Peter P Kavanagh

Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route – more mountains and tunnels!

October 18th 2022:

At breakfast, Keiren updates me on my new found friend from Daruma last night – apparently he’s a legendary pisshead and can be very off the wall indeed.
Luckily I get a lift to the next station along – as I’m heading north, and I really didn’t want to lug my suitcase and rucksack down 462 stairs… pretty similar vibe to this one, but at least the tunnel is at ground level (yes, that’s daylight at the end!):

Trains via Joetsu and Toyama (first shinkansen of the trip!) take me to Tateyama Station, en route to the Tateyama Kurobe alpine route. This is an amazing journey on multiple forms of transport which was used to transport the men and materials to build the highest dam in Japan – Kurobe Dam.
I had hoped to take a sidetrip via taxi to Shōmyō Falls, the highest waterfall in Japan, but on arriving at Tateyama station it transpired that taxis needed to be called from Toyama – 30 minutes away. This would mean I wouldn’t make the next connection to my accommodation so sadly had to abandon the idea. Plus it was pissing it down. Went for chicken kara’age and chips at the nearby cafe instead, a good call.

First mode of transport was the Tateyama Cable Car, an inclined one that travels from 475m above mean sea level (AMSL) to 977m. This clip is actually from the return trip a couple of days later, and shows the hitchhiking track workers that hopped on the service car at the front:

This image is from the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route website, and shows the whole route from one side to the other:

I was going to do the round trip to Kurobe Dam, and to give me some more time on the way I was staying at Kokuminshukusha Tateyamaso lodge at Midagahara. The Tateyama Highland Bus was the next leg, taking us from 977m to 1930m at Midagahara. It’s a bus – I didn’t take any photos 😁. Mind you, between April and early June this bus takes you through some pretty spectacular scenery:

Snow walls up to 20m high!

On arriving at Bijodaira the visiblity had worsened, and when the bus dropped me at the lodge it was snowing too:

Ah well, a lovely mountain lodge and traditional Japanese style room – laid out my futon for the night then headed for dinner. All the meals at Tateyamaso were outstanding – first one was a set meal with 4 different types of fish each prepared in a different way – sashimi, grilled, deep fried and even a neat little burner set which they lit as it was put on the table. 5 mins later steam starts to come out, you remove the lid and have simmered salmon and vegetables. Plus the usual rice, miso soup and pickles.

October 19th 2022:

Next morning was a big improvement – clear blue skies and chilly. Got complimented on my chopsticks skills again at breakfast, nice chat with a retired lady from Niigata.

Bus to Murodo raised us from 1930m to 2450m, proper cold and fabulous views of the now snowy Mount Tateyama and its neighbours:

Next transport: the Tateyama Tunnel Trolley Bus through the heart of the mountain, dropping from 2450m to 2316m. Electric buses, powered by overhead wire pickup, they are actually classified as trains despite not running on rails:

The section highlighted with blue lights marks where a fracture zone was encountered. In May 1957, about 1,600 m from the tunnel entrance, 660 liters/second of ice cold groundwater and a large amount of sediment gushed into the tunnel. In this fracture zone, fine cracks in the bedrock had created a soft strata that stored the groundwater. This was the hardest part of the tunnel’s construction. A feat of civil engineering construction in its time, the tunnel finally broke through after seven months of struggle.

Came out at Daikanbo to some beautiful koyo – Japanese autumn leaf colours. Got good views of it on the way down in the Tateyama Ropeway, from 2316m to 1828m. Then the Kurobe Cable Car from Kurobedaira at 1828m to Kurobeko at 1455m.

Through the exit tunnel to the lake behind the dam itself, and my final transport on this route – the cruise ship Garube for a tour of the lake.

