Tag Archives: New Year


2011 New Year Countdown at Zojoji Temple

S and I went to Zojoji Temple for the 2011 New Year Countdown.  I have more pictures and comments that I’ll upload eventually, but for now here is a clip of the 5 minutes leading up to the countdown.

Happy New Year everyone!


2009 Kusatsu New Year Trip

I decided I wanted to get out of Tokyo for the New Year period – just wanted to get away and clear my head in preparation for 2009.  Happily, I had the time to do so – I had to take 2 days off from work that were going to expire, and that left me a solid week and a couple days to do whatever I wanted.  Sleeping in late = luxury, so for the first couple days I just rested.  Then I went to visit Tet in Yokohama (took some pictures that I will be uploading later) and stayed at his place for a couple of days fighting zombies on Resident Evil for the Wii 😀  I got back home to Higashi Kurume on the evening of the 30th, packed my backpack, and woke up early on the 31st to head off to a place called Kusatsu.

Why Kusatsu?  I only knew that I wanted to go to an onsen.  I just…wanted to soak away 2008.  And a quick search on Google and Wikipedia seemed to indicate that Kusatsu was the place to be for that.  Tet had tried to help me book a room online, but everywhere was full (understandable – it was the weekend of the New Year after all).  But I figured I would go anyway.  There HAD to be at least 1 motel, ryokan, or hotel that would have 1 room available…  and I wasn’t looking for anything fancy – anyplace out of the wind and cold would do – a sofa would have been plenty. 🙂

I got up at 7 and was on my way by 8.  Since I was also going for frugal, I chose the cheapest way to get to Kusatsu which, according to Jorudan, would consist of a combination of train and bus, coming to a total of about 3,200 yen one way (about 3.5 hours of traveling time).  It was fairly straightforward actually – a few transfers yes (Ikebukuro => Akabane => Takasaki => Naganohara Kusatsuguchi), but the train was not crowded at all and I actually had time to sleep for good chunk of time at the beginning.  On a side note, the trains out there must not get “upgraded” too often – the doors wouldn’t work right, and passengers had to manually open/close them!

Towards the end of the train ride, my coach started filling up and the seats around me were filled with a group of older Japanese people, probably in their mid-60’s.  They were a noisy bunch because they started drinking!  At first I was just quiet, staring out the window, but at one point I took out my Xacti and started filming and taking pictures which attracted their attention.  They turned out to be really friendly (probably helped by the drink 😛 ) and when I showed them my camera they started chatting away and soon offered me some of their shochu, apple slices, and fish snacks.  I’m not much of a drinker (have never gotten drunk yet!) but I took a half cup to be nice and it turned out to be pretty nice, almost sweet.  It’s at times like these that I really regret not knowing more Japanese 🙁

We did manage, somehow, to carry a bit of a conversation – they were also going to a nearby onsen; a group of 10 friends (5 couples) for the New Year.  Apparently I have a “good” face (?) and I need to try harder at learning Japanese (their words) 😥

I arrived at Naganohara and from there hopped on the bus to Kusatsu.

(interestingly, there are no direct train routes to Kusatsu – as far as I can tell, the only direct way in is via car or bus)
I was a little disappointed when arriving at Naganohara to be honest, because I had been hoping for snow.  I still hadn’t seen anything like a “real” snowfall all my life and I had kind of been hoping for a something more than the little sprinkles we usually get in Tokyo.  I was not to be disappointed! 🙂

I arrived at Kusatsu at around 1330 and it was every bit as snowy as I could have hoped 😉

Actually there were quite a number of people around which worried me somewhat, as I wondered if I would be able to find a place to stay.  I set off immediately to try and find accommodations.  And promptly slipped a few minutes later, landing hard on my butt on the side of the road – in plain view of dozens of cars idling at the light I might add.  Fortunately nothing was hurt aside from my pride and with a sheepish grin at the numerous faces watching me, I picked myself up, moving much more cautiously.

