Day 2 (Sunday, March 30, 2003)
The plan for the day was to track out to Matsumoto Castle, then wing it from there. Thanks to not getting into the ryokan I had originally wanted, the train route we would take would wind from Ueno to Takasaki, then through Gunma's lowlands and up a tunnel to Karuizawa before heading off toward Nagano. Needless to say, I was stoked.
I slept badly, which is expected for the first night in Japan. Time zone differences tend to make it hard to sleep for the first couple of days. This morning, I woke up from a nightmare in which a group of dissatisfied French students stole my computers. I think my subconscious was expressing my annoyance with my non-functional laptop (which had quit the night before we left). Nonetheless, it was not a lot of fun.
We got up and got going fairly early. We picked up breakfast at the AM/PM down the street, since nothing else was open so early. (It was about 7 AM when we left the ryokan.) Before long we were on the train bound for Takasaki and beyond. After we stopped in Kumagaya, I got up and stood between the cars so I could bop from one side of the train to the other without my fellow passengers killing me for being too hyper. Soon, I realized that the mountain looming in the distance was Akagi. Great was the grin that spread across my face. I've seen Akagi before, but, well, y'know. It's just right in my face. It's not every day I can say that.
Before long Haruna came into view. I've looked at live camera pics of it for so long that seeing it out the window was like seeing an old and familiar friend. For a while, if I looked to the right, I could see Akagi. If I looked to the left, I could see Haruna. Right, Akagi. Left, Haruna. Akagi, Haruna. Akagi, Haruna. It's like watching a ping pong match, only with mountains.
Takasaki looked nothing like what I remembered. Oh well, I will just have to come back again and spend some more time there.
After Takasaki it became harder to see much of interest. Akagi became eclipsed by Haruna, which in turn became hard to see because it was so overwhelmingly close. Soon we started dashing in and out of tunnels, and eventually entered the new Usui Pass tunnel. Thanks to all the tunnels, I wasn't able to see much of Myougi. It eluded me most of the time it should have been visible. I will have to come back sometime to get pictures of it.
Going through one tunnel I realized something. The tunnel was going through the foothills of Mt. Haruna. We were in the tunnel, which meant that we were in Haruna. Ha! I thought. All those silly IniD fanficcers were right after all -- you can be in Akina without being a dwarf. Fascinating.
Fangirlishness complete, I rejoined the group. The train finally come out of the tunnel, and a gorgeous, snow-covered Mt. Asama came into view. Out came the cameras as everyone snapped pictures of it. I see now why there are so many live camera views of Asama. It's beautiful!
The rest of the trip to Nagano proceeded with little of note. It was pretty and rural, but generally unremarkable. The city of Nagano itself was similarly unremarkable. We changed trains to one bound for Matsumoto with no incident, and were soon on our way.
The train from Nagano to Matsumoto winds up the mountainside, and affords a sweeping view of the high river valley that Nagano and its satellites are located. It's a wonderful trip, which I highly recommend.
After an hour of wending our way through the valleys of the Japan Alps we arrived in Matsumoto. Matsumoto has one major tourist attraction: Matsumoto Castle. It's one of the still extant, original castles in Japan. Six stories high and black, it is made entirely of wood, and is over 400 years old.
Being one of the original castles, Matumoto-jo has what I call "death stairs". These are the original stairways. They were designed for defense, and are quite steep and narrow. A sign in the castle states that the slope of the stairs is between 56 and 61 degrees, just to give you a quantifiable description of how steep they are. There is usually about a foot rise between each of the steps. And one has to climb this while wearing one-size-fits-all slippers that always try and fall off.
If you are getting the impression that these stairs are scary and unpleasant to climb, you would not be wrong.
We braved the stairs and climbed to the top. On the way down, I paused before going down one particularly narrow, steep set of stairs to wait for the people coming up to clear the way. As I stood there, a cute guy who had just come up said "ganbatte" ("good luck" or "hang in there") I was amused enough to not panic on the stairs down.
