By the time I left Tokyo, I was at the point of sensory overload and really needed to slow down a bit. Early Wednesday (September 12) morning, I got on my first shinkansen (bullet train) and left the city. The shinkansen is really a great way to travel. The seats are comfortable and there's plenty of leg room. The train is incredibly smooth and fast. Watching the city melt away into open fields and mountains was very calming. The one thing about getting on the high speed rail, though, is that there was always a small element of fear that I was on the wrong train. If I was, I'd have committed to a multi-hour mistake. So sleeping on the trains was intermittent because I would keep just awake enough to hear each stop called. Luckily I always got on the right train.
After a few hours, I arrived at a small town at the base of the Kiso Mountains called Nakatsugawa. From the train station, I caught a bus that ferried people up the mountain, with frequent stops along the way, that ultimately brought me to Magome. Magome is a historic postal town that served travelers during the Edo period between Kyoto and Tokyo. It's been restored and preserved to recreate the feel of the period. The town is basically a small stretch of cobbled road lined with historic buildings, many of which have since been turned into souvenir and snack shops.
Magome lies at one end of a trail that runs along the Kiso Valley and ends at another post town, Tsumago. There's a luggage transport service for tourists that delivers your bags to the opposite town if you're doing the hike, but only if you arrive before 11:30 am. Unfortunately I arrived a bit after noon. Knowing I was too late, I approached the tourist information center anyway. The thought of hiking the 5 miles with my backpack and my duffel was not appealing. Of course the truck had already left, but the middle-aged woman manning the desk was extremely helpful. Not only did she offer to deliver my bag in her own car, she also made lodging arrangements at a ryokan (traditional inn) in Tsumago for me that evening (I hadn't made any reservations). I was extremely relieved and grateful and spoke a lot of English to her that she probably did not understand.
Relieved of the dreadful prospect of the burdened hike, I wandered up and down Magome for a bit. I admired the historic feel of the place. Save for the tourists in fannie packs and incessantly flashing point and shoots, it wouldn't have been out of place to have seen samurai walking up the road. Not only that, the surrounding mountains and valleys were breathtaking. Bright green and yellow fields painted the landscape beneath the azure expanse blotted with large, fast moving clouds. I also followed a uniformed mailman on a scooter with my camera while he delivered mail for a bit. It seemed only natural to capture a modern postman in an historic post town. An hour or so later, I found myself at a small soba shop, Magomechaya. I had warm soba with rice, fish, and some other small plates. I drank tea and wrote in my Moleskine for a bit before setting out on the trail to Tsumago.
The trail began with a kilometer or so through a small rural village in the mountains. I walked by small cottages surrounded by neat plots of crops and reservoirs. The road had a small canal running alongside it. As the water ran down hill, each home had crafted a makeshift dam to pool and divert water for their own supply. It was interesting to see how each home crafted their own mechanism. The water was crystal clear and glacier cold. More than a few times I stopped to dip my hands in it and splash my face and neck.
The simplicity and quiet I observed in these villages was hypnotic. It was so easy to forget the world outside of that place. Tokyo seemed a world away. America, work, and home weren't real. I stopped on the road to watch an elderly woman insert seedlings in the earth. A couple of houses down, a graying man worked on the tire of his bicycle. The sound of my shutter seemed to intrude on the dense stillness there. I felt almost embarrassed to be intruding.
As the trail entered more wooded areas, I would find small shrines off of the path at odd locations. There were bells placed every kilometer or so meant to be rung loudly to ward off bears. I passed by a pair of waterfalls of some significance that I can't seem to recall. At about the halfway point, I came into a clearing. To the side stood a solitary hut. As I walked by, the door was open so I peered inside out of curiosity only to be greeted by an elderly man in a blue kimono and rice hat. He waved me inside and began to shuffle around the dusty, deceptively cavernous space inside. It soon became clear that he was preparing a pot of tea. As I sat at a low table in the middle of the compact, dirt floor, he poured tea into a small ceramic cup, opened a circular tin full of candy, and slid an open guestbook infront of me. The book was full of entries from travelers hailing from all over the world. He asked me, in very sparse English, where I was from. When I told him America, he recognized that immediately, but proceeded to tell me I have an "Asian face." I responded by telling him I was Korean, but it oddly took him a while to understand what I meant.
After resting for a short while and enjoying my surprise candy and tea in the middle of the mountains, I thanked my host and continued on the trail. As I drew nearer Tsumago, I began to be able to see the outskirts of the town from openings in the trees. As the trail descended, I passed through more small villages. One even with a small trout farm. At about 5:30 pm I arrived at Tsumago.
Tsumago felt much less tourist-y than Magome. Many of the buildings seemed to just be residences. Being later in the day, there were very few people. I walked down the road and found families having dinner just inside open sliding paper doors. Shop owners quietly closing for the evening. I arrived at the ryokan, called Sakamoto-ya, the woman from the tourist center arranged for me. I was greeted by a couple that appeared to be about 60. The only English the husband seemed to know was my name and he greeted me with a loud "Brian-san!" I was obviously the only tourist he was waiting for. Besides "Brian-san" and telling me that dinner would be promptly served at 6:30, the only word he spoke to me was "hai." Repeatedly. I tried to communicate with him, but he responded to everything with "hai, hai." Which was fine. He was jovial and accommodating.
I dropped my backpack off (my duffel was waiting for me in my room) and wandered a bit. There was one house with a wooden statue of a bear that had the most obnoxious grin on it's face. It was hilarious and kind of made me want to kick it in the teeth. I stumbled upon a cat resting on a bench on the side of the road. I climbed some steps to a temple overlooking the town. Soon, I rushed back to the ryokan, lest I be late for dinner. I was unsure of whether or not I should go down to the dining room, but before I could ask, the husband brought two trays filled with food to my room. It was a giant meal of traditional Japanese dishes, including a small bowl of fried grasshoppers. Everything was hot and fresh, but entirely too much for me to eat. There was a giant pot of rice that I ate maybe a fourth of.
Not long after I finished dinner, it was pitch black. I went back out into the street to take some shots and the eerie, sparsely lit street evoked some of the more surreal moments in Murakami's writing. After one lap of the short stretch of road that was Tsumago, I made my way back to the ryokan and retired to my room.
After the mad rush that was Tokyo, I was refreshed, if physically tired, having spent a day surrounded by quiet and stillness. It was fascinating to see the stark juxtaposition of experiences in Japanese culture in just a couple of days. I laid on the cushion on the tatami floor and fell asleep to the sound of wind and crickets.