizawa was not served by the super express bound for Kanazawa, people would only get on this train if they were headed for the smaller stations. Either the smaller stations saw a ridiculous number of people or the slower train would still get to Nagano and Kanazawa earlier than the next express.




There was a huge elevation change from Takasaki to Karuizawa, it was part of the reason the E7 series was made to tackle the steep gradient. One could feel the angle of the train and the changing pressure as it sped through the mountain tunnel.




First thing noticed as the train pulled into the station, it had snowed overnight. Karuizawa was covered in a sheet of thin snow. The next thing, the station was really small and basic.


For being one of the premier holiday location for Tokyolites, I had expected something more fashionable and architecturally designed. The main waiting area wasn’t closed off from the platforms and was not heated. There was no convenience store, only a small bento stall. The small tourist centre, generously described for such a small room, where I got a map of the town also doubled as a souvenir store.







Karuizawa Ekiben


Karuizawa station

Outside the station a young couple from Taiwan excitedly posed against the snow.


A big reason Japan is pushing heavily for foreign tourists is to balance out the huge differences between peak and off-peak seasons. Winter hits the tourism industry especially heavily in Japan and tourist numbers drop off a cliff. Foreign tourists are less affected by winter. People from warmer parts of asia are thrilled by the prospect of snow, some come to get a taste of skiing. Christmas and New Year is holiday season for westerners and Chinese New Year brings another tide of tourists.





Station courtyard covered in snow

The station is 1.5km from Old Karuizawa or Karuizawa Ginza where the main street is.




Most bloggers recommends renting a bike which I question the wisdom of during winter. For one it isn’t very far and the terrain flat. Secondly one have to find parking. Thirdly biking over snow or iced over grounds is an accident in waiting.


During my walk several bikes wobbled by. One ridden by a middled aged woman from Taiwan almost skidded off the sidewalk coming to a stop at an intersection.





Iced up street

Carved reindeer

The street was quote deserted. Outside of the few biking past there weren’t anyone else on the road. The buildings on either side were loosely positioned, most weren’t open due to the off-season. There was an art museum, a few fancy hotels and resort clubhouses.



A hotel

An antique store’s shop sign caught my attention. Kino, it was called, written in yarn like font. It was a little shop with personality, the items were tightly arranged without feeling cluttered. I was most impressed by an old fashioned typewriter like calculator/register, and letters made from rusted together nails and wires.



Antique Kino

Continuing on, I reached the intersection where the main shopping street begins. Much livelier.



Xmas shop

The shops of Karuizawa was different from other tourist areas in that in had a good few fashion clothing stores, probably why the name Ginza. The clothing stores were advertising closing down sales if not closed already. Then there were antiques, wedding planners, crafts and the sweets shop.



Croquet shop

Main street

Most numerous were the jam shops. Karuizawa is famous for its jams and spreads. This odd local specialty is deeply linked to the town’s history.




Karuizawa had been a small village on the Nakasendo, then in 1886 a missionary Alexander Shaw happened by and noting its cool climate and beauty, decided to build a summer villa here. Other westerners soon followed suit and Karuizawa grew to be vacation resort for foreigners and contributed to many Karuizawa’s western architectures. Locals learned from the westerners and began making jams and spreads for the the westerners and other Japanese who had adopted a western lifestyle.


輕井澤曾是中山道上的一個小村落,1886年一位傳教士Alexander Shaw路過時注意到這裡涼爽的氣候和美麗的自然景觀,決定在這蓋個避暑小屋。很快的其他西方人也跟著效仿,輕井澤也發展成了外國人的度假勝地,也是為何鎮上有許多西式建築。當地居民從西方人那學習到了果醬和塗醬的做法,開始製作好提供給來度假的西方人和西化的日本人。


These days there are many jam shops along the shopping strip selling jams and spreads of all kind made from local ingredients. Fruit jams, red bean spreads, honey spreads, garlic, herbs, savoury spreads.




I had actually forgotten about the jams till I wandered into the Church Street shopping arcade and was invited into the Fine jam shop by the staff working there. Every single flavour of their jam and spread was available for taste test. Open jars were laid out with trays of small biscuits. One after the other, scoop up a small spoon of jam and spread onto the biscuit, enjoy.


我其實整個忘了果醬了,直到晃到Church Street商店街被Fine果醬店的店員請進去後才想起來有這一回事。Fine的每種醬料都可以試吃。打開的試吃罐跟小餅乾擺在起。一一用小湯匙挖起一點果醬塗在餅乾上,吃個痛快。

Church Street

Karuizawa Fine

Fine jams

Church behind Church Street

The other jam shops weren’t as generous, some only had a few flavours out for taste test, some didn’t even have any. It could be they were reluctant to open jars in the off-season for fear of the jams having to be thrown away, or business wasn’t good enough to afford it. Without the taste test people were going to be reluctant buying though, especially some of the more exotic flavors. Fine Karuizawa had an anchovy flavoured spread which I would not have bought were I not able to try it first.



Jam shop

The streets while not packed was by no means empty. Bus loads of tourists were dropped off at the carpark behind the shopping plaza and what shops that opened were filled with activities.




I’m not sure why more than 1/4 of the shops were already closed and another 1/4 had signs up saying this was their last week and they would soon close up until February. If one come in December or January, as I had considered originally, half the shops will no doubt be shut and the town lifeless.


