Togakushi Shrine

To get up the mountain to where the upper Togakushi Shrine is located, you start by going down.

TokagushiThis gentle descent after lunch makes for a pleasing start. We pass under a large Torii gate and after a few minutes walking, we are away from the main road and the air has become noticeably crisper and fresher. We inhale deeply. The track levels out and gradually begins to ascend. The full extent of the towering cryptomeria trees which line the track becomes apparent. The sight takes our breath away.

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The trees were planted over 800 years ago and today they have grown so tall, that they serve to make any human visitors appear extremely small and insignificant in comparison. It’s a clement day, but the light wind that is blowing is enough to create a sibilant hush in the trees overhead. In many ways, this towering man-made corridor of trees has the same vertiginous impact as the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, structures that also took centuries to build.

IMG_1103We pass under the Zuishinmon gate, another thatched specimen which I take a picture of, and carry on up the mountain track. The route attracts a full cross section of society: there are well dressed persons with slacks and white shoes, day-trippers with highly illuminous back-packs and an assortment of walking sticks, professional, improvised and scavenged.

The atmosphere is certainly more subdued and calm that in the ninja museum and house. Here, there are lots of children with their parents, who 30 minutes ago were goofing around the obstacles in the ninja house and running around the ninja park, enthusiastically scrambling up ladders and down slides. All that raw energy has gone now as the kids are coaxed (and sometimes carried) up the mountain track by their parents.

We pass some trees with spectacularly gnarled and exposed roots.

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As we continue to ascend, the temperatures drops and there is more and more snow on the ground. Parts of the path are slushy and we have to hop and jump to avoid the pools being formed by the footfall up the mountain.

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The final section before the upper shrine is a bit of a scramble, with a lot of stone steps to ascend, all of which are very wet and slippy. We need to apply our hands to the cold stone to avoid falling. It’s quite congested, because it doesn’t appear that anyone has turned back before reaching the upper shrine. There are some spectacularly over-dressed women in stilettos precariously edging up the slippery steps. I know it’s not a penance, but such as ascent is surely more challenging than going up the mountain bare-footed, something one often sees on Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in Ireland which is popular with hikers and pilgrims alike.

It has taken us about an hour to reach the upper shrine. The view and setting are very dramatic, though there’s very little space to hang around and just appreciate the scene. It seems everyone who makes it to the top, commits a quick prayer at the shrine, turns around and goes back down the mountain.

I find a little corner to wait as Sachiko queues up before the shrine. While waiting, I see an elderly-looking foreign couple and we strike up a quick conversation.

“Two weeks we’ve been travelling around Japan and you’re the first foreigner we’ve seen”

“Same here”, I reply, “I’ve have been in Japan ten days and have only seen a handful”

The conversation takes me away from the beauty of the mountain I’m on. It’s only been one and a half months since the Tōhoku earthquake. The far-reaching effects and uncertainty created by the Fukushima disaster have caused domestic tourism to slump and foreign tourism to collapse. In the weeks after March 11th, only a minority of travellers decided not to cancel their plans.

The friendly couple are from Canada and they’re in Japan on holidays. After our brief exchange of information on foreign tourist sightings, they depart.

I go find Sachiko and we begin to descend the mountain track as well.

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After we’ve descended all the way to the lower Togakushi shrine, where we got off the bus this morning, we pay a short visit to a local onsen. A great feature of Nagano is the numerous onsens that are dotted across the prefecture. The simple precaution of always bringing a towel with you when leaving the house in the morning, ensures that you’ll frequently be able to enjoy a warm and relaxing soak at any time during the day. Douglas Adams would surely approve.

We return to the Kobayashi household for our last night in Nagano. As usual, dinner is excellent and afterwards a lot of whiskey is drank. Sachiko’s father gives a demonstration of Noh singing, an extraordinary sonic art and presents me with some old books of Noh poetry, telling me he’s confident that in my long life, I’ll someday learn to read the old-style Japanese. I’m flattered and slightly scared. Sachiko tells me afterwards she can’t even read the Japanese in the books, so specialist a script is used.

