Wednesday, August 18, 2010

leaving Tsumago

The street is empty now. The doors are shuttered, the night lanterns are still on, even as the morning sun begins to throw its first warm light over the mountains.



A morning walk in Tsumago can almost put you into the mindset of someone who lives there. Almost. You're taking a stroll, getting ready to face the strangers that will surely descend on this town later in the day.

But for now, it’s still very very quiet. My ryokan -- or Japanese inn... 


...remains shuttered to the world. The village is perfectly still.

Not for long though. I hear chimes on the street. Is this a general wake up call? Do villagers need this prompt to rise from the tatami mats and get breakfast going? Or is it a religious intonation? Your time for meditation begins now!

Our own breakfast is served at eight and we have time before to explore the world of the Japanese baths. There are two bathing rooms at our ryokan. In either one, you’re to shower and scrub, and then plunge into a hot tub. After the shower, I consider the tub, but only for a second. Most of the guests will bathed the night before, before dinner, as is the custom here. Now, in the early hours, it seems wrong to soak. Quick shower and move on. No stress to relieve this early in the day.

Breakfast. It is one thing to acquaint yourself with foods of another land at dinner, it is another to accept the unusual first thing in the morning. I listen to French guests explain to the innkeepers that they are used to eating something sweet in the mornings.

That is not the habit in Japan. Our breakfast has pickled this, and smoked that, and eggplant and cabbage, and rice dipped in soy and wrapped in seaweed, and miso soup and green tea. Yes, I do miss the coffee, but in fairness -- it seems ill suited to the meal.


Outside, it is already very very warm. We stroll one last time along the village road as the shuttered doors open.


The morning routines begin with the nearly universal custom of having the mail delivered to your door.


It's time for us to head out. Though not before giving in to the urge to sample chestnut ice cream.


Our hike for this day is even gentler than yesterday’s: at about five kilometers, it can hardly be taken seriously. (Our goal is to go over the hill and down to the next town from which we can catch our connecting trains to Kyoto.) Except, did I mention that Japan in August is warm and humid? In the shade, the temperature is in the nineties. When a path stretches through even a short distance without shade or breeze (as on this day), the heat can be piercing.

But not impossible. We climb up first to a nearby summit where the remains of a castle can still be found.


But it’s not the stones that draw us. There is a remarkable view over the Kiso valley from here.


And from the other side, you can see the taller peaks of one of the Alpine ranges.


We stay for a while, even though the air remains still, despite the higher elevations, so that even the fleeting wisp of a breeze is like a special gift.

I have noticed that after the first few days, one is less offended by the warm humid air. The people in Kyoto appear to almost ignore it. It is not unusual for women to wear light sweaters even when it is this hot outside. Indoors, there is almost always air conditioning, though the settings are significantly less chilling than they are in the US (and therefore they are, in my estimation, extremely pleasant). Here, in the mountains, both locals and visitors wont be seen without a terrycloth towel, either folded into a neat square, or hung loosely around the neck. Any bead of sweat doesn’t have a chance. Dabbing and wiping are a constant.

Our bodies initially are overwhelmed by the humidity and so a wee towel would hardly suffice. And still, I notice that we are adjusting. Our shirts no longer cling desperately to our backs the minute we step out into the hot air. We don’t run for the shade or choose the indoor coolness over a pleasant bench outside.

Our walk now takes us through forests...


...but only briefly. We pass by clusters of homes and fields of rice again...


...and as we come closer to town, the homes are no longer farmhouses. There is a minimalist beauty to the interiors. Here, there is an open screen door. Look inside:


Across the road, there is a garden with a fish pond, fed by a mountain stream.


This is not unusual. So many homes have similar ponds with large carp or goldfish swimming in schools. Back and forth.

This particular home also has a garage that is used for storing potatoes and garlic.


There is order to life here.

We continue through the richly green landscape...


Until finally we are at in Nagiso, the end of the trail. We pause at a small temple, just because it is so much more intimate (and therefore inviting)  than the large ones we are used to seeing in the city. To the side of it, a stream is pouring water into a trough. Ed dunks his head. A parting gesture of thanks to the mountain waters that have kept us refreshed.


In Nagison, the little electric train pulls in, we get on.


The big bullet train then takes us from Nagoya to Kyoto.

I doze through most of the ride. I can’t help it. You could say it’s the warm air, or the hike. I would say it’s the absence of my morning coffee.

At the Kyoto station I bite the bullet and go to Starbucks. Double shot. Five in the afternoon is a hell of a time to start the “morning,” but one makes do.

The subway takes us home. Remember the Kyoto subway? Rush hour now. More likely to see men, like these:


On our walk from the subway, we stop at an electronics store. We look at the differences in the washing machines, the stoves, the refrigerators (one obvious difference: size). Perhaps the most amusing thing is the presence of toilet seats in a store like this. When the Japanese embraced the western toilet (and not all have done so at this point), they went all out. Seats come with magic buttons and we can only make sense of some of them. They heat, they run bursts of water, they play music. They are a between showers cleaning opportunity.

How clean is too clean? For me, there's no obvious answer here. When we were in the mountain town of Nagiso, waiting for the train, a station keeper was scrubbing the waiting hall. First he mopped the floors, slowly, carefully, until every last tile shone. Then he wiped down the benches -- from top to bottom. I thought how wonderful it is to move around in clean, litter-free spaces. I wondered if a typical waiting station back home -- subway, train or bus -- has ever seen a sponge. We assume that a sitting person will have removed all dust, no?

In the evening we stay local. We eat dinner at the most popular eating place in our neighborhood. A Chinese restaurant. There is a long wait, but not for those who’ll eat at the counter. It’s a brightly lit restaurant, almost reminiscent of a Chili’s, except with twice the light. The food is not fast, but fast-ish. Quickly prepared. And cheap. The men sitting next to us say we should eat the gyoza. Everyone orders these steamed, then pan-fried meat dumplings.  I try to explain that my companion doesn't really eat most meats. But this is poorly understood and so I assure them that we'll order gyoza next time.

And the fact is, we probably will. When in Japan...