我不確定為什麼超過1/4的店都已經歇業了,或是為何另外1/4的店告示這是他們最後一週,開始休息後要到2月才會開。如果12月或 1月來,如我原本有考慮的,超過半數的店家肯定會沒開,鎮上也會毫無生氣。


There looks to be enough tourists around, is it really necessary to close up? With this many shops closed there is going to be a vicious cycle where people avoid Karuizawa during winter times thus even more shops close up. Rent still had to be paid right? I have a hard time imagining wages being so high and business so bad that it is better to close up entirely. Somewhere like Like Towada is understandable, the place has its road snowed 2 metres deep in winter, but Karuizawa has the shinkansen and is not far from the expressway, those will be open even in the coldest winters, and Karuizawa has many nearby skii fields and a shopping outlet that ensured a minimum amount of traffic.




Karuizawa is nice town, very well kept and interesting. I can imagine it being very nice to visit in spring or autumn when all the shops are open and the streets more lively.




The tourist centre at the shopping street had a section exhibiting the history of the old railway. Karuizawa and Takasaki used to be connected before the shinkansen was built and the line made defunct. The Usuitouge pass was so steep special rack rail locomotives had to be connected for trains to navigate the pass.



Tourist centre


There also used to be a small railway from Karuizawa to Kusatsu, must have taken incredible effort to build a railway through such mountainous terrain. The old station of the Kusatsu-Karuizawa railway can still be found at the intersection at the entrance to the ginza strip. It’s a large souvenir shop nowadays.



Leaves in the snow

More jams

Shaw memorial chapel

Soft cream on a cold day?

Sure why not


Old Karuizawa station building

It’s approaching noon and I head back to the station and the outlet right on the south side of it. I’m here not for the shopping but for its food court.




The outlet also has a skii field attached to it. The slopes didn’t look very big nor very steep but more than enough for first timers and beginners, with unmatched convenience. One can do some skiing, food and shopping all in one day, as a day trip from Tokyo no less.




I grabbed a chicken stock ramen from Ramen Nishiki, it was one of the higher rated places to eat at the foodcourt. The taste was good but nothing of particular note, other than being chicken instead of pork stock.


The foodcourt also provided disposable teatowels and drinking water. I suppose this is a standard feature of foodcourts in Japan.






Ramen Nishiki

Chicken ramen

Towels and water

After lunch I walked around the outlet. The place is big, broken up into 5 or 6 sections, each having a score of stores. Except a section focused on souvenirs the stores appeared to be grouped in no particular category or commonality.




Attached skii field

The place is meant for someone who can recognize more brands than just Gucci and La Creuset.


這裡對品牌認得出超過Gucci和La Creuset的人較有意義。


As it was, after a quick walkthrough I headed for the Hoshino resort area. The Shinano railway was co-located next to the shinkansen in the same station. One stop away was Naka-Karuizawa station where a shuttle bus service to Hoshino was available.



Shinano railway station

The Hoshino resort area was…. peculiar. I still have not figured how it intends its guests to use its facilities. It’s a loose collection of close but not too closely located facilities. An onsen, a wilderness tour office whose outside pond doubles as a skating ring in winter, an upmarket eatery/restaurant, a shopping village selling very expensive bread, sweets and afternoon teas, massage service and handicrafts. A hotel (that’s too far away from aforementioned facilities) with two churches on its grounds, a villa village that’s still some hundred metres to the onsen and restaurants. If the facilities are meant to provide service to the guests, then the guests must walk there themselves, navigate the lack of signage and paths connecting the areas.




The main attraction here is the two churches. The stone church is particularly well known for its design of stone arches whose exterior blended into the landscape and awe inspiring on the inside with its spiral lines and filtered lights. Alas, the place was hosting a wedding and was off-limits to visitors.



Stone church entrance

Highland church

Garden decoration made of apple?

The area is actually quite small and I had seen everything by 3:30pm. Should I leave early? Or should I stay to see the christmas decorations.


Well, I had come this far already…might as well stay a while longer to see everything, I decided.






The sun was falling beneath the treetops, the temperature plunged. I had to take shelter in the cafe at Harunire Terrace shopping village. My glasses fogged up and it was a while before I could follow the server to a seat. The cafe was most definitely upmarket, there were over two pages of different blends of coffee. I picked the basic seasonal special blend and it came in a french press. The cafe had books on its shelves for guests to read, none interested me however and I just read stuff on my phone to kill time till 5pm.



Harunire Terrace

Pond turned skating rink


French press coffee


I was starting to understand how the resort was meant to work. It was truly aimed as a resort for relaxation. There seemed to be little to do because the guests wasn’t meant to be kept busy. Grab a coffee, sit down and read a book, gaze out at the forest and creek, chill out for the afternoon.




The lights came on. I lingered for a while longer still, seduced by the cafe’s warmth. Finally I gathered my weary focus and said farewell to the empty coffee cup.




The light was much less impressive than their promotional photos. The area was very poorly lit and the christmas lights lacked vibrancy to overcome the cold. People moved about quickly, in no mood to look at the decorations. And neither was I.



Lit terrace

Lit terrace

Xmas tree

I took my photos of the Terrace and the tree outside the onsen. A group of Taiwanese passed by, talking of going to the onsen before finishing the day’s trip.




