Tuesday, November 27, 2012

24/11/12 – 25/11/12 – The Magic and Mystery of Rural Japan, and MOAR TRAINS!


After a restful night’s sleep in our amazing futon beds, Emma and I awoke about 10 minutes before it was time for us to have breakfast. At exactly 8am, we were escorted down to the dining room to have breakfast. Awaiting us each was a square plate with nine smaller square bowls on it, each containing a different breakfast dish. In addition, there was a nice hearty miso soup and rice waiting for us as well. Needless to say, breakfast was amazing. I managed to eat everything on my plate this time, which was a nice feeling. I also noticed that while we were dressed in our Yukatas (our traditional house robes), we were the only ones who appeared to have anything on underneath them. Once again this made us feel a bit out of place, but we did our best to enjoy it anyway. Besides, it wasn’t really our fault – the Yukatas were designed for short people, which we are not.

After breakfast, we headed back to our room, where our futons had been magically packed away. We sat up and watched the end of “My Neighbours the Yamadas”, which we started watching the previous night. Afterwards, we got up, got our things together, and went to check out of the Ryokan.

We heaved our huge bags down the steep stairs, and were soon greeted by not only the elderly man who ran the Ryokan, but by his wife and the cleaning lady as well. Clearly they enjoyed us staying here, which was a nice feeling indeed. They then proceeded to give us their own gifts in thanks for us staying there. We were given a lovely box of apple-based delicacies from the local apple orchards, a wooden teapot coaster carved into the shape of a monkey, and a cloth with all of the Kanji for the bath houses that dotted the town. Under each bath house name, there was the red stamp mark of each of the baths. They were the actual stamps too, not printed on or anything. I think you’re meant to do it yourself when you go and bathe in all of the different onsen, but given that we weren’t too keen on that idea, clearly he wanted to give us a memento of that aspect of the town anyway.

We then had a stroll around the town to kill some time before we had to head to the train station. We stopped in all of the local stores, and bought some souvenirs where we could. One particular store, which wasn’t very flashy from the outside, had some very nice looking ceramics, which were not too pricey to boot. It was run by a lovely old lady who was very gracious in the way she presented herself. She was very kind.

We then bought another apple each from the local market and began the long walk down to the train station. There was no snow to be seen this time, but the views of the surrounding mountains were still just as breathtaking. The spectacular autumn leaves on the hill were beautiful to look at – they covered the hills in veins of gold and red, contrasting stunningly with the evergreen pine trees. Really amazing stuff.

I stopped in at the local Lawson’s, before we boarded our train to Nagano. I grabbed us some tasty bento boxes for some lunch for the long journey ahead of us. What followed was an epic 5 hour journey across the countryside of Japan, travelling firstly back to Nagano, and then north through the Japan Alps to Naoetsu, where we then headed west along the northern Japan coast to Uozu. Finally, we caught another local train south and into the mountains where we reached our final destination of Unazuki, another small town at the foot of the mountains.

I won’t go through and laboriously describe each detail of our various train journeys. What I will say though, is that if/when you come to Japan, do yourselves a favour and take a nice slow train ride across the rural areas. Yes, the Shinkansens are awesome in their speed and smoothness, but everything rockets by at such sheer velocity that you don’t have time to take it in. By comparison, our train ride from Nagano to Naoetsu was some of my favourite hours of travelling so far. The rickety old electric train slowly trundled along the tracks, in no apparent hurry to get anywhere. Out the window was stunning views of autumn leaf-covered mountains, acres and acres of farmland, and then sudden tunnels through rocky mountainsides. At one stage, we even came out of a tunnel into a small valley, where for the briefest of intervals, tiny delicate flakes of snow fell from the sky. I looked around in awe at its beauty, and Emma happily snapped away pictures of both the snow, and the expression of joy on my face.

