Up till now I have been all about the trains in Japan, but let me take a moment to point out the economic option of the bus. Boyfriend and I had a weekend getaway planned in Nagano to see the koto (changing of the leaves) and the Shinkansen was set to get me there fast and expensive. That’s when Tori suggested the bus.
I’m a little prejudiced by bus trips in America. I’ve done Megabus (several successful trips, two broken buses), Coach USA (great airport bus before it cancelled service to my area), and plenty of long distance school bus trips. Buses are…fine. They do not have the sleek speed of Japan’s famed high-speed Shinkansen.
Still, the bus fare was much cheaper than taking the high-speed train, and I couldn’t argue with having more money to spend while on vacation, so we headed to Komoro on the JR Bus.
It’s comforting to know that bus culture translates. Unlike the Japanese metro, where the collective social weight of silence sits on everyone’s shoulders, the bus was full of more chatty Japanese people. They were definitely of an older bent (boyfriend and I might have been the youngest people on the bus), and they had their bentos and stories and they kept laughing and being happy for the three hour trip.
Let me move on, however, to the actual getaway.
We stayed at this AirBnb, a cabin at the base of the mountain, pretty removed from the town. It’s dark, quiet, and just about perfect for a couple looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Our hostess was very accommodating and friendly, which helped since we got in so late.
On saturday we climbed Mt. Kurofuyama, a peak adjacent to the sort-of active volcano, Mt. Asama. We took a bus from near our AirBnB property to Takamine Kogen (a large ski resort and onsen at the top of Mt. Takamine), and hiked over and up from there. There are two courses – the Omote and Naka. We started with the Omote, which is slightly longer and curves up the side of the ridge, as opposed to cutting up the mountainside. It was cold, and started to spit snow pellets at us as we climbed. I did not mind it, but I did have to get used to hiking at a sudden high altitude (2000m) – my brain and body felt slightly disconnected as we climbed.
We were lucky when the sun came out! It went from grey and snowy to brisk and sunny during our climb and hike along the ridge. We even got to see all of Mt. Asama, and the surrounding Nagano prefecture. It’s a beautiful scene, though you can see the effect of the eruption – pyroclast dots the landscape and there is a clear line where the tree-line was flattened. We joined the small group of tourists at the summit and had our beers and homemade trail mix. We walked on ahead down the ridge line, but turned around before we got to Jakotsudake.
For the return trip, we took the shorter Naka path. This path is a little steeper and cuts through some beautiful forest. The views are not as grand – more peaceful and relaxing. There are also fewer manmade steps, so this path might be more challenging for climbers who rely on Japanese-style wooden stairs for stability.
As we walked back to the bus stop, we opted to go to the Takamine Onsen. It’s a natural sulphuric hot spring, small cafe, and store. The hot spring was very small – one room for men, one for women, each with two small baths (hot and lukewarm). The view was beautiful, though I embarrassed myself because I used a hair dryer to dry myself off (I forgot to ask for a towel). The water was wonderful after several hours of cold weather climbing – it warmed me right to my bones and thawed my sinuses.
IMPORTANT – THERE IS ONLY ONE BUS THAT GOES DOWN FROM TAKAMINE. DO NOT MISS THIS BUS.
That night, we roasted apples and I taught the British Boyfriend how to make s’mores. It was delightful. I love the smell of fire and leaves – it fills me with nostalgia for growing up in the Midwest.
Sunday was real koyo viewing at Komoro and Karuizawa
Komoro was a very easy tour – the castle is just on the left of the train station (on the south, if you’re on a map). It’s an odd assortment – castle grounds, a small zoo, and a children’s amusement park. There is even a museum containing samurai armor, weaponry, and Japanese kimono specimens. Entrance to the grounds is 400 yen, and the museum entrance fee is extra.
The grounds are really pretty, and there are a couple of viewing stations where you can see the surrounding mountain ranges. It’s quite a view, and you can even see Fuji poking up in the distance. I swear, it’s like you can’t escape Fuji on a good day. It makes places touting “a view of Fuji” seem less and less impressive. I’m almost 80 miles from Fuji, and I can still see it! Anyway, the koyo were striking.
Side note: I would maybe skip the zoo. Most of the animals look ok, but they have one or two in cages that look unfortunately small. It might make you uneasy to see. The zoo does cost extra (which explains a lot).
Having seen every colored leaf in Komoro, we hopped on the train for a jaunt to Karuizawa. If Komoro is the Covered Bridge Festival in Indiana, Karuizawa would be the…I’ve never been to Aspen, but I bet it’s like Aspen. Resort town full of big, beautiful houses, lots of expensive customized honey stores, people walking around with beautiful mountain dogs.
Boyfriend and I rented tourist bikes (so cheap – 2600 yen for two hours of riding around) and made a circuitous route around Karuizawa’s town center. I was surprised by all the churches and retreats dotted throughout the area – I later learned that the town had a large Christian community in its history. This whole day appealed to my lightweight adventurer side – the part of me that wanted to be active, but not too active. Biking around a sunny autumnal forest, parking to look at lakes and peruse artisan milk and honey shops (but not buying any of it) made me feel very catalog.
We went back to Komoro to catch the JR bus back to Tokyo. As I ate my supermarket sushi and tried to think past the cold growing in my throat, I closed my eyes and reflected on a well-done getaway. It’s difficult when work doesn’t give you more than a weekend to enjoy yourself. If you plan ahead and aren’t worried about using late night buses (or high speed trains if you’re feeling fancy), you can escape the city and get away to the mountains.
And make sure you know when your last train leaves for home from Shinjuku Station! Don’t want to spend the night in the station or a capsule hotel.