My mind was frozen by this point and could barely think. The first shuttle that went all the way back to Karuizawa station was still not due for another 40 minutes. I could either try to hang around for that long or I could take the next shuttle to Naka-Karuizawa and go from there.




I decided there was no point staying and took the shuttle to Naka-Karuizawa, then back to Karuizawa via the Shinano railway.




At Naka-Karuizawa there was a 10minutes transfer time and I huddled inside the small waiting room with a handful of other tourists, similarly waiting to go back to Karuizawa. We waited until the train approaching announcement came on before going through the gate, none brave enough to spend any more seconds than had to in the freezing wind on the platform.




There was just enough time for me to grab a rice ball from the 7-11 at the outlet before the next train back to Tokyo.



Outlet at night

Outlet at night

Rice ball for now

Between the station and the outlet there were again several groups of Taiwanese. Karuizawa might be unusually popular amongst Taiwanese, similar to Takayama which if I recall sees twice as many foreign tourists from Taiwanese than the next highest country (either HK or China).




By the time I’m walking down the street of Suidobashi it was past 8pm. I’ve only had that riceball I ate on the train as a stop-gap and I looked for a place to have dinner.




Two buildings before Villa Fountaine was a soba/udon shop, they promoted that they made their own noodles and looked decent enough. I was far too tired to go look elsewhere and just stepped inside.


到Villa Fountaine兩個大樓前有家蕎麥烏龍麵店,門口張貼說自家製麵,看起來算可以。我已經筋疲力盡無心另外去找了,於是我跨進門。

Cheap soba/udon place

I punched for the oyakodon set at the meal ticket machine and gave it to the cook at the counter. He asked something and I paused for a second. No, it wasn’t parsing to any question I was expecting, I could not break out the key nouns or verbs. I asked him to please repeat the question again.




The man gave a nod as if he suddenly understood something. He fished out a printed sheet from the cupboard. It was a common English question and answer sheet. He pointed to the one that asked if I wanted it hot or cold.




Doh, of course!


Hot, I replied. I’d be crazy to ask for it cold after almost getting frozen up in the highlands.






Being next Villa Fountaine must meant they got a lot of foreign customers, thus the english sheet.


在Villa Fountain隔壁大概常會有外國客人吧,所以準備了那張英文問答。


The meal portion was very generous for less than 600Y, and it was quite delicious. A good hearty meal.



Dinner Oyakodon and udon set

After a long and exhausting day there was still tasks ahead. It was time to wash my clothes. I planned to sleep early tomorrow so despite having clothing for another day I wanted to get some of the washing done.




What I initially felt about Villa Fountaine manifested when I went to use the coin laundry.


一開始對Villa Fountaine對住客不太體貼的感覺在投幣洗衣房被證實了。


The machine was old and more expensive than other places and required an extra 50Y for detergents, something which I had never had to pay for. The Matsue City Hotel had a sign saying one needed to pay but the front desk just gave them to me free, every other hotel had the machine add them automatically.


機器比其他地方老舊昂貴,還需要另外50Y買我從未需買過的洗衣精。松江的City Hotel雖然有告示說跟櫃台買,但櫃台其實還是免費給我的。而其他住過的旅館都是會自動加入。


Annoyed, but what had to be done had to be done.




I threw the more needed change of clothes into the laundry and settled into the eating area of the lobby to research what to do the next day.




Kanto Maigo – Day 3

Morning. I already ate what bread the hotel provided last night as a late night snack. To find breakfast I went out to the 7-11.




Snow had fell thick overnight and the roofs and grounds were covered in snow. Not the roads though. Kusatsu ran hot water from their onsen heat exchangers beneath the roads and made them snow proof.



Kusatsu morning

Kusatsu morning


Jizou no yu

After breakfast I grabbed the towel and handbag and headed to the Sai no Kawara bath. It was too cold for yukata, it’s okay though since Sai no Kawara was a paid bath with changing rooms and supposedly had lockers.



The shops were still closed, quiet, except the manju shops filled with activity behind the shut store front, steam rising above them as they steamed manjus in preparation for the day ahead.




The snow covered Sai no Kawara park was yet another feel different from yesterday and yesterday night. It was frozen and still, the spell broken only by the rising steam. The snow covered Jizou statues wearing hoods and cloaks were a delight out of Japaneses folktales.



Snow covered jizou




Sai no Kawara


Sai no Kawara onsen

Sai no Kawara onsen

The Sai no Kawara onsen was famous for its large outdoor bath, since there was plenty of onsen water it could afford to be wasteful. Despite its size its water remained very hot. Above average, not as hot as Shirohata no Yu yesterday. Near the entrance the water was the coolest as the hot water was fed in from about 2 /3 down the length of the bath. There were three other bathers but they soon left, and I had the huge bath to myself. I floated in the water, watching the steam rising all around toward the cloudy skies, losing track of time and self, in that moment the whole universe was contained in that bath. It was a strangely unsettling experience.




After the onsen bath the shops were starting to open. The shops here also opened early, no doubt to take advantage of people who stayed overnight who were now looking for souvenirs to take home. Especially the manjus which has to be eaten fresh.




