If you happened to live in Tokyo over three-hundred years ago, it’s possible that the Japanese Emperor would have summoned you to his court in faraway Kyoto. If this happened, your only choice would have been, which of the two routes to Kyoto would you take to get there. You could have travelled along the coast, within sight of Mount Fuji, but had you decided to travel overland, through the mountainous province of Shinano, you would have joined many other travellers and pilgrims walking along the 534km long route called the Nakasendo. Walking daily for nearly three weeks, on day nine you would have found yourself passing through the hilly and forested Kiso valley. Tired after carrying all your possessions on your back, it’s a near certainty you would have rested for the night in the quiet post town of Tsumago.
Today, it’s April 29th 2011, and we are also travelling along the Nakasendo. Much has changed since the Edo period when the Nakasendo was in full use, and much has stayed the same. The route still passes through Tsumago, our destination for the night. But the Nakasendo no longer passes through Shinano province, the name has been changed to Nagano prefecture. And the city where we were a few days ago – Tokyo, has long since had it’s name changed from Edo. The Nakasendo still follows the meandering path of the Kiso river, but we’re not walking, we’re onboard the train, which steadily winds its way through the still forested Kiso valley.
Of all the things that have stayed the same, the most remarkable is the quiet town of Tsumago, which according to the reports we’ve heard is just as it would have been during the Edo period. The town still consists of beautifully preserved wooden houses, it has banned cars from driving through the town-centre and it has banished conspicuous overhead power lines from the valley. We’re both very excited about visiting the Tsumago and experiencing it’s vivid past.
The Edo Period in Japan was a period of quiet, autocratic feudalism between 1603 and 1868. The real ruler during this era was the Shogun (General) who was a member of the Tokugawa clan. After the Sengoku (Waring States) period, a one-hundred year era of continuous civil war between local rulers and chiefs, the Tokugawa clan achieved total victory and became the ultimate rulers of all Japan in 1603. They set up a new capital in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and in the centuries that followed, they imposed a strong military rule that crushed any dissent, but kept the country at peace and as a result, much Japanese culture flourished during this period. The Emperor and his Imperial court continued to live with much pomp and little power in Kyoto. Under a policy called Sakoku, Japan was during this time completely closed off to the rest of the world: the penalty for a Japanese for leaving the country was execution and the only foreigners who were allowed into Japan, were a few hundred Dutch merchants who lived on a tiny island in the Bay of Nagasaki, from where they were permitted to trade with the Japanese.
During the 1860s, this long peace and rigid old order rapidly disintegrated and in 1868, the Shogun resigned and the Emperor was restored to power. In a single generation, Japan bounded from an era of feudalism to full-scale industrialism. One person who lived through this turbulent era, and who recorded it with great sensitivity was Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto. She was born in 1874, in the nearby mountaneous province of Nagaoka, on the other side of the Kiso valley. Her father was a member of the Samurai class and initially she grew up as part of the old order, before the upheavals of the era reached her distant and isolated province. As a young child, she witnessed enormous change and as an adult she even got to leave Japan and move to the United States. Returning by train, to her home province after many years, she described the journey in her memoirs:
How different was this trip from the one of years before which I took with my brother when on my way to school in Tokyo! Instead of a journey of several days, spent, sometimes perched upon a high wooden saddle, sometimes tucked snugly into a swinging kago and sometimes rolled and jolted along the rough path in a jinrikisha, this was only fourteen hours of comfortable riding on a brisk little narrow-gauge train, that wound its puffing way up the mountains, through twenty-six tunnels that represented some of the world’s finest engineering. Between these dashes of darkness were welcome glimpses of sunny hill-sides terraced with ricefields, and a narrow, winding road that I remembered well. Just at twilight we found ourselves on the station platform of a busy town having a background of hills bristling with the skeleton towers of multitudinous oil wells. I had been told of these changes, but my slow mind had failed to realize how entirely my Nagaoka was a dream of the past.
Although we were travelling in a very different time to Sugimoto, I have a similar feeling of wonder at the passing of eras as we journey further into the Kiso valley and deeper into old Japan.