Tomorrow we’re taking the bus towards Tokyo, where we’ll first be going to Narita airport to collect a friend who’s flying in from Shanghai.

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James Pond – Part Deux!

In a dramatic pursuit along the highways and byways of Japan, James Pond comes closer than ever to catching his nemesis “K”. Featuring footage from Tokyo Sky Tree, the film particularly showcases Nagano prefecture where it was shot on location in Garyu Park (Suzaka), Shichimi Onsen and Ainoshima village.

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James Pond

Special Agent 007ish, James Pond, is in Japan to hunt down his old nemesis, “K”. This silly, but really great fun to make, film was shot in and around Tokyo, Nagano countryside and Hakuba ski-resort in March this year. Everyone should make a James Bond spoof when on holiday!

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Shinkansen Trance

Anyone who’s ever travelled on the shinkansen, or bullet-train, in Japan knows what a mesmermising experience it can be. Zipping along at over 300 km/hr without the slightest rattle or shake, seats extremely spacious and comfortable, the food on-board delicious, and at the end of the journey the train stops exactly at the marked point on the platform. This short film tries to capture some of that hypnotizing quality. Footage was shot on the Nagano to Tokyo line in January 2012.

Music is I Don’t Want to Understand by Christopher Willits and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

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Driving To The Onsen

A drive through the twisty roads in Nagano to a famously sulphuric onsen for the last dip of the year, on New Year’s Eve 2011. The short journey was made in a little Mazda scrum truck and the film captures well the small farming landscape of apples orchards and other fruits in the Suzaka and Obuse area. Watching it now makes me nostalgic for the lovely Japanese countryside.

Music, played through the truck radio, is Dreams by the Cranberries.

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Farm Tour in Suzaka

This film is a short tour of one of the Kobayashi apple orchards and onion patches near Suzaka in Nagano Prefecture. Narrated and led by Sachiko, it was filmed in January 2012, when the weather was sunny but very cold. Apologies for some of the audible breathing (that was me). This is a raw video, or as the Japanese might say, a law video!

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Japan Trip 2011

This film was shot on my first trip to Japan in April/May 2011. All the footage was taken by my friend Diarmaid O’Culain and I edited it all together afterwords. It captures well our boyish excitement and bewilderment at such quintessentially Japanese experiences as pachinko, the shinkansen and ancient temples in Kyoto.

Music is Old Dreams by Gary Lucas.

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I’m Going To Ninja College!

Me: “That’s it, you people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to ninja college!”

[I leave]

Haruo: “I don’t think any of us expected him to say that.”

Okay, okay the conversation didn’t happen exactly like that. My imaginative recall owes more to the Simpsons (I’m going to clown college) than to the actual conversation I had with Sachiko’s father, which went more like this:

Me: “We’re thinking of visiting Togakushi tomorrow and going to the ninja museum and ninja house.”

Haruo: “Ha! That place is for kids!”

[I leave]

Okay, okay, I didn’t leave this time either. But the gist of the conversation is Sachiko and I are going to Togakushi, location of a former ninja training school, and Haruo is not going to let go an opportunity to poke fun at my enthusiasm for ninjas. For an older Japanese man like Haruo, ninjas are a minor and slightly comic historical footnote; for a westerner like me, raised on such video games as Shinobi and Tenchu, I’m giddy with excitement about visiting what was once a real ninja training school, albeit one that has been closed for a long time.

In fairness to Haruo, he does give us a lift to the local train station, Murayama.

From Murayama, we catch a local train to Nagano City, where we wait for the bus to Togakushi village, which is 20 km from Nagano City and high up in the mountains that surround the city. Waiting for the bus isn’t too bad, I get to do some people watching, one of the delights of travelling in Japan.

The bus pulls away from Nagano central station, chugs up the hill towards Zenkoji temple, turns, and slowly passes out through the suburbs of Nagano city. The road starts to ascend and the bus steadily climbs up into the foothills of the surrounding mountains.

