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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

Japan - Day 2 - Ikaho & drifting up Mount Haruna

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

Japan - Day 2 - Ikaho & drifting up Mount Haruna

A man fishing on Lake Haruna, Gunma, Japan
Lake Haruna, Gunma, Japan

Strap in, it's a long one! It may be too much info for some, but for those planning on ever travelling Japan, hopefully you can get some good info from it too! For the rest of you's, hopefully you can enjoy the deail and see the silly we may find ourselves in from time to time.

So we get up bright and early from our capsules knowing we've a long day ahead. Loaded with luggage, we decide to walk from Ningyochō to Tokyo station via the Imperial Palace gardens. As it's early, and everything shopping/entertainment in Japan seems to kick in to life about 10/11am, we knew the Palace probably wouldn't be open, but Marc suggested we could nip to a 7-Eleven and get breakfast while enjoying it in their gardens. I'd also singled out the gardens as somewhere I may like to shoot with the models later in the trip, so it could be a good win/win scouting mission for me too.

It's a reasonably straight forward walk, but it needs mentioning again.. Japan is hot in the summer, really HOT! Walking for half an hour to 40mins any other day in the UK would be 'down the road', a simple little thing to do casually where we could get to know the local views better, but in Japan, in summer, and with luggage and a camera bag, it's something else! Thankfully, when we got to the gardens, there was a massive public drinking fountain. I could literally ring sweat out of my t-shirt we were all that soaked through, so replacing those fluids was a lifesaver. Less fortunately, it becomes abundantly clear that while the gardens are public and not behind palace walls as we had researched on the map, what it doesn't tell you on Dr Google is that you're not allowed on the grass - "hey, at least I know not to drag the models here later" I thought through a haze of dehydration, sweat and hunger. We head to the station figuring this is our best option for food but feeling rank from the sweat of our previous ill-fated exploration. The joy of their outdoor cooling pavement water system thingy outside the station is a welcome relief anda talking point.. there's nothing like it in the UK, well, other than maybe those fountains that shoot up streams of water that kids play in, but this was solely for a practical reasons. Anyways, I digress from our breakfast mission. Japanese stations require you to pass through ticket gates, and at this point we're still clueless as to the (not so) intuitiveness of Japanese stations and their layouts, so you second guess what you can and can't go through and what passes are required without incurring unnecessary costs just to pass through gates for food. We look at Google Maps, and that sends us up, down and around a nearby building in search of a 7-Eleven. We search nearly ever floor of a building as we're sure this 7-Eleven is in it, only to find out it's on the periphery on the outside. Hot, sweaty, uncomfortable, and after a few expletives and moans, we've come to the conclusion that Japan is unnecessarily confusing and unintuitive for a British mind to navigate via Google... and we've not even tried finding our train yet and made it out of Tokyo!

Ikaho sign at the bottom of the 365 stone steps, Gunma Japan

We somehow work out our platform at this immense station and also work out we can JR pass it for most of the end of the journey, but need to change part way early(ish) on. Cool, simple enough, we can use our IC card for some of the journey from Tokyo to our station change, and then ride the JR to Shibukawa Station before taking the bus to our hotel, the Ikaho Grand. IC cards work by tapping in wirelessly at your departure gate, and tapping out at the destination, and it then deducts the balance from the card - it's much easier than buying tickets for every non JR journey, plus they can be used on many buses too.. or so we thought. We get to the station change, and our next train is on the same platform and the very next train (I think), either way, it doesn't occur to me until we're on it and moving with our JR passes covering our asses, that we didn't tap out, so how the hell is this going to work and pan out? "Hopefully we can nullify it the next day upon return, and at worse the card just thinks we've been in the station all night or something... hopefully" one muses, possibly out loud to the others in a state of mild panic, but hey, if all else fails we can play the dumb foreigner card, or at worse, we've lost about a tenner on a now possibly non-functioning IC. The bus journey is pretty uneventful, and we pay cash, so thankfully we can move on from transport for now!