Our trains stops at Nagiso, the nearest station to Tsumago, and here we get off. When we exit the station, there’s no mistaking the era: we’re surrounded by a throng of Japanese tourists and they’re pointing their Nikons and Canons in every direction, enthusiastically snapping the cherry blossoms, the views of the forested hills, the old wooden pharmacy across the road, the train that has just arrived…
We’re only a short distance from Tsumago, where we’ve booked ourselves into a ryokan (guesthouse) for the night. But before we start walking or checking out bus times, we look out for our friend Natsumi, whom we met last weekend in Tokyo. Because it’s the first day of Golden Week, she’s back in her home province of Nagano, and today she is with her father visiting some relations in Nagiso. We can’t see her anywhere, but after a quick phone call, she pops out from the crowd.
“Nice to see you again!”
Natsumi’s relatives live right on the edge of the train station car-park. We’re led over to their house, which is separated from the car-park by a little stream – we cross over by a little wooden foot bridge. We find ourselves in a charming little garden where we’re introduced to Natsumi’s father and aunt. With so many introductions, there’s a whole lot of bowing going on and I enthusiastically join in, bowing vigorously at everyone and everything and saying “Hajimemashite” repeatedly.
Natsumi’s father is from Tsumago and when we tell him where we’ve booked to stay for the night, he recognizes it instantly.
He knows the family who live next door. He then tells that our ryokan is on the other side of Tsumago from where we are now, and it’s at least a 45 minute walk away. Before we even get a chance to be bothered about the distance, he insists on giving us a lift in his car! We’re very chuffed. Natsumi’s father is all action and we load our bags into their boxy little car almost straight away. We hop in and set off towards the Maruya ryokan. The road follows a very circuitous route around the town, since cars aren’t allowed into Tsumago itself.
On the way, Natsumi’s father asks where we have been and we tell him about Kamikochi, how cold it was during the night, but also how beautiful it was during the day. The road takes us through some beautiful cedar forests and we get an elevated view of Tsumago nestled in the Kiso valley. As we drive up the road where our accommodation is located, Natsumi’s father drives along slowly, reading all the name signs, until he points out the Maruya ryokan, nearly the last one at the top of the road.
We thank Natsumi and her father for dropping us straight to the door of our ryokan. It would have taken us a long time to walk the distance and with our heavy bags, we probably would have gotten lost a few times. It was a small gesture for them, but it has made a huge difference to us and we’re really appreciative. As a small thank you, Sachiko presents Natsumi with some home-grown peanuts, which were home-roasted by Sachiko’s granny, Fumi. The gift is well received.
“I’ll make peanut butter!” says Natsumi.
Before Natsumi and her father leave, I request a picture of them. I’m keen to capture the faces of the people we meet, especially those who are kind to us. They’re happy to comply, and without saying anything to each other, they adopt a curiously formal pose outside our ryokan. We then exchange another profusion of bows – communicating fullsome thanks and fond farewells – and declare that we’ll meet again, tomorrow, in Matsumoto. We wave them off and then Sachiko and I fetch our bags and face our ryokan.
It’s a tall, wooden two-storey building with a tiny door as entrance. The doorway is probably about 1.2 metres (4 feet) high. I’m 1.82 metres (6 feet) tall, so this requires quite a stoop to enter through without braining myself; even for the native, Sachiko at 1.6 metres (5 foot 3 inches), the door requires some serious limbo action.
It’s all part of the experience of course, such a low doorway is a signature of Japanese culture. In the Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura gives a concise description of how a guest attending a tea ceremony, enters the tea room:
Then he will bend low and creep into the room through a small door not more than three feet in height. This proceeding was incumbent on all guests, – high and low alike, – and was intended to inculcate humility.
Once inside Maruya ryokan, we remove our shoes and step onto the tatami flooring. We’re in a dimly lit, large room, which is completely covered in woven tatami mats. In the centre of the mats is a smoldering open fire place, over which a cast iron kettle hangs. There’s a high ceiling and the interior is nearly all wooden. It’s like a scene from a different age. Sitting on the tatami mats beside the fire is a relaxed older Japanese man and his two kids, who are both engrossed in a frenetic, high octane Japanese cartoon on the television. An effortless blend of the ancient and the new.
We pause here for a moment until a woman comes out from the back of the ryokan. She smiles and greets us.
“Konnichiwa”, we reply. “Kobayashi, Sachiko”
“Hai” she says.
