Journal 20081004 Japan

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 about.

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.

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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