Saturday, February 15th, 2014

It has been a crazy, crazy day. Very uncomfortable and very nervous about things now. I am not sure we are going to make our flight tomorrow, but I guess we can only hope.

The day started with our looking out the balcony window to see the trees draped in an amazing amount of snow and it was still coming down - this time in big clumps. We could not see the ski hills to the right. The ground is covered in at least eight inches of the stuff since last night. It is actually quite peaceful - So quiet as there are not many cars moving around and the snow really cuts down any noise.

Looking out of the window

Our final breakfast was Japanese - today a beautifully arranged rectangular plate of tamago (a cold rolled egg omelette that is slightly sweet), cured salmon and a couple of the preserved cherries which I am not a great fan off (too sour).


We were pretty much on our own in the eating area in the hotel. By the time we had breakfast most people had left skiing for the day or were on their way home.

Hello, anyone out there?

I had been doing checks of the trains to see what was happening and learned this morning that there were no trains (Shinkansen bullet trains or any others) running from Nagano (nor any buses). This was a bit…worrying…as it is unclear how else we might be able to get to Tokyo. I did not let it bother me too much because we were going to be in Nagano and we would see what we could see when we got there. But, the seeds of doubt…

Hotel car park...

We had arranged for our ski equipment to have been picked up yesterday after skiing at 4 pm but they are still leaning against the wall near the front door. The owner has assured us they will pick them up and not to worry. Ok, will not worry.

Waiting for the taxi

We had arranged the taxi to pick us up at 10:00 am. Our train was due to leave from Nagano at 11:30 so it was a bit tight but normally doable. The taxi eventually arrived at 10:15 which was quite impressive given the snow. It was hard driving as we left Hakuba with the main road largely unclear. The massive amount of snow on the road meant we skid a lot as we slowly made our way to Nagano. It was very pretty with the snow on all the buildings and trees.

Snow, snow, snow...

It is quite warm so the snow is quite heavy and clumpy everywhere.

Very pretty

The traffic was very bad as we slowed to a crawl approaching the main Nagano-Hakuba tunnel. Making our way to the toll booth a man in uniform came over to talk to the driver…The road was blocked and we would have to turn back. Fortunately, the driver assured us, there was the road that they used before the tunnel was built so we turned around and headed back to catch that.

More snow

Of course, this road was also very busy and not as good a road as the one we had been on. At one point we stopped at the top of a hill for quite some time not moving. After about 15 minutes the driver got out to have a look. A few minutes later he came back and told us he had no idea what the problem was. Another 15 minutes later we started creeping down the hill and saw several large coaches coming up the hill from the opposite direction who appear to have been blocking both lanes trying to get up it. Fortunately, that was the last of the major delays getting into Nagano and we eventually arrived at 12:30. An hour late for our train though I knew from what I had read that if this happened they would put you on a later train…just not reserved. Nagano was just as bad as Hakuba with masses of snow everywhere though they were beginning to get some of the roads clear as we pulled into the train station to find…chaos.

There are two Shinkansen tracks in Nagano and in front of the gates was a small easel with pictures of the tracks outside two or three feet deep in snow and no trains in sight. A sign above indicated that all trains today were cancelled. A large number of people were milling around trying to figure out what was going on, not helped by the fact that many of the staff spoke very little English and most of the people milling only spoke English. I knew that I had to move quickly so I got into a massive queue I saw for the ticket office. It was out the doors of the office and down the hall, down some stairs…I left mother in the middle of the hall with the luggage to see what I could do. As the line inched it’s way forward I noticed that the tourist information centre had a sign up outside: No hotel rooms in Nagano for tonight. Oh dear. The NHK television crew was there to film the chaos and frustration…

An hour or so later I was at the front of the queue and talking to someone behind the counter. They had a staff member who spoke English very well talking to each person in the queue and writing down what the person at the desk should do to help. I gave my slip over and they told me there were no trains for the day. I explained that I had to be in Tokyo for my flight (my flight was before mother’s) at 11:50 tomorrow. They gave me unreserved tickets for the first train…I had to also pay a bit of a fee to add the trip to the airport onto the top of the tickets (since we had not expected to be going straight to the airport - but rather the hotel near the airport on a local train for tonight - we only had train tickets to Tokyo).

When I got back to mother I explained the situation. She was freezing with the wind whipping straight through the open hall of the station. We left our luggage in the pile outside of the coffee shop and headed in. Luckily we found a table (though very close to the rather smelling smoking section) and mother went to get some drinks (tea for me, coffee for her).

I drank quickly then left her to talk to the people at the Tourist Information place next door. After queuing for five minutes I was told what I already know: No hotels, no buses and no trains. They told me that there were no car rentals either (it might not have helped since they would have wanted an “international driving permit” which neither of us had anyway). On the plus side, they did give me details on how I could get free wireless internet in their offices…Now it was getting serious.

