Is anyone surprised that it was yet another early morning for our Intrepid Travelers? Good.
This day was slated as "free day". The main purpose of free day was to give everyone an opportunity to see spots in Tokyo that they wanted to catch that were not on the rest of the itinerary. Oh, and to give Jan and I a chance to sneak off and do some shopping. (No, half a day really was not going to do it.)
The plans on the day had altered slightly. Jan wanted to jet to Odawara and check out the castle there (since it has been taunting us for some time now as we flew by it on the train.) My mother and I, however, were going to Go On A Trek.
This is because of something that happened a couple of days ago, Really Darn Early (like, around 5:30 AM) the morning after we went to Matsumoto and stopped off in Karuizawa. Before we left, my aunt had given my mother and I some money to spend on the trip, and Mom wanted to get her a special present as a thank-you. That morning she woke up and said she knew what it was she wanted to get my aunt -- one of the bento bowls that we picked up in Karuizawa. Remember back on Day 2 we had gotten the terra cotta bowls? My mother thought that my aunt would love the history behind the bowls, and it would make a perfect present. She thought about trying to track out on her own and get another one (since she didn't want to give up her own bowl, and she certainly wasn't going to get mine away from me!) But she quickly decided that it would be much easier to twist her obsessive, fangirl daughter's arm into taking her back out there to get one.
It didn't take a lot of twisting.
I thought about it for a moment, thought about all the shopping I wanted to get done, pondered all that I had bought already, and devised A Plan. We would go out in the morning, and then would get back in time to meet up with Jan, who would be returning from Odawara. Jan and I would then go shopping, and Mom would go touristing. But of course the fangirl wasn't going to be satisfied with just going to somewhere she had already been (and photographed) when she could con going somewhere else out of the deal.
So thus it was that we woke up ridiculously early in order to catch a train out to Takasaki, and then transfer to one bound (eventually) for Yokokawa, the station at the foot of Usui Pass. Along the way, we were going to stop off at Matsuida and take a bus out to Myougi Shrine. In addition to being a really cool-looking, very old shrine, Myougi Jinja happens to be located at the start of the uphill Myougi course. And it had a bus line running out to it. Please remember this bus, as we will be coming back to it later.
We had decided to schedule free day on this day because rain was in the forecast. It was a bit damp when we left the ryokan, and by the time we arrived in Takasaki, it was raining steadily, if not heavily. The cloud cover was low enough that I couldn't see any of the surrounding mountains. I was a little disappointed, but told myself not to get too greedy -- hadn't I seen them just a few days ago? And hadn't I been sniveling to myself that I wouldn't get to see them at all on this trip just a mere month ago? I'll be back, I vowed at the hidden mountains.
(No, that is not just an idle threat. But then, you all knew that already, didn't you?)
We got to Takasaki, located where the train we needed to transfer would be leaving from, and went in search of a station stamp. For those of you who have not been subjected to my Stamp Quest of Japan, a little background. Most large train stations and tourist attractions have a commemorative ink stamp that has a picture showing something distinctive about the place. I don't know why there is this Japanese fondness for stamps, but there is. I think it's rather cool, since it presents an opportunity to poke into all kinds of odd corners looking for the things. (This passion for finding stamps also explains the appeal of the goshuuin.)
In looking for (and locating) the stamp, we ended up missing the train. Oh well. The next train wouldn't be for another forty minutes. Since we had some time, we decided to wander around the station area a little, and check out the city. Wandering around inside the station, we found a UFO catcher that was less disturbing than the crawdad one from the day before. It contained all sorts of IniD paraphernalia. I know my skill at these kinds of things, and did not bother wasting my yen. It did amuse my weird sense of humor enough that I took a picture of it.
We wandered out to the front of the train station and took a look around. Out on that side of the station they had a fountain with a statue in the middle that caught my attention. It had three large cubes arranged in a triangular formation. A plaque in front of the fountain announced that they were representations of the Kozuke Sanzan -- the three mountains of old Gunma Prefecture. IniD fans should be familiar with these mountains, since they are Akagi, Haruna (Akina), and Myougi.
We wandered to the other side of the station, and located the bus terminal. There we picked up one of my happy little pieces of loot -- a large, detailed bus map of Takasaki. Considering that I've been having no luck finding this information on-line, this pleased me much.
