Off-Nagano: Komoro and Karuizawa

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And don’t forget the rickshaw ride! (Note: I don’t do the rickshaw rides)

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.

 

 

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Hiking in Japan: Nokogiriyama

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Whew!

It’s been a long break, and I have a whole list of topics which require attention. So let’s get to it!

Looking for an enjoyable hike outside of Tokyo? You should try Nokogiriyama!

First of all, you get to take a ferry. It’s a bit of a walk from Keikyu-Kurihama or Kurihama station, so I recommend taking the bus from the train station to the ferry dock. The ferry leaves roughly every hour, and costs around 750yen. I’ll explain why later in this post, but I thought the ferry ride was perhaps the best part of the trip. First of all, the seahawks follow the ferry because people throw food to them. They dive in and out between the seagulls, and it is quite a show. Additionally, you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance as you cross the bay (provided it’s a clear day). You can also go around the bay via train from Tokyo.

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Mt. Nokogiriyama is home to the largest stone Buddha statue in Japan, which is why I decided to go. The weather was great, so I made my only mistake of the trip – I walked to the south entrance of the temple from the ferry port. The maps of the area are misleading, and you need to know this. There is no safe path to the mountain trail from the ferry port if you head south. You can take the cable car easily enough from the ferry – there are plenty of signs. Fool that I was, I wanted the “full” experience and decided to walk.

I wound up going through some frightening highway tunnels. These tunnels have no pedestrian space – you have to walk along the shoulder, on a curving road. I was genuinely uncomfortable around several corners, as big trucks would go roaring by and I only had a couple of feet to work with. In between the tunnels, there were some beautiful ocean overlooks and a couple tiny roadside shrines. I would not recommend walking to the back/base of the mountain if you have children, strollers, or anything bulky. Either take the ropeway up, or take the train from Hama-Kanaya (again in the Ferry town/Kanaya) to Hota. It might be a slightly longer walk from Hota, but it will save you some clenched cheeks.

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I Google Translated this sign before entering the tunnel – it tells drivers to look out for cyclists and pedestrians. Once inside, however, there is no space for a pedestrian to feel truly safe.

After the tunnels, I found the road leading up to the path towards the temple. There was no one on the path (probably because they were all on the safe side of the mountain), which made for a pretty hike up to the entrance. At the back entrance, there was a solitary woman working in a garden, who came up to me as I wandered through the gate. I paid my fee (600yen), and got to exploring.

From the “southern” entrance, the first few photo stops include some pretty traditional temple buildings, including a beautiful wooden structure. Then comes the large Daibutsu. It was pretty warm that day, and the Buddha is out in the sun, so I did not linger. I lit my incense, said my prayers, and moved upwards. Of note: if you are looking for traditional Jizu/Buddha figurines, there is a sort of shrine where people stack the little figures by the hundreds. You can buy them at the temple shop nearby (it’s also where you light the incense).

Nokogiriyama is all stairs, so be advised. There are very few inclined spaces – it’s primarily stairs. So if you dislike stairs…well, this is not your day my friend. I realized this around the two-third’s point, as I was passing through the alcoves of preserved Buddhas on the way up to the “Hell view” (Jigoku Nozoki). It was tiring – I like hiking when there is a variety of inclines. I imagine that it would also be a difficult climb if you were in a wheelchair or needed assistance. I passed elderly couples huffing and puffing, and gazelle-like children who were literally jumping up and down the flights of steps up to Jigoku Nozoki.

The overlook is a sheer face down, and this is not a natural occurrence. This mountain was a stone quarry for a time, and so you can see the tidy work of the stonecutters. I liked it, and I asked a stranger to take my picture. This is where being in Japan works to one’s advantage – I left a stranger with my smartphone for quite a while as I walked down one viewing station to the overlook itself, which is a separate point. It’s a beautiful view. You can see all the way down to Hota, across the bay to Kurihama. It had grown hazy in the afternoon, so Mt. Fuji and Tokyo had disappeared, but I could see the Yokohama Bay bridge in the distance.

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Nokogiriyama is a good beginner climb, as it tops out at just under 400m (1200ft). I congratulated myself on climbing all the way up, so I took the fast, efficient, and only mildly unnerving cable car down. It took me about an hour and some change to make it around the mountain to the south entrance, and so by the time I got to the top it occurred to me that I would have saved a great deal of time if I had just been lazy and spent the money on the cable car.

The fishing village was still a bit closed (the season hadn’t officially kicked off), but there were several pleasant tourist shops selling fish and pickled vegetables, not to mention stuffed oranges as mascots. I wandered around the largest shop for awhile, waiting for the return ferry.

I took the ferry back, and again I thought it was a true highlight of the trip. It’s forty-five minutes of comfortable travel. I like water traveling, so I loved the pleasant rocking as we crossed the bay. There are fishing boats, large tankers. I even saw a submarine!  And I found I enjoyed the trip as much as the climb because it was something both exciting and calming. Unlike traveling by train, the ferry doesn’t stop and the whole of the trip is out of my control. All I need to do is sit/stand and enjoy being on a tiny bit of the ocean. I opted to sit in the cooled inner cabin and write in my journal on the trip back, having acted like a child watching the hawks on the journey to the mountain.

If you are are in need of an easy escape, Nokogiriyama is a great option. Want to know more? Here are some separate pages of information! Final information – take the bus from the port to the train station.  Go, and enjoy!

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You can see the Hamakanaya port below you from the peak.