Category Archives: Travels


A Visit to Europe – Preparations – Everything else

As anyone who’s traveled internationally before knows, cell and data roaming fees from your local provider can be exorbitant.  For example, while traveling on business and using a my company’s blackberry for simple email, light websurfing, and the occasional call, I’ve racked up bills of $300+ for just 2 weeks of travel!  It’s far more economical to buy a prepaid SIM card in the country you’re traveling to.  However, that also requires an unlocked phone/tablet that supports the cellular frequency band of said country.  (for more details, see here:  or here:  )

Since I only have the wifi version of the Nexus 7, I decided to buy a portable router for the trip.  The advantage of such a device is that more than one device can connect to the router and go online at the same time – handy in this day and age when one person may have a phone, a tablet, and/or a laptop.  Also, many cellular bands are supported, in effect meaning that it can used world-wide (though one should always double-check the list of supported bands before buying).  The model I ended up buying was the Huawei E5776s.  In addition to the features I’ve already mentioned, the reason I went for this particular model was because it had a stated battery life of 10hrs (important, because I planned to use it all day for GPS while driving), and it could also serve as a backup battery for my tablet in a pinch (meaning I could charge my tablet FROM the router).  After 3+ weeks of use, I can say that it works well.  It doesn’t have quite the fast start-up speed advertised (it seems to take up to 30sec-1min to connect to a network), but it was sturdy, battery life was good (at least 7hrs+), and I had no issues using it first in Japan and later in Italy.

Aside from the router, I also purchased a cheap Nokia 101 phone.  It is, as stated, a very basic, no-frills device.  It worked with no issues whatsoever (I swapped SIM cards between the router and phone as needed).  Overall, I can say that I have no regrets about these 2 purchases, especially because I can continue to use both for future travels overseas.  I will write about the service provider I ended up using in Italy in my next post, for those that are curious.

The final items I prepared for the trip were:

– portable water bottle with filter

– International Driver’s Permit

Though we knew that tap water is fine to drink in Italy, we still decided to play it safe and chose to buy a portable water filter – we went for the OKO 550ml Level 2 filter.  This was one purchase I was not too happy with.  I can’t vouch for the quality of the filter, but we never got sick, so that’s good!  However, its tendency to leak was extremely frustrating.  Drinking with this requires a strong hand as you need to squeeze the bottle firmly in order for water to come out.  This is not a problem.  However, after a certain period of time (depending on your squeezing skills), water seeps into the thread that screws the filter to the bottle, and water starts leaking all over you while you’re drinking!  To get around this, unscrew the top and give a few strong shakes to get the excess water off the filter.  Then screw it back on and you should be good to go for a few more gulps (or more, depending on how much you drink in one go) before you have to repeat the process again.  Again, not a purchase I was really happy with.

The final major thing I had to prepare was my IDP – aka International Driver’s Permit.  There seems to be a lot of conflicting information online as to whether or not an IDP is really necessary.  My stance is – better to have it than not.  It’s not too cheap (at least in Japan, it costs 3,000 yen), but I prefer the peace of mind it afforded me.  For those interested in knowing about the process of getting an IDP in Japan, check out this site:

Those were all the major preparations I could think of doing prior to our trip, and I’m glad I did them.  Another source of information was the Rick Steve’s forum – it’s very active, and I got some very helpful advice and tips there.  Also, I have to recommend the RS app for the free walking guides – he provides some useful background to where you are and what you’re seeing, which really helps bring your trip/walking tour/museum visit to life.  And it’s free – that can’t be beat 😉

In my next post, I’ll briefly write about the network provider I used in Italy (didn’t bother with one in Prague), and then will write about the places we visited.  I’m not sure yet if I’ll do a day by day trip… I think that probably will be too much (I’ve already written about 3,000 words on this, and haven’t even left Japan 😛


Experiences Travels

A Visit to Europe – Preparations – Accommodations (AirBnB and

Now that we had all the destinations planned, there were still a number of things to prepare for. Obviously, accommodation was the first and most important item to plan for. Since we would be going during the start of the peak tourist season, costs for normal hotels would be high and would likely book up fast, so we began exploring budget options. Another important thing to plan/prepare for was transportation (train tickets and car rental). Since S was staying behind after I returned to Tokyo, I also wanted to make sure that she had a phone for emergencies. Finally, since I know that my map-reading skills are somewhat sub-par, I wanted to make sure we’d have use of Google maps/GPS available. This would also ensure that we would have access to email/internet.

