The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lost in Translation, Part 3: The Nakasendō Highway

The 300-mile Nakasendō highway (really just a footpath) was built during the 8th century to connect Tokyo and Kyoto, back in ye olden days of shogun and samurai. Feudal lords used the highway when called by the shogun to his castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo). For hundreds of years, it was used by messengers and merchants, princesses and pilgrims, and the shukuba (post towns) along the highway sprang up to serve the passers-by. But with the advent of railroads and motorcars, the highway fell into disuse and the post towns along it into disrepair.

Finally recognized for their historic value, several of these post towns in the Kiso Valley region—and the path that connects them—have been restored to appear as they did hundreds of years ago.

Although these towns now have some modern conveniences, it is forbidden for these to be “obvious”—so all electrical wiring is underground and at night you need to carry a flashlight because there is no street lighting (other than the occasional moth-beaten lantern).

Again, because so much of the country has been destroyed over the centuries, this is one of the few places visitors can experience medieval Japan.

Two of the best-preserved towns are Tsumago and Magome. So we stayed in Tsumago for two nights, and during our full day in between we took a bus to Magome and hiked the Nakasendō Trail back to Tsumago, about 7 miles. It was here that we had our first ryokan experience. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn; not unlike a bed and breakfast, but with a decidedly more Japanese flavor. Furniture is sparse and the floors are tatami mats. You must take off your shoes at the door and wear slippers inside (but then you have to remember that those are your house slippers and should not be worn in your room or in the bathroom—they give you another pair for that!) They also give you a yukata (robe) to wear inside. The walls are generally only sliding paper screens (shōji). Breakfast and dinner are served. While you eat dinner, your bed will be set up—a futon, which is a thin mat laid out on the floor of your room—and while you eat breakfast someone will take it away. We stayed at the Fujioto ryokan because it is reputed to be one of the best, most genuine ryokan in all of Japan. We had to settle for the last available room, which was intended to be a single-occupancy room so it was quite cozy!

A view of Tsumago, with the Fujioto on the left.

Entrance to the Fujioto.

Karen in our room. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was “cozy”…this is using a wide-angle lens and really pretty much captures the entire room! Notice the floor made of tatami mats and the minimal amount of furniture.

Here’s the room after dinner, when the staff has laid out our futons, which pretty much left no more floor space whatsoever.

Needless to say, the futons aren’t exactly a Westin Heavenly Bed…but if you like a firm mattress then you’ll be okay. I didn’t mind the futon, but I did mind the pillow which was a small sack of beans about half the actual size of your head. As a 3-pillow sleeper at home this was a big challenge but easily remedied by bundling up some of my clothes for a makeshift pillow. I’m like the Japanese McGuyver! But I digress…the first morning we headed out and about in Tsumago.

A rare photo of Karen without her makeup:

Starting off on the Magome station of the trail:

Apparently the area is popular with bears. So along the trail there are occasionally these large bells, and every hiker encouraged to ring them every time they pass one in order to keep the bears away. Of course we added the classy touch of yelling “F*ck you, bears!” whenever we rang a bell.

In one of the smaller post towns, here's Karen checking for mail along the trail but to no avail (triple-rhyme completely unintentional).

A cemetery as we approached Tsumago:

A small shrine in front of a house. It took us a little time to figure out the meaning of these little statues, called Jizō. Jizō is a deity that is considered the guardian of children, particularly of children who die before their parents. So it is possible that the family in this house lost two children, and the shrines memorialize them. It is common for the family to ensure that the spirits of the children are kept comfortable—hence the hat and blanket—and offerings of money or, in this case, candy, are left for them. But Jizō is also one of the protective deities of travelers, so roadside statues of Jizō are common for this reason, too.

Touristy, yes, but at the end you can get this wood-paper certificate stamped in both Tsumago and Magome for official proof that you’ve hiked the Nakasendō highway.

Karen and a Tanuki. Statues of this Japanese raccoon dog are all over place as he is a very popular folkfloric figure who brings good luck, and he is always represented as a jolly fellow with oversized testicles.

After our big day of hiking, we relaxed with a healing soak in a Japanese onsen.

Turning our attention back to the ryokan…another aspect of ryokan living is that the meals—especially dinner— are kaiseki. This is a many-course meal made of fresh, local ingredients, and the effort put into presentation is unbelievable. Here are the courses of our first dinner.

…and all of those garnishes that look like flowers or trees are completely edible! Breakfast is served in a single course but it’s not too shabby.

And here was our second dinner, which included shabu-shabu.

They left us with this lovely origami swan and a souvenir photo they had taken of us the first night.

Needless to say the owner and staff were outstanding. During the meal the server would explain each course in great depth as it is served, detailing the local ingredients and the dish’s history. Most things were as delicious as they looked. You have no say in the menu, and I pushed myself to try a few things I never had before. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that one course of one meal included sautéed wasps—which I refused to taste but Karen bravely did!

Meanwhile, afraid I would offend the hosts by not eating mine, I secretly slipped them into my chopstick wrapper and disposed of them later! Classy.

From the secular to the sacred, we left on our loooong journey to the Buddhist center of Mount Koya, BUT BEFORE WE GO...A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

The standard entertaining signs...

UFO peppers?

This grave in the cemetery had a fridge next to it. Our minds raced with hypotheses as to why, but neither of us had the nerve to look inside and find out:

This is a fine hat:

Next stop, KOYASAN!


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