On the way out of the city I managed to
take the wrong road again. Getting lost was nothing new -- there's
no point in traveling around Japan at all if one is afraid of getting lost
-- but I had two country-wide road atlases (one in English and a more
detailed one in Japanese) and between the two of them I had been getting
along pretty well. This time I ended up taking Route 401 instead of Route
252 which I had intended. I stuck with it since it joins up with Route 252 later. However, it does so only after climbing up and down
mountains and narrowing down to 1.5 meters in some places. The
Japanese way of dealing with such narrow places is to cease painting a
dividing line in the middle as if to say "anything goes."
The road turned to gravel at one point and I was
thinking, oh no, how long is this going to last? I was too far into
it to turn around but taking a gravel road on a street motorcycle is not
that safe, especially for me since I didn't have that kind of driving
experience and I had already had a spill in Hokkaido due to gravel.
Luckily a bicyclist was just coming by from the opposite direction and we
were able to brief each other about how far each was from reaching
asphalt. Finally I made it to Route 252 and was able to make a bit
of time after stopping for a lunch of gyuu-don (beef bowl) in a small
mountain town called Tadami. Even Route 252 was quite mountainous
and curvy but still better than what I had just come through.
Shortly after Tadami, I left Fukushima Prefecture and
entered Niigata Prefecture. Much
of the route was following a river between mountains and it was very
scenic. At one point I came across a picturesque river where people
were fishing. It sort of reminded me of A River Runs Through
It. These people looked like they were fishing just for the joy
of it. I thought they were fly fishing but I found out later they
were likely fishing for Ayu, in a traditional manner unique to Japan.
Ayu is a type of trout native to Japan.
Apparently they are very territorial and so they can be caught by
attaching a live ayu to their hooks as bait. When fellow ayu attempt
to drive the captive ayu away, they are snagged and caught. Then the
newly captured ayu becomes the bait.
Late afternoon found me entering Nagano Prefecture on Route
117. I saw a sign for Nozawa Onsen which is a popular winter
ski resort town. It was around 5:00PM and I considered camping at
the campground there but it looked like it was on a hill and not
particularly appealing, despite being near a lake. It was
interesting to see this town in the summer since I had only seen these kinds of
mountain towns in the winter on weekend ski trips.
I went on into town figuring I should be able to take
my daily bath stop. The name of the town itself contained the word
"hot spring" so there was a good bet that I'd be able to find
little town was full of small inns and minshuku (bed &
breakfast) places. I couldn't tell which places offered drop-in bathing, but I found a little information office. The lady gave me
directions to a public bath that she said was a good place to go.
I found the place and was surprised to see that there
were no attendants, it seemed to be free. That was the one good
thing about it. Other than that it was the worst onsen experience I
had ever had. First, I went in to find it very crowded, mostly with
high school aged boys. No big deal. I stripped
down and entered the bath area only to discover that there are none of the
little stools used for sitting down and bathing. And, what's worse,
only three or four buckets to go around. This would not have been a
show-stopper except there were no shower heads, just spigots, so a bucket
was a necessity. Finally, I discovered that the fresh water provided
for washing was only provided cold. That explained why one of the
guys who had shampooed his head was busy grabbing water out of the hot
spring bath to rinse off with using one of the buckets.
So basically, I had the option of standing there naked and
waiting for one of the buckets to fall into my hands so I could take a
cold water wash. And then I'd have to wait until the hot water tub
emptied enough for me to squeeze in. That's when I said
"screw it," put my dirty clothes back on and left. That
was the only time I had ever entered a hot spring and left without
bathing. I probably would have stuck it out that time if only one of
the factors -- the crowd, lack of buckets, etc. -- was not there.
I had lost some time but got an interesting albeit
frustrating experience out of it. I returned to Route 117 where clouds
were creeping over the mountains -- pretty but ominous at the same
time. I'd have felt better about them if I had known for sure that
it wasn't going to rain and if I had had my night's lodgings figured
out. My thoughts were soon distracted, however, when I found an
onsen off the road. This one was simple but decent with all the basics
including, my favorite, a rotenburo (outdoor bath). It was
well worth the cost of ¥350 ($3). I left clean, refreshed and with
a warm and rosy feeling.
I confirmed what my map indicated -- there were no
campgrounds near there. I would have to head up into the mountains
if I wanted to find a proper camp site. It was already getting dark
and I didn't really want to go back up into the mountains just to find a
campground. I decided to head towards Nagano with the idea of either
camping illegally somewhere or finding a capsule hotel in town.
No appealing place to camp presented itself,
particularly as I found myself gradually entering a more urban
setting. Eventually I found myself in front of Nagano Station.
I wandered around a bit looking for a place to eat before settling on
McDonalds. I guess I was ready for a taste of western civilization.
I was also more than ready to find some lodging and I
settled on a room at a business hotel called the New Nagano. It was
cheap by Japanese standards at ¥5,800 (about $50). In the room was
a brochure written in several languages entitled "Fire Protection
Handbook for the Protection of Foreigners from Hotel Fires."
Nice of them to give us "foreigners" that special
consideration! Interestingly, one of the main points in the flyer was to listen
to announcements and instructions from emergency personnel. Now I
wonder what language such announcements and instructions may be given
Anyway, the night in the hotel was a night
of luxury compared to the campgrounds. But the campgrounds had some
benefits that the hotel didn't -- things such as fresh outdoor air and starry
night skies. In any case, I was glad to get the chance to get some laundry done.
I hadn't had a chance to wash laundry since my last day in
Hokkaido, four days prior.
As I wrote in my diary, I told myself that that day was
a day of mini-regrets. First I regretted not saying goodbye to the
friendly owner of the campground before I left in the morning. He
had invited me to breakfast the night before and since I didn't see them I
left without saying anything. I should have peeked in and at least
given them a sayonara. Secondly, I regretted the time wasted
getting in and out of Aizu-Wakamatsu. Basically, I had ended up
circling the entire town before I made it into the castle. And, in
Niigata, at one point when I had stopped at a 7-11 for a Coke there were a
group of teenagers hanging out. Two of the three girls had bleached
their hair, just like the big city girls do. One was sitting on her
moped, her tanned legs gleaming and a green rice field behind her.
It was well worth a picture and I wished I had asked her for it. I
made eye contact but then she got on her cell phone and I had finished my
Coke so I took off. However, as I was riding off she called
"bye-bye" to my back, probably it was one of her few chances to
use "English" on a real foreigner. But by that time I was
already moving and I just gave a nod and a wave before hitting the
road. And, finally, I had regretted not inquiring how much it would
have cost to stay at Nozawa Onsen. I might have been able to get a
better deal than the Nagano hotel and a more traditional Japanese
experience as well.
But if that was the extent of my regrets, I guess I was
doing pretty well.