We reached the ground floor of the castle safely, snapped some random pictures, visited a folkcraft museum located on the castle grounds, then headed back to Tokyo. It was heading towards late afternoon, but the light wasn't gone yet, so I decided to hop off the train at Karuizawa and take some pictures. The rest of the group went on to Tokyo, but my mother came with me.
There is, of course, only one reason to stop in Karuizawa in the winter: skiing! Oh, wait. I don't ski.
Nonetheless, there was a reason I wanted to get off in Karuizawa: fangirling. Karuizawa is where Iketani and Mako met up for their date. They met up at the station and drove around, while the other guys drove down Usui Pass. According to the maps, the start of the Usui course was located approximately one kilometer (or roughly .6 mile) from the train station. I figured that I would grab some shots of the station, and if the light remained reasonable, then I would walk down to the prefectural boundry (located at the start of the Usui downhill), and get at least a couple of pictures of the top of the course.
My mother decided to come along on my jaunt. She has always been remarkably tolerant of my oddities. As things eventually turned out, she even gave me excuses to go and get even more fangirl pictures.
Karuizawa Station didn't quite resemble what I remembered seeing in the IniD manga. It did look familiar, though. I took several shots which I hoped were the same as the ones in the manga, then started down the road.
I hadn't thought too much about the weather before I left, so I was slightly startled to see some snow lingering on the ground. There wasn't a lot of it, so it didn't get in our way. Being a native California, it was even rather entertainingly novel.
We walked down as far as the sidewalk allowed. Hitting the end, my mother wanted to turn back. It was very definitely dusk by this time. It wasn't that dark yet, but the light was starting to fail. On the other side of the road (actually, National Road 18) I could see there was enough space to walk safely. Looking further down the road, I could see a sign that looked suspiciously like the one that I was after. I told my mother that I would go only as far as the turn we could see, then I would turn back. She waited nervously behind, while I continued on my Quest.
Reaching the corner, I noticed several things. The first was the prefectural boundary marker, which was the sign I had been looking for. Looking at the corner, I realized that it was the first corner on the Usui course. Ah! I hadn't expected to be able to get a picture of that. I snapped several shots, all the while staying in sight of my worrying mother. I skipped back to where she was waiting. As I was heading down, a Skyline GT-R (white) passed me, and headed down the pass. As a fangirl, I was highly amused.
We went back to the station, and grabbed dinner. When we had gotten off of the train, I had been pleased to note that there was a stand selling Touge no Kamemeshi*. The fangirl was rather pleased by this, and thought that in addition to giving a nice, fangirl souvenir of the trip, it would also provide some much-needed dinner. My mother and I both bought one, and went to wait for the next train through.
(* Again, an explanation is needed for the less obsessed. The place where Iketani first met Mako is a parking lot for a place that sells a type of bento called Touge no Kamemeshi. It's a type of eki-ben (bento box sold in train stations) that has a story behind it. Back at the turn of the century when the rail lines were first running throughout Japan, a rail line was run up Usui Pass. Because the pass is so steep, the trains would stop at the foot of the pass and add an extra engine. This process would take ten or fifteen minutes. While the passengers were waiting, local folks would go up and down the train selling a bento, the Touge no Kamemeshi. It's said to be the first eki-ben ever sold in Japan. Now, eki-ben are sold throughout the country. The food comes in a terra cotta bowl, which can be saved for later. Needless to say, mine came back from Japan with me. Interestingly, my mother was rather fond of hers as well. But more on that later.)
The next train came through, and we were surprised to see that the non-reserved cars were completely full. We ended up standing from Karuizawa to Takasaki. It was a serious bummer, since our feet hurt already. This taught us a lesson: Whenever you are hanging out in a train station for any period of time waiting for a train, pop into the office and make a reservation. Things are much better than way.
We got back to Tokyo with little else of note happening, had a bath, and went to bed.
Tomorrow: Temples, Touristing, and a New Quest
Note: After I got home, I found out why the Karuizawa Station didn't match what I remembered of the manga, despite looking familiar. The station building differs between the manga and the anime. I recognize enough in the manga that I can tell it definitely is the same station I saw. It appears that the station was remodeled after Shigeno took his pictures, but before the animators got theirs. The station featured in the anime matches what I saw when I went there.