It was not to last though, as a few seconds later, we were through another tunnel, and the beautiful snow was to be seen no more. The mysterious valley disappeared into the mists, and we were soon heading for more farmland and small towns. No wonder Japan is a place of such folklore and legend – the land is so beautiful and mysterious that even today in Japan’s highly modernised state, you can almost see Totoro poking his big fluffy body out from behind a tree as your train slowly rolls through the countryside.

One last thing, the ocean of Japan is quite different to the oceans around Australia. The waves are very small but spiky, and the whole ocean looks perpetually angry and frightening. We only caught glimpses of it by this stage, as we were hurtling along on a much faster train, bound for Uozu.

By the time our last train rolled into Unazuki, we were positively exhausted. Thankfully our hotel was literally a two minute walk from the train station, so we stumbled there and after a fairly confusing check in process, we were finally in our hotel, safe and sound. We decided to head out for some dinner at a local restaurant, where the waiters only spoke a few words of English. Actually, the town only had tiny smatterings of English, too. We were really off the beaten track, or rather, we were off the beaten track for western tourists. I found this both highly exciting and rather terrifying at the same time.

We had some delicious tempura udon and soba for dinner, which was a very nice finish to a rather tiring day.

25/11/12- MOAR TRAINS.

Our day started with a delicious buffet breakfast. While our hotel itself wasn’t really anything special, the breakfast which we had was pretty awesome. Lots of different options, both western and Japanese. Seeing as we were in Japan, we stuck with the Japanese options, which were very tasty.

When we returned to the room after breakfast, I opened the curtains for the first time, to see a stunning view of the mountains surrounding the town we were staying in. We were literally about two hundred metres from the edge of the gorge, with huge tree-covered mountains on either side of this small town. This was all quite a pleasant surprise to us, as we came in under the cover of darkness the previous night, and as such had no idea of our surrounds.

We then checked out of the hotel, and got ready for our day of sightseeing. Today we were taking a long journey on the Kurobe Gorge train – a very narrow gauge railway that winds its way through a forested gorge in the middle of the Japan Alps. It promised to be a day full of stunning views and natural wonders. We walked to the train station, and managed to book our tickets for our journey to the end station of the line, Keyakidaira, and back again.

 We had about 30 minutes to kill before our train departed, so we went for a walk out on one of the many bridges that crossed the gorge nearby. The view was stunning, with the cool mountain stream running a hundred or so metres below us, and either side of the gorge covered in beautiful trees.

After Emma had a minor freakout on one of the suspension bridges (due to it swaying in the wind), we then decided to head back to the train station. We waited in line for a few minutes, and then we were allowed to board the train. Thankfully, there was no rush for seats, as there were plenty of good spots to go around. We took a spot on the right side of the train, and readied the camera for what promised to be a very scenic journey.

It didn’t disappoint. Countless beautiful shots presented themselves to us as the train slowly made its way through the mountains. There was a grand total of 41 tunnels and 21 bridges that we crossed over throughout the 80 minute journey. Really dazzling stuff. Unfortunately, we had come after most of the trees had dropped their autumn leaves for the season, so it wasn’t as impressive as some of the promotional photos make it out to be. However, there was an upside to the lack of foliage – there were clear views down to the crystal clear waters of the gorge below and the snow-capped peaks above us – both of which would have been obscured if the autumn leaves were still there. Many, many photos were taken.

After the long journey up the mountainside, we were at roughly 600 metres above sea level. While not incredibly high up, you did soon quickly feel the cold of the mountain air. The station itself had nothing particularly interesting around it, aside from the stunning views surrounding it. What we were here for was to see a few of the sights and go on a few of the walks from the train station out into the wilderness, after which we would catch the train back down the gorge later in the day. We had to book our return tickets as soon as we arrived, so we booked ourselves on a train leaving about three hours after we arrived. This left us ample time to do any of the activities we wanted to.

