I awoke early after a somewhat restless night. I guess I was too excited about seeing more of Japan to fall asleep. After checking out of the hostel and picking up a quick breakfast sandwich from the Golden Arches, I made my way to Ikebukuro station. Next stop: Nagano.
My first real train ride with all my gear was comfortable even though it was the ordinary (vs the green) rail pass type. The ordinary pass allowed me to pre-select my seat so I didn’t end up in a free-for-all car. This is especially helpful when you’re traveling with luggage as I am.
Navigating the train station and finding the right platform is pretty simple. While the signs are all in Japanese, there’s usually an English translation beneath it. Also, Hyperdia is a wonderful site for planning your train journeys and lists the exact train times, names, numbers and platforms all in English.
I found my specific car and seat number without too much trouble and put my large backpack between my legs on the ground. I didn’t see an area for luggage storage, but I probably wouldn’t have used it anyway, even though this is Japan and I find it completely safe. As a newbie traveler, I’m a bit possessive of my stuff and don’t really trust leaving it out of my sight no matter where I am.
The leg room between my seat and the one in front of me seemed perfectly adequate, even while straddling my backpack. I suppose taller people might have an issue if they were in my place, but the train was mostly empty and you could probably leave the backpack in another row of seats.
I noticed that most of the other passengers were businessmen and didn’t really take notice of this lowly backpacker. I think a few might’ve raised an eyebrow at the size of my pack, but that’s pretty much it. Ah, the anonymity of Japan felt great compared to the intense curiosity I received in parts of Malaysia.
Upon reaching Nagano about 90 minutes later, I headed for my hostel to ditch my bag. It was too early to check in so I decided to hunt down some food. I found a really cool (and cheap!) Italian restaurant called Saizeriya. This place was amazing because you could eat like a king for the price of a pauper.
I ordered the gratin (299 yen), which is pretty much the cheapest main dish on the menu. I added the salad set, which came with salad and bread sticks (280 yen), and the unlimited drinks (180 yen) and still came in under 800 yen. This is a complete steal when a scoop of ice cream or a slice of cake can run 500 yen. Plus, this was a real restaurant and not some small side-of-the-road type establishment. I could sit, relax and even read a bit while I ate.
Besides the amazing prices, one of the cool things about Saizeriya is the way you order. Each table is equipped with a buzzer and menus. When you’ve decided what you want, you push the buzzer. A bell rings and your table number lights up along a panel that notifies the wait staff. Someone comes to your table to take your order immediately.
This service method is extremely efficient for the staff and the patrons. As a customer, I hate feeling rushed into ordering when the wait staff hovers around or constantly returns to my table to take my order. As a waitress, I hate wasting my time on people who are not ready to order. This buzzer system completely eliminates both issues.
Also, as I mentioned before, my Japanese isn’t really great, and while I’m able to mumble my way through some things, I definitely can’t read much of the kanji on the menus. Luckily for me and all the other Western travelers, all the menus I’ve come across have a picture next to the item’s name so you have a clue about what you’re ordering. Even if you can’t pronounce a thing, you can always point and smile. And, as a side note, I always ask in Japanese if the restaurant has an English-language menu but have come up empty most of the time. However, in my experience, the point-and-smile method hasn’t caused too many problems and you can probably eat very well this way.