Walking the top of the dam and looking over the edge, you see the power of the water discharge from the dam face – this is tuned to match the water level behind the dam and the power consumption needs of the grid. At peak over the summer, 10-15 tonnes of water per second can be discharged – when I visited it was probably still around 6-8 tonnes per second. There’s even a rainbow!:

Kurobe Dam is a rather poignant spot for me, as it marks what should have been the start of a trail I was due to walk 5 years ago. The hike takes you through Kurobe Gorge, a spectacular place, with the trail cut into the cliff wall around 200ft up. Most places it just has a single guide wire bolted to the wall to hang on to. There is a saying: “There are no injuries in Kurobe Gorge”. Basically if you slip – you’re dead. Unfortunately when I was due to hike, a typhoon hit 2 days beforehand… (chronicled on this blog here).
Back through cable car, ropeway and trolley bus for stroll around the Murodo Jigokudani (literally, ‘hells’). A valley with a lot of volcanic activity – the smell of sulphur and rotten eggs was strong, and some trails had been closed off to stop people being overcome by fumes.

Decided a locally brewed beer in the snow was a good idea. Then bus back to Midagahara, and a walk around the wetlands – there’s a large area of alpine marshland crisscrossed with boardwalks. A beautiful spot.
Over another great dinner, was engaged in conversation by a few locals. One elderly guy said his wife described me as a ‘very nice gentleman’ 😁, but they were rather concerned whether I was cold – it was about 3degC outside, and I was in shorts and t-shirt… Went outside for a few mins dressed the same to snap a nice night time view of Toyama.

Gunma – Mountains and Tunnels

October 16th 2022:

Early train from Ueno to Echigo-Yuzawa in Niigata prefecture. This is north-north-west of Tokyo, about 150km. Familiar station – platform 0 was where I took the Snow Rabbit train on my way up to Sado Island in 2016.

Then a short way south over the border into Gunma, to a station called Doai. Heading south into the station drops off at a ground level platform. Walked to to the Tenjin Lodge, greeted by two lovely pups – and also one of the staff, Nena. Kieren the owner wasn’t around, he’s an Aussie who has lived there many years. It was perfect timing – dropped my case and rucksack, then she drove me straight to the bus stop for Takaragawa Onsen. Bus arrived 5 mins later. Then courtesy minibus from the bus stop to the Onsen.

Incredibly beautiful onsen, with some interesting decor in the reception areas. No photos in the spa of course – three mixed outdoor bathing pools plus a women-only one. Since it was mixed, bathing costumes were supplied – kind of a wrapround lightweight gown that had to be tied very carefully to avoid any wardrobe malfunctions!It’s often pictured on Instagram with snow all around, but the weather was perfect, clear blue skies and around 19degC. Soaked for an hour and a half, very chill out. Spotted 2 other westerners – German guy and a Brit.


Courtesy minibus back to the bus stop at 14:30, bus to Minakami by 15:22.

Nena had a recommendation for food – Daruma restaurant, a local izakaya run by an old chap who was a master at sushi.

Trains back north to Doai were infrequent, so had to time things carefully. 17:50 or 20:50 were the only ones that would work. Daruma wasn’t open for dinner until 18:00. So instead I found Octone Brewing – incredible craft brew pub, even growing their own hops! Wonderful beers and a great attitude and atmosphere.

Met a couple of American guys and a Canadian. Ron said to say hi to Kieren from ‘the obnoxious American’. He originally came to Japan with the US military for a year when he was 21, returned after to teach English and met his (also American) wife. They’ve been here 21 years now, he was contemplating whether they would move back to the States for his 2 daughters to go to college. Had some snacks there, then Family Mart for onigiri to take back to the lodge.

So now we come to Doai station, the reason that I ended up in this part of Japan in the first place. I had seen a short piece about it on Japan Railway Journal – I watch far too many NHK World programs. It has the deepest platform of any station in Japan, and is jokingly known as Japan’s Number One Mole Station (日本一のモグラ駅, Nippon ichi no mogura eki), due to the 462 steps and 10 minute walk to and from the trains. Wiki. The climb up the stairs is used as the opening in a novel and movie called Climber’s High, and fans often come here just to take pictures. The small office on the platform is wallpapered with handwritten notes from fans.
Octone Brewing are also using the constant 12degC temperature to age some of their beers.

A very eerie place.