I texted Mel. Told her (briefly) what was going on and had her check for hotels. Luckily, even though it was early in the morning, she picked up the text and started looking. If I wanted to use my phone for Internet it would have cost a fortune…

We went through the gates (please, no worries about tickets as there were no trains!) into the waiting room which was much warmer than outside. I left mother there while I went to see what I could find. I approached a few people who were talking to one of the staff who indicated that they might let us sleep in the waiting room or possibly a train overnight. There was a lot of confusion as another staff member seemed to suggest that neither of these things would happen and it was up to us to find somewhere to stay as the station closed at 11:00 pm and re-opened at 6:00 am in the morning. It was looking like we might be sleeping on the streets…

Mel texted me back. She had found a place 45 minutes drive away, about 10 miles. We were both so relieved. We headed down to the ground floor to join the rather slushy queue for the taxis. It was not a huge queue but there were not many taxis around. With the conditions and the fact that it is a Saturday I am sure this is why there were not as many as were obviously needed. We were getting frustrated, making muttering comments about one lady in front of us who took the best part of five minutes to get into the taxi. Mind you, there were no other taxis so she wasn’t holding anyone up…45 minutes later we were finally able to get into a cab. After a bit of explaining (thankfully he spoke some basic, broken English) he figured out where we were going. We finally were able to sit back in relative comfort and relax.

As the taxi driver continued I noticed that his GPS, which he had programmed for our destination, kept telling him to go in a particular direction and he kept ignoring it. I was confused and asked him to figure out what was going on. Eventually we understood: The direct route that he would normally use to get to the hotel, which was in a ski resort on the side of a local mountain, was unpassable so he would have to go around. Unfortunately, this meant that a drive of 10 miles was now a drive of more like 80 and soon enough we slowed to a crawl because of traffic. The road was covered with a layer of thick slush and ice making the journey extremely bumpy as well. At one point he gave up on the main road entirely and raced along a traffic-free back alley to our heart-stopping amusement. Thankfully he returned to the main road and we resumed our crawl.

In the car I wanted to make sure he was going to the right place (there was still a bit of doubt in the back of my mind) so I enabled the “roaming” internet on my phone so I could retrieve the email from Mel with the hotel details (including the name in Japanese which she tried to text to me but the characters were lost). As I quickly retrieved my email I started receiving texts about the costs I was incurring, literally, “You have spent £3.45 on Internet…”, “£5.17” (4 minutes later), “£15.51” (a minute later), “£25.85” (five minutes later). OMG. I shut it down quickly afterwards…my phone bill was going to be enormous with this as well as the 20-30 text messages I was exchanging with my wife as we continued our journey.

At Ueda, the next stop on the Shikansen from Nagano to Tokyo, he turned away from the town and into the resort area. It was now dark as we climbed up the remarkably clear road with massive piles of snow on either side. We saw some snow plows hard at it. I guess this is the main road into this area so it must be kept clear with the cities just left as a lower priority…It was a steep road and often we wondered if the driver would be able to make it but he persevered and we managed to figure out our destination. Of course, visibility was absolutely awful but we managed to make out the box-shape of our hotel as we quickly transferred our luggage through the door to the front desk.

The taxi driver had long since shut off the meter as he seemed quite embarrassed at the cost and sorry about our situation. He agreed to a flat fee of 10,000 yen which we thought was quite reasonable and even more so considering we had left the train station more than 3 and a half hours ago. The driver had an animated chat with the owner and her daughter before eventually heading back out - He now had to do the trip in reverse! It was now 7 pm.

Saku Sanso (2-star hotel), 386-2201, Ueda, Sugadaira Kougen

The owner was very kind and understanding. We were the only ones currently in the hotel as many of their guests simply had not made it. Her daughter was helping us with our bags and her father we could see in the lounge area watching television. We were asked if we wanted to use the onsen but declined - We just wanted to go to sleep. We had to pay for the room in cash which had caused us some worry in the car since we were running low on cash and we knew the taxi would take a fair amount of it. At 8,400 yen, though, it was not that much…We were worried about the trip back as if it was going to take the same amount of time tomorrow we would need to leave very early. I asked the owner to try to find us a taxi for 2:30 am…No, we will not be needing breakfast, thank you(!).

The hotel is very basic, a lot like a YMCA or school dormitory with a small onsen that we saw off to to the right of the staircase on the main floor. Our room is on the first floor and they have no elevators so it was a bit painful watching the owner’s daughter struggling with the luggage up the stairs (she would not let me take it from her despite it being the heaviest of our bags - mine). There are toilets on our floor but we could not find any showers. Our room is a tiny tatami mat affair but because it is right above the main desk I am able to get a wireless internet connection if I am on the floor in one corner. Indeed, I gave Mel a Skype video call to show her the room and thank her for her help.

The room has a small entry area off of the hall where you can put your shoes (but not any more space than that) and a small closet for linen. The windows, oddly, are whited out so it is a bit claustrophobic.

I headed down a half hour later to have a talk with the owner to see what she had been able to do about the taxi. She had not been successful but had another idea, or, actually, several. First is that we did not need to go back to Nagano as we could simply catch the train from the local station at Ueda (saving us quite a long trip) as the Shinkansen stopped there and she also said that her father had offered to drive us (I thanked him as he walked by). This meant that we could “sleep in” a bit more that we expected to get up at 4 am. It was so nice of her to do this for us that I made sure she knew just how grateful that she was helping us out like this. I checked with her to see that giving her father a bit of money (“for gas”) would be acceptable when we arrived at the station…(yes).

It has been quite a day. It looks like even if we catch the train it will be very tight for my flight for noon. I should really be there at about 9 am but since the train is scheduled to leave Nagano at 7 am (or something) this is going to be tight even if there wasn’t the snow.

Definitely need to sleep as I think tomorrow is going to be quite strenuous.

>> Next: Day 19