Autumn officially started this week in the northern hemisphere with the September equinox. Five autumns ago I was starting a year-long assignment in Japan. I was excited then to travel around my (temporary) adoptive country, see its sights, experience its culture, and of course try the cuisine. I was also looking forward to taking Japan’s efficient train system.
For my first solo travel, I bought a Do-Nichi Kippu (Saturday-Sunday ticket) from Japan Railways (JR) for JPY 18,000. This ticket covers one weekend of unlimited travel on JR East trains in a wide expanse of Eastern Japan. One regular round trip ticket to the farthest point covered by the ticket costs JPY 20,000 on the shinkansen, so I planned two one-day round trips to maximize the ticket and eliminate accommodation costs. As the ticket was printed entirely in Japanese, trip planning became an exercise in Kanji for place names.
Tokyo to Matsumoto
My train-hopping spree started on Saturday, with a short ride on the Nambu line to Tachikawa station. I had to catch the 6:26 Limited Express Azusa bound for Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture. The sun was still low on the horizon as the Azusa sped across the suburbs of Western Tokyo. After countless tunnels and bridges, I finally arrived at my first stop: Matsumoto, famous for its well-preserved castle. Crow Castle, as Matsumoto Castle is also called because of its black exterior, is a short ten minute bus ride from Matsumoto train station.
It is possible to tour the interior of the castle up to the topmost floor. From the outside, the castle appears to have five floors but in fact has six – there is a windowless floor above the second floor for food and weapons storage. Other features of the castle are small holes for shooting arrows on every floor. Additional holes were installed upon the introduction of firearms from Europe.
Matsumoto to Nagano
After lunch, I took the 13:05 Limited Express Shinano train for Nagano City, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. I planned to walk to the Zenko-ji temple, the city’s popular 1400-year old Buddhist temple, but it turned out to be a long uphill walk. I vowed to take a bus on the way back to the station.
On the main road to Zenko-ji temple, pilgrims and tourists pass by gates that are part of the temple compound. The Sanmon Gate is the last gate before entering the courtyard of the main hall.
Nagano to Karuizawa
From Nagano, I took the Shinkansen to Karuizawa, a mountain resort town popular for various outdoor activities as well as its outlet mall right next to the train station. I took a stroll around the town but it got dark before 5 p.m. so I just proceeded to the outlet mall. The early sunset fooled me into having dinner at 5:30 p.m!
Karuizawa to Tokyo
I was on the shinkansen platform bound for Tokyo by 6:30. The trip from Karuizawa to Tokyo would take just 2 hours via shinkansen, but I wanted to get home early since I would be on an early start again on day 2 of my weekend trip. However, even carefully planned trips can be hit by bad luck. Before boarding the train, I was dumbfounded as an elderly Japanese man cut the line in front of me and bumped my camera. I consider myself lucky as only my lens cover fell to the tracks. I made a quick detour to Yodobashi to buy a replacement lens cover, and was back at home before 10 p.m.
- Naruko Gorge