Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Toll roads, mountains and birthdays

Date: 1st April 2014 (April Fool's day plus 30th Birthday)

Weather: Stunning; it couldn't have been better.

MP3 Track of the day: Happy Birthday

I slept a lot better than my first night here and so, at 8am, I awoke quite refreshed. Another positive was that, now I had moved into my third decade, I witnessed no physical signs of ageing. Getting out of bed wasn't a problem and I felt completely normal. After a hot shower I sat down to devour my birthday cake, some birthday chocolate, a small glass of Cherry Coke and a cup of tea for '1st breakfast'. Granted the above items do indeed make quite a strange breakfast however, it's not everyday you turn thirty. With no milk in my hotel room I had to drink my tea black, which annoyed me a little as today I had promised myself I would have / do everything I wanted when / how I wanted it. I then put on my birthday socks, followed by my birthday t-shirt and jumper (plus jeans and shoes, but these weren't for my birthday) and headed out into Nagano and towards Mr Donuts for '2nd Breakfast'. Today Mr Donuts have released a new line which, though they looked extremely tasty, I felt were a little expensive. I then remembered that it was my birthday and so I ordered one. Once consumed I headed back to the hotel and into my car. With the weather looking so good I opted to travel to 'Onioshidashien'; the location of Japan's highest triple-cratered volcano. As I planned my trip I had two options; I could take the highway which, though expensive, I had taken coming to Nagano and I knew it would be very quick. The other option was to take 'route 18' which, though a lot slower, was unknown to me. I decided to take 'route 18' as this meant I would see new scenery and honestly, how much slower could it be? I left the car park and headed out into Nagano.

Five minutes into my journey, Nagano's confusing road signs had put me on a road heading north-west, when I wanted to go south-east. It mattered not; soon I corrected myself and in no time at all I found the '18' and followed it … a long with a huge amount of traffic.

Due to the sheer amount of traffic, the all-too-familiar orange line and the constant traffic lights I had plenty of time to admire what the '18' offered; which honestly wasn't a lot. The road side towns and retail outlets could have been anywhere in Japan and if it wasn't for the continual view of some very impressive mountains, I think I would have gone mad. Time ticked on, and on, and on; though considering I'd done a 16 hour drive two days ago the 2hr 30min drive to my location hardly had any effect on me. After a 2hr and 30min drive I found myself in a small village called 'Karuizawa', located at the base of the Asama-yama mountain (where the triple-cratered volcano is). This is the village where the current Emperor of Japan met his wife, Michiko, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono holidayed. As I drove through the most western edge of town I could hardly see the attraction however, maybe it got better towards the centre. For now I wouldn't find out; the '146' – which would take me up the mountain – was located on my left and so I turned and followed it towards a striking triangle shaped mountain with it's tip covered in snow. The weather was fantastic and I could see the whole mountain; not a cloud was in sight! Due to this, as I started to ascend, I kept my eyes open for a good place to stop to take photos.

The road started to climb at a greater rate and I was performing many U-turns. Luckily the road had an 'over-taking lane' and so I could get around the lorry which was in front of me. After I had stopped to take a quick photo of the mountain (not the best place; more of an 'insurance photo' encase things didn't get any better) I re-joined the road and over-took the lorry again just before the 'over-taking lane' finished. Once at the top of the mountain the road split and I followed the sign which stated 'Onioshidashien'. What the sign didn't tell me was that this was a told road; I paid the £2.00 fee and left the tick gate quite annoyed...

that was until I was halfway along the road where I found the perfect place to photograph that mountain I'd seen earlier. Hardly anything was on this road and so this allowed me to take my time and to take photos of this immaculate straight road going far into the distance surrounded by a wall of mountains. The photo location I had chosen was so good that a further two families stopped their cars and copied what I did. Life was fantastic and I didn't really think things could get better; but they did.