A small incident happened on the way, I dropped my tripod and something came off. I picked it up and looked it over. The plastic head holding the mount to the pole had completely snapped in two and was unrepairable. A lot of little accidents on this trip so far. This one could be addressed, have to make time to go out and buy a new tripod once I get back to Tokyo.




I return to the hotel and checked out, leaving my luggage there to be picked up later. There was one last thing to experience in Kusatsu.




Because Kusatsu’s onsen is so hot, people in ancient time had to wait a long time for it to cool before able to take a bath, so overtime there developed a special tradition of cooling down the water by stirring it with a giant paddle and jikanyu “timed bath”, where one paddles the water to cool it, pour the water on one’s head and then bathes for exactly 3 minutes on the command of a bath leader. Overtime the paddling became a song and dance tradition which is still performed in the Netsu no Yu. For those interested in the full on experience there are baths in Kusatsu that hosts timed baths.




The Netsu no Yu puts on about 3 performances each morning and afternoon, the later afternoon sessions become quickly packed as this is one of the first things guests would think of doing after checking in.




The performance itself is only a few minutes. To create a more complete experience they added more elements to create 4 segments The first is a traditional dance performed on stage, then the yumomi performance, then audiences are invited to try to paddle the water as part of the yumomi themselves, then finally a slightly different yumomi performance that ends with a giant splash of water.



Dance performance


Final splash

After watching the performances I bought some sweets and manjus to bring home, picked up my luggage and went to the bus terminal to begin the journey back to Tokyo.



Matsumura manju, a famous manju shop in Kusatsu

The bus was full. Wait what?




If I couldn’t get on this bus, the next bus was not due for another hour and half.




Thankfully the staff explained that they were bringing in another bus and that there was a 30 minute transfer time at Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi, there was no worry about missing the train. Looking around, there were almost 20 people in the waiting area waiting on the second bus.




I wandered around the bus terminal for abit, checking out the souvenir shop and eatery here. The souvenir shop occupied a small space in one corner of the waiting room. What’s sold here did not defer much from what’s sold in other shops. Mostly sweets and onsen made beauty products. There’s an eatery downstairs, the menu looked like it would be a decent choice for lunch or dinner if one wasn’t picky.




About 10 minutes later the bus showed up. The driver asked if there were anyone who was not going to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station. There were none. So the driver turned the bus into an express and drove directly to the station without stopping instead, arriving only a few minutes later than the previous bus.




The train was once again a local train except this one didn’t go all the way to Takasaki, instead everyone had to transfer at Shin-Maebashi, about 3 stops north out from Takasaki. The transfer was simple and well timed like most Japanese connections, simply walk across the platform to the waiting train.




The communities along the line likely didn’t have enough patronage to support frequent services, combining tourists going to Kusatsu onto the local trains was a way to increase the number of trains and made life a little more convenient for the locals. Still given the number of people visiting Kusatsu I could not help but think that they could add one or two more express services a day. Currently there were only two express trains on weekdays, both timed to be more convenient for tourists coming to Kusatsu (noon and afternoon for check in at hotels) but not quite as convenient for those leaving (leaving in the afternoon and late afternoon, none if one wanted to leave in the morning).




By the time I got to Takasaki it was almost 1pm and I was starving.




I planned to go the Daruma temple in the afternoon and there was only one train every hour. The next one was at 1:22, I had less than half an hour to toss my luggage into a locker and get lunch. Doesn’t look like I have time to go to that kamameshi (rice in a pot) place.




First thing first, I followed the signs to the lockers, downstairs and past a food court. I didn’t have enough changes on me, stupid locker only takes 100Y coins. I looked about for a coin exchanger and noticed there was also a row of lockers that used suica to access. Even better. I chucked my luggages into the locker and swiped my card.




Now, as to the problem of lunch…. I turned to the nearby foodcourt passed a moment ago. There was the same Nagasaki noodle place I had last time in Hakata, a ramen place, some rice don place. Oh, a Mos Burger, perfect.


那麼,午餐怎麼解決呢。我轉回剛經過的美食街。有家上回在博多吃過的長崎麵店,拉麵,丼飯。喔,有Mos Burger,正好。


Unadventurous, quick, not too pricey and easy to take with me if time runs short.



Mos Burger

I ordered a seasonal special and found a spot to sit. The food court provided drinking water and paper cups and disposable teatowels to wipe down the tables. Never noticed that on previous trips.



Warabi Katsu Burger

Daruma temple in Takasaki is said to have been founded several hundred years ago original as a temple of worship of the 11 headed kannon. During a flood a piece of black wood was seen giving off miraculous light and was preserved. An old man later dreamt of Daruma commanding him to carve a figure of him using the black wood. Thus the temple was born. Daruma was a legendary monk who was said to have also started the kungfu tradition at the Shaolin temple. The temple’s full name is Shorinzan Darumaji or Shaolin Mountain Daruma Temple, whether there’s any connection between Shaolin in China and this one is unclear to me.




There is a tradition involving Daruma dolls, a rounded doll in the image of Daruma. The dolls are created with blank eyes. People who wished for something was to paint the left eye of the doll when making their wish, then complete the other one once their wish become true.




This is why there are mountains of dolls piled up on either side of the worship hall.




The temple is just a short 5 minutes trail ride out from Takasaki. Get off at Gunma-Yawata station then a short 1.5k walk to the temple.




