Tuesday, August 17, 2010

from Tsumago: robes and gushing waters

The night is clear and the moon is shining down right on the path where feudal shoguns and merchants once traveled. We're ghost-like in long cotton robes, in slippers that make a clicking noise against the pavement.


We are in Tsumago, where the old wooden houses of the Edo era still line the main street and the mountains rise on all sides of the Kiso river valley.

They say that many memories make few photos, but good memories make many photos. Okay, I just made that up. But the the fact is, I have a bundle from this day, so be forewarned. I’ll keep the text down to a minimum.

If you were to do only one overnight in the heart of Japan, away from city noise, where would it be? I chose the valley of the Kiso River for its beauty, its splendid hike, its little ryokan (Japanese inn) at the end of the trail.

It wasn’t easy to get here. No, let me say this differently: given the Japanese train system, it was remarkably easy, though it required many connections. Clockwork punctuality helps.

The bullet train out of Kyoto in the morning. No time for breakfast before. Just a coffee to carry on board. With peanut M&Ms. Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.


It’s a beautifully sunny day – the first of its kind since I’ve arrived. The train speeds by (200 miles an hour; I do the calculation: Madison – Chicago, 45 minutes... sigh...) rice fields and towns.


We’re getting off at Nagoya, a mere 36 minutes away.

At the station there, we buy a real breakfast. Scones and a mango smoothie. For the train ride to Nakatsugawa. This is the Nagano bound line. We're coming into a mountainous landscape.



In Natkastugawa we wait on the square, in the hot morning air, people watching (oh, how they love cartoon figures!)...


...until the local bus comes (punctually!) to take us up into the mountains, to the post town along the old Edo route -- Magome. We ride with older village women who have come into town to do their marketing and now are returning home, getting off at stops along the way. We stay on until the last stop.

I’d read that Magome can get a bit touristy, what with its gift shops and eateries. Visitors come for the day, they leave. They say only in the late day or early morning can you appreciate the old beauty of these post towns. But really, after the temples of Kyoto, this visitor traffic is a mere grain of that city’s sand castle of humanity.


Besides, this is merely our starting point. A pause just long enough for me to get an iced coffee here.


Our goal is to hike the not so arduous eight kilometers along the Edo trail to the next post town – Tsumago.

It’s a magnificent hike!

Up to the mountain ridge, with a breathtaking view of the Japanese Alps to one side...


Through forests of bamboo, cedar and unknown to me specimens...


It gets hot, yes, it does, and Ed is carrying the pack, which would be very very light were it not for the two laptops stuck inside. He sees a mountain stream (there are so many here that you are never far from the sound of rushing water) gushing through a spigot. It’s ice cold. He dunks his head and suggests I do the same. A shockingly sublime moment!




We continue past farmhouses, village homes, and then back into the forest where the tall and straight mix with the twisted and curvey...







... and we pass cemeteries, hidden among the trees...


We are always near the rushing waters of mountain streams. Again Ed suggests a pause for a cool down.


Undeargarments can dry and t-shirts too... It’s irresistible!


The air is warm and humid, but there are no bugs. No pesky flies, no mosquitoes. Just frogs watching the foolishness of people.


At one point we come to a pair of waterfalls. They’re called the male and the female. You decide which is which.


Ed looks with longing at the taller of the two.


I’m plenty refreshed, but then I’ve merely been carrying a camera and a little sack. Within minutes he plunges under the pounding waters. There, I’ll give you an image of the almost hidden body of my occasional traveling companion. Undergarments can get wet, t-shirts make good towels...


The light dazzles and dapples, the breeze is gentle, the air feels soft in the late afternoon hours.



Around the bend, a farmhouse is offering a snack of home grown tomatoes, cooled in the spring waters that run through the spout. There is a jar of salt and a plate to leave a few coins. We take a few and leave behind what we can assume is a good amount of yen. Mountain grown tomatoes with coarse grains of salt are perhaps the perfect refreshment.


We continue down the mountainside...


Past terraced rice paddies...


And after another bend in the path,  we see the valley of the Kiso.


A few more kilometers and we are in the stunning village of Tsumago.




We’re spending the night at the charming as can be, small, family run Fujioto Ryokan, where we put on our robes and sprawl out on the tatami mats (Ed will always be happiest sleeping on the floor and so he is in heaven), glancing out at the beautiful little garden just beyond our screen door.




The dinner at a "ryokan" is included and you eat what your hosts provide. We sit in our robes on tatami mats in a dining area, as the innkeepers bring out the freshest, tastiest meal we’ve had so far (and we’ve been very happy with most every meal in Japan).

Trout from the rivers, tempura veggies, chicken raised locally... pickled mountain mushrooms and vegetables and berries, a beef massaged to great happiness from the region on a bed of corn, cabbage and mushrooms... salmon sashimi on daikon radish... a broth with delicate greens and an origami rice paper flower... a rice cake on a stick, covered with sweet sesame, peanut and soy sauce, soba noodles in broth... and finally watermelon and home made sponge cake.







And so we come to the stroll outside, under the light of the moon. There’s an old Polish –Japanese proverb that says: go to sleep after a full day and wake up happy. Indeed.