On March 17th-18th, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a guided tour called “Gunma Golden Guide” sponsored by JR East. It was open to foreigners residing in Japan. Only foreigners and no Japanese. The guide was completely in Japanese, so you needed a good grasp of the language to be able to participate. I want to share everything that we did during the tour. It was a lot of fun and I don’t want to forget anything. So while it is still fresh in my mind, I shall write it out for you all.
On Saturday, March 17th, we all gathered and met at Takasaki station. After we signed in, we were taken to the shinkansen platform and given a small tour. The guide explained that there was a double decker shinkansen that runs from Takasaki to Tokyo, and it was the first double decker bullet train in the world. It has sense been expanded past Gunma. While we were there, they just so happened to be connecting two cars together. I had never seen that before it was quite interesting. They basically just snap the cars into place and it attaches. I was worried that it wouldn’t hold or that they would need something else to put them together but it was just snapping it into place. The guide also explained how the workers communicate with the driver. When the train is that long and has that many cars, sometimes they need 2 drivers, one in front and one in back. If the train is very long, then they would need two sets of breaks. Very interesting I thought. As far as communicating with each other, two workers on a platform will wave an all clear flag or a problem flag. The worker in the train will remote contact the driver. They do this on every platform.
After the brief train tour, we walked outside and got onto a bus. We were headed for strawberry picking. I didn’t know this before, but parts of Gunma are famous for their strawberries. I found it interesting and it made me happy, as I love strawberries so much. Plus it also explained why people at work were constantly selling strawberries. Before heading in, they briefly explained the rules and how we can only eat and not take any berries with us. We had to wash our hands and shoes. Why our shoes? I don’t know. They never explained. They gave us a little tray with sweetened condensed milk and a place to put our leafy bits. They told us which rows our group was allowed to pick from and I started right at the front and slowly worked my way down. Other people were wondering around, taking pictures, hanging with their friends, or looking for the largest berries. Not me. I was like a machine. It didn’t matter how big the berries were. I grabbed any and all strawberries that were ripe, and just moved down the line. I must have eaten like 30 strawberries. I barely had time to say anything; I was mostly eating. The only time I took a break was to get more sweetened condensed milk. If you have never tried that with your strawberries, I highly recommend that you do. It makes the berries taste 10 times better. After getting my milk, a guide told me that we only had about 7 minutes left. I ran back to my post and quickly shoved berries into my mouth. If it were up to me, I would have eaten the whole row. Other people were getting bored, but to me it felt like we were only there for 10 minutes when it was actually 45. Basically what I am saying is that that place was my heaven. I had died and gone to heaven. A giant green house full of Japanese strawberries??? YES PLEASE! Just before leaving, I grabbed the biggest berry I could find and slowly ate it. The guides were laughing at me because I was trying to enjoy its savoriness. I must have looked silly. Then they were shocked at the amount of leafy bits in my tray. I had told them right before entering that I love strawberries. I guess they didn’t know how much I loved them.
After we sadly, and unfortunately left the strawberry field, we went to Shibukawa (or somewhere near it) to do kokeshi painting. Kokeshi dolls are traditional wooden Japanese dolls.
The lady explained how to use the special paint, and how to set the paint into the wood. She gave each of us a little wooden doll and we all began sketching, which turned out to be useless, as when you paint over the pencil, you can’t see it anymore. Some people spent a long time making their designs perfect and it ended up being all for naught. They just had to draw it all over again over the paint. I painted mine as a potted cactus with a flower on its head. The Japanese got a real kick out of it and kept taking pictures of my cute little cactus.
While waiting for our kokeshi dolls to be glazed we walked around the store. I was tempted to buy several little dolls that were really cute, but fought the urge knowing I had my own little doll on the way. Once they all were ready, we lined them all up and took pictures. Some people were very creative and made really cute dolls, and some were very artistic.
After the doll painting, we went to a restaurant to have mizusawa udon. It is a special type of udon made in Ikaho, Gunma. The soup was very delicious. Everything about the lunch was fantastic. I loved it. I was still full from the strawberries so I couldn’t eat everything. There was every tempura.
