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Japan Northward Golden Route: Gunma (Day 3)

10 months ago / travel / japan / gunma

Probably the most artistic day of my LIFE!

Exploring more of Gunma on the Northward Golden Route!

This is Day 3 of my 5-day journey with the JR EAST-NAGANO NIIGATA PASS, Day 1 and Day 2 of my travels linked respectively.

We started the morning at Usaburo Kokeshi, where they make the famous Japanese kokeshi dolls. Kokeshi made in Gunma is different from the traditional kokeshi. Here in Gunma (which is the top-producing area of sosaku kokeshi in Japan), they produce "modern kokeshi" where they get creative with their designs, beyond the traditional kokeshi of the little round girl with bobbed hair.

So you can expect super cute designs like Miffy...

To Star Wars...

And my personal favourite, suspicious Marie HAHA.

We went through the entire production process from start to finish,

And eventually got to the most entertaining part - painting our own kokeshi doll!

By most entertaining, what I actually meant was the rest of the class having a good time laughing at my lack of artistic ability LOL.

You can go to my IG Stories Highlight to see how well (or rather, not well) I fared LOLOL.

Usaburo Kokeshi opens daily from 8:30 to 15:00 and prices for their kokeshi painting class starts from JPY1200. You can also check out their online store for the cutest designs!

Usaburo Kokeshi // 1591, Nagaoka, Shinto-mura, Kitagunma-gun, Gunma Prefecture, 370-3501 // Website

Next, we did something very magical.

We went to Hogwarts!!!!!!!

Hahahaha not, but it does look like the Hogwarts Express, RIGHT?

The SL Retro Minakami train operated by the East Japan Railway Company is a REAL coal-powered steam locomotive that serves the Joetsu Line between Takasaki and Minakami Stations during the tourist season and on Saturdays and holidays.

Steam locomotives were one of the main forms on transport in Japan from 1926-1989 and this particular D51 model steam locomotive was built in 1936. (Full history lesson here.) It was originally retired in 1972 and sat quietly at Gokan Station until restoration works began in 1988 for it to be in service again. The train still retains its retro-style coach cars!

You can enjoy a traditional bento onboard with the nostalgic choo choo whistling of the train in the background and...

Marvel at views like that.

This was snapped on my iPhone by the way, so you can imagine how much more gorgeous it was in person.

You can expect views of Myogisan (Mount Myogi), Akagisan (Mount Akagi), Harunasan (Mount Haruna) and the beautiful gorge of Tonegawa (Tone River) by your window, with enthusiastic Japanese children waiting along the train route trying to catch a glimpse of the locomotive and happily waving to you as the train passes by.

What an experience!

Tickets for the D51 498 are not available for sale outside Japan but the JR EAST PASS covers the travel area and train ride. More details here.

After alighting at Minakami Station, we took a short car ride to the Minakami Kogen Resort 200.

The Minakami Kogen Ski Resort, like the name suggests, is a resort that features ski slopes for all sorts of snow play.

We even got to try dog sledding!

(I'm going to be honest here. I initially had reservations about the activity, especially since I'm a dog owner myself and self-proclaimed dog lover. But after seeing how the mushers take great care of them and treat them as family and how the dogs themselves enjoyed the run, I feel quite assured.)

Besides winter activities, the Minakami Kogen Resort 200 actually offers activities all year round such as their open-air onsen amongst mountains, rafting, paragliding and even bungee jumping from Spring to Autumn. They also have their own golf course!

Minakami Kogen Resort 200 // 6152-1 Fujiwara,Minakami-machi Tone-gun, Gumma, 379-1721 // Website

Guess what I'm making?

We went to Tsukiyono Vidro Park which is a glass themed park, which centers around glasswork and features workshops, museums and shops related to you guessed it, glass.

Here, I got to try my hand at sandblasting which is basically to create a smoked glass effect by blasting it with fine grain sand at high pressure. You can see a more detailed video of the process here.

I decorated a cup for bubs and obviously, I chose Kai instead of Nathaniel cause I didn't want my companions to die from laughter due to my amazing artistic abilities lol.

But as it turns out, the activity is much easier than expected (yes, even for the art idiot me) and if I can do it, so can you!

Tsukiyono Vidro Park // 737-1, Gokan, Minakami-machi Tone-gun, Gumma, 379-1305 // Website

Our final stop and home for the night was at Tatsumikan 辰巳館.

This ryokan which is a 5-minute walk from JR Kamimoku Station is probably the most homely ryokan I've ever stayed in.

They have been around for almost 100 years and while the place is very well-maintained, it still retains a certain nostalgic charm that makes you feel like you have went back in time.

(By the way, if you go to their website, the very beautiful lady you see there is actually the owner herself who is very gentle, welcoming and charismatic in person!)

I was very impressed by the amenities provided in the bathroom which includes facial products for BOTH men and women!

The rooms come with yukata provided but if you want a prettier kimono, you can rent one too.

Which Nina did! I chose a pink floral fabric but errr, ended up being too tired to dress up after a very sumptuous dinner.

At Tatsumikan, the kaiseki dinner with a charcoal-grill focus is based on how samurais used to eat. Back in the day, they used to skewer wild vegetables and river fish on their swords and cooked them over an open fire. This regional cooking style “Irori Kensan-yaki” (grilled on the sunken fire) has its roots in “Kensaki-yaki” (sword grilling).

Gunma is a a landlocked prefecture, and the meats and vegetables served here are from the Kanto region's own mountains and lakes. I particularly enjoyed the fresh river fish sashimi and the sake served in bamboo cups is probably the sweetest I ever had!

My only grouse is that after a very satisfying dinner and one onsen soak too many, I slept so well that I couldn't wake up for breakfast the next day.

Which is quite a pity because my travel companions were telling me how good it was and judging from the homemade salmon onigiri the owner made for me after noticing that I had missed breakfast (sigh, the amazing Japanese hospitality again), I must have missed out on A LOT.

Tatsumikan // 2052 Kamimoku, Minakami-machi, Tone-gun, Gunma Prefecture 379-1303 // Website

About the Northward Golden Route

The Northward Golden Route is a new train route that connects three areas of Saitama, Gunma, and Niigata Prefectures along with the outskirts of Tokyo. Through the route, you can enjoy experiences that you can't usually get in Tokyo such as unique cuisines, magnificent nature sites, onsen hot springs and SNOW!

You can explore the Northward Golden Route with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and you can purchase it for ¥17,000 at the East Japan Rail website or the Japan Rail Cafe in Singapore. If you prefer to get it when you land in Japan, you can purchase it at Narita or Haneda Airport, as well as Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Nagano, Niigata and many other JR East stations for ¥18,000.

The JR EAST PASS is a flexible pass that is valid for up to 14 days as long as you take the trains only on any 5 days during the period (so you can take your time to explore these areas) and allows unlimited train rides including Shinkansen (bullet trains) between Tokyo and Joetsu and Shinetsu area. Specifically, the pass covers unlimited rides using reserved seats (you can reserve up to 3 days in advance at the JR East ticket reservation page) on the ordinary cars of the limited express trains (including shinkansen), express trains and local trains on JR EAST train lines, all the Izu Kyuko lines, al the Tokyo Monorail lines, all the Hokuetsu Express lines and the Echigo TOKImeki Railway line (between Naoetsu and Arai) within the “Unlimited-ride area”. In addition, the pass also allows unlimited rides using reserved seats on the ordinary cars of the limited express trains such as the Tobu Direct Limited Express “Nikko”, “Kinugawa”, and “SPACIA Kinugawa” trains.

More details at: http://www.jp-rail-sg.com/northward-golden-route/