To my surprise, she doesn’t lead us over to any reception, computer or sign-in book. All we have to do to identify ourselves, is give her the name we used to book our room for the night (I’m not asked for my name at all). I’m very impressed that she appears to know the names of everyone who has booked in for the night. We stay standing on the spot, as she gives us a quick and thorough run-down of all the essential facts and times about the ryokan: there’ll be two hot baths downstairs from 16:00, dinner will be at 17:30, the front door will be closed from 22:00 and breakfast will be at 07.30 in the morning.
She then leads us upstairs to our room. The stairs we climb is a step ladder carved out of a single piece of wood. We’re then led down a long and narrow corridor until our host stops outside our room, which is named yuri (lily). She bids us enter, then she bows and goes to leave.
“Arigato” we say in unison.
Sachiko and I find ourselves in a spartan, square room, each side about 3 metres long. The entire room is once again covered with tatami mats and one of the four walls is just a sliding screen. There’s a small table in the middle and a heater in the corner. Apart from a thermos flask of hot water and some green tea-bags, there’s nothing else in the room. I double-check the sliding door through which we entered the room. No, it can’t be locked.
“Where’s our bedding?” I ask.
“They’ll bring it up when we’re having dinner”, Sachiko replies.
I review the situation.
As it stands, we’re fully checked in to our accommodation for the night. However, we weren’t asked for any identification to prove who we were, and I wasn’t even asked for my name. We’ve been shown to our room, which contains no bedding and which is separated from our neighbours room by nothing but a sliding screen. There’s no lock on the sliding screen, on the entrance to our room, there’s no locker anywhere and we haven’t received any sort of key for even the building that we’re supposedly staying in for night.
Had I been travelling solo, I probably would have given up by now, such is the endless stream of baffling non-sequitors. But thanks to the reassurance of my lovely guide, I’m saved from any culture-shock paralysis. All is explained, and my mind is put at ease.
“It’s normal that they only bring the futon up when we’re gone for dinner”, Sachiko explains.
The futon, that nearly all Japanese people still sleep on, is simply bedding laid down on the tatami floor. During the day, it’s cleared away and stored. This gives the room lots of extra space and in fairness, though our room is small, it’s zen bareness is quite peaceful. The walls, our sliding door, and the sliding screen that separates our room from our neighbours, offer little in the way of sound insulation. Since we can hear there’s no-one next door, we talk relaxedly, but I wonder how it will be later on when somebody else is staying next door. Not only will each room be able to hear the other with perfect clarity, when we go to sleep, it will even be possible for both the door and the sliding screen to be opened completely silently! A more suitable building for ninjas could hardly be imagined.
“Kabeni mimi ari, shoji ni me ari”, says Sachiko.
“The walls have ears, the screens have eyes”, she translates.
It’s an old Japanese proverb which says, since you can never know who is listening or watching, you have always to be careful about what you say and this is especially true when sliding screens are near. A classic technique in old samurai stories is to moisten one’s finger and use it to rub a small hole in the sliding screen, thus being able to spy keenly on all the goings-on in the room next door.
In my wilder moments of speculation, I’m tempted to develop a theory that explains the reserved and shy Japanese personality by the thin and almost ineffable borders of privacy in their dwellings; but since these speculations so quickly fall into a chicken and egg type circular argument, I never pursue them. On the other hand, I can honestly say that because the Japanese are so respectful and considerate, I don’t feel at all vulnerable about sleeping in a room with no security, something I couldn’t say about most other countries, including my own.
We walk around our building a bit. It’s a remarkable structure made entirely from wood: the frame of the building consists of some enormous vertical tree trunks with other huge cross-spars horizontally crossing the building at a very low height. This suggests that the building is very old. It also means I must be vigilant about not knocking my head.
Elsewhere there’s a lovely selection of ornaments and objects all displayed with a thorough-going zen aesthetic for simpleness. We fetch a few things from our room, slide the door shut and climb downstairs.
Before going outside, I persuade Sachiko to ask our host how old the building is. When we find her, our host is a little unsure of the answer: she says the ryokan opened in Kansei 1, but because she’s not sure when that was, she first has to work that out, and then can she give us an answer to how old the ryokan is. Both our host and Sachiko spend a few minutes trying to remember dates and the years that different eras ended. I’m baffled by it all.
“1789”, they agree.
“222 years!” I exclaim. “Has it been a guesthouse all the time?”
“Hai”, our host replies.
I’m awed. We’re staying in a guesthouse that has been continuously open for over two hundred years. Wow.
Our host smiles as I have a moment.
