On our arrival here yesterday Tyler Lynch (!) chatted with us about what we liked to do and then made some proposals. We decided to go to Togakushi National Park. This involved a train and bus trip. It is situated north west of here, in the region where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. The train departed from our local station, not the one at which we had arrived.
Our traditional Japanese breakfast consisted of only about six different dishes and bucket loads of green tea. We just couldn’t imagine how long all this takes to prepare so we asked our hostess. She confirmed it took a long time but that Japanese families do not eat this every day. She said their three children just wanted cereal and yogurt!
Equipped with train timetables that Tyler had printed out for us, he then drove us to the station. This is a funny train line. It is partly run by a private company and partly by JR, the Japanese railways. This involved buying a ticket for part of the journey and showing our JR pass for the other part. Nagano, our train destination is a very big town. It, apparently got a huge face lift, for the Olympics. But we were not to spend a lot of time here as we had a bus to catch. The bus company is called Highland Express. This sounded like an adventure already. We had only minutes to catch the bus but needed to purchase tickets in the office. In the process of purchasing the tickets the bus arrived. The assistant who was helping us rushed out to hold the bus until our purchase was completed.
Off we set on a fairly packed bus. Most of the clientele were about our own age, all Japanese, mostly carrying hiking sticks. So we felt right at home. The journey takes 1.5hr. Everyone has heard of, and seen, spiral staircases, well Japan has spiral roads! What do you do when you need to ascend a mountain, quickly, by road? You build a spiral road, of course. It was fascinating, but I imagine pretty rough on the gears. Our bus was a low gear model so we took it in our stride, if somewhat noisely. Back on the normal roads we continued to climb until the snow clad mountains were all around us. The trees here were just putting on their light green coats. The daffodils were in full bloom and there were some Sekura trees in blossom. It was a beautiful trip.
But Barry was feeling the loss of his morning coffee so the first thing we did on arrival at Chusha was search out a coffee shop. Most places were closed as this is low season. A bit like looking for coffee in Baltimore in early spring, it’s a Hobson’s choice. But we did find the coffee shop and it served wonderful coffee and some sort of sticky pastry. Delicious. The owner was so delighted with our business, admittedly Barry had 2 cups of coffee, he gave us a bag of sweets. With the aid of a map we picked up in the coffee shop Barry worked out a suitable circular walk in the forest.
At the start of the walk there is a lovely shrine with the largest cedar trees I have ever seen. Some of these are sacred and people were coming to pray there. They rested their foreheads on the trunk with palms laid flat against the tree.
A little way along the route we heard “excuse me” . We turned to find two young women. They asked where were we walking. Barry showed them. One was Japanese and the other turned out be an Israeli. They asked if they could walk along with us as they had no map. We were delighted. What wonderful travelling companions they made. The Israeli girl was a fine arts graduate, turned pastry chef and the Japanese girl a political science graduate turned sociologist. They had just met up! We had a most interesting walk and in the way of walkers we tried to put the world to rights. We did not shy away from political discussion and their world views were extremely interesting. The Japanese lady was well travelled but a little naive but the Israeli was certainly not. Both were taking career breaks, looking for more balanced lives. Both loved nature and walking.
Barry navigated us while Madoka, the Japanese girl, was able to interpret the signs for us. The forest floor was covered in Skunk Cabbage, which despite their name look magnificent, a little like a field of mini Arum lilies. There are also other spring flowers just emerging. We had noticed that it being quite high and the snow had not long melted, the local people were planting their vegetables, in their little parcels of garden, enhanced with mushroom compost. All the while the big snowcapped mountains surrounded us. We walked about 8 or 10km. No one noticed as the time passed so pleasantly. We came across a tiny hot spring pool where the clear hot water was rising gently through a ring of sand under the water.
After our walk we had a lovely meal together of soba (buckwheat) noodles and tempura washed down with copious quantities of green tea. Poor Barry, more tea!!! We caught a different bus back down but from the same company so we could use our return ticket. This was on the old traditional mountain, winding, road. We had to pull over several times to let cars pass. It was a scary but splendid trip. Cannot imagine what it must be like in the Winter!
We parted from our wonderful walking companions with an exchange of addresses. Then we got the commuter train back to Togura. We walked the twenty minutes back to the Royokan. We did not want a lot to eat so Tyler showed us a place where we could have something called a beer snack. This was a hilarious place. You ordered from a machine, picked up a ticket and the information was already transferred from the machine to the kitchen. A pretty soulless exercise and a pretty soulless place which seemed to be frequented by all the cleaning staff of Togura.
But it was just what we needed.
Then a shower and a ten minute soak in the onsen and we were ready for bed.