These days, there are a number of options for finding travel accommodations available out there now. I won’t list them all, but the ones I ended up using were and I used AirBnb the most (since the rooms listed there tended to be cheaper), but… as they say, you do end up with what you pay for, and following is a not-so-brief rundown of the experience, the good and the bad.

First of all, signing up is a breeze. You have to provide your contact details (email, phone number at least, picture of your passport for some accommodations). All of it is automated, and didn’t take me more than a few minutes (even registering passport). Note that you don’t HAVE to register your passport, but some BnB have that requirement before they’ll allow you to make a reservation with them, which is understandable as hotels do the same.

Likewise, it’s also very easy to find accommodations. You specify your destination, you set your budget and other criteria, and you’ll get a whole slew of results to choose from. You will often get accommodations that are conveniently located to major sites at lower prices than typical hotels. The downside is that since these BnB are typically privately owned residences, you don’t really know what a place is like until you’ve actually arrived. Sure, you do have user reviews, but those can vary widely because what seems fine for, say, a single backpacker would not necessarily be fine for a couple or family. (more on that later)

Another thing to consider is communication between yourself and the hosts of your selected BnB. Finding and booking a BnB is very quick and simple. You can do so on your computer through the browser, or via the AirBnB app on your mobile device. Both offer fairly slick user-friendly interfaces. It’s worth noting though, that you should be sure to list the DATES of your travel in order to get accurate prices. As with hotels, hosts can list different prices for different dates (ie peak season vs. off-season). Prices also vary from host to host for the number of additional people – prices for a single person may be cheap, but the cost for a 2nd or 3rd person can vary wildly. When I initially ran my searches, I was only looking at location (hoping to get a baseline of prices) and didn’t input number of travellers and the dates. So when I finally started the booking process, I wondered why the final costs were so far off from my initial estimates!

The final thing to be aware of is checking a host’s cancellation policy. These also vary, from the flexible to super strict. Ideally you want to avoid the strict and above levels. With those, once you book, you only get a 50% refund if you cancel – up till 1 week before. If you cancel less than 1 week before your scheduled arrival date, you get nothing back. I understand that this is for the protection of the host, but still rather inconvenient, especially if there’s a chance your travel dates might change. So – look for hosts offering “flexible” or “moderate” cancellation policies if you can.

A host’s communication capability is also something that is difficult to gauge on AirBnB. Remember, these are folks in different countries, where English may not be a first or even 2nd language. In my case, I tried to get in touch with one of the hosts in Prague I had booked with (who had a “strict” cancellation policy) because I needed to adjust (or “alter” in AirBnB terminology) my booking dates. I wasn’t trying to cancel, just shift the dates forward by 1 day. Even though the listing calendar showed that date as available, I had a dickens of a time trying to get this communicated across and in fact, after several back-and-forth emails, he simply stopped responding to me 2 weeks before our travel!

This was very stressful because a) I couldn’t cancel outright without losing 50% of the total fees, and b) it also meant that we didn’t have a place to stay for the first night! Unfortunately, AirBnB customer support was not… supportive. I got a canned response when I asked them for assistance, but then didn’t hear back from them until AFTER the trip. In the end, I booked another accommodation for the first night, this time via, so all went well. In fact, after my arrival and talking with the AirBnb host face-to-face, we managed to work things out .

This underscores the main difference (for me) between AirBnB and AirBnb (usually) offers cheaper prices, and more choices in terms of location (some hosts live REALLY close to major attractions). However, you have a higher risk of encountering communication difficulties and lack of customer support. on the other hand, allows nearly trouble-free cancellation up until 24 hours before check-in, and communication appears to be more reliable. Of course, you do have to pay more for this. So it’s a trade-off.