Our plan for the afternoon is to walk down to Tsumago and check out the town. There’s only a few hours before our dinner and the local shops and premises will all be from 5 o’clock. We’re a short walk from the town and we embark in high spirits. The route completely avoids the road that Natsumi’s father took to drive us to our ryokan earlier. We follow the many signs that mark the walking trail.
This is after all the ancient Nakasendo walking highway of central Japan. The road goes up and down, with lovely views of Tsumago in the near distance. I get to see wild bamboo for the first time as we pass a forest of the slender and lanky trunks swaying in the balmy spring afternoon.
It’s only now that we have a chance to appreciate how different the weather conditions are compared to this morning in Kamikochi. We started the day in heavy clothing with gloves, scarves and hats but now we’ve shed all our layers and we’re waltzing along the meandering path, carefree and happy.
We’re not in Tsumago yet, but we pass lots of wooden buildings. Outside many of these buildings are a myriad of little crafts and lovely wooden objects. I feel like we’ve just time-travelled into some bucolic medieval village, or like we’ve just walked into Kakariko village from the Legend of Zelda. I’m particularly excited by the water mills everywhere. Some are small and decorative while others are enormous and clearly functional. Everything has an appealing human scale, there’s none of the pristine giantism of Tokyo.
Along the walk we pass an eye-catching old wooden building with a wonderfully haphazard bric-a-brac filled barn. With a sturdy wheel-barrow leaning against the wall, it has the disheveled character a daily-use and real life, this is not some Potemkin village we’re passing by. Outside the house is a spectacular tree, which to my amazement is blossoming in three varieties of pink.
“Momo hana”, Sachiko says.
“Momo is peach, hana is flower”, she explains.
“It’s beautiful” I say, not usually so moved by just a blossoming tree.
Outside many other houses, there are little benches or small tree-trunks cut into small stools. We stop outside one such house from which hangs a traditional straw rice-farmers hat. Also outside the house is another curio: a statue of a little racoon.
“Tanuki!”, Sachiko says, like he’s an old friend she hasn’t met in a long time.
He’s an agreeable looking fellow with a slightly mad, mischievous look in his eyes.
“The Tanuki I know from my childhood is that he deceives people by turning into another human being or some objects, but usually the disguised has a leaf on the head (and sometimes a fat tail hanging in the back) so the clever one can spot it’s only Tanuki in disguise…”, says Sachiko.
This particular Tanuki has a sake bottle, which I later learn, has a story behind it too:
“There were some naughty Tanuki hanging around the sake brewery, messing steamed rice for sake and making noises to surprise people. In spite of the naughty behaviour, Tanuki was treated as a sacred creature and it was said that good sake won’t be made without Tanuki hanging around in a brewery..”
On the other side of the house is an enormous straw horse, for which I also get a thorough explanation:
“The wara-uma (straw horse) is famous in the Kiso area, apparently it brings a good fortune. Usually they are very small, this is the massive version and they demonstrate how to make one in this house”
As we continue on our walk towards Tsumago town, I ask Sachiko why earlier, there was such confusion about how old our ryokan was.
“She could remember that it opened in Kansai 1, but she couldn’t remember what year that was in western years”
“The Japanese year is named after the Emperor. Kansai 1 was the first year that the Emperor of that era reigned. Now for example, we’re now in Hesei 23”
“Wow, is the Emperor naming convention commonly used?”
“No, it’s mostly used for history and by old people. For example, my grandfather was born in Taisho 15 and my granny was born in Showa 2, but my grandfather was only born 5 months before my granny”
“Two months after my grandfather was born the Emperor died. The next day was Showa 1, which only lasted a week until the end of the year. Then in January it was Showa 2, and in March my granny was born”
“A very important event” I say.
“Yes!” says Sachiko and she laughs.
Twenty minutes after leaving our accommodation, we walk into Tsumago. It’s a wonder. As a tourist, I’ve spent the past week constantly experiencing Japan as a foreign country, now I feel like I’m in a different era too.
We stroll down the street marvelling at the rows of wooden buildings, the hanging lanterns, the hanging curtains underneath the verandas and the lovingly tended little bonsai trees and flower pots outside so many of the buildings. There’s a very relaxed vibe about the town.