October 17th 2022:

A few other guests at breakfast, but it seems I’ll be the only one there tonight. Decided it was time to start improving my physical fitness, so headed out on a hike up the valley below Mount Tanigawa – Tanigawadake. The valley was Ichinokura, and Keiren showed me the route to take me to the top of the road that would lead back down to the ropeway station.
He cautioned me to take a set of stone steps up, otherwise I’d end up with a much steeper 400m climb up through the forest. Needless to say I managed to miss said turnoff…. 😰

Fantastic scenery though, apparently Keiren does a circular hike around the peaks once a year in May, takes about 11 hours total. Must get fitter and might join him next time… Autumn colours (koyo) a little late this year but really starting to shine.

View from the trailhead:

Walked on down the road to the Tanigawadake Ropeway – ahead of me at one point I saw a Japanese macaque monkey eveying me up then making a hasty retreat up into the forest. Great views from the ropeway up, then on to a little chairlift with a spooky passenger ahead – it is nearly Halloween after all!


More great views from the summit, trails leading off along the ridge on both sides.

Bus back to Minakami for a few more Octone Beers, met Mark, one of the Americans again, and had a good chat. Another American, Dex, dropped by to return an empty CO2 cylinder – apparently he runs a small burger and beer bar nearby and Octone had helped him out when he ran out of gas on Saturday night. Great little community here.

On to Daruma izakaya for dinner. Small basement bar, elderly master (chef and owner) who spoke no English but luckily my Google Translate didn’t fail me. Went for kaisendon – various sashimi on a bowl of rice. I’d been warned about the portion size, big bowl of rice, plus 3 pieces each of 9 different proteins. Cooked omelette (tamagoyaki), squid, salmon, mackerel, shrimp, roe, tuna, smoked tuna, and what I thought was beef. And the fresh wasabi was out of this world.
Turns out on consulting with 2 local girls further along the counter that the last one was whale… 😱🐳.

Then my first experience on this trip of being adopted. Even older gent comes in, all smiles and chattering to the owner, rather concerning persistent cough though… anyway, ends up buying me sake, and declares me to be his friend. Great fun, and I made my excuses shortly after to tackle the Doai steps again. They hadn’t gotten any easier…

Amazing bar, Daruma dolls on the shelf

Having a ‘whale’ of a time…

After Corona… The Return!

Dear Diary…

so, after the shitshow of Covid (everyone says Corona here, as ‘v’ is a bit tricky for the Japanese), missed Olympics etc etc, I finally made it back. I’d hedged my bets and decided that Japan must have to resume visa-free travel for tourists by October, so booked flights for October 4th. Sadly the announcement finally got made on Sept 16th, and the date was… 11th October 😱.

Some rebooked flights later and…

October 12th/13th 2022:

Long but uneventful flight, with some detours to avoid tinpot dictators – Putin and KimJong.

Quarantine control checks very straightforward as I’d already registered my vaccination status on the MySOS app. Breezed through immigration, then thought my bag had been lost – until I realised it had gone past me 3 times unnoticed. Changed cases at the last minute while packing, haven’t used this one in years…

Tully’s for iced coffee, then monorail and Asakusa line to my hotel. Bags dropped, and on to February Cafe for cold brew, cheese toast, and a creme caramel topped with chestnut puree (a Mont Blanc) and a glacee chestnut – heaven! It’s been too long.

Evening: head for Shinjuku for dinner – Shinjuku station, west exit. Sanbangai St, home of Shinpachi Shokudo Shinjuku, syokudo and teishoku restaurant. Favourite set meal restaurant that James and I discovered on our first visit in 2015, set of grilled salted salmon, rice, miso soup, pickles and daikon. Looked through local BIC Camera and Yodobashi stores, new Google Pixel 8 just got released here… Temptation!

Then had a wander round the bar district of Golden Gai in Kabukicho. Dozens of tiny bars – most just 6 or 8 stools at the counter. Jetlag won, plus it was raining, so headed back to the hotel in Asakusa.

October 14th 2022:

Started the day with a visit to the Shibuya Sky observation deck – a stunning new office/shopping complex right next to the famous Shibuya Scramble crossing. It has an AstroTurf helipad 😁 and views all around.

As you look around from the centre, at 47 storeys high, all you can see is city… It has its green spots, and there’s Ocean in the distance, but no countryside.
And one of these days the earthquake proofing in all these high rises will get a proper workout… but life goes on.