It was about time to head back to the platform to catch our train, so we sauntered in that direction. Along the way, I spotted a stand selling yuki ichigo, one of my favorite Japanese desert foods. There wasn't anyone at the counter, and it was still a little early in the morning for one anyway. But we kept it in mind for the trip back. Reaching the platform, we headed into the train to enjoy one of the unique delights of a Japanese train: floor heaters. Many Japanese trains that have seats also have heaters under the seats which blow warm air onto one's feet. It's really wonderful when the weather is cold out. Since it was raining that day, this comfort was much appreciated.
At this point I am going to pause, and explain a little about train routes. (Fascinating reading, I know. Please bear with me for a moment, there is a reason for this.)
On our first day, we had taken a Shinkansen line from Ueno which ran through Takasaki, Annaka, and Karuizawa (among other stations) before reaching Nagano. On this route, the train line from Takasaki to Karuizawa ran (quite literally) through the foothills of Mt. Haruna before going into a tunnel just after Annaka. It stayed in this tunnel until it reached Karuizawa.
The route we were taking this day was a little different. From Takasaki, we switched to a local line that ran through Annaka (though a different station from the other train) and Matsuida before reaching the line's end at Yokogawa. Once upon a time this line would have continued up Usui Pass to Karuizawa in what must have been an absolutely spectacular ride. The connection from Yokokawa to Karuizawa was discontinued in the late '90's, and so the line now ends at Yokokawa.
I was rather pleased about taking this other line, since it had no tunnels to speak of, and would run within about a kilometer of the place where I suspect the tofu shop is actually located in. Buzzing by on the train would give me an opportunity to get a feel for the area without having to rent a car and track through obscure parts of quasi-rural Japan.
As it turns out, I am no more or less convinced that my guess is correct, based on what I saw. I have several shots from the train which I will ponder at a later date, and will continue my efforts to come up with solid corroboration on my shaky guesses. Which, I suppose, is more fun than knowing anyway.
A few stops later we arrived in Matsuida. I was somewhat surprised at how small and, well, rural it is. Takasaki and Shibukawa convinced me that Gunma Prefecture is not utter sticksville. Matsuida reminded me that some of it, comparatively, is. It's located along an industrialized corridor, so it's not completely rural. It's just underpopulated compared to some of the bigger cities.
Matsuida Town sits at the foot of Mt. Myougi. I had been looking forward to getting some pictures of Myougi, since from what I've seen on the Web, it's a beautiful mountain. The slopes are heavily forested, but rocks escape here and there to provide a feel of the wildness and solidity of nature. At the top of the mountain are some stunning rock formations that make the mountain look stern and brooding. I hadn't managed to get any shots of Myougi when we sped by on the Shinkansen on Day 1, so I was looking forward to capturing some of those rocks on film today.
I was going to be sadly disappointed.
Ever since leaving Takasaki I had been quietly chanting "broody mountain, broody mountain" under my breath, scaning the horizon for a glimpse of the mountain. I should have been able to see it easily from the train under normal weather conditions. Heh. Of course, it was raining. The mountain was completely shrouded in fog. Every now and then a hint of dramatic rock formations would peek through the mist, only to vanish whenever I dug out my camera. This is the best picture I could get.
Every time I've tried to get a picture of this mountain it's ducked behind a tunnel, or pulled a bunch of mist over its head. Broody Mountain, I've concluded, is shy.
(Broody Mountain better get over it, 'cause I'm not going to stop coming back until I get my pictures. I'm pretty stubborn, so it should just give up now and resign itself to its photographic fate.)
In Matsuida train station I looked around for any signs for the bus to Myougi Shrine. I found one. It said that the bus line out to the shrine has been canceled. Visitors wanting to go to the shrine can either take a 3.5 Km walk (about 2.2 miles), or take a taxi. My mother was up for the walk, but I pondered just how much fun a 4.4 mile walk in the rain to a place that I wasn't entirely sure I knew where it was would be. It didn't sound like a lot of fun to this obsessed fangirl. After a little thought, I formed Plan B.
Plan B consisted of hopping back onto the train and going down to Yokokawa. From there, we would pick up a bus that I knew ran from the station to the Megane Bridge on Usui Pass. I knew there was a bus that ran there. I had checked the schedules before I left, and I've seen pictures of the bus stop*. This seemed a better bet than a long hike through the rain.