...Karuizawa's dominant feature is the volcano Asama-yama, which last erupted in 2004 and continues to steam ominously. No hiking is allowed within 4km of the crater, and the best place to get a glimpse of the volcano is on it's north side from Onioshidashien, 21km from Karuizawa. Onioshidashien was the scene of a cataclysmic eruption on August 5th 1783, when ashes from the blow out were said to have darkened the sky as far as Europe, and a seven-kilometer-wide lava flow swept away the nearby village of Kanbara. When the lava cooled it solidified into an extraordinary landscape of black boulders and bizarre rock shapes, where alpine plants now sprout and across which twisting pathways have been laid...”

As I approached Onishidashien it looked more like a motorway services than an amazing scenic location. I pulled off the road and into a car park. I then used a concrete bridge to cross said road and to the start of the 'lava landscape'. The first thing that greeted me was an unusual, and large, concrete building which houses a restaurant and shop (in the summer). Oddly, this concrete construction didn't look out of place among this scenic paradise though, it didn't hold my attention for long. I through money at the lady guarding the gate, picked up a map and raced into the park. I was acting more like a thirteen year old than a thirty year old as I took photos of everything and anything. The whole site was unbelievably beautiful and the weather was just perfect; so much so, that I didn't even need a coat. Still being winter, the longest 'loop trail' was closed due to snow (though when I looked at the trail the amount of snow present was minimal; sometimes I think that the Japanese could open things earlier but because someone states that a certain date hasn't come along yet, these routes remain closed no matter what the actual conditions are) so I had to settle for the middle route. I was in my element taking photos of this, that, and everything. What featured highly within my shooting was, of course the mountain, but also a small red shrine perched in between the rocks. The red contrasted perfectly with the black boulders around it.

I reckoned my smile could have been seen from the foot of the mountain as I walked this way and that. With it still being 'winter', tourist numbers were at an all-time-low which gave me a lot of the site to myself. Most people seemed to concentrate on the red temple and though beautiful, I wanted it within my photos therefore, I mostly stayed away. Once I had finished photographing the place to death I put away my camera.

Soon I found that I had completed the loop and I was back at the entrance gate, but I did not leave. Instead I turned around and completed the loop once more (but in the other direction). I had taken so many photos that I wanted to just walk around the area and take it all in. The panoramic views were so stunning (a part from the Japanese government had allowed a huge ferris wheel to be erected within view) that I just wanted to take my time without a lens in front of my face. I finally left the area around 1:20pm, content that my 30th birthday would certainly be memorable.

Once back in the car I studied the map. Here I made a fatal error in under-estimating how far I had travelled. I therefore continued in the same direction I was heading not knowing that my 'map reading error' would cost me around thirty minutes and £3.00 in yet another toll road (and as the toll road ran though a small wood, I could not see anything). Once I had corrected my mistake I headed back down the mountain the way I had come and didn't stop until I was back within the town of Karuizawa.

Being short on time I stopped at a convenience store for lunch. While there I consulted both my map and my guidebook. I had either two options; stay here and drive to 'Kyu-Karuizawa' (the scenic part of Karuizawa), or drive to Matsumoto and see a castle. Not really sure how long it would take to get to Matsumoto I opted to finished the area I found myself in. I drove a short distance and parked up within the 'kyu-karuizawa' area.

My guidebook warned me that 'kyu-karuizawa' had one main street lined with souvenir and clothes stores however, being the off season, most were shut. My guidebook recommended the hiking routes around this area plus a visit to the quaint Anglican chapel therefore, I headed to the local tourist office to find out where these places were.

With it still being 'winter season' the hiking routes were shut however, I did find the chapel. Outside of the chapel was a bust of Alexander Croft Shaw; a Canadian who helped popularise the area as a tourist destination (I bet the locals just love him). After this I stopped at another church, the tourist office assistant thought I might be interested in, before heading back to the car. After paying an hours parking fee, I drove north for five minutes before stopping to take a photo of the outside of the 'Old Mikasa Hotel'. This, very Victorian looking, wooden building dates back to 1906 and is now considered a national monument. Not liking the insides of buildings I stopped momentarily to view the brown and white paint job before returning to my car (much to the annoyance of the ticket lady). I then drove along another toll road back up towards Onioshidashien. Along this toll road my guidebook told me that I would find the Shiraito Waterfalls.