The road to Togakushi affords some lofty views of Nagano city and the valley we leave behind. However, the road itself is distracting me from the view, it’s the most over-engineered structures I’ve ever travelled on. The road twists, loops and turns back on itself with a concrete grandiosity out of all proportion to the surroundings and level of traffic. Ian Buruma’s description of Japan’s epic construction boom which created a country “full of unnecessary tunnels, roads that go nowhere, bridges that nobody crosses … and theme parks that few care to visit” seems apt. This road is to normal roads, what spaghetti junction is to normal junctions.

After a while, the road relaxes back from being a snakes and ladders loop-the-loop super structure, and becomes just an unassuming byway. The bus trundles on and we pass some quaint thatched dwellings. My father worked as a thatcher for 15 years and even after he retired, he always kept a keen interest in every thatched dwelling he came across. While travelling abroad, it’s become a habit of mine to always photograph any thatched buildings I encounter. When I return to Ireland, I then show the pictures to my Dad, who’s always interested in the local customs, what materials are used and the craftmanship of the individual thatcher. I wonder what he’ll think of the Japanese style.

The bus climbs further, and as an indication of the altitude we’ve ascended, we see a ski-slope which is missing one crucial ingredient: snow. The bus-driver is doing a great job calling out the name of each stop:

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“Iizuna!”

“Iizuna Kogen!”

“Tokagushi!”

When he calls:

“Hoko-sha!”

Sachiko says:

“We get off here, come on lets go!”

Out we hop, and marvel at an enormous torii gate. It marks the beginning of the pilgrim’s ascent up to the Tokagushi shrine further up in the mountain.

There’s a real chill in the air. We’ve risen a considerable altitude from Nagano city and even though it’s May, there are still some chunks of slowly melting winter snow on the ground. Our plan is to first visit the ninja museum and ninja house, and then continue onto the Tokagushi shrine. And if we have the time, we’ve brought our towels in case we come upon a nice onsen (a very Japanese precaution). The walk from the bus stop to the ninja museum is the same route as the pilgrim’s route to the shinto shrine. The path is marked with numerous little plaques, signs and posts and we stop regularly to read each one we pass.

Sachiko is doing a lot of translation. One of the stops, Okusha, has a large stone for which there’s curious and sad explanation:

“There used to be Okusha chapel here, and until Meiji era, women were not allowed to enter from this point as it was a spiritual training place. A nun who broke the rule and tried to enter the point was turned into a stone, and the stone is here nearby. After Meiji the rule has vanished and the chapel was removed.”

A little distance further on the path, we find the stone that the nun was allegedly turned into. The translation adds that the stone now blocks any cold wind from blowing.

Further on, there’s another sign telling a story:

“There used to be a couple who had an adopted child. One day, when the wife was away a letter came. The husband who couldn’t read was suspicious and asked the child to read for him. The child guessed what was happening and he said different contents to his father, then his mother. The couple avoided trouble and were not on the rocks. Later, when the child died, the people built a memorial for his wiseness.”

Amidst all the encounters with mythical nuns and tragically wise children, we have an encounter with some real people. We pass a bench where a Japanese couple are sitting down; when the girl sees us, she smiles, bows and greets us. I’m not sure if she knows us, or is just being friendly. We return the polite greeting, and continue walking.

Once we’re out of earshot, Sachiko becomes ecstatic.

“That was the dead-skin-eating-fish-couple we met yesterday at the onsen!”

“What??!!”

Then I remember that, yes, while Sachiko and I were having our feet nibbled clean at the fish spa yesterday, the couple we just passed were also partaking of that curious custom. It’s just a coincidence that we’ve met them today, and for someone like me, who comes from a small country where such coincidences happen all the time, it’s nothing special.

But Sachiko is adament that coincidences like this never happen in Japan.

“It’s amazing!”

“Meh”

I remain less than impressed. On this occasion, I fail to understand the Other.

We reach the ninja park. The huge welcome sign seems to bear out Haruo’s comment that this place is “just for kids”.