Ikaho-Jinja Shrine at the top of 365 stone steps, Gnma, Japan
Ikaho-Jinja Shrine

Ikaho-Jinja Shrine We arrive long before our check in at the hotel, but as with most places, they allow you to drop off your luggage. We've only got a day here, and we saw some funky places on the way via the bus, and also via the local tourist boards near the hotel. As with everywhere in Japan, there's a million awesome looking shrines to be found, but you won't get around to seeing half of them, especially if you're travelling with spontaneous people of the ilk of "let's get on this bus, it's got to go up Mount Haruna, or to that one awesome looking shrine on the board" - we did.. it didn't. It was always the aim to go to the lake at the top of Mount Haruna as it passes through the roads that are the basis of the anime 'Initial D', a favourite of the nephews, so we rode the bus either to the end, or to where the driver said we could get on one to go to the Lake (I can't remember which), which apparently now according to Google maps, was all of about a 13-minute walk away.

It did take us to that Ikaho sign above, though. Ikaho town in centred around these 365 stone steps, with all these quaint cute buildings guiding the route to the top, with a few little hidden side alleys, and of course with it being Japan, many a small shrine or temple too.. including the Ahiru Shrine, which is covered in rubber ducks for some reason.

Ahiru 'duck' Shrine - bring and leave your own rubber duck!?
Ahiru 'duck' Shrine

Now is the perfect time to tell you about my knees, because this will be an issue later on in Kyoto too. They are all kinds of fucked! I've known this for years, and trying to explain it to people that don't understand, is near impossible! The amount of force my body needs to exert in the instance that any resistance is added to my knees; it completely blows me out. People want to suggest it's a fitness thing, but it isn't, I'll walk most people under the table on the flat in a decent pair of shoes, it's my chosen method of transport, but the second you add in an incline or steps... damnn! I've had some suggest that the muscles around the joint aren't used enough either, so are weak and need strengthening.. again, it's my method of transport, plus I used to love the rowing machine at school and would bike ride everywhere, I probably use them more than most of my others, and that may have been the problem, between that, Tae Kwon Do, drumming and getting old I guess - i think they're fucked. It's no exaggeration that I can't even get on a bike up a hill these days as I don't have the patience to be in a gear where you need to do a million rotations for a single mile an hour, and then any resistance to conquer that is agony. I liken it to getting a tattoo. It hurts only when the needle is in, and the second you remove the needle, aka lose the resistance, it's sweet relief - tell that to the lungs that think they're being overworked and the steps that aren't going away, however!

Basically, it sucks going up 365 steps. Especially when you want to enjoy all the quirks of this layered stepped path up to the Ikaho-Jinja Shrine, but then having to stop every so often, and not due to exploring, but due to the pain and being blown out, it sucks really bad! I did not come to Japan to not do this shit, however! I get up there eventually and let the others go off exploring some hill path while I recover and take pictures of the shrine that they're underwhelmed by because it's not quite as cool as the big Buddha one on the board, but for me, it's sweet relief and a little taste of Japan that i'm happy to digest. After all, this is the first chance we've had to take anything in in Japan, those quaint steps and those traditional buildings leading up to it, a cute little town on this incline with a shrine at the top, which with good knees, would be a lovely little place to explore, and I intended on doing so a little more so on the way down.

It's also the place I get chatting to a Japanese native who's travelled to have a look around too. I have a look at the opening path up to the rather large hill (mountain) where the others had gone, mostly to see if I fancied the challenge, and as i'm firing off some shots, he comes around the corner, so I 'dozo' (it means go ahead in Japanese) so he doesn't feel awkward or as though he's intruding, and then we start chatting. He's an older gent compared to myself again, and he's seemingly wanting to test his English and enjoy conversing with a foreigner, and again is not at all bothered by my tattoos. We make small talk about where we're from, where we're going, how hot it is.. mostly in English of course because my Japanese really ain't that good, and then he informs my that Kyoto, which is where we're heading to next, will be even hotter than here and Tokyo... brilliant.