Shortly after booking our return tickets, we noticed the guide map to Keyakidaira station. Moreover, we noticed the big, red crosses through pretty much everything that there was to see and do. Due to it being the end of the season, the icy cold and apparent construction work, there wasn’t actually anything which you could see or do except walk over a solitary footbridge. Footbridge it was! We walked over that bridge with such amazing amazement that it fully occupied us for the three hours we had to kill at this station. Not really.

The footbridge was pretty cool, it offered loads of awesome views of the gorge. But, we tackled that in all of ten minutes, and had the next two and a bit hours with nothing really to do. We managed to walk down a set of steep stairs right down to the river, where we had a nice but freezing cold view of the river. Because of the sheer cold, we soon headed back up the stairs to the suddenly inviting warmth of the otherwise boring train station. We found a restaurant upstairs in the train station, which we had some fairly mediocre Japanese food from. That occupied us for a good hour, and the remaining hour was spent huddled around a communal heater within the departures area.

It was soon time for us to catch the train back down to Unazuki. This time, I didn’t bother taking any photos. It was just as scenic and amazing as our ascent, but the afternoon light had given way to a thick layer of cloud, so there weren’t really any amazing photo opportunities. That, and I was too tired from our constant travel each day between destinations around Japan. The cold was also getting to me, so I slept most of the way back down. I did however see a few monkeys in between dozes, which was a nice surprise to see.

Upon arriving at Unazuki, we didn’t spend any more time in the town. We quickly headed back to our hotel, got our bags and made a bee line for the train station. We were soon on another rural train that rocked and rolled its way back to Uozu. We did see some really awesome farmland and rural towns on the way though, as our last time on this train was at night time, so we couldn’t really appreciate the views from the windows.

I really liked how every little space was used for farmland where it could – even the small strips of land between the train stations and the road were full of tilled soil, growing everything from spring onions to cabbages. I’m not sure if they were communal gardens or not, but it was good to see these towns being resourceful with the space made available to them.

We were soon in Uozu, where we transferred to a quicker train that would take us to our next destination, Kanazawa. Due to the language barrier between myself and the station attendant, we ended up with unreserved seating again, which meant standing for the first twenty minutes or so of the journey.

About an hour later, and a long walk to our Ryokan, and we were finally at Kanazawa. I was relieved that there were no more “one nighters” on this trip – everywhere else I had booked we were at for a few nights, meaning we could actually settle in and get a feel for the town.

Our Ryokan is fantastic – the lady who acts as the hostess, Mai, speaks amazing English, and the room is absolutely fantastic. It’s huge, with authentic tatami mats and really comfortable futon beds. It was a nice feeling knowing that we had a few days to fully appreciate this room and hotel.

We then headed out to grab some dinner – we were tired, so we were just going to get some local takeaway food. On our way out, Mai informed us that for tonight only, the Kenroku-en gardens were being lit up to showcase the autumn colours. Seeing as Kenroku-en was one of the places that is a must-see in Kanazawa, we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see it by twilight.

We headed in the direction of the park, but due to our tired-ness, we soon became disoriented. I decided to try out my meagre Japanese skills, and asked a lady for directions to the park. It turns out that she was really helpful, and decided to take us to the park to show us the way. She spoke really good English, and so we chatted away, alternating between English and Japanese where I could. I found out that her name was Yumi, and that she lived only a street over from our hotel. She was very kind, and gave us excellent directions to the park after we insisted that she shouldn’t take any more time out of her night to show us the way.

We thanked her, and soon walked the rest of the way to the park. This little side trip was well worth the effort – the views of this park were stunning. It looked so mysterious lit up by the various spotlights, and they served to really accentuate certain features of the garden and its inherent beauty therein.

After strolling around the lantern-lined path, we headed back to the local takeaway place where we grabbed some strange takeout food. It was fairly tasty, but I didn’t really know what I was eating. We then headed back to the room. There, we Skyped with our families back in Australia, before having a nice, well-earned sleep. No more trains for a while! Hooray!

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