We pay the entrance fee and enter the ninja museum first. It has two flours and is made up entirely of ninja photos and ninja weapons. The photos are fantastic, even though I presume they’re all staged. The weapons though look very authentic. I’m very excited and I take a lot of pictures. Once again, if it weren’t for Sachiko’s translations, I wouldn’t understand a lot of the exhibition, despite my extensive experience of ninja video games.

flying ninja

I try and take a picture of every weapon, they’re so gruesome looking. Even when I can guess what a particular weapon or prop is for, I always ask what the Japanese name is.

“What’s this one?”

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“Tekagi sokkou, it is used to climb a tree, also to beat the enemies”

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“Nekode, as well as tekagi, it is used as a climbing device, also as a weapon”

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“Sokkou, same as the last two”

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“Tekken, means iron fist”

IMG_1038“Kakushi, put it on as a ring and sting into the enemy’s flesh”

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“Fukiya, blowguns”

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“Tessen, Iron Fan”

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“Doku ire, poison containers and blow guns”

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“Kakushi tenouchi, I think they are usually hidden in the sleeves”

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” Touki, climbing device”

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“Shikoro, a kind of saw”

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“Makibishi, iron caltrops to penetrate the thin soles of the waraji sandals, which used to be worn alot at the time”

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“Shuriken, ninja throwing star”

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“Nunchaku, probably you know what it is?”

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“Metsubushi, blinding powder. One says with walnuts, another says with eggs in it”

IMG_1057“Shinobi Kayaku and uchitake to do nohi, gun powder in a bamboo tree”

“Arigatou gozaimasu!”

IMG_1062I’m very entertained by everything in the ninja museum, however my enthusiasm isn’t shared by Sachiko. Her reaction is quite, “Meh”, so it seems we’ve balanced our books in terms of mutual misunderstanding for the day.

After we exit the ninja museum, it’s time to enter the ninja house which my Rough Guide describes as, “great fun, with a maze of hidden doors and staircases that is fiendishly difficult to find you way out of”.

What’s not to get excited about?!

We have to leave our shoes at the lobby and we’re told, “No Pictures”. I guess they don’t want us exposing any of their secrets to the outside world. There’s no sign stating you must be under 12 years old to enter, so I eagerly push through the entrance.

The first room resembles a large open plan office, but with above head-height black partitions. We’re completely boxed in, with no clue about how to advance. We quickly figure out how to slide one of the partitions aside, and we progress to the next little box, where we’re confronted with another apparent dead-end. There’s a succession of these little compartments, and no order to which direction we proceed, or whether it’s a sliding, hinging, lifting, or pushing partition. Our progress is slow and plodding, trial and error.

We advance into a large room with a few minimal props (fireplace, a wall hanging, a standing mirror). Again, it’s not clear what to do, but eventually we figure it out, suffice to say we press, poke and pull at every prop and wall panel until we find the exit from the room. Each subsequent room has a similar puzzle before the exit, which could be left, right, up or down, can be found. Thankfully we don’t encounter any shuriken throwing enemy ninjas or a big formidable boss, with whom we must do battle.

A fun highlight is after we’ve advanced along a passage at the far end of the house, and entering a room at the corner, find that the room has a steeply sloping floor to the exit at the opposite corner. The floor of tatami mats is very slippy (we’re in our socks) and the orientation of the room makes everyone surprisingly nauseous. It’s very surprising that a mere slanting floor, which is at odds with its surroundings, is enough to make us feel ill.

“Kimochi warui” (unwell), chant all the Japanese.

We scramble, claw, grapple and eventually successfully scale the mats.

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Outside, there are a few props we play around in.

Okay, okay, only I play around….

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Finally, we pose as ninjas.

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Then we break for some lunch, before starting the route up to Tokagushi shrine.

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Matsumoto

And without even saying a word, I have the full attention and co-operation of ten Japanese girls, all smiles and peace-signs.

“Thank you!” they call out.

I thank them in return, bow, and walk away.

A very short, but intriguing encounter.

A few moments earlier, after Sachiko and I had gotten off the train and descended the escalator that would deposit us on the edge of Matsumoto train station, I had seen a small, muted gathering of Japanese girls on the periphery of the station. Their singular lack of giddy enthusiasm caught my attention.