When we both stumble trying to explain ourselves in more detail, me using a little Japanese to hopefully bridge the gap too, we dip in to Google for pictures like when he tells me about the rope way. Now at this point i'm not sure if he means a zipline or cable cars as he's already explained there's a skating racing rink of sorts up there and a new attraction being built, so maybe there's a little action park with a few other quirky things up the mountain? I'm showing him pictures of a cable car, which it transpires is what a rope way is.. an American term maybe? I tell him we call them cable cars in the UK, and he seems intrigued by this terminology. I'm telling him I'm here with my brother in Japanese because it's easier than 'in-law' in either language, and 'his kids' because nephews is not vocab either of us have in us either, just as Linc comes down the steps having left Marc and Dex to rope way it down to the bottom. It becomes a bit easier with a bit of pointing at Linc to explain the whole family situation. Again, a lovely interaction with a 'local'.

Me and Linc then go and have an explore down the stone steps, dipping in an out of alleys, taking pics, and in pretty good time meet the others at the bottom for another impulsive, let's jump on a bus and hope again. This time, after a 'should we shouldn't we' false start, we get on a bus where we manage to confirm with the driver that it's going to the lake. Buses in Japan have Kana written on their display when pulling up, so it's no help if you can't read Japanese, and Marc suggests that if it's on time, it's the one we need to be on. The problem here is, that, this isn't a one side of the road or other type bus stop, but one that every bus going anywhere stops at, however, I can't fault the solid logic as Japan have a reputation for their public transport being on time. If you're reading this from else where in the world somehow, we here have a saying here in the UK... 'you wait all day for a bus, and two come along at once!'. Now that usually references luck, and how maybe you bust your balls for something, and then you practically get it handed to you on a plate a second time once you've already achieved it, or you finally get into a relationship and suddenly the whole world declares its love for you, amongst other variations.. but it's based on the fact that public transport in the UK is utter shit, it'll be late, and then two will come at once.. so it's quite literal.

Anyway, you may think that talking to the driver is an easy thing to do aside from the language barrier, but in Japan, most buses have doors where you get on midway up the bus and the ones by the driver are closed until you get off, where you either tap out, or pay after picking up an automated ticket that shows the outward stop where you got on. Trying to be Japanese polite, we're not sure of the custom here, right until a local gets to the midway doors and shouts down the bus at the driver from the halfway point for confirmation... "well, if it's good enough for him, that's what we're gonna do from here on in". We head up the mountainous winding roads, eagerly trying to recognise bits of Initial D and are all smiles when we see the exact lay-by where they start their races. The anime may only be based on Mount Haruna, but it's there alright, so it's cool to see. Needless to say, every petrol station we see in and around the mountain during the rest of our journeys by Haruna, we're trying to work out whether it's the one Takumi works at.

Lake Haruna

There's not too much to say up at the lake. It's a really cool little place with not too much going on, or at least not while we were there, as the boat houses etc were all closed. There was some form of entertainment with go karts and horse riding I think, but we didn't really explore that and went for the views. On the other side we could see hotels and such too, but no action either. You could happily chill with the family in that spot for a quiet picnic if you were localish and not worry about people too much. There was the odd family playing ball with their kids, some people fishing, and in the distance people going up 'little Fuji' on the cable car, but not many around at all. I'm chuffed we went though as it's a part of Japan that I doubt many tourists make the effort for, and we'd never have ever considered it either if it weren't for Intial D.

After a bit, we figured there might be an open air public Onsen because of another tourist board suggesting so, so we walked a dirt trail around part of the lake. It eventually bought us to a fully enclosed Onsen. We looked at the restaurant or something which was a part of it to see if we could eat, but it was closed. Here we did meet a rather friendly cat however! It was at this point that we realised that we had no idea when the last bus down was, and as a good bit of fortune would have it, we happened upon a bus stop just down and over from the Onsen, and figured that the only way was down, surely? The cat followed us. Soon we caught what looked to be (on the bus stop sign) the very last bus down, and with about 15 minutes to spare. Baring in mind it was still light, it couldn't have been much later than 5.30pm, so that could have been awkward! One of a few lucky moments that shone upon us during our trip.

I'll chat about our Onsen hotel in blog Day 3 as we spend much of that travelling... sorry!



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