The road seemed to climb forever. Being a toll road I had expected to find it in a good condition however, I had to focus more on dodging the pot holes than incoming traffic. Finally, after what seemed like the 100th U-shape bend I reached the falls. I parked my car and walked the 200m to the foot of the falls.

Now, there is a 10km hike to these falls and if I had done that, I would have been very disappointed with the climax. Sure the falls consisted of three levels, of which the top one was a huge U-shape, however the amount of water actually falling was minimal. I therefore took a number of photos equalling the amount of effort it took to get here and left. I dared not go back the way I came encase I got charged again; I therefore continued along the road until I joined up with the road which I had climbed up to go to Onioshidashien, and descended to head back into the town of 'karuizawa' to have lunch. I joined the road once more and descended once again.

With the time being 4pm I decided that one volcano, a lava boulder sight, one small town, two chapels and a waterfall was quite enough for one day. I therefore filled up with fuel and headed back towards Nagano however, not being able to bare 'route 18's' traffic lights I opted for the highway which, though it cost £11.00, got me back into Nagano within an hour (unlike the two hours it took getting to Karuizawa). I therefore found myself parked within my hotel's car park at around 6pm. Being too early for dinner I headed to my room to relax for an hour and a half before heading out into town to get a little more money.

After I had been to the bank I returned to my hotel, but not to my room. Instead I headed to the hotel's restaurant where no meal would be too expensive. Being quite a posh hotel I did feel a little under-dressed in jeans; however that didn't stop me from ordering the hotel's set 3-course meal with a dessert and 'after dinner tea' added on (making it 4-courses). Not content with tap water for the meal, I ordered a mango juice before sitting down to read about where I will go tomorrow.

I had just finished reading a leaflet about the 'monkey park' when my appetizer arrived. A delicate dish was placed in front of me with my knife and fork placed on their own metal holder. The appetizer I had chosen was a 'salon and avocado' dish (I didn't even know I liked avocado). It looked like it was too good to eat and with the low lighting, classical music and posh food I was a little at a loss for how I should act. Not having company (this was the only thing missing from my meal) I was worried about eating too quickly. I therefore introduced my own etiquette which involved putting my fork down after every delicate mouth full and savouring the taste. I also decided to drink only water as I ate (as not to intoxicate the palate) leaving my mango juice for between courses. The salmon was delicious and once consumed, I sat back and read a leaflet about a small town called Obuse; which is where I will be heading to tomorrow. In no time at all my empty plates were removed and replaced with the 'soup of the day' (pumpkin) plus two small loaves of bread (slightly warm) and a cube of butter. The soup was lovely, however it was completely out classed by the bread. In Japan it is hard to get proper bread (you know; fluffy bread which isn't too sweet) and yet, as I ate my first delicate piece of bread I was transported to a small French village's bakery.

Once consumed the plates were removed effortlessly and replaced with my main dish which was a beautiful beef stew with a salad as a side. The pieces of beef were tender and the sauce complimented the beef perfectly. There were also proper fried potatoes which put a smile on my face. Finally the dessert came (which was quite a surprise as, by this time, I had forgotten what I had ordered) which was a lovely raspberry pastry cake, thing, with two types of sauce drizzled across the plate. Accompanying said cake was a ball of ice cream and, of course, my tea.

When I looked at the size of my appetiser I was a little unsure if I would be full by the end of the 4-courses however, as I handed over £32.00, I thanked the waiter and told him that every course was delicious. I retired to my room content.

So the plan for tomorrow is to head to the small town of Obuse (it's in my guidebook's '31 things not to miss') before visiting some monkeys within a park. As Obuse is quite a small town (and it's only a 30 minute drive away) I have a feeling I may return to Nagano quite early. I shall then try to find a photo book of the area (always a mission in Japan) before having a bath and getting ready for the return journey the following day.

It's been a good break; and I will certainly remember my 30th for all of the right reasons.

Toodle Pip!

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