Spread out in a line, the girls were all standing and facing the train passengers as they walked out of the station. None of them were chatting or talking to each other, they all just stood passively in a line, each holding up a simple sign with a woman’s face. One of the girls addressed the passers-by in a monotonous and slightly forlorn voice. Even Sachiko couldn’t figure out what they doing.

They were such a captivating and eery sight that I decided to take a picture. So I went over, gave a friendly smile and made a “can I take a picture?” gesture with my camera.

Transformation.

Suddenly bursting with energy and excitement, the girls quickly called and waved to their friends a short distance away, beckoning them to run over and quickly join in. These girls darted over and they all bunched in for a bubbly group photo. As I took the picture, they all smiled (with their eyes), some called out “Hi!” and “Hello!” and each one of them made the peace-sign.

It was all very cute and they were all extremely nice. In fact, I was slightly embarrassed by how friendly they had suddenly become. After saying thanks, I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I bowed courteously and retreated.

We’re only in Matsumoto for a few hours. The main tourist attraction of the town, Matsumoto castle, is said to be “a national treasure”, so we power-walk across town to see it. Although the castle isn’t visible from anywhere in the town, Sachiko is on home turf and knows the quickest way to get there. Local knowledge at its best.

We pass a fantastic sculpture of two wrestling frogs and we’re in Nawate-Dori, a old-style warren of little streets, wooden shops and little market stalls. It’s busy with shoppers and doddling tourists all checking out the local bric-a-brac souvenirs: there’s toy frogs, lucky-charm frogs, origami frogs, chocolate frogs… everything frog. The explanation: kaeru, a wordplay on the nearby river and the word for frog.

Soon enough, we’re outside the entrance to Matsumoto castle. It’s guarded by an armed and fearsome samurai warrior.

Fortunately, he’s a big hit with all the locals, who crowd around, eager for a picture and a handle of one of his swords. Granny-in-the-pink-coat is less than impressed, she’s obviously encountered far more formidable samurai in her day. For the generation, for whom the samurai warrior resembles Darth Vader, he is very impressive.

It’s easy to slip by the samurai guard (distracted by the tourists, mwahahaha!) and we have no problems passing through the castle’s outer defensive walls (the gate has been left open, fools!).

We make it to the final courtyard, a large area immediately surrounding the castle building itself. But unfortunately, we’re completely stopped in our tracks and prevented from advancing any further. An unexpected and impregnable defense has beaten us.

Going down two sides of the courtyard is an enormous queue of families and other tourists waiting to enter the castle. A friendly tour guide predicts an hour’s wait before getting into the castle. We give up, our attempt to get inside the impressive fortress has been utterly crushed.

Crestfallen by our failure, we are thankfully distracted from our despair by the friendly tour guide who gives us lots of information about Matsumoto castle: the castle is one of the few original wooden castles left in Japan (most others have been burnt down so often, replicas have replaced them); there was a plan after the Restoration to demolish the castle but local opposition prevented it; and there’s a hidden storey inside the castle to fool any would-be attackers (we never get this far).

Ten minutes of marvelling at the castle from all angles and we’re very impressed, but beginning to tire. How many pictures can you take of the one building? So to kill some time, before our scheduled meeting with a friend, we go into the local history museum.

And it’s on the way into the museum that I make the revelatory discovery that Gerry Adams had a Japanese double – Kinoshita Naoe – who just like his Belfast brother, was also a politician and who was also in the peace trade.

Turns out Kinoshita Naoe is actually long dead. Sachiko translates the poster, which marks the 140th anniversary of his birth, “the work of Kinoshita Naoe never finishes, he conveys a message of democracy and non-violence”. What a fascinating coincidence that two such look-a-likes should have such a similar occupation. Equally interesting, I wonder will Gerry Adams be seen as an undiminished prophet for peace 140 years after his birth?

The museum is strictly about Matsumoto town and environs, but where that local history intersects with Japan’s national history, particularly during the second world war, the museum is quite interesting.