The road went through low density suburb area. On either side were mostly one or two storey houses, except for a strangely located rice shop and what looked to be a car parts factory. Finally cross a busy bridge over a river and one arrives at the foot of the temple.




I mistakenly went up via the parking access road on the side. All for the best as the main entrance was a very long flight of steps that would make all who visits bow in respect.




The autumn leaves were at their peak, the temple halls nested amidst the steep hillside brushed with vibrant orange and red.



Daruma temple

Daruma temple

Couple taking wedding photo

It was a weekday and there were few people about. There was couple in traditional clothing getting their wedding album taking and two or three others here to pray and see the autumn leaves.



Autumn leaves and Daruma hall

There were many dolls presented to the temple, some big, some small. Most were presented by businesses wishing for successes, the biggest ones were over a metre tall.



Daruma hall




To one side was a small museum displaying hundreds of different Daruma dolls. On one wall was a map showing how the Daruma dolls differ between areas of Japan. Daruma from Takasaki was the quintessential round squash shaped, some area had ones that were slender, some cylindrical, some more egg shaped. Some were cute, some had a regal expression, others stern and serious.




I spent maybe 30 minutes at the temple. There was also only one train an hour back to Takasaki and it would take at least 10 minutes to get back to the station.



Daruma temple main stairs

After returning to Takasaki I picked up my luggage and hopped on a Shinkansen, this time an E7 train. The trip back to Ueno took 45 minutes and I estimated that I’d get to check in about half past 4pm.



The transparent milk tea.. tastes worse than the real one.

My hotel for the next two day was Villa Fountaine Kudanshita, a strange name since it was closer to Jimbocho station, even the Suidobashi station was closer.


接下來兩天的旅館是Villa Fountaine九段下,名字怪怪的因為離神保町比較近,連水道橋站都近一點。


Coming from the shinkansen I had to first go from Ueno to Akihabara, transfer there onto Suidobashi. If I had known better I might have transferred at Tokyo station since transfering there to the Chuo line then transferring again at Ochanomizu required much less walking and stairs than Ueno and Akihabara despite the same number of transfers.




The area immediately outside the Suidobashi station was filled with izakayas, restaurants, pachiko and karaokes, before giving way to quieter office areas.




Villa Fountaine was in one of those quieter areas, some 500 metres from Suidobashi and another two blocks to go till the busy main street above Jimbocho station.


Villa Fountaine是在這比較安靜的區域,離水道橋500公尺,距離神保町站上熱鬧的大道還要再走兩條街。


Villa Fountaine felt more western (not sure why, just a feeling). Its offerings is supposed to be on the higher side of business hotels and catering to foreigners (it has airport limousine and some of its hotels has shuttle bus running to Tokyo station) and comparatively does have a larger room.


Villa Fountaine感覺比較西式,說不上為什麼。提供的服務理當在商務旅館中比較高級,也偏外國住客(機場接送車有到,有分店有到東京車站的交通車),房間有比較較大。


Something felt amiss however which I could not quite grap. It could be the darker decor or the barebone amenities offered, it didn’t felt as welcoming.



Villa Fountaine Kudanshita

Villa Fountaine Kudanshita

By the time I have settled in it was past 5pm. I grabbed a bento from the nearby supermarket and had dinner while browsing for where to buy a new tripod.



Bento, milk ,fruits

BIC CAMERA at Akihabara was the closest and I decided to check out there instead.


BIC CAMERA秋葉原看來最近,就去那吧。


Not realizing that each BIC CAMERA might stock completely different items. Akihabara turned out to be not the best choice to look for tripods. They had a good selection but all too professional; none of the cheap, small travel tripods I was looking for.


完全沒意識到BIC CAMERA每家擺的東西可能完全不一樣。結果秋葉原可能不是最適合買腳架的地方。不是說沒有選擇,選擇很多,但都太專業沒有我要的便宜輕便的攜帶腳架。



Akihabara station was having some gatcha festival

From their websites stock levels I deduced that the shop with the most selection was the Ikebukuro store. It was half an hour to get there. I had actually gotten to Ueno before realizing the Yurakucho one, a station south of Tokyo station, had almost as good a variety and it showed to have the one I wanted in stock. Immediate reverse, hop off the train and onto the one on the other side going the other way.




The BIC CAMERA is right outside the station, it did not seem bigger than the Akihabara store, just a different focus. Cameras had half of B1 allocated as opposed to the small corner it occupied in Akihabara. Here there was a huge variety of tripods, from travel ones to big, heavy clubbing weapons aimed at professionals. Curiously, some of the funky super compact tripods I saw at Akihabara were nowhere to be found here.


BIC CAMERA就在一出車站對面,看起來沒有比秋葉原的大,只是重心不同。B1有半層樓分給相機部門,不像秋葉原只有一個角落。這裡的選擇就多了,從旅行攜帶型但巨大,可以用來捶人的專業用腳架。有趣的是,在秋葉原看到的超炫摺疊腳架這裡卻沒有。

BIC CAMERA Yurakucho

I bought the tripod I had came here for then decided I might as well wander through the other floors and see what they sold.



BIC CAMERA Yurakucho

I was genuinely surprised when I found they had an entire floor dedicated to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The store was catering to Chinese tourists, I realized. Indeed, there were more tax-free counters than there were regular ones.




