Sweet Sakura Spring in Nagano, Yamagata & Akita
"First marathon+travel trip with my koibito"
The main purpose of this trip was to run a cool climate marathon with my koibito, tk, and extend for a week to explore other parts of Honshu -- using the JR East Rail Pass. This is tk's first visit to Japan and I have planned an exciting itinerary to show him around. Have chosen places which I have not visited, namely, Chino & Shirakabako in Nagano, Zao Onsen in Yamagata and Kakunodate in Akita. And spend the last 3 days in Tokyo for a day trip to Hakone and get-together with my Japanese friends and colleagues. With that, we set off for a fun holiday with promise of sakura, beautiful scenery, yummy food and soothing onsen.
"Nagano -- Chino & Shirakabako"
Apr 11 : At 3am, tk took a cab from his pl to the airport & picked me up along the way. Our running buddy, al, came to send us off and we had a light breakfast together with tea & coffee. The 7-hr flight was smooth and we arrived in Narita Airport 1hr ahead of schedule. After getting our JR East rail pass, we hopped on the Narita Express to Shinjuku. Had our first Japanese meal @ a stand stall on the train platform while waiting for Azusa express train to Chino, Nagano. Located Chino Ryokan with ease and head out for dinner after check in. Discovered a family-run restaurant by an old couple -- yummy motsuni(pig intestine in spicy sauce) set dinner and nabeyaki udon. As I was the only female guest in the ryokan that nite, we were given a Japanese-style room with attached bathroom as hot bath was only available for guys (room with shared toilet is cheaper). Tired from a day of traveling, we zzz after a hot bath. Oh, I "witnessed" the horror of tk's “rhythmic snore”! Had to turn on my MP3 player to shut out the "noise"!
Apr 12 : The sun was bright when we went down to have breakfast at 7am. Rushed to catch the 8am bus to Shirakabako - phew, managed to get on the bus in the nick of time! Checked in @ Suigenso -- greeted warmly by the lady staff and we chose the Japanese-style room. We were pleasantly surpised by the big spacious room with attached bathroom – that’s the advantage of traveling during off-peak season! After putting our bags down and warmed up by the heater, we changed into our running gear and went for our first acclimatization run round the lake -- brrghhhh, so cold and hardly perspire after 4km!! We met the lady staff and she told us that she is training for Suwako Half Marathon later in the year & run at 6.30am every morning. She was very excited to hear that we were taking part in Nagano Marathon that Sunday! We spent the afternoon sight seeing ard the lake -- visited the Tateshina Teddy Bear Museum and had lunch there. Before dinner, we went for our first onsen at a hotspring nearby, complimentary from the ryokan. Dinner was a very elaborate spread – most of the food was homemade by the lady staff and totemo oishii!
"Nagano City -- Marathon"
Apr 13 : We woke up at 6am for another run – intended to do 2 rounds of the lake. Boy, it was so much colder that we had to stop after 2km -- ear with hurting inside due to the cold air! Feeling defeated, our spirit was immediately lifted by the yummy breakfast waiting for us. We went for a dip in the in-house hot bath before setting off to Nagano City. At Chino station where we changed from bus to train to Nagano, we split way to take pics of sakura and agreed to meet back 10min before train departure. I was worried when there was no sign of tk -- sms-ed him and he replied that he was on his way back. We managed to get on the train in time! Apparently, tk got distracted by flowers along the way and lost track of time! Due to the rush, he was dismayed that he had to hold his bladder for the next 2 hours on the train!! The train made a 5min stop along the way and he asked the conductor where is the nearest toilet in the train station. Surprise, suprise -- there was a toilet in the next cabin!! He felt so relieved! We had a good laugh over this :) At Nagano, we located Hotel Yama – another surprise, the room was big and spacious, very unlike hotels that I had stayed before. Lunch was @ Ramen Univeristy along Nagano Gondo, a shopping alley -- I had ramen+gyoza set while tk had ramen+pork rice set -- cheap @ yen650. When we were leaving, tk stopped at the door. I wonder what happened and took a peep infront. LOL, tk was puzzled why the auto door didn’t open -- this type of auto door will only open when press at a tab on the door. Haa haa... We were in need to get some cold weather running gear and went shopping ard the city -- tk bought a long sleeve CW-X top and i bought Nike socks. We stumbled into a foodshow at Tokyu dept store and packed special okonomiyaki and crab bento for dinner.
Apr 14 : Went for our last acclimatization run -- weather was warmer than Shirakabako and we both felt good with our new gear. We went to collect our race pack after breakfast and did more shopping at the race expo. After dropping the race pack & shopping stuff in our hotel room, we set off in search of yummy food -- finally settled on curry rice and porridge. After lunch, we visited the famous Zenkoji -- tk first time in a japanese shrine. Took lotsa photos as the weather was beautiful (in fact it was a hot day at 20 degree C). In the evening, we attended the welcome party at Hotel Kokusai 21 -- sneak preview of the invited athletes from Kenya, Russia, Romania, China etc. Final carboloading was at a Chinese restaurant -- siew mai and huge bowls of ramen! After preparing the gear for next day race, we had an early nite.