Two contemporary sources, a map of Japan with its war time flag (left) and a cartoon about the Japanese-China war (right) catch my attention. They are faint propaganda, nothing shocking.

We leave the museum, castle grounds, and hordes of other tourists and go to meet Natsumi. This is the third time and third location (Tokyo, Tsumago) we’ve met her since I arrived in Japan just over a week ago.

For lunch, the girls insist on going for soba noodles, the Nagano speciality. I’m beginning to learn that each region of Japan has its own culinary specialities, which the locals are very proud of. For Naganonians, soba noodles (made from buckwheat) are the supreme local dish and here in Matsumoto, there’s a proliferation of soba restaurants to choose from.

After trailing the girls for some time, as they wander from contender to contender, they finally make a decision and in we go. The restaurant’s interior is simple and quaint. We’re the only customers and we all make the same order: soba noodles, miso soup and a beer.

Anticipation is high, but for the first time in Japan, I find the main dish underwhelming. The presentation of the soba noodles is complex (each person receives a multi-tier set of trays with noodles on each tray) but their flavour is very plain. While you could also say that the soba noodles are very wholesome and healthy, my experience to-date has been that Japanese food doesn’t compromise flavour for nutritional value, so I’m a tad disappointed. The noodles are also served cold, something which seems to make their flavour even plainer.

The girls encourage me to spice up the dish with Nagano seven spices and I do finish the meal, hunger satisfied. It’s time for a few photos, and the inexplicable custom of holding up random items from the table for the camera. When in Rome, etc.

I still love Japanese food though, and our decision to go to an Irish bar for our next stop is not because I miss home. We simply want to go for a drink and native bars are very rare in Japan so we go to an Irish bar called OldRock. Their chalk board outside amuses me: no bar in Ireland would ever waste advertising real-estate with “soft drink”.

The internal design of OldRock is very convincing (a completely wooden interior, lots of taps at the bar, plenty of old-style signs on the walls, crisps for sale…) but there’s a few things that make the place uncanny: for a start you don’t go to the bar to get served instead, you take a table where a waiter gives you a menu. Although this is arguably easier than leaning across the bar to see what drinks are in the fridge, I’m still a bit discommoded by the practice. There’s no round system either (not necessarily a bad thing), so we go Dutch for the drinks (when in Rome…). Sachiko calls her brother, but he can’t make it because he’s still at the office (working on a Saturday evening, very Japanese).

After one drink each, it’s time for us to leave OldRock and Matsumoto. We say goodbye to Natsumi, though it’s only a half-hearted goodbye, because we’re sure we’ll see her again soon. Sachiko and I end up racing across town and through the railway station (with the wonderful sound of the Matsumoto train call) to where we catch the train back to Nagano city, from where we take one more train connection to Murayama, get a lift to Ainoshima and then dinner, bath, and sleep.

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Morning in Tsumago

According to the United Nations, 30% of the world’s fresh fish is eaten in Japan; and this morning, I’m face to face with another statistic.

It’s just what the doctor ordered though. After the turbulent visitation of the night before the rice, miso soup, soya beans, trout and green tea have a sobering effect. The healthy food settles my nerves and after breakfast I’m back on the straight path.

Now we can laugh at last night’s events. All it takes is for one of us to say “Hai, Hai, Hai” and we both laugh uproariously.

We spend a short time basking in the atmosphere of the two-hundred year old ryokan. It’s a pleasant sunny morning and all the sliding windows and doors of the ryokan have been opened and air circulates through the deep building, freshening it up. Out on the balcony, there’s a nice view of the neighbourhood; all the other ryokans are up, awake and starting to disgorge their residents.

We’re only staying in Tsumago for one night. It would be lovely to stay and hike more of the Nakasendo to Magome but we won’t have the time today. So we pack our bags, find our host downstairs and pay up. We’ve no keys to return, nor do we receive any receipt; in fact, there’s been no mark at all of our visit.

We say goodbye with a bow and depart through the humility-inducing low front door…

Our plan is simple: walk to Nagiso train station in time to catch a train at 14:00. We’ve five hours to cover a distance that with straight walking would only take an hour, so lots of time for idling, diversions and photos en-route. We review our location on a colourful map.

