Having to check out and make our journey to Kusatsu meant an early
start today. We opted for the Western breakfast, straightforward
scrambled eggs and toast, and more apple tea. Packing our cases was a
pain, and something both of us were not looking forward to having to do
every 2-3 days. But we’re glad we brought smaller cases to have to drag
We made it to Ueno station in plenty of time, but I was on the
lookout for somewhere to withdrawal cash. I knew that this would be a
challenge, as most all ATM machines do not accept any foreign cards at
all. I asked for a post office (which do have compatible ATMs), and
kept getting sent further away from the station. I had to give up as I
was running out of time. By the time I ran back to the station, I was
sweaty and frustrated.
We boarded the train and promptly found our reserved seats. The main
advantage with travelling first class on Japan Rail is the generous leg
room and deep reclining seats. I read some more from our guide books,
but struggled to stay awake, particularly towards the end of our trip.
I thought that there would only be a couple dozen of us, at most,
getting off at the train station. How wrong was I. There were hundreds
of us. I knew Kusatsu Onsen was a very popular destination, but
surprised just how so, even in October. It being the weekend probably
added to the numbers.
We took our time at the bus station, and got some lunch at the cafe
there. No English menu at all, we struggled. Thankfully, our kind
waitress knew just enough English to see us through. She was a
sweetheart with us, and I would have loved to tip her (but that is not
the custom here).
We walked the short distance, about 10 minutes, into the town
centre. We were actually greeted by the host of our ryokan host, out in
the street. As everyone arrives at about the same time, and we spent so
long at the bus station for lunch, he probably wondered if we got lost
and came out to look for us. We would be easy to find: it appears that
we only the only Westerners in the entire town!
At Ryokan Matsumuraya, we took off our shoes and put on slippers, as
expected. Our host asked us if we spoke Japanese, and we shamefully
said “iie”. He escorted us to our room and invited us to set at the low
table, for tea and an introduction as to how this ryokan operated. It
was all very pleasant while a bit of a culture shock. It was like
something straight out of the 1980s television series Shogun (with
Richard Chamberlain). The only Japanese we managed to exchange was our
names (“Watashi no namae wa Aaron desu; anata no name was Bebari
desu.”, that we were from Northern Ireland (“Kiri Irurando-jin desu.”),
and our ages (“yon-ju-ichi” (41); “son-ju-nana” (37)); he was
“nana-ju-ni” (71), and a robust and lively 71 years young at that).
After finishing our green tea and yummy local cake snack, we headed out
to orientate ourselves in the remaining minutes of daylight. Again, we
were struck by how many people there were, with lots of photo taking.
The large hot spring lake, Yubatake, is an impressive site.
We changed into our provided cotton robe (yukata) and jumper
(tanzen) and went to dinner, promptly at 8pm. We were actually the
first ones there, but very quickly filled up with other ryokan guests.
The meal was, of course, traditional Japanese style, the likes of which
I’ve never seen. There were so many little bowls and plates of
everything: raw salmon, tuna and shrimp; raw beef, tempura vegetables,
green beans with peanut butter, crayfish cooked whole, octopus, and
melon for dessert. We washed it down with some BYO Sapparo beer.
After dinner we went out for another stroll about the town, but this
time we wore our yukata and tanzen, as practically everyone else was
doing, per custom. We found a shop that sold the special cakes, so we
bought a box for ourselves. Another shop gave us samples of sake and
plum wine (ume), which we liked and I wanted to buy, but the bottles
were just too big to justify carrying for the rest of our travels.
Back in our room, I was thrilled to discover that I could piggyback
on someone’s wi-fi. After checking our email messages, we used Skype to
ring Debbie and Jean-Charles, then Mum and Pops. We were impressed that
this worked at all. It was fun to talk.
The futon bedding was set up for us, and we retired for the day surfing through various Japanese tv stations.