It’s said that God watches over fools and children, and while I like to think I’m young at heart, perhaps my clownish roadside antics generated a little sympathy from on high as a few minutes later I came across a place advertising single rooms going for 3,500 yen!  Wonders of wonders, they also had a room available (one night only though – apparently they were booked solid the following day).  I happily reserved the available room, figuring that at least I had a place to stay today, and could look again for another place tomorrow.

My room was truly bare-bones and tiny, but at least I had my own shower/bathroom and it was warm – good enough for me!  Plus I’d brought a few books with me (naturally) so I was pretty happy 🙂

After dropping my backpack down, I bundled up once again and headed out to see the sights.

Kusatsu is a pretty small town.  It’s centered around the Yubatake which is basically this big old hot spring right in the middle of the town.  It’s filled with pipes and conduits that both channel the water and cool it.  A pretty nifty sight, especially with all the steam billowing out, though the smell (from the sulphur) is  fairly pungent (particularly when the wind happens to blow JUST so).  I took bucketloads of pictures 😛 though I’ll only show one here and leave the rest in the gallery section.

After wandering around for a good bit taking lots of pictures, I realized that I was getting pretty hungry.  Unfortunately it turns out that most of the places were closed until dinner time – a good couple hours away!  Then I noticed that people were lining up for Yakitori and I quickly lined up as well.

What I didn’t realise was that it would take me almost 40 minutes to get my order – they were cooking each yakitori on the spot, and since there was a line before me (AND they all seemed to ordered tons…) it just took a long time before it was my turn.  So I was pretty doggone cold and shivering when it came time for me to order.  I made another goof at this point – I thought that I was ordering single, individual sticks of yakitori and so ordered 5.  Turns out however, that they come in sets of 3 or 4… so I ended up buying almost 2,000 yen worth of yakitori – about 20 sticks worth!!  At that point though, I didn’t care anymore.  I was starving and I rushed back to my hotel room (too cold to sit outside and eat!)

Boy did I scarf that down.  20 sticks?  Gone in under 20 minutes.  (and this is even with me reading a book, which usually slows me down a little)
It was yummy though!  However… that was a whole lot of meat and it formed a heavy lump in my stomach for the rest of the day (didn’t even feel like dinner that night), so I think I’m pretty much yakitori’d out, maybe for the whole year of 2009. 😕

After that massive meal, I got really sleepy and ended up dozing off for nearly an hour.   When I woke up, I decided that I was ready for an onsen!  Earlier, before coming to Kusatsu, I had read of a place called the “Big Bath” that was open 24 hours a day – since it was getting later in the evening, I decided that would be my destination and so with that in mind I headed out.

I walked.  A lot.  I seem to end up doing that quite a bit when I travel alone – did the same in Newport Beach, Hokkaido, and now Kusatsu.  It’s something I don’t think I could/would do if someone else was there, simply because they would get bored/tired as I usually end up walking aimlessly, going wherever catches my fancy for 4 hours or more at a time.
So anyway, I walked. And took pictures!  Went back to Yubatake, explored the streets around there, went to a shrine, walked through a hot spring park called Sainogawara, reached the roads (very few cars passing at this time), passed a number of much more luxurious-looking ryokan, went by a ski lodge….  just walked and walked.

All this while I was looking for the Big Bath.  There were a number of signs and maps on the road and as far as I could tell, my wanderings were taking me in the general direction but I just couldn’t seem to find it.  Finally, finally I went to another hotel area and though no one was around, there were some paper maps on their counter that I took a look at – turns out that the Big Bath was actually at one of the resorts that I had passed by some time ago!  There just wasn’t a sign that proclaimed “Big Bath” – it was actually the “Now Resort”.  D’oh!  So I retraced my steps… found it… and it was closed.  So much for the 24hr availability 🙁  Apparently they closed between the hours of 2300 to 0700, and last visitors were allowed in only from 2200.  I had arrived at 2220. 😥
I have to say, I was rather disappointed… I had been looking forward to the onsen all day and now I wouldn’t have a chance to try one.  So much for ushering in the New Year in a nice hot spring bath…  Dejectedly, I retraced my steps and headed back towards the town center of Yubatake, figuring to get some tea and go back to my room.  Couldn’t think of anything else to do over the new year except for curling up in bed with one of the books I had brought with me.  BUT!  Things ended up a little more cheerfully than that! 😎

