Japan by Motorcycle

Day 13

August 10, 1999

A River Runs Through It

Fukushima, Niigata and Nagano Prefectures

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    I started off the day in nearby Kitakata which is famous for its old kura -- mud-walled storehouses -- which now serve as functioning shops and homes.  I skipped the local museum and just got a feel for the small town by riding through it a couple of times to make sure I had seen a variety of the famed kura.  Lake Inawashiro, a large recreational lake, was nearby but the guidebook didn't paint a very interesting picture.  I had already seen half a dozen of big caldera lakes already so I skipped a drive-by tour and headed straight towards Aizu-Wakamatsu instead.
    Aizu-Wakamatsu was a bigger town than I thought it would be and I got slowed down by traffic and a few wrong turns.  Finally I found the main attraction, Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle.  Although the present structure only dates to 1965, this castle is famous because it is the site of one of the last stands of the samurai against the Meiji imperial forces in the late 1800's.  The castle was destroyed at that time so that it would not remain a rallying symbol for forces loyal to the shogunate.  A little known fact is that many more castles were destroyed during the Meiji Restoration than in all of World War Two. 

Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle (Tsuruga-jo)

Tsuruga Castle

Tsuruga Castle

Tsuruga Castle

    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.  Nagano Fly FishingMuch 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 one.  Nozawa OnsenThe 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 in...
    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.


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Just The Stats

Day 13



Place Weather
Start: 47930 8:00 Camp off Lake Hinohara in Bandai-Asahi Nat'l Park, Fukushima Pref. Sunny/Hot
Finish: 48300 21:00 New Nagano Hotel, Nagano Pref. Clear/Warm
Totals: 370km 13 hrs


Gas: 1,400 Food: 2,000
Laundry: 500 Hotel: 5,800
Attractions: 400 Onsen: 350

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Created: Feb 22, 2001
Last Updated: Nov 24, 2001

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