January 2, 2013
Alarm at 7:00 am. Packed up. Checked out.
Asakusabashi to Akihabara to Tokyo Main Station.
Bento box for breakfast (with delicacies from around Japan). Train to Nagano.
In Nagano, an incredibly helpful JR employee pointed me to coin lockers and the train station to go to Yudanaka. Taiko drummers serenaded a crowd outside the station, but by the time I got my camera out, they finished.
On the train to Yudanaka, I met Beth (British) and Ray (Irish), who were living together in Tokyo. We chatted for awhile, and when the conversation started to come to a lull, I bid them a good ride, and put in my earbuds – the first time I’ve listened to my music since arriving in Japan. I watched as the wooden homes and imposing mountains, snow-laden rice paddies and manicured apple farms whisked on by.
From the sleepy, snowy town of Yudanaka, we took a bus to Kanbayashi Onsen. I chatted with two Navy guys – Tyler (Texas) and Jonathan (Colorado) until we got there, and then I walked with Beth and Ray to Jigokudani Yaen-koen: home of the onsen (hot spring) chillin’ Japanese macaques. The 1.6km hillside path was completely iced over and we almost fell several times.
Jigokudani Yaen-koen, while small, was worth the effort and money to make it to. I had been so excited to see the monkeys bathing in the onsen, and was not disappointed. THEY WERE SO DAMN CUTE OMFG. Please excuse the zillions of photos below.
Thank God I bumped into Tyler and Jonathan on my way back, as they had a bus schedule and train schedule, and it turned out that if we waited for the next bus, we would miss the train (and then I would miss my train to Ueno and then to Sapporo). We walked to a Shell Station and asked them to call a cab. When the cab came, I asked him to please go fast (in Japanese), and we made it to the train station JUST IN TIME.
The trip back to Nagano was rather uneventful, and I split from the Navy guys to grab some lunch in a little stall in the train station. I had read that mountain vegetable soba is a specialty in the area (and it was the only thing I could read), so I ordered one. I honestly don’t know what it is about Japanese food… but HOT DAMN. Everything is just so perfect.
After grabbing my bag out of the locker, I spotted a woman selling cold dumplings. Not knowing exactly what they were, I asked for her recommendation, and ordered one of those. I ate it on the train to Ueno, and discovered it was some sort of green vegetable, with delicate seasoning, inside of a slightly sweet dough. Probs could’ve eaten ten of them. Easily.
Once in Ueno, I grabbed some snacks and water in a convenience store and another bento box for dinner on the overnight train to Sapporo.
The track for the sleeper train was significantly dingier than any other I’ve seen in Japan, so it was about on par with the nicest DC metro track. While waiting for the train, I got a hot green tea latte from a vending machine – yeah, vending machines here are the sh*t.
I’ve been on a lot of trains in my life – many of them sleepers. I’ve been on the Trans-Siberian Railway for three days and the Trans-Mongolian, I’ve slept on countless Indian trains, one in Vietnam, one in Europe, one in Russia, and several in China. Never before have I had my own room. Each room has its own keycard and four soothing radio stations; you get a bed, some lights, a nice little table, a trashcan, linens, and even a JR yukata. That’s right. You get a JR yukata. Japan is awesome.
There’s a dining car two cars up and a small lounge after that. Every so often, a high-pitched woman roams through the halls offering hot coffee, hot tea, bento boxes, and snacks.
Trains are my favorite means of travel. Hands down. They’re the best. In fact, this is my seventh train of the day, and I’m as content as a happy fat little Buddha statue.