In the games section, PS3 games were on clearance for 500 to 1000Y each. I thumbed through them, finding nothing of interest. A shame, would have been a treat if I could get the rest of the Atelier games.




On the way back I went to the chemist store next to Suidobashi station and bought a small tube of handcream. BIC CAMERA sold handcream too but they were big bottles. I had meant to get handcream before going to Kusatsu but the lost jacket that day took away all the time, now my fingers were hurting from exposure to the cold dry air.


回旅館路上我在水道橋站旁的藥店買的一小管護手霜。剛BIC CAMERA有賣但太大罐了。其實去草津前就有打算買的但搞丟外套耗去了時間,現在手被凍的破皮有點痛。

Kanto Maigo – Day 2

Maybe it’s the time difference, I woke up fairly early, the world outside had only just begun to lighten with a shallow blue. The original plan for breakfast was to check out then go to Sushisei in Tokyo station’s Gransta. That opens at 7 which was still over an hour away. I decided to grab an onigiri and enjoy it with some coffee in the lobby.



Picking a riceball at Lawson


Global Cabin lobby


Global Cabin provides many mangas

After an enjoyable light breakfast I headed upstairs to pack up my things, reorganize items such as moving the inflight reading book into the suitcase.




My jacket was nowhere to be found.


As Tokyo was not warmer than expected, I had not worn my jacket yet and it was still bundled in its special bag, almost like a rolled up mini-sleeping bag.






When did I lose it?


I searched the cabin, then the floor, then the lobby. The jacket was nowhere to be found.






Panic set in. Kusatsu Onsen was high up in the mountains, the temperatures was in the single digits and might even be below zero at night. I had better find that jacket or I would have to buy a replacement. At least Uniqlo was everywhere, it was a problem that could be solved with money, albeit an expensive one.




I asked the front desk if anyone had found a jacket. No one had. Someone might have taken it but it seemed like it would be a silly thing to steal. I checked out all the same and decided to check outside, backtracking my path from the station last night.




The streets looked very different in the day, hard to tell if I was looking at the same streets so I sweeped an extra one or two to be sure. Nothing was found.




At this point I was sure I had lost it between the station and Global Cabin, since I had a vague memory of adjusting the straps tying it to the backpack before getting on the train at Shinagawa and if I had lost it on the train other passengers were sure to call out.


這時我可確認我是在車站到Global Cabin中間掉的,有個印象在品川上電車前我還調整過把外套綁在背包上的提帶。若在電車上掉的一定有人會喊一聲。


I ran back to the Cabin front desk and asked them if it’s better if I ask nearby convenience stores or check with the police. The police, was the reply, and they pointed me to a police post by the station.


我跑回Global Cabin問櫃檯若是這樣我該問附近便利商店還是警察。問警察,他們回答道,同時跟我指說車站附近有個交番。


The police station was located in front of the station, at the corner of the main street and the bus loop. I walked up to them and explained to them that I had lost my jacket and described my jacket to them.(I had called mom to confirm the brand of the jacket)



The police post before Gotanda station

In retrospect, my Japanese had really improved enough that I could explain the situation without looking up words and speak pre-translating from English in the head.




They asked me about the jacket’s appearance, when I lost it. They nodded when I mentioned the jacket’s brand. A good sign.




Someone did bring in something similar to what I was describing, they said, but it was not there.


Wait, they found it but it was not there? I was thoroughly confused and my heart dropped.






One of the policeman gestured for me to follow him out. He pointed to a map on the giant board nearby. Someone did bring it in, and they had sent it on to the main Osaki police station, I would have to go there to pick it up.




I was relieved. The trip was going to be delayed but it looked like I was going to get my jacket back. I thanked the policemen and they fared me well, wishing me to take care.




Osaki police station was about 10 minutes walk from Gotanda station. There was a policeman standing on duty outside and after explaining, he pointed me to the second floor.




Inside, I was asked to fill in some forms and waited for them to bring out the jacket. There were some confusion because apparently my jacket had been brought in with another bag full of things which they assumed belonged to the same person. They had to call the police post to double check whether the person who brought them in said the jacket was found with the bag or near the bag.




I was asked to check the jacket to confirm it was mine. The strap of the jacket’s bag had snapped which must be why it fell off the backpack.




After about 30 minutes, I finally left happy with my jacket in hand. I returned to Gotanda and thanked the policemen at the patrol post, then resumed my planned day.




It wasn’t such a bad experience. The lost and found in Japan was as legendary as people said. Still, best take extra care going forward.




It was by now after 8:30 and way behind schedule. I had not had breakfast yet and I had not bought my rail pass either. I was definitely going to miss the direct express from Ueno to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi. The best hope was skipping breakfast and see how much time I could make up by taking the shinkansen to Takasaki.




I got my pass at Tokyo station at the JR East tour office at the Marunouchi north exit. Unfortunately looked like I was going to miss the shinkansen train by a few minutes that would have allowed me to catch up to the Kusatsu express at Takasaki. I checked the connections timetable. Was not too bad, I would have to take the local train from Takasaki to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and arrive about 30 minutes later than I would have with the express.



Marunouchi North

The shinkansen train was a soon to be phased out E4 series, the only double decker shinkansen train type.


