Welcome to day 2 of the wonderful Gunma Golden Guide sponsored by JR East. Enjoy!
We woke up rather early because we needed to leave to drive to Kusatsu. They served us breakfast at the hotel and it was very Japanese. Not much in the way of breakfast as we Americans would think it to be. If you have been following me long enough you would have read about the first encounter with Japanese breakfasts. (You can read about it here) It was basically the same without the buffet. I can’t eat heavy food like that in the morning so I just stuck to basic foods like fish and rice with some juice, and a little bit of tofu.
After breakfast, some people went back to the onsen once more, but I went back to my room to rest some more before check out. We left the hotel a little late because not everyone was in the lobby. Probably because they had gone to the onsen. Once we were all ready, we were crammed into a small bus and taken to Kusatsu. We picked up a tour guide along the way, who happened to speak English as he had spent 12 years in the western part of the US. He was excited to be speaking English with most of us. (Not everyone could speak English).
On January 23rd, Mt. Shirane (in Kusatsu) erupted. One person from the Japanese defense force was killed and 10 others were injured from the blast. Thank goodness, it wasn’t worse. As a result of the explosion, volcanic ash was everywhere, then it had snowed again and there were patches of fresh clean snow on top of ash covered snow. It also still smelled of ash. The park we went to has been closed to the public since the eruption, but they made an exception for us and other licensed professionals. The park is going to be reopened to the public on April 7th. It is a little sad to not have a peak there anymore, it was a beautiful mountain.
We were instructed in how to put on snowshoes which was really quite easy. Some people had a hard time getting their straps on properly or putting the shoes on the wrong feet, so it took a while. Because of leaving late, and people taking a long time to put their shoes on, we were unable to visit an onsen in Kusatsu. Unfortunate, but it could not be helped.
It was difficult to figure out how to walk in the shoes at first. You had to keep your feet a little further apart than usual, plus you had to lift your feet higher than normal. I kept tripping over myself until I got the hang of it. Every so often, the guide would stop to explain some nature to us, or talk about the location. The weather was quite warm so all the places the sun hit had no snow. We had to hike in a sort of zigzag pattern.
During WWII, the train line that now runs from Takasaki to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi was built for steel mining purposes. After WWII, the line was demolished and wasn’t rebuilt for the public until the mid-60s. The line was also extended to accommodate tourists. In fact, the original train that was built specifically for that line, the Gunma train 115, recently retired on March 16th. I was told that they actually held a sayonara ceremony for the train. In the near future, they will close all train stations past Naganohara-Kusatsugushi because more and more people are leaving. Many schools in that area are merging and others are closing entirely. Whole communities are being uprooted and relocated because of the state of the economy. (Japan is suffering from a shrinking population, but that is topic for another day).
During our hike, we came across one of the old ore mining spots. The quality is not that good so they no longer mine for steel in Kusatsu. Just across from the ore mining was what I believe they called the “Golden Triangle.” We were in Gunma, but we were just a 600-meter hike in either direction from Nagano or Niigata. I tried to take a good photo but so was everybody else so it didn’t work out for me.
Along the hike, we saw animal tracks, bear scratches, and ash. Lots and lots of volcanic ash. We weren’t that close to Mt. Shirane and it was amazing to me how far the ash traveled.
By the time we reached the top, my shoulders and neck were about to give out and I needed to stop, but thankfully we made it to the peak (or as much of the peak as we could access) and could take a break from hiking. We took our snowshoes off and walked around the natural hot spring while taking pictures. The acidic level was extremely high. The guide kept joking with us about swimming in it. He said, “If you have ever wanted to know what a REAL hot spring feels like, by all means jump in…..You will die, but at least you will know what it was like.”
Seeing the source of a hot spring was really neat. The water was coming from the Earth. I had never seen that before. It was boiling. As it flowed down the mountain, it cooled enough for the moss to grow alongside it. That particular moss is the only life that can survive by the water. It needs a specific acidic level to flourish. Some places use calcium to neutralize the water for the people to use as onsens, but that kills the moss, and when the moss dies, it hurts other parts of the ecosystem. As a result, they have started making nature preserves in various parts of the mountain. This is something they do specific to Gunma, as Gunma has over 1000 natural hot springs. No other area of Japan comes close to that number.
On the hike down, we took the normal trail that was mostly not covered in snow, so we didn’t need our snowshoes. We carried our shoes down the mountain and had cup ramen for lunch.
After lunch, we stopped by a souvenir shop, mostly for the restrooms. I bought some miso ice cream and it was so savory! I was afraid to eat it, but I am so glad that I bought it. It was absolutely delicious. It was similar to salted caramel. I recommend you try it if you can.
At that point, we hopped on a train (of course a train. JR sponsored it after all). Back in Takasaki station, they gave us Joetsu train line beer. I don’t drink beer, so I gave it to my husband. Some other people also don’t drink beer so they gave me theirs as well. I ended up with 5 bottles of beer. My husband said that it was good and that he liked it, so I guess that is nice.
It was a wonderful trip and I had a great time. I enjoyed meeting the people that I met. I love meeting people from other countries. This tour had people from all over the world. It was a lot of fun. I love Japanese culture and nature, and this tour was perfect as most of the things we did I had yet to experience. I appreciate the opportunity to have been a part of the Gunma Golden Guide trip. Thank you JR East for your wonderful sponsorship!
If you ever get the chance to visit Japan, please come and check out Gunma. There are a lot of things to see. Most people only visit Tokyo, but I feel that if you limit yourself to only the big cities, you miss out on what true Japanese culture really is. There are city cultures, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Okinawa, then there is Japanese culture, which you don’t really get to fully experience unless you distance yourself away from the cities.
Please come to Gunma!