At the bar, there’s a piano version of The Art Of Noise ‘Close to the Edit’ playing 😁 – my kind of vibe.

Lower floor shops are intense, the Japanese have such an incredible design aesthetic.

Hopped the train afterwards over the Rainbow Bridge to go and visit TeamLab Planets. I’m currently working my way through the whole of Peter Gabriel’s discography – current song ‘The Humdrum’ – ‘I ride tandem, with a random’ – mood.

On the way, passed by the large car park that was the site for the Sport Climbing events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Alas, our visit was not to be… Site still watched over by the Unicorn Gundam.

TeamLab Planets was a wild ride. They describe it thus: “teamLab Planets is a museum where you walk through water, and a garden where you become one with the flowers. There are four massive exhibition spaces and two gardens.” It’s a real trip, you enter walking up a carpeted incline with a stream running over your bare feet, then first stop is a room with soft, deep flooring like the world’s biggest bean bag. It only gets stranger from there.

Hitachino Beer Lab in Akihabara for beer and sausages. Then a nightcap at Beer Komo (was Campion Ale), followed by a stroll bacl through Asakusa.

October 15th 2022:

Started early, Ginza line train heading out to a suburb called Setagaya. I’d seen lots of info and photos about this area from an Instagram account I follow, @LisaInJapan – amazing photographer. Headed first to Sangen-jaya Station, and up to the observation deck in Carrot Tower. Great views over the area, and you can see Mount Fuji on a clear day – sadly today not quite clear enough.

Local train ride to the other end of the Tokyu Setagaya line, looking out for the cute train with lucky cats all over it – spotteed it at Shimo-Takaido:

Started to walk back along the line towards Sangenjaya, through nice little Tokyo neighbourhoods with – what else – a community rice paddy:

Along the way I found a nice little shop to give me my first taste of a delicacy I hadn’t tried yet – tayaki! A batter poured into shaped irons and then sweetened red bean paste as a filling, delicious, or as the Japanese say ‘oishii’ 😋. Then on to my goal – Gotokuji temple.

From Tofugu: “I’m sure many of us out there are familiar with the beckoning cat that greets customers in front of Japanese restaurants and stores. Known as the maneki neko, or literally “the beckoning cat”, the small doll is believed to be a lucky charm that brings in customers and money into the shop.

While there are several legends about the origins of this cat charm, one of the widely known story regards Gotokuji as the place of origin. Legend holds that the maneki neko originated back in Edo period, when a feudal lord from Hikone (a city in present-day Shiga Prefecture) passed by a temple in Edo. There, he met a cat that beckoned him to come into the temple. The lord followed the cat and decided to stop by the temple; soon after, a thunderstorm came by. The lord, who took shelter at the temple, became thankful of the cat’s deed; eventually, he collected enough funds to rebuild and claim the temple as his family temple, which eventually became Gotokuji. As time went on, people began to offer maneki neko figurines to the temple as a sign of gratitude when their wishes came true.”

There are a LOT of manekineko here… 😺

Train back to Sangenjaya, and a quick Google Maps search for ‘craft beer’ brought up “Beer jyuku MARIBANA Sangenjaya”. Walked past it twice before deciding it was the right place and to go in – very low key frontage with – of course – Japanese signage. Glad I did – 12 taps of mostly Japanese craft beer, and some great sashimi and edamame. And some… other… stuff 👀

Met two locals who spoke great English, one works with US and UK companies in the automotive software field. Just came from an over 50s soccer march which they won! They thought I must live in Japan to be able to have found that bar… and when they heard about my trips they decided I must be half Japanese already. Also got complimented on my skill with hashi – chopsticks – always nice to hear.

Quick run back to Asakusa to freshen up, then met with a local for dinner. Yaeko guided me and another couple on a food tour of Osaka on my last visit. She’s now based in Tokyo, working for an all-female startup (most unusual here) focused on B2C sales of cosmetics and lingerie. She’s also starting to work in the food tour guiding again now that tourists are heading back – busy young lady!
Meat sushi (heaven) and assorted sake for the win. Sushi was at Ebisu Yokocho Nikuzushi, located inside Ebisu Yokocho – and complex of tiny food stalls/pubs. Very lively as you can see below!

Funky bar

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