March 7, 2020
"Camping" at the deepest underground station in Japan: Doai
We took the Tanigawa Max Shinkansen from Tokyo to Jyomokougen (上毛高原). The trip was about an hour from Tokyo station. Our seats were on the second floor of the Tanigawa Max Shinkansen. I don’t think they are making more of the two story trains, so getting to ride one is pretty nice. The station we stopped at is only for the Shinkansen, the area itself is called Minakami-Machi (みなかみ町) and there is a separate station (Minakami station) for the local trains.
Then we took a bus about 20 to the nearby Norn Ski Resort where we played at the Kid’s sledding slope for about two hours.
A bit before 1pm we headed inside for lunch.
Took the 3pm shuttle bus to Minakami Station.
Then a 15 minute walk to the Octone Brewery. The town was small and the Main Street bear the station was full of abandoned shops. It reminded me of small country towns in rural Washington state. Walking for a while we started to come across some run down hotels, and what was obviously 30 years ago a very nice hot springs resort but now only just holding on as the star of a dying town. The brewery was really live and we filled up our growler after trying 2 tasting flights. We filled it up (1.9 liters of beer) and went back to the station. There was a 3:40pm train or a 4:40pm train. That was it.
We made it to the station with about 5 minutes to spare. We were headed to Doai station, two stops away.
Doai station is famous for making me walk up 486 steps to get to the gate. Doai is a station deep in a mountain tunnel and is famous (infamous) for that long staircase. There is no escalator or elevator.
We actually are staying here at the station. This is the “pre-open” for a “glamping” site. The site is run by Village Inc., a company that runs interesting camping sites around Japan http://villageinc.jp/doai/. Camping is in a trial phase for about a month from Feb 22 to the end of March. Since Alan likes trains, when Lisa saw the press release about this, she called to book a stay.
There are two tents, one that our family uses and another that our friends are in. I’m really surprised Lisa was able to get reservations - we did it a few months ago when it was first announced - but since then the place has filled up and people are waiting for cancellations.
There is a sauna that you can reserve in the cafe at the station, and we can use it too apparently. The tents are super warm. The s kw is amazing - somehow we are the first ones trooping through it.
The company runs a cafe at the station now, which has increased visitors I think - a 2013 survey said the station had about 19 passengers a day, but we saw more than that over the course of our visit.
We weren’t planing on taking a bath - they don’t have those facilities there but there is a toilet. The stair climb was so difficult though that we decided to go to a nearby onsen (not springs bath). The staff have that prepared and took use there in a van, about ten or fifteen minutes away. The hot springs was nice, we tried the small bath, the big bath, and the outdoor bath. The outdoor bath was strange in that usually they have a fence surrounding the place. This was was far enough in the countryside that while there was a fence around most of it - separating the men’s and women’s areas, there was still a fairly large gap open to the country, with the road visible not too far off (though I can’t see a thing without my glasses.)
Alan and I also played some games at the small game area. He actually won something from the crane game, and we played two player Rave Racer and Metal Slug X. After an hour at the onsen we went back to the camp site (aka train station.).
Hotel “Yu no Jin” - a local hot springs hotel.
We got back to the station and had dinner in the old station office. Doai is an unstaffed station - up until 1985 there was a station staff there but then the station was changed to have no staff. Not many people used it and the trains weren’t so frequent (Japan’s population has been gradually moving to the cities and leaving rural areas under staffed and under utilized leading to station closures or just removing the staff.) So when a company came in to make this a camping site I guess they got the old station area and run a cafe in it. For dinner the whole place was ours. There are neat signs on the walls from the 1970s, hand written time tables and the like. After dinner I brought Momo back and put her to sleep at about 9pm.
We had the use of the toilet at the train station, which means if we had to go we would need to bundle up and walk through the snow to the combination locked door to enter the station. I had to go out once in the evening, and the clouds had opened up enough to get a look at some actual stars.
There are lots of hikers in the area and they like to stay at the train station. Japan Rail officially does not condone the practice, but the company that runs the campsite is here, and they allow people to stay. I counted about ten people bundled up in sleeping bags on the concrete floor.
2020-03-01 We got up at our normal 6am due to our natural alarm clock in Momo. Alan and I read some Harry Potter, and at about 8am went to the station cafe where we had breakfast.
It was lots of fun! First up was grinding coffee beans for coffee and making that. Then we made our own sandwiches for a sandwich press that we grilled up. Alan played Uno a bit. The cafe usually opens up at 9am for other customers but apparently they delay the opening when camping guests are staying.
We returned to our tents. Alan played out in the snow with our friend’s child, and Lisa went on to the Sauna while I put Momo down for a nap. The plan is to leave a bit past 11am to go to get lunch at a Soba place, and maybe walk around the area a bit before taking a 2pm bus to head back to the Shinkansen station and then go home on a 3:20 Shinkansen.
The Soba place was called Kadoya (corner shop). They were super popular - the most people we’ve seen outside of the Ski resort. They served the Soba on a large platter piled high with 4 orders. We also got some tempura and a variety of dipping sauces. It was delicious, and not too expensive - a bit under $10 per person and we were stuffed.
The staff from Doai village came back to pick us up and we stopped at the gift shop next to the station. In the parking lot they what is described as the largest snow house in the Kanto region. It was large! We got some gifts and headed back to Doai station to get our luggage together and wait for the bus to the Shinkansen station.
We hung out for a bit at the Cafe and then loaded up and waited at the bus stop. The camp grounds staff were excellent - they went out of their way to drive us around town (onsen, Soba place they recommended the next day) and were super friendly and fun. While we hung out in the cafe at least two groups of hikers and one larger tour group in a bus came through and had some coffee - it really is a unique place and I hope the cafe and camp grounds does well enough to stay around. They are running this winter pilot to see what the prospects are for a summer camp. I think having the snow is really great and the yurts were super warm. At the Soba shop the people there were saying that usually they have around 2 meters of snow (8 to 9 feet) but this year there is almost no snow. It is tough for the ski resorts and onsen in the area.
If you are looking for a fun and unique weekend getaway, this isn’t too far from Tokyo (about two hours, feels shorter with stops at Norn in between.) The staff at the camp grounds was great, and it is lots of fun spending time in rural Japan where the flavor is very different from Tokyo or other metropolitan areas. It is always an adventure finding food, and I’m never disappointed.
The bus from Doai to Jyoumoukougen Shinkansen station was about an hour and 1200 per adult. We got to the station and had about 20 minutes so we got some cakes and drinks to wait. Then we were on our way back, about an hour ride to Tokyo. It was a great weekend getaway!
As a final note, we got home to our house at about 5:30pm.
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