Would I use AirBnb in the future again? Probably. Next time though, I will be much more mindful of a host’s cancellation policy (especially if there is ANY chance that my travel dates might change), and pay very close attention to user reviews. I know that reviews may not necessarily be “accurate” (there’s a dual feedback process whereby hosts also review travelers, which rather “encourages” positive reviews of each other), but it’s still worth going through and observing if there are any negative patterns that come up. AirBnb seems to have a lot of potential, and I would say is particularly suited for single travelers, backpackers, or people who just need a place to crash at night and don’t necessarily care about amenities or environs. Plus, you may get some great locations. Of course, you could also PAY more.. but then there’s less value when compared to a site like which offers more peace of mind.

Hmm… this post has turned into a review of AirBnb, hasn’t it? I’ll go back to the other preparations we did for our Europe trip in my next post.

P.S. AirBnB contacted me apologizing about the delay in support, saying that they had a large backlog and that it wasn’t usual for them to be that slow when responding. If others have had experiences with AirBnb customer support, I’d be curious to hear about it!


A visit to Europe – part 1 of… probably many

I rather wish I’d followed up on my original goal of writing a little each day during our trip to Europe. As it is, I only started writing on the first day… and nothing more after that. It was just too hectic, and we were so exhausted at the end of the day that staying awake to write was out of the question. So what comes will be based primarily on memory… which I confess is not always the sharpest. Oh well. Perhaps some of this will be interesting to read, or of use to other travellers.

The Start (Planning)

It’s hard to believe that the trip is over, particularly since we started thinking about it over 6 months ago. S and I had realized that we both had a significant amount of airline mileage that was due to expire, and needed to figure out quickly what to do with them. Luckily, one is able to book a flight up to several months in the future – the booking just needs to be made BEFORE the mileage expires. So though our mileage was due to expire in December, we decided to plan a trip around the “golden week” period in Japan, where we’d be able to combine a number of national holidays with my regular paid holiday at work, for an extended vacation. Total time off? THREE WEEKS. I’ve never taken that much time off from work since I finished university! You can imagine I was pretty psyched 🙂

Since I’d never been to Europe before, it was high on my bucket list, and since neither of us had been to Italy, our destination was easily settled. We also decided to toss in a quick trip to Prague since… why not? It sounded cool, and images of the city online looked like it would be a pleasant/easy start to a Europe trip. So we quickly decided – 3 days in Prague, and 2.5 weeks in Italy. That was the easy part.

Much harder was figuring out exactly how much time we would spend where. Three days here? Two days there? Another two days here, or maybe three days?
Even though we already knew we wanted to spend most of our time in Italy, there are just so many places IN Italy that we wanted to see. The gondolas in Venice, Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, the seaside cliffs of Cinque Terre, the hilltowns of Tuscany, and more! 2.5 weeks is no where near enough to see Italy. However, we tried cramming in as many locations as we could (which, ultimately, we ended up regretting somewhat), and our final schedule looked like this:

  • Prague: 3 days, 4 nights
  • Venice: 2 days, 3 nights
  • Cinque Terre: half day, full day, and 2 nights
  • Florence: 2 days, 3 nights
  • Siena: 1 afternoon, 1 night
  • Agriturismo in Tuscany area: half day, full day, and 2 nights
  • Rome: 3 days, 4 nights

We also squeezed in the following side/day trips:
1 afternoon in Vienna (during a long layover between our flight from Prague to Venice)
1 afternoon in Pisa (when we were traveling from Cinque Terre to Florence)

As you can see, we hit a lot of places in just 3 weeks! Though it was nice to see/experience each new destination, it was also extremely tiring having to shuffle luggage around, catching the trains/buses/flights, juggling accommodations, etc. In the end, I think we would have found it more relaxing/less stressful if we’d just stuck to, say, 4 places instead of 7. Or better yet, I wish we’d had more time off! You could easily spend a couple months exploring Italy alone. For example, we never hit Milan, or Naples, or Sicily, or Sardegna, etc. Sadly, work won’t let me take that much time off – I think I was extremely lucky to have been able to take off 3 whole weeks as it was.