(*The bridge is a major feature of the old Usui Pass road. In the IniD anime, in the first episode of the Usui story arc the bridge shows up in the background the first time we see people driving on Usui. It's an old railway trestle for the rail line that used to run up Usui Pass. It's really cool looking and historic, which is why the bus line runs up to it. Said line, unfortunately, does not run any further up the Pass, though.)
Mom was fine with whatever -- she was really enjoying getting out of Tokyo and seeing what some Japanese countryside looked like. Sooner or later we would need to go to Yokokawa anyway, since that's where we could pick up the bento bowl. We hopped back on the next train, went down two more stops to Yokokawa.
Again, I had expected Yokokawa to be bigger. It's designated as a City (this is a specific governmental classification, based on the size of the city and the population). It was bigger than Matsuida (which is only a Town), but it wasn't as crowded as, say, Takasaki or Shibukawa. Yokokawa is tucked up in a valley at the foot of the mountains. It almost feels like some small town up in the Sierras, sandwiched between a river and a cliff. It was very scenic, particularly with rocky crags floating in and out in the mist.
As we were pulling into the station I spotted something that I had hoped I could find, but wasn't sure: the parking lot where Iketani first met Mako. According to my sources, it was supposed to be located across the street from Oginoya, the store where the bentos are sold out of . The store was supposed to be not far from the train station, so I was hoping that a little stroll down the street should turn it up.
Well, it turns out that it's located practically across from the train station. I spotted the board advertising the store as we were pulling into the station, and snapped a picture. Walking off the platform, I noticed a little stand inside the station that sold the bento bowls we were looking for. It seems only appropriate that the oldest ekiben in Japan would have a stand in the station itself.
Exiting the ticket gates, we spotted a couple of stamps. After we happily stamped out little books (I have a different book from the goshuuin-cho for things like station stamps), one of the station personnel called us over. He was very nice and friendly, and gave us maps of sights in the area. He seemed as good as anyone, so I asked about the bus up to the bridge.
"There is no bus," he replied.
Uh-oh. What happened to my bus?? "How far is it to walk?" I asked.
"About 4 km," he replied. Darn. Myougi Jinja would have been shorter. Now what?
The attendant pointed us in the right direction, and we decided to wander off into the rain. The guy was so nice, he asked if we had umbrellas! We proudly flourished our umbrellas, pulled up the hoods on our coats, and headed off into the rain.
(After arriving home I found out what happened to the bus. They have discontinued the service. We either just missed it, or it had been discontinued a year previously, depending on if this year is Heisei 14 or 15 -- I can't remember! Either way, the bus was discontinued in April, Heisei 14, so there was no bus for us. *sniff* I wonder if they have removed the sign for the bus stop. That would be a disappointment if they had, since it does show up in the pictures of the bridge featured in the IniD manga.)
Here the mist in the mountains added a nice air of mystery. My mother and I grabbed several nice, moody shots, then wandered down the street to take some fannish pictures. After seeing the actual thing in person, I remain unconvinced that it's large enough for Mako to pull donuts in. Here is another view of that parking lot.
Edit: Careful examination of both the anime and manga show that she actually pulls out of the parking lot before pulling the donut. The nice circles she leaves on the ground are left in the middle of the street.
Pictures complete, we wondered what to do next. There were about two hours left before we needed to start back to Tokyo to meet Jan. It wasn't quite enough time to go anywhere else that I wanted. I might be barely enough to walk up to the bridge and back. Mom was up for a wander, so we headed off.
There is a path that runs up to the Megane Bridge. It runs along the old railroad tracks. The old tracks are still there, they are just filled in. Nonetheless, it was a little strange, walking along train tracks. Certain habits die hard.
The path passes close to a point of historical interest that I wanted to see, the Usui Barrier. Old Usui Pass is part of the Nakasandou, one of the two major roads in pre-modern Japan running from Edo to the capital in Kyoto. The pass at Usui is where the road left the Kantou Plain, and headed into the mountains. As such, it was a major control point, restricting access for people travelling out of the plains area into the mountain regions, and vice-versa. Because of this, the shogunate placed a checkpoint at the bottom of the pass. The Usui Barrier is the remains of that old checkpoint. There isn't a lot left now, but since we were in the area, I wanted to see it anyway.