Apr 15 : Had breakfast at 6am and checkout of Hotel Yama. Transfer our baggage to Nagano Plaza Hotel (nearer to the train station) and board the 7am train to the start point. Followed the crowd and walk to the start point. After toilet break, we did a short warm up and stretch before going to the start pen -- paiseh, I squeezed to the front of the elite pen unknowingly and tk ran after me to "drag" me back to the correct pen. I was put in the 3hr pen while tk was in the 4hr pen -- erhm our last marathon timing was juz 3min apart?? I chatted with a Taiwanese 3hr runner and wished each other good luck. I crossed path with tk numerous time during the race and completed the marathon in 4hr 12min. tk wanna crossed the finish line holding hand with me -- but due to his knee pain, he was one min behind :( Haiz, if I knew, would have waited for my darlg! Well, next race then... After the race, we took the shuttle bus back to the hotel. We took our own sweet time to clean up and nearly missed the farewell party!
"Yamagata -- Zao Onsen"
Apr 16 : After a light breakfast of bread and coffee/tea provided by the hotel, we set off for Zao Onsen. Made a blunder during train transfer at Omiya -- board the wrong Shinkansen(bullet train) bound for Sendai instead of Yamagata. Luckily we had the JR East rail pass which entitled us to unlimited ride on the JR train, bus & Shinkasen. The kind conductor assigned 2 seats to us and even replot the route for us to get to Yamagata. Delayed 1 hr and arrived in Zao Onsen at 3pm. Easily spotted Itoh Ya Ryokan and check-in. Went out in search for tk's lunch as I had bento lunch on the train (tk wanted hot food instead of cold bento). We had a dip in the public onsen juz across the street. -- wow, the onsen were HOT and did wonders to soothe our aching muscles. After dinner, we went for another dip in the onsen before zzz.
"Akita -- Kakunodate"
Apr 17 : Woke up and went for a dip in the onsen before breakfast. Wow, surprise for tk as we were greeted with a new carpet of snow overnite (it was raining whole of yesterday)! We went for a walk to the big open-air onsen - beautiful snow covered scenery. Reluctantly, we left Zao Onsen and head for our next destination at Kakunodate in Akita. With the help of the staff at minimart near the train station, we located Wagaya Ryokan – again, the Japanese style room was spacious and came with attached bathroom! Weather was great and we went for a walk at the Samurai Village. Such a pity that the sakura has yet to bloom due to cold weather. We were consoled by the yummy food at the ryokan. Bonus was kashikiri onsen :) Oh, a recycle-water-toilet joke abt tk. He went to use the attached toilet in the room and commented that he saw an interesting sight of water coming out during flushing. I couldn't help laughing when I saw that -- the water coming out was meant for washing hands, a very common thing in Japan!
"Fukushima -- for sakura mankai"
Apr 18 : We had a yummy breakfast and another dip in the onsen. Thanks to the advice of the ryokan's owner, we head towards Fukushima to catch a glimpse of sakura full bloom (it happened that that day was sakura mankai)! Along the way, we made a pit stop at Morioka to try the famous noodle, jaja mian. With only 1 hour to spare, we literally ran to a nearby river @ Fukushima to catch the sakura bloom. Then it was time to head back to Tokyo. Due to some miscommunication, we waited half an hour for my Japanese friend, Mamiko -- she mistaken that we would be coming the next day! Luckily her apartment was 1 min walk from the train station. She cooked a yummy spaghetti dinner for us and her boyfriend and my colleague, Tachi-san joined in. The gathering finally ended at 11.30pm.
"Tokyo -- shopping and food"
Apr 19 : Due to the bad weather forecast, we discarded our plan to go Hakone. Instead, we visited the famous Tsukiji market and had a fresh sushi lunch -- tried abalone sushi for the first time! Then we made a stop at Shinjuku to check out the location of Asuka Hotel (where we were staying for our last nite in Tokyo). Did some shopping and I bought a pair of Nike slip-on shoes. Met Mamiko and Tachi-san for dinner at Kokubunji -- thanks to their recommendation, we tried interesting dishes, mainly fishes.
Apr 20 : Woke up early to bid Mamiko farewell and we left our baggage at Asuka Hotel. Went shopping for tk's camera and my phiten stuff. Had a Spanish lunch before heading to the Big Ferris Wheels at Tokyo Teleport. Weather was cloudy but still have a great view of the city. Rushed back to Shinjuku to check in to hotel and then to check out the sports stuff at Okachimachi. Met up with my ex-colleagues for dinner at Tachikawa -- many dishes of beef, steak, cow tongue! It was great meeting them and an enjoyable evening spent :)
Apr 21 : We overslept but still managed to check out of the hotel at 10am. Well, it was a holiday anyway. We put our backpacks in the locker at Ueno and went to my favorite haunt in Tokyo, Asakusa. Lots of pp as it was Saturday. We had part 1 of lunch of monja and then followed by Ichiran Ramen at Ueno -- unique shop with a questionaire to select choices of soup base, noodle type etc. We took the Keisei rapid train to Narita Airport. After checking in our luggage, we went for last minute shopping. At the immigration check, I was dismayed to be told that my bottle of shochu would be consifcated! We didn’t know that there was a change in regulation that no liquid of more than 100ml was allowed on board and packed the bottle of shochu in tk's day pack. After some protest, they allowed me to re-checkin that bottle as lugguage -- phew! Both of us boarded the plane bound for home... A very fun holiday indeed!
The joy of travel is to meet up with friends and enjoy a happy meal together!