Like a child reading a book, I skip all the text (which I don’t understand) and just look at the pictures: an image of a male and female waterfall. It’s harmless fun to guess which is which, and thanks to a similar encounter in Obuse where we found a male and female wave, I’m starting to get the knack of it.

Our route into Tsumago passes along the same path we travelled yesterday. With our bags, we’re moving at a much slower pace than yesterday, but we get to see and enjoy lots of detail that we missed.

The meandering path passes many quaint wooden houses, water mills, barns of clutter and little charming decorations. We see a little fountain of kappa monsters, with their characteristic spinning top heads. With a little creative imagination, they could be humans carrying their bags on their heads, one of the explanations for the name of the Kappabashi bridge in Kamikochi.

Further on down the road, we pass a dōsojin, which Sachiko explains is a kami or spirit which protects travellers from disease and danger. I later learn that this particular dōsojin was introduced to Japan as a Buddhist deity but over the years became completely assimilated into Shintoism, the native Japanese religion. Although Buddhism and Shintoism are formally two separate religions, there’s so much intermingling between them that the boundaries are often difficult to mark.

In keeping with the Edo era of Tsumago, all the signs we see marking the route are made from either wood or stone. There’s also not a single sign written in English. Very authentic.

The sign marking the point where the path divides into the new and old road down into Tsumago inspires me to compose some doggerel verse:

Two roads diverged in Tsumago,

And being two travellers long we stood,

Then took the path more taken,

Since that is the most interesting one.

Our decision to follow the well trodden path is soon rewarded when we encounter another peach tree in full bloom. It’s a stunning trinity of pink.

When we arrive onto the main street of Tsumago, many of the artisan and craft shops that were closed yesterday are now open and there’s a steady footfall of tourists passing by each attraction. Tourism is by far-and-away the only economy in Tsumago and as far I can tell, I’m the only non-Japanese tourist here.

Our first stop is a shop selling handmade paper. Their workshop is open and we get to see the innards of the paper-making process. The workers are very welcoming and they invite us in to have a good look. All the tools and equipment to get your hands dirty with paper-making are present.

Next we pass a premises with a very chatty pair of obachans making straw hats. They regale Sachiko, telling her that I would surely like such a hat, but I insist that I’m fine.

I’m impressed with all the craft work. It reinforces the atmosphere of a pre-modern age. As Lewis Mumford said, “Until modern times, apart from the esoteric knowledge of the priests, philosophers and astronomers, the greater part of human thought and imagination flowed through the hands”.

It’s present time for the folks back home, so I go into a few clothes shops and buy some scarves for my mother and grandmother.

Otherwise, I’m taking so many pictures I’m at risk of being more Japanese than the Japanese themselves. But I just can’t stop. There’s a tourist office and I have a quick tour around it, taking a few photos of the funny signs before leaving. Oh, there’s another interesting shop. Quick run around, take a picture of the funny Granny wielding a massive scissors on her grandson in the barbers chair and exit.

Outside, I’m still marvelling at the wonderfully olde atmosphere of Tsumago, so I take some more pictures of the main street, trying to capture just a little bit of the magic…

Some old and friendly Japanese on their holidays, that’s a picture…

Winding lanes of wooden dwellings and hanging lanterns, take a photo…

Stop for some green tea ice-cream and a coffee, definitely a photo!

We take a photo of our final view of Tsumago as we take the road out of town…

Pass the shogun’s notice board with various warnings and exhortations…

It’s a 3.2 km walk to the train station.

Through some beautiful, bucolic scenery…

We pass through a forest of bamboo…

Follow some signs with some charming mis-spelling…

I climb a hill and get a great view of Tsumago…

On and on, the long and winding road…

Past waterfalls…

Shallow pools, thick with carp…

Time for a drink from a cool mountain stream…

Past a railway museum, nearly there…

Do a quick eye test…

Meet a few more laughing obachans…

And finally arrive at the station to catch the train to Matsumoto!

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