After much discussion, our destinations were set – it was now time to start planning where we’d stay, what we’d see, and of course let’s not forget – what to eat 😉


Togolese Djembe Drumming

I was taking a picture of my djembe drum (that I’ve posted in my photo section) which also led me to a Youtube search of Togolese djembe drumming.  I’d kind of forgotten what it sounded like, so it was a pleasant trip down memory lane. 🙂

Experiences Published on the Go Travels

Out and about

Apologies for the lack of posting. The last few days have been thoroughly tiring and today is the first day in a while where I find myself being utterly lazy. It’s a strange, wonderful…and almost guilty feeling.

I’m in Hong Kong at the moment, on a “working vacation”. Despite the fact that there’s a typhoon (hence why I’m ensconced in my hotel room, typing this post out on my blackberry), it is remarkably relaxing to sit and watch the rain pelt outside the window.

Why am I sitting in a hotel watching the rain when I’m supposed to be on a “working” vacation? Well, I paid for my plane ticket (fairly inexpensive at 30,000 yen) and took a couple of personal days off. In addition, I visited the office yesterday and possibly this weekend to assist where I can. However, my room and board charges are covered, as are most of my meals – which would be the most expensive part of the trip anyway. I just feel that it’s very worth it, despite the typhoon, just to get away from things and relax.

More will be forthcoming later, though most pics won’t be uploaded until I get back on Monday and have access to a computer again!


Useful info when visiting Tokyo

A colleague of mine in the US recently wrote to me asking for tips that he can use when he visits Japan with his family next month.  This is probably the 3rd or 4th time that I’ve done this for friends/colleagues and I suddenly realised that it would make things a whole lot simpler to put all this online.  Below is what I wrote to my colleague, and I’ll be updating it over time, hopefully with information expanding it beyond the Tokyo area (since, embarassing as it is to admit it, I have yet to visit places like Kyoto in my whole 7+ years here…)

I do have a write-up on my trip to Kusatsu earlier this year, and I have visited Hokkaido (hmm.. will have to write up about that at some point…) but following is info more pertinent to places to see/visit around Tokyo.

(update – I think I’m going to re-organize this a little better over the coming days – more info to come!)


Places to go and things to see in Japan

(work in progress)

Updated: August 20, 2009

It’s a good idea to take the “limousine bus” from Narita.  It’s a bit more expensive than taking the train, but if it’s your first time, and you’re tired, you don’t want to be fiddling about with luggage, transferring from train to train, etc.  You may want to try making a reservation, or at least getting a sense of the timetable from HERE.

Disney is a full day trip – and you DEFINITELY want to plan for that happening on a weekday.  Weekends, the crowds are insane and you can wait up to 2 hrs in line for a popular ride.  There’s also Disney Sea – if you want to do both, then you have to plan for one day each, since they really are full day activities.

Tsukiji fish market is also quite cool, though please don’t be like the other crazy foreigners and bring your luggage there :p  People are really busy and there are carts and stuff zooming around so luggage would be quite dangerous.  To give you a bit of an idea, here’s a write-up I did for when I went there with my family earlier this year.

If you’re going to Tsukiji from Shinjuku, you’ll probably have to leave around 04:30 in the morning.. at latest 05:00 since you miss out on the major auction if you get there any later than… 06:00.  Also keep an eye on the Tsukiji CALENDAR – some days the fish market is closed and it would be a bummer to get up that early for nothing!

I’m not sure about the largest Ferris wheel – but one of the largest is in Yokohama.  The ferris wheel is part of a small amusement park that is especially pretty at night.  Also in Yokohama is the “Red Brick Warehouse” containing lots of small shops – one that stands out in my memory is a store that sold a large number of handmade glass creations.  Yokohama might very well be an all day trip as well, assuming you leave late in the morning, and stay till evening.  You could end things with a trip to the Ramen Museum, a 10 minute train ride away from Yokohama!

For a quick jaunt out of the city, Kamakura is a picturesque tour.  Lots of temples, a small beach, and good eating places.  There’s also a well known statue of Buddha that’s pretty neat, and you can even climb inside the statue (though it’s not that big and pretty dark).

Another place that’s interesting to see is Odaiba – pity you’re not coming till September since there’s a lifesize Gundam statue there till August 31st.  (I’ll be putting pics on my blog on that shortly, just so you see what you’re missing 😛  But hey, at least you can hang out with the mini statue of Liberty!  😉

Akihabara is a cool/freaky place to visit – probably not an all day trip.  Perhaps you could combine your Tsukiji fish market visit (in the early morning) and go on to Akihabara after that (though things don’t open there till.. at least 09:00 or later, so you would have time to wander around/eat breakfast (of raw fish) in Tsukiji.