As I neared Yubatake, I started hearing music coming from up ahead.  Going closer, I saw that a small band had been set up on a small platform and despite the freezing cold and gusting winds, were belting out some Japanese and English tunes with gusto.  The acoustics were horrible (wide open space, strong wind) but they had enthusiasm to spare!   There weren’t that many people there at the time, but a small bonfire had been set up nearby and other townsfolk were handing out free manjyu and hot tea!  There was a countdown timer beside the platform and it showed that there were about 50 minutes remaining till midnight.

As the timer counted down, more and more people showed up until the square was packed.  It was still freezing, but the band just kept on going!  It was really fun actually – at about 30 minutes left before 2009, they began playing a peppy version of “Stand By Me” and suddenly a group of older people started sashaying around, soon joined by some young teenage kids (WHEN did I start thinking of teenagers as “kids”???  I’m only 26!! 😯 )  By the time the last seconds were ticking off, there was a large group of people dancing around,clapping, waving, singing, even swarming the platform to sing along with the band!   I didn’t swarm the stage, but I was singing along to the songs I knew and “shuffling” a little with my feet. 😎  Certainly, I wasn’t as crazy as some – one guy stripped down to his underwear and shoes, and was prancing around.  I have NO idea how he handled the cold…

To top things off, there was a little fireworks display right after everyone finished shouting “Happy New Year!!”  All in all, a very happy way to bring in 2009 🙂  After it was all over, there were some taiko drummers that came on the platform, but I decided to call it a night and head back to my room.  There I curled up with a book and read for another couple hours before falling asleep around 0200. 🙂

Wow… I can’t believe I’ve written this much… will try to wrap this up..

I woke up around 0900, took a quick shower, packed my stuff, and headed downstairs.  As I was handing back the keys, I asked offhand if they were still full and lo and behold they said NO!  I would have to move to  a different room, but if I came back at 1400, they would have another room available.  Yay!  They also kindly allowed me to leave my backpack there so I wouldn’t have to lug it around.  After I dropping off my bag, I headed off once again.

I decided that I would head back in the general direction I had been going yesterday – towards the Big Bath onsen.  On the way there, I went through the Sainogawara park again and this time it was much prettier than it had looked the night before.

I also noticed that one of the paths overlooked an onsen and if you looked through the trees you could just make out naked guys lounging in the water… 😯 (don’t worry, only the men’s side – the ladies section was on the other side of the structure)  After walking around for another hour or so, I couldn’t resist any more and headed for the onsen myself.  I have to say – it was one of the best I’ve ever been to!  It was very large and spacious, the temperature just right, and the atmosphere… I can’t describe what it’s like to just soak in a hot spring with snow falling around your face, steam rising all around you, the mountains and trees surrounding you.  The temperature out of the water is around zero, but… so so so comfy in the water.  Ahh..pleasant memories…

I stayed there for almost an hour and then, skin tingling and pleasantly warm, I headed on back to the town to look for sustenance.  Now, I know that soba is supposed to be the speciality of Kusatsu but… I wanted ramen.  RAMEN.
So I stopped at the first ramen place I found and, despite the ominous ashtray (see picture below), ordered some tasty miso ramen – yum!

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The best part about not having a plan for anything is that it just gives you so much freedom to do whatever you like.  If I’d gone as part of a package tour, then I’d have follow their schedule, making sure I wasn’t late, etc.  Going the way I did, even though I may not have seen everything there was to see, I didn’t care – I did what I wanted, when I wanted.  So, with nothing on my mind, when I saw a sign indicating that Mt. Shirane was off “that way”, I decided to try heading in that direction, with the vague idea that maybe I could reach the top and see the view from there.

