Friday, March 17, 2017

Japan 2017 Day 10: From Matsumoto to Nikko

We woke up to another gorgeous sunny day in Matsumoto. Cold, but sunny :) We had breakfast at the buffet again, and it was very yummy again! They serve their miso soup very much the way I make it at home, made with onions & potatoes & red miso paste, so it felt deliciously familiar.

Then we went back to our room and packed for a long day of traveling to Nikko. While I was stuffing things into my luggage, I took a photo of the charms I've collected so far on this trip:

From left to right- an omamori from the Yoshira Jinja in Matsumoto, "Alp-chan" the mascot of the Japanese Alps wearing samurai armor, (above Alp-chan) a character from the web comic Johnny Wander that I brought from the US, (below Alp-chan) Rilakkuma on the Shinkansen, purchased on one of our train station layovers, and an omamori from the Meiji Jingu. I love finding little mascots & omamori along the way as a visual marker of the trip's progress.

Around 10:00 am we took a taxi to Matsumoto Station to catch our first of four (count 'em) trains to get us to Nikko.

And now for a small Pokemon Go digression (please feel free to skip this part if you have no interest in Pokemon Go...). In the game, there are four region-specific Pokemon, that can only be found in the "wild" in that region. In North & South America it's Tauros, in Europe it's Mr. Mime, in Australia it's Kangiskhan, & in Asia it's Farfetched. One of my goals has been to catch a Farfetched, but in my last 9 days here I've only ever seen it on the radar once, & it's not appeared at all for catching. I've gotten in the habit of opening the game on my phone at odd times just to check, and wouldn't you know, just as I was getting ready to pay the taxi-driver at the station, it popped up!! I was juggling change from the taxi, trying to get out of the taxi, & trying to at least grab Farfetched! Once our luggage was at the curb, I was able to throw everything at it & catch it! Woo hoo!!

Right, back to our regularly scheduled blog post...

The photo at the header is a view into the Japanese Alps from Matsumoto Station. I wish the photos could convey just how breathtaking the mountains are. Just amazing...

After buying lunch food, we boarded our first train, the local express to Nagano, at 11:00 am.

About an hour later, we got off in Nagano & looked for the Shinkansen track for the Hakutaku to Omiya. We had about half an hour, so no hurry.

After boarding the Hakutaka, we ate a lunch of rice balls, tea, & conbini (convenience store) baumkuchen. It was good, but made me think fondly of the awesome baumkuchen we had in Matsumoto.

We noticed the mountains retreating slowly as we got closer to the Tokyo area. One thing I noticed along the way was a large number of homes with solar panels on them.

I've always found traveling by train interesting because you always see the backs of things along the tracks. In the US it's fields & yards & lots of forest or unused open spaces. In Japan, it's the backs of buildings (lots of laundry hanging on balconies, as dryers are not as popular here as in the US), and then mostly cultivated fields. It's rare to see unused open land, I suspect because Japan has so little arable land & so many mountain ranges. The plots of land are often terraced to make use of hillsides. We saw the usual rice fields (drained & dry because it's March) but also loads of orchards, at least, I think they were. The trees looked almost like bonsai, pruned to be reachable from standing on the ground. Some were enclosed in net-walled structures. It was weirdly beautiful & they were absolutely everywhere. Nagano Prefecture is known for it's apples, so maybe they were apple trees. If the train hadn't been going so fast I'd have gotten a photo, but none of them turned out very well.

After about an hour on the Hakutaka we got off at Omiya & had to find another Shinkansen train, the Nasuno, within 12 minutes. A bit nerve-wracking, but we were there on time. There aren't always escalators at the older stations (this was one) & we had to wait for the second elevator... We boarded the Nasuno for Utsunomiya, where we'd pick up the final train for Nikko.

Another fun thing about trains in Japan is that, whenever any of the train staff leave a car, they turn & bow to the passengers. The Nasuno took about half an hour to get to Utsunomiya. When we got there, the local train was sitting on the track, so we hopped on. There were no assigned seats here, so we had to sit with our luggage in front of us as the train rattled along.

Our whole trip today went from west to east, beginning at the Japanese Alps, dipping down toward Tokyo, and then back north to another mountain range just north of Nikko.

Charlie's finger is approximately where Nagano is (forget Matsuyama- it's north of that :). We went from there to the first chopstick on the left, then changed trains, then to the next one north, changed trains, then ended at the one at the middle, above all of them, which is were Nikko is. The reddish areas are mountains, so you can see how we skirted them, down to the green area, & then went right back up to more mountains.

We got off one stop before Nikko, where our AirBnB house is located. Because the luggage is so heavy we took a taxi, although it was just a few blocks from the station. The directions for getting into the house were very easy, so Charlie & I got our luggage settled in our room & started the heater up in the kitchen to get at least one room warm before Momo, Hiroko, & the kids joined us, taking just 2 trains from Tokyo. The house is 2-stories tall with 3 bedrooms, one downstairs off the living room & two upstairs. There are twin beds in Charlie's & my room upstairs, and nice fluffy futon in all the rest. The living room is tatami with a kotatsu (table with a heater under it & a quilt over the table to keep the heat in. The kitchen has a western table and cooking space & is well-supplied.

Momo, Hiroko, & the kids arrived about half an hour after we did. Momo & I have been friends since she lived in Rochester while her husband, Hiroshi, earned his PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Rochester. She moved back to Japan more than 6 years ago, & has since had 2 children, 5-year-old Aoi-chan and 11-month-old Mai-chan. I finally got to meet baby Mai-chan for realisies! I have been skyping with she & Momo for months now, but now I get to pinch her chubby cheeks! Hiroko is Momo's friend from childhood, & we met her on our first trip to Japan after Momo moved back. She & her husband, Dai, have 3 1/2-year-old Nozomu-kun. We stayed in Kyoto with them on our previous trip, when the kids were nearly 2 years younger. Now there are three kids &, this trip, no dads (except Charlie) because the dads had to work. We were so happy to see them!

Momo, Hiroko, & I left the kids with Charlie while we went grocery shopping. Charlie wasn't sure about this arrangement, because he has a lot less Japanese than I do, but it all worked out fine :)

When we got home, the kids played around the kotatsu while Hiroko & Momo (with a little help from me :) made some dinner. Then we ate!



Then it was time for baths. Have I mentioned that there is no heat in this house? Only space heaters or wall units that work as both air conditioners & heaters. There's one of these in the bedroom next to ours. There's space heaters in the ofuro area, living room, & kitchen. We have to watch the kids around them because parts of them get hot. The other spaces are not heated at all! The bathroom is so cold you understand why they have heated toilet seats in Japan (ours does). When filled, the warm water in the ofuro helps heat the shower part of the bathroom as well (the toilet is in a separate little room- toilets are never in the same room as the bath in Japanese homes, just in hotels). We've opened the paper-lined door to Hiroko & Nozomu-kun's room next to ours to get some heat in our room. Momo & her kids get heat from the living room. She and her kids have warm fleeces over their pajamas, since their own apartment has no central heat either. I am hoping Charlie & I are up to the challenge! Wish us luck!

Tomorrow we go to the Nikko Edo Mura, which is an Edo-era theme park we've been looking forward to visiting for years. The kids should just love it. I'll report back tomorrow...

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