Once we finished looking at the remains of the Barrier, we headed up the tracks and up the pass. Almost immediately after the beginning of the path up the pass, I noticed a familiar looking sign off to one side. I'd seen pictures of this sign, since it shows up in the IniD manga. It is at the intersection to Usui Pass. I pulled out the camera and took what I thought were hundreds of pictures of the spot (but in reality were only about four.) I wished yet again that my laptop were functional, so that I didn't have to worry about card space for the digicam, since I would have liked to have taken a Quicktime movie of the area. It could have proven useful in the future, since I would need directions to get onto the old Usui Pass from Yokokawa in the future. At least now I have some idea on how to do it. And besides, Japanese speed limits are low, which should give a lot of reaction time.
Fangirling done, we continued up the pass. Before long, we left all houses behind. The rain was very intermittent. Sometimes it would fade off into a light mist, sometimes it would stop altogether. It made for a pleasant walk, being out in the shifting grey and away from civilization. For some time now I've been wanting to do a hike in Japan. There never seems to be enough time, so the only hiking I do is speeding from point of interest to point of interest. So I was rather happy to be able to do this walk.
Eventually the path started climbing. Our time was starting to run out. We spotted a building ahead, and decided to walk up to that, then turn back if it didn't look promising for the bridge. The buildings turn out to be an onsen. I completely failed to be surprised. Given Shigeno's fondness for onsen, it seemed only logical that there would be one kicking around on Usui somewhere.
At the onsen we paused for a bathroom break, and to look at a map. It looked like we had only walked about half of the way to the bridge. With great regret, we decided to head back to the station.
The walk back went a good deal faster, since it was all downhill. Before long, we were back at the station. We quickly grabbed bento bowls from the little stand, then jumped back on the train. Arriving back in Takasaki we grabbed yuki ichigo and reserved seats (having gotten tired of standing on the trains so much when they were full), and hopped the next Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We munched on bento and sweets. But first, I took a picture of the yuki ichigo, since cirdan_havens wanted to see them.
(Yuki ichigo, for those who I have not subjected to tales of their wonderfulness, are basically strawberry shortcake wrapped in mochi. They're highly messy to eat, which is why I don't have a picture of the inside of one; it just would have turned out too disgusting.)
Arriving in Tokyo, we hurried back to the ryokan and got there just at the end of the time when I had agreed to meet Jan. I dumped my stuff in the room, then Jan and I headed back to Nakano.
Mandarake was open this time. Sadly, I didn't find an awful lot of interest. I did pick up the Kamen Rider Agito PSX game since it was cheap, and I was feeling whimsical.
We grabbed dinner at an excellent Italian restaurant located in the mall. For 650 yen (about USD$6.00) we got a nice plate of delicious spaghetti. I highly recommend this place to anyone who is out in Nakano. Now if only I could remember the name...
Finishing up with Nakano, we headed to the Kinokuniya in Shinjuku. Now, remember when I said earlier that Shinjuku is the station that I fear second most in Japan? I was reminded once again of the reason. My recollection was that we wanted out the East Exit. Of course, we couldn't find any signs for the East Exit. Figuring that I could get my bearings better if I could see some familiar-looking buildings, we headed outside.
Pity I had forgotten that it was still raining out. Oh well.
We wandered around the outside of the station for a while before I finally figured out where we were. Finding Kino was quickly accomplished.
Once there, I was able to confirm my suspicion that the store is split into multiple buildings, with the manga in a different building than the one I knew. Unfortunately, I still don't know where the other buildings are actually located, since I was, uh, distracted by the map floor.
It turns out that not only does the Shinjuku have a very, very long wall filled with road atlases and other types of maps, but it's got an extensive selection of topographical maps of Japan. Score! I've been trying to find topo maps of Japan for quite a while.
I spent a while trying to locate the various maps that I was interested in before a couple of things occurred to me. First, it was still raining out. Second, I had no idea how on earth I was going to carry topo maps home without destroying them. And third, I was rapidly becoming too tired to care. I pondered if the topo maps would give me any more information than my atlases did. Eventually I decided that I just didn't care any more, and would pick topo maps up on my next trip, since I'm planning on spending most of my time in Tokyo. Soon after, we returned to the ryokan, grabbed a bath, and headed to bed, tired, footsore, but very contented with the day.
Tomorrow: Day 6: Snow and Monkeys