After lunch, we headed to Ihako onsen and had a historical tour of the area. I had been there a few times before, but this time I was able to have more background information. Did you know that Hawaii was once occupied by Japan? Apparently, the Hawaiians chose Ikaho has their home until they declared independence.
After the tour, we were taken to a game shop and other members played some games, like bottle cap shooting, archery, and soccer. I just watched. For me personally, I would have rather continued the tour to learn more history than to stop suddenly and play games. It was weird to me. At first, I thought they had decided to do that because some of the participants had lied on their application about their Japanese abilities and the workers noticed. The tour consisted of some pretty advanced terms and expressions. I thought that the guides thought it would be better to cut the tour short and to play games instead because of them, but no, it was actually scheduled and part of the plan. Those who played got some toys and other prizes and to me it felt juvenile. Most of us were in our 30s but I guess they just wanted us to experience all things in Ikaho or sometime.
We were headed to Shima onsen next. On the bus, they wanted to show us the Ghibli film “Spirited Away,” but the DVD must have been messed up because it kept skipping. They insisted that we watch it, so they had us watch the sketched version of the film instead which was weird. I fell asleep so I didn’t watch it. I had seen it before back in college. The reason we were watching it, was because the film’s scenery was based on Shima onsen. There were several scenes in the movie that were almost exact copies of Shima onsen.
<-- The animated scene from "Spirited Away."
^ The real place
It was cool to be able to see the actual place. It looked almost the exact same as in the film. The otaku (anime fans) took several pictures and acted out some scenes from the movie then we left to go to a Hello Kitty Café.
We ate ice cream and pancakes. Again, this was another part of the tour that I thought we spent too much time in and it was pointless. I mean, it’s cool that they have such a café but at the same time, we didn’t need to spend hours there. After eating the desserts, I went shopping at the gift shop and only bought Gunma-chan things because I think Gunma-chan is cuter than Hello Kitty. Then I was just bored. I waited around for a while before we left to head to our hotel.
The hotel we stayed at was a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese styled hotel. The rooms have tatami mats, they give you yukatas to wear around the hotel, there are several onsens, and the food is all traditional Japanese food. Inside the hotel, you cannot wear your shoes. You have to put them in a shoe closet and wear the hotel slippers everywhere. We all got situated in our rooms, then came back down for lantern lighting. While I thought it was nice and beautiful, it was just too cold for me to be standing outside for that long while they took pictures. After the lanterns, we had dinner. Our dinner was nabe and sukiyaki. I gave away my meat in exchange for other pescatarian friendly foods. The most delicious part of the dinner wasn’t even the food actually, it was the yuzu wine. That was delicious! I didn’t even know that they made yuzu wine. It mostly tasted of sake than wine, but you couldn’t really taste the alcohol at all. There was hint of an after taste, but it disappeared quickly. Very nice flavor. I hope you can have the chance to try yuzushu.
After dinner, we went to see a story reading where this sweet little old lady read stories in Japanese and someone in the background animated it. It was cute. They told the story of the ugly duckling then they told a Japanese fable of greed and the trouble it causes you. It was funny and cute. Then there was a wadaiko (Japanese war drums) demonstration. The little old lady made funny remarks about how handsome the men were moving those drums around. They then did a little stand up which I am surprised I even understood. Usually they do puns I don’t get, but she was saying things that I could relate to in Japan so I found it funny.
After the show, we had dessert. Dessert in Japan means fruit, so we had fruit. After dessert, my roommates and I went to the onsen. It was really nice. It was a natural hot spring so you could smell sulfur a little bit, but not much. They had a hot pool and a cooler pool. We went to the hot one first because it was the first one we saw, but when it got too hot for us, we decided to move to the cooler one. Because we were in the hot one, the cool one felt like a normal swimming pool so we ended up staying and talking for a long time.
I didn’t fall asleep until around midnight, but once my head hit that futon, I was really tired and fell asleep. The futon was so cozy. It was like sleeping in a clouded cocoon.
That’s all for day one! I hope to update you on day two tomorrow so please check back later.