And so, that’s what I did.  (first though, I did drop by my hotel to move my bag into my new room)  So off I went walking again!  This was another long walk lasting several hours and frankly, I don’t think that most people are expected to try going up the mountain that way.  In the infrequent cars that occasionally passed me on the road, I could see drivers twisting around to look back at me as if wondering what the heck anyone was doing out there.  It was remarkably peaceful though, with only the sound of the snow crunching beneath my shoes (0h, and note to self – I need to get better NON-SLIP shoes next time I try something like this).

The view as I got higher was got better and better, especially as I reached areas where the trees thinned out a little.  The sky was so clear that the mountain ranges stood out in sharp relief and I felt like I could see out forever.  I took tons of pictures because I was worried that they would turn out blurry – turns out I’ve gotten pretty good at taking pictures even with two layers of gloves on! 😀

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3 hours and many pictures later, I realised that it was starting to get dark and the temperature was dropping fast.  So, since I had no idea how much further I had to go to reach the top, I decided to head on back.  I wasn’t too disappointed though – I had some great pictures, and it had been a good walk 🙂

I was lucky on the way down – a car stopped and the people in the car offered to drive me down!  It was incredibly nice of them and I wish I remembered to have gotten their names.  All I learned from them was that they were from Tokyo on their way to Karuizawa for skiing and snowboarding.  They got me down the mountain and from there I walked back to Yubatake.  At this point I was hungry again and decided that I would try to find one of the restaurants recommended on Wikitravel, a place called Chikyu-ya.  I eventually found it with help from the friendly staff at 7-11 who kindly gave me directions.  Unfortunately, Chikyu-ya was closed! 🙁 It looks like they’re only open from 1100-1500, which is an incredibly short period in my opinion… Oh well – back to ramen! 😀

I found a place called “Ramen Ichiban” and boy was their tonkotsu ramen TASTY.  Better than the place at lunch, and I would definitely want to go back again to try their other ramen dishes!

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After this, I finally headed back to the Big Bath onsen, this time making sure to arrive around 2030. The onsen was pretty nice, and the facilities were more upscale (dryers, shampoo, soap, indoor and outdoor onsen) and I did enjoy it very much. I would have to say though, that I preferred the one at Sainogawara just for the atmosphere.

I stayed there for about an hour and then headed back to my hotel, warm and comfy 🙂

The next morning I got up a little earlier because I wanted to reserve my bus ticket, have one more onsen session, and try out Chikyu-ya before leaving! Sufficed to say, I got it all done – went back to Sainogawara for one more dip in the onsen (beautiful beautiful weather for onsen, with the snow coming down harder and harder), and then headed to Chikyu-ya to have their beef stew for lunch.

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It was pretty doggone good – I’m usually not a big beef eater (prefer pork and chicken), but the meat there was extremely tender and just melted as you were eating it. It was also the most pricy dish I’d had there, at approximately 1,800 yen, but I figured I could splurge a little on myself since the entire trip, including roundtrip transportation to/from Higashi Kurume to Kusatsu, accommodations for 3 days/2 nights, 3 onsen sessions, and meals all came to about 20,000 yen, or $200!!  I think I really got my money’s worth on this trip 8)

That about sums everything up of my Kusatsu trip (I can almost hear your sighs of relief ) I got back to Tokyo around 1830 or so and will enjoy the last couple of days of vacation before work starts again come Monday 🙁

Whew! I did NOT anticipate writing over 3,300 words for this post… I will not be writing so much again in future posts… I hope (I tend to get overly wordy >_<)

For a gallery of all the 140+ pictures I took of Kusatsu, please click HERE.

Happy New Year, to any and all that are reading this 🙂



~Happy New Year~

Wishing you all the best for your holidays – may 2009 bring more stability…


Kusatsu 2009 New Year Trip

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