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…