The E4 train was being phased out because it was old and too slow compared to the E7 on the Hokuriku line which shared some of the tracks. An accidental luck that I managed to ride the double decker before it was gone.





E4 train


E4 stairway


The train definitely had an aged feel to it. The lighting was not as bright and the seat cushions a little faded. Because of the double decking the vestibule area felt crowded, cramming in an elevator for the onboard service trolleys and stairs heading up and down.




Originally I headed downstairs as there were less people, then I thought it there were still seats, why not go upstairs to enjoy the better view. That was one advantage with the double deck, the upper deck offered a high vantage point often over the sound barriers by the tracks.




After Omiya when the buildings begins to thin out, I noticed a small white peak in the distance. It was Mount Fuji. Even if Hakone failed to give a clear view of the mountain, I can say I have once seen the great Mount Fuji.



Mount Fuji from the shinkansen

There was almost 30 minutes transfer time at Takasaki. The station was smaller and basic than expected despite being the junction of the Hokuriku and Joetsu shinkansen lines. Had expected something closer to Okayama. (Okayama actually sees twice as much traffic than Takasaki so what was seen was appropriate, really shows how sparse the population in eastern Japan gets once outside of the Kanto area)




It would be past 12 by the time the local train gets to Kusatsu and I only had a single onigiri for breakfast. I grabbed a drink and an eki-ben to eat on the way.




The stationed sold daruma shaped eki-bens. Takasaki was home to the famous Daruma temple which I planned on visiting on the way back.



Bento shop Takasaki

A surprising number of people boarded the train. Even well past the small township dotted rural areas there were still a quarter of the people left on board. Guess there were just that many people headed for Kusatsu.




The view outside reminded of when I went to Yamadera. Steep mountain valleys of red and orange basked in a golden light. Occasionally a few homesteads popped into view across the river before the train disappeared into narrow tunnels.



Hello Kitty daruma bento


Bento. Taste is okay, may have needed some pickles to refresh the taste.

90 minutes later the train finally arrived at Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi. Almost 3 hours since departing from Tokyo and there was still some way to go. There was still another 25 minutes bus ride from here to Kusatsu Onsen. Scores of passengers streamed through the station and onto the connecting bus.




The bus accepted suica which I used. One could also take a boarding token and pay on disembarking. The bus had undercar storage so luggages are no problem.




After winding through the mountains, the bus finally pulls into Kusatsu bus terminal. On automatic mode, I followed the others to the Yubatake, the famous onsen field that flowed through the middle of town. I had walked the length of it before realizing I had been looking at the map the wrong way. The bus terminal was on the same side of the Yubatake as my hotel which meant I had walked way past it already.




Grumpily I dragged my luggage back up the road.




My stay in Kusatsu was Futabaya. A small hotel with a special focus on catering to foreigners (I chose it only because it’s close to the yubatake). It was early however and only the owner was there, a slightly grumpy old man who had thought I had showed up expecting to check-in. His tone improved when I told him in Japanese I just wanted to leave my luggage there.




Time to hit the onsen town streets. Since I did not intend to visit the onsens till after check-in (obviously), I took the opportunity to check out the Yubatake and many shops lining the nearby streets.




Kusatsu could be described as the postcard onsen town. Even its layout was perfect, I could not tell whether this was by design or very good fortune of geography. The town was of course centred by the Yubatake which was a long oval dividing the town into roughly 4 directions. Top (where the source of the onsen pours forth), down (where the onsen pours in a magnificent waterfall into the pool below) and left side, right side.




At the top was a large open courtyard sits the community onsen Sirohatanoyu, the imposing public onsen Gozanoyu. At one end of the courtyard a flight of steep steps lead to a shrine on top of a hill which provided excellent view of the town.



Shirohata onsen source

Onsen source flowing down through the channels in the Yubatake

Shirohata public onsen


View from the shrine

On the left side was a footbath and rows of shops in traditional looking housing.



Foot bath

Shops around yubatake

From the bottom the main road leads out to the other many community onsens dotted throughout Kusatsu.



Yubatake onsen channels

Yubatake waterfall

To the right was the Netsunoyu where the traditional Yumomi performances was performed (more on that later), and a very well situated 7-11. There were other convenience stores in Kusatsu (there’s a Lawson opposite the bus centre), though in more out the way locations. Between the Netsunoyu and 7-11 leads the main onsen street to Sai no Kawara park and open air onsen.




It was very well laid out, the streets were compact giving a cozy feeling. The constant steam from the onsens whirled and danced in the cold air, ever changing. The Yubatake was a sight to behold and could be viewed from many angles. The onsen street to Sai no Kawara was not long but packed with all kind of interesting shops, sweets, grills, manju (steamed bun), souvenirs, traditional crafts. In comparison Yufuin had way more shops and variety, however because they tended to be more modern and fashionable they lacked a sort of cohesive charm.




Yufuin’s onsens were also all hidden away in the hotels and ryokans, there were barely any public baths, felt more like a resort than a traditional onsen. In Kusatsu the presence of onsen permeates its every stone and wood.




It was snowing lightly. The woods and roofs were covered in a thin layer of frost, the weather did nothing to dampen the spirits. The streets were busy, filled with tourists and air of excitement.




I went back and up to the bus terminal where the community library was also located. In the library was a section detailing the history of Kusatsu and how onsen is tied to the town’s development.