Tokyo Tower is cool, though I feel it looks more interesting at night.  I would suggest combining a trip to Roppongi Hills with that.  For example, go to Roppongi Hills in the late morning, early afternoon.  You can go up the observatory for a great view of Tokyo, and see the museum, eat, etc.
Then in the evening head to Tokyo Tower for the night view.  There is even a (very small) live band performing there on some days.   Finally, if you still have the energy and want to experience the Tokyo nightlife, you could head back to Roppongi after Tokyo Tower since night time is when all the clubs and bars start opening up.

Harajuku/Meiji Jingu shrine is much more interesting on Sunday mornings – that’s usually when all the people wearing the more…”interesting” outfits come out.

Asakusa is also a definite tourist attraction, with numerous temples, a long shopping street that sells innumerable trinkets, Japanese sweets, clothing, and much much more.  Perhaps a half-day trip, and one that might be combined with a quick walk around Kappabashi street – the best place to be if you want to see where most Japanese restaurants buy the knives, pots, pans, dishes, fake display foods, coffee grinder… you name it, Kappabashi probably has it if it’s related to cooking.  (a brief write-up is HERE)

Finally, a useful link is the train guide.   Will definitely help you figure out which train to take from where.   And speaking of trains, Tet usefully also provided the following link to info about a one-day pass for the JR line!

Experiences Travels

A trip to Izu

Sorry for the lack of posting again lately… work has been extremely busy and honestly after spending all day working on or in front of a computer, I don’t always feel like coming back home to sit in front of one again.

Today I thought I’d put up some pictures of a one day/night trip I took with a friend and his family a couple of months back to Izu.  It was actually my first time there (in my whole 7+ years in Japan!!!) and it was really nice to relax among friends, play with children, and get out of the city (and work) for an all-too-brief period of time.

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The trip to Izu is fairly quick – about a 3-4 hour car ride (the family had a car).  The place we stayed at was a lovely cottage up in the hills (more like a mountain actually).  Not quite a resort, but more a mountain “getaway” area of sorts containing several individual cottages that families could rent out as well as a hotel/inn for smaller groups.  Since we were a total of 5 people (3 adults and 2 kids) we stayed at one of the cottages, a spacious wooden dwelling that could easily have held at least 6 people.  There was an onsen at the place as well (we never used the shower in the cottage!) and the food…oh the food was bountiful and de-li-cious. (at least the dinner – breakfast was your standard fare)

Izu (at least to my knowledge) is known primarily for its islands.  I remember back in college one of my professors would rave about going around the Izu islands for fishing.  In a similar vein, Izu is also popular for its beaches, and the one beach we went to certainly did not disappoint.  Crystal clear water (though still chilly at the time since it wasn’t yet summer), white sands and open space – it’s a great place to spend a day exploring and swimming.  The beach we visited also had some cliffs and rocky outcrops nearby, most worn away to rocky outcrops.

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In particular there was one that had a tunnel of sorts, created by the water pounding and drilling into the stone over the years.  The gallery will show some of the pictures I took and I will say that I was highly highly tempted to try crawling in there to see what I could find, but in all honesty I chickened out because 1) I didn’t have a flashlight, and 2) I’ve seen too many horror movies where one see the chirpy adventurers go poking about holes or caves in the ground and end up being messily killed by some creature.  I always scoff at how dumb the adventurers are for going into these creepy dark places – but I must say that I can better understand the tug of curiosity that leads one into such situations.  Next time I’ll bring my flashlight – and maybe a hard hat.

Overall it was an extremely relaxing trip, I had GREAT great fun playing with the kids, K and Y (full names withheld for privacy reasons), and I’m really grateful to my friend for inviting me along.  It’s the kind of place that’s really difficult to get to and enjoy without a car.  Hence why I’m seriously considering getting a license in the coming months despite the insane cost… >_<

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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 🙂



Kusatsu 2009 New Year Trip

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