26 August 2013

Into the Clouds While Avoiding Karuizawa

Tokyo has been unbearably hot the past few weeks.  Sunday brought brief respite, with clouds and drizzle bringing slightly cooler temperatures.

My younger son Henry and I had planned to escape the heat by head a one-day trip to Nagano, hopping an early Chuo Line express, riding up the hill from Chino through Tateshina, and then on to Sakudaira or Ueda for the train home.  Nagano at least would be cooler and less humid than Tokyo, and our route would take us into the upper reaches of Tateshina/Yatsugatake area -- at the least we would climb to over 1750 meters elevation.

We saw lots of groups of deer roaming the forest.
We pull off for a stop.
Starting to get wet!
Me too.
Indeed, the heat was no problem, as we climbed the Venus Line in a very gentle, misting rain.  By the time we got to 1500 meters elevation, however, the mist had turned into steady rain.  Even at this elevation, however, it was a warm, summer rain.

After one stop, we debated our course, deciding not to try Mugikusa Pass, but instead head north over Suzuran Pass, then down to Shirakaba-ko and Daimon Pass, then the 35+ kilometers down to Ueda to hop the Nagano Shinkansen back to Tokyo.

As we climbed toward Suzuran Pass, a familiar rider with Saitama Audax vest descended by us, moving too fast for any greeting, and looking as if he had not shaved in a few days.  This made me realize that we were on the SR600 course now, working backwards along the route Jerome had ridden less than 3 days earlier.  The Saitama rider must have on the same route.
A rider approaches out of the clouds. 

At Daimon Pass, just about Lake Shirakaba.  Right turn for the descent to Ueda.
At Ueda Station, we saw that the reserved seats (shi-tei-seki) were sold out for the next 4 hours or more -- the electronic display a sea or red "x" marks, even the more expensive "green car" tickets.  We booked unreserved seating tickets (jiyuu-seki) and joined the snaking line on the platform near one of the boarding spots at the front end of the train.  Cars 1, 2 and 3 were unreserved and 4 through 8 were reserved.

Of course, Ueda is only the 2nd stop for Nagano Shinkansen trains headed to Tokyo, after the start in Nagano City.  We need not have worried -- this train line has been running since the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and not since February 22, 1998, the day of Closing Ceremony, has anyone boarding at Nagano or Ueda has ever failed to get a seat in one of the unreserved cars.  Passengers boarding at Sakudaira (3rd stop) also managed to sit down, though some were separated from their traveling companions.  

Only at Karuizawa (4th and last stop in Nagano) did people not find seats.  One lucky and aggressive male traveler at the front of the line managed to grab the last open seat in our car, and the other 20 or so who boarded our car from both ends stood in the aisles or in between the cars.  So if you visit Karuizawa and want to come back to Tokyo on a summer Sunday afternoon, you must get a reserved seat and be sure to catch your train ... or you will be standing for the 70+ minutes journey.

This I can add to my list of things I do not like about Karuizawa.  What else is there, you might ask?

Well, my last complaint was during the SR600, when I arrived at the top of Usui Pass and entered the town from the East at around 5:20AM, looking forward to some breakfast -- at least a convenience store, maybe more -- a Gusto family restaurant or Mc-Cafe.  Unlike EVERY other place I have been in Japan, it seems in Karuizawa even the convenience stores are shuttered until 6AM.  There was no Gusto in town, and the McDonalds I passed had a sign that it opens only at 6:20AM.  I rode through to Naka-Karuizawa and turned onto the Nihon Romantic Kaido, found a 7-11, and took a forced 30+ minute nap, hungry and slightly cold, as I waited for the opening hour.

These just add to the opinion formed when Jerome and I rode to Karuizawa from Tokyo in 2010, and arrived from the south having seen some spectacularly beautiful valleys, streams and mountains, only to join a sea of cars, sitting in the heat, full of people -- even leaving their cars to buy ice cream for the wait.  My wife tells me that Tokyoites like Karuizawa because it offers an opportunity for a "big city lifestyle in the countryside".  Indeed, if the traffic jam I witnessed was at all representative, it does just that!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

a sea of cars is what Ludwig and I ran into two (three?) summers ago on the Venus line...the cars had come to a complete standstill on a section called kurumazaka-toge I believe. Otherwise the vistas as you describe are spectacular. How nice you have found such a nice cycle companion in your own son Henry!