Bus center


Library, showing the effect of the strong acidic onsen on concrete and metals

Wooden onsen pipe

Then proceeded to walk the length of the onsen street to Sai no Kawara Park, then went fooding on the way back. There was plenty of food to try if I wanted, but I settled on the onsen egg and pudding. One of the manju shop was generous enough to offer every passerby a freshly steamed manju, a cup of green tea, and a welcomed seat inside the shop. That earned them a lot of customers.



Onsen street

Shop in onsen street


Grilled fish

Cooking onsen egg outside the shop

Pickle shop

Sai no Kawara park

Statue at Sainokawara park

Giant onsen footbath


Sai no Kawara park


Onsen egg



Pudding shop


Shop selling rice crackers

Onsen street


It’s soon time to check in. The front desk was attended by what looked to be a young man from the middle east or southeast asia, who spoke decent enough english, one of the foreign workers that Japan is feverishly recruiting to make tourism more welcoming to foreigners. He handed me a discount voucher to various baths and shops (every accomodation in Kusatsu give out these to guests) a map of the town and recommended some of the onsen baths to me.




He also gave me a bag containing a bottle of juice, a yoghurt and two pieces of bread, what was described as a “light breakfast” so they could qualify as providing breakfast on the booking websites. Would have rather they lopped 500Y off the price and I’d buy what I wanted from the 7-11.




Futabaya was not what I would consider a proper hotel, instead it had a bed&breakfast feel to it. The room was above average size but decidedly bare bones, there was a desk but no reading lamp, the small fridge and kettle was simply placed on an slightly raised section of the room. (Feels like it used to be a Japanese style room before being converted with a western style bed)




They did provide two sets of towels, a set of yukata and a handbag for easy carrying. A much appreciated offering. I changed into the yukata and headed out to the onsen.




In the lobby there was another group of foreigners checking in. They were thoroughly confused when they saw me in the yukata. Did they have to wear them to go to then onsen? they asked. Only if they wanted to, the young man attending the front desk told them. But it’s much more convenient if you wear them, I added.

Futabaya room



My first stop was the Shirohata no Yu, the one in the main square and also the closest one to the hotel.




Entry is free, the bath is maintained by the Kusatsu town community. The place was tiny, in the peak season this place had to be packed. In the small rustic wooden building there were barely any divisions between the entrance, the changing area and the bathing area. There was no need for any heaters in the changing space because of the constant steam pouring over from the baths.




There were 3 baths, each large enough to maybe sit 5-6 people. There were no showering area, before entering the bath one was expected to fetch water from the baths into a bucket then wipe down the body with a towel (which you must bring yourself). No soaps.




The onsen water was hot. The hottest I had ever experienced. According to the descriptions, because the source water in Kusatsu are so hot, some as high as over 90 degrees, most of the baths also tend to be quite hot. A few minutes was all I could stand at a time before getting out of the water.




When I got back to the hotel the staff told me that Shirohata was actually one of the hottest bath around, the map he gave me actually had a hotness rating next to each bath.




It was nearing nighttime and I head out to get something to eat from the 7-11. There were some food places around, I just got lazy again.


After dinner I got out of the yukata. It was getting cold and snowing and there was no hanten provided for warmth.





Dinner, some kind of noodle with soup

One thing that was very different about Kusatsu was how late the shops open. The main onsen street still had saw activity up till about 6pm, the shops around the yubatake area opened till 9pm, there was plenty of time to wander around and visit the shops even if one arrived late in the afternoon. Bus loads of people who stayed at hotels on the outskirts were being dropped off in the square, the illuminated yubatake elicited many impressed sounds from them.




The yubatake was a marvelous sight to behold at night. The colours changed every so often, shining through and reflecting off the dancing steam. The whole square was awash in contrasting lights and shadows, almost magical.



Yubatake in twilight

Yubatake at night


Yubatake at night


Yubatake at night

I grabbed a hot coffee from the 7-11 and sat down outside a souvenir shop, beneath its eaves. Watching the light snow flicker in the spotlight against the dark skies, observing the crowd passing by. feeling the cold breeze and the warmth of the coffee.




It was a shame it took me this long to come here. And I wished I did not come alone.




The Sai no Kawara park was similarly lit up. Here it had an almost ethereal feel, almost would be a little creep if there weren’t the sparse bath goers heading to and from the Sai no Kawara onsen bath.



Sainokawara at night

Sainokawara at night

They might have chose this presentation because of the legends of the onis (demons). It was said that the sounds of the bubbling hot springs were mistaken to be the sound of oni playing sumo wrestling.




There was a small flight of steps that led to a path on top of the ridge going to the other side of the park. At this time of day there were no one else on the trail, it was covered in snow and I left a clear trail of foot prints. The paths was lit by a line of lights that were broken at intervals. The story of the snow witch from the Kendaichi manga for some reason flooded the mind, in which people stranded in a snow storm were brutally hacked to bits by a machete wielding snow demon.



The desolate trail

I decided to turn back. There might be bears about. Definitely not because of the possibility of snow demons.



Saino kawaraat night

Sainokawara at night

My camera’s battery was almost flat at this point, the shops in the square was also closing up. The last of the tourists were getting on the last shuttle buses to go back to their hotels. I decide to also call it a day.




Yubatake at night