I’m not the only one who’s charmed by it all. For Japanese people, Tsumago is particularly nostalgic and evocative. They learn much about the Edo period in school and Tsumago is a very tangible and authentic example of what the towns in the Edo period were like. Many of buildings have wide eaves to provide shelter from the monsoon rains or the late summer heat and underneath some of these eaves, are neatly stacked piles of firewood for the open fire inside the dwelling.
“Natsukashi” I say. (nostalgic)
“Very good Japanese!”
Most of the buildings are restaurants or little craft shops. One uniquely robust and sturdy looking building really stands out as different. Compared to all other buildings on the street, it looks like a fortress.
“What’s that? I ask
“The kura, or rice warehouse” Sachiko says.
“The rice warehouse?!”
I really wasn’t expecting that answer, but after I think about it, and along with a little bit of history, I realize it makes perfect sense. The Samurai warrior class were paid in rice and during the Edo period, they were not allowed to leave the town they lived in: for these two reasons, the rice store had to be in the town and it had to be a fortress. For a hungry samurai would presumably have formidable breaking and entering abilities.
While the mood of Tsumago is one of “long-long-ago”, the buildings are all in very good condition and as my guidebook tells us, that didn’t happen through inertia and inactivity. When the Edo period ended and the Chuo train line bypassed Tsumago, it lost its purpose as an overnight stop on the Nakasendo and the town quickly declined and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, some local citizen on their own initiative decided to restore their dilapidated little town. After some time, they got government support and funds and after many years work Tsumago was beautifully restored to its former glory. It has now become a popular tourist destination, especially with the Japanese themselves, but owing to the Tohoku earthquake in March, the numbers visiting today are much smaller.
On many of the buildings, the front facade is a sliding screen. And while some of these buildings are all closed up, on some others the front facade is completely open and here we can peer in and marvel at the old atmosphere.
On our walkabout, we stop for an ice-cream. I go for sakura (cherry blossom) ice-cream and Sachiko goes for her favourite: green-tea ice-cream. Only in Japan.
We’ve walked nearly the full length of town when we come across three enormous rocks precariously resting on top of each other. There’s a sign in old Japanese, which Sachiko has a hard time translating because the kanji characters are so old. But after some tenacious deciphering, she’s able to tell me the story. The rocks originally looked like a carp fish, a familiar image in Japanese culture. The word for carp (鯉) and the word for romance (恋) have the same sound: koi, and at the same time there was a rumour that the local daimyo (ruling chief) was having a romantic assignation with a girl at the same spot. Which part of the story came first, we do not know. However, there was an earthquake in Meiji 24 (1891) and the rocks moved, making them look less like a carp fish. By then there was no daimyo either, and now there’s just the sign and the story.
It’s reaching late in the afternoon and Sachiko recommends we get back to our ryokan. We walk quickly and with a renewed purpose: to have a quick bath before dinner. I’m slowly being indoctrinated with the idea of having a bath every day. Like everything else in Tsumago, the bath is a unique experience. The small little bath-tub is made from hinoki, the Kiso valley cyprus tree, which gives it a vivifying and woody aroma
At 17:30, we enter the dining room where all the other guests are also dining. I’m the only non-Japanese in the building. Sitting at the table beside us are a young Japanese couple and at one table on the other side of the room, there are three generations of Japanese: children, parents and grandparents. Everyone is sitting on a low cushion and at a low table – there’s no “Western option” here.
The table is set with a plethora of little bowls, vessels and receptacles. Dinner is fantastic: tofu, salad, satoimo potatoes, vegetable tempura, iwana fish, rice and lots of little pickles. I’m starving and have no trouble finishing the whole lot. Finishing all your rice is particularly important. Sachiko tells me that as children, they were chastised if there was even one grain of rice left in their bowls!
Initially we don’t talk to the Japanese couple at the table beside. The man is prattling away and his girlfriend doesn’t seem to have much to say, though Sachiko reckons they’re both slightly unnerved by the presence of a gaijin at the table beside them. When I commit a very minor faux-pas, pouring some soya sauce into an incorrect bowl, this is confirmed. Out of the corner of her eye, Sachiko notices that the couple briefly stop talking as they notice, out of the corner of their eye, what I’ve done… they stutter a bit before renewing their conversation, with an even more forced nonchalance than before.
To put them out of their misery, Sachiko strikes up a conversation (in Japanese):
“Where are you from?”
“Shizuoka” they reply. It’s a nearby province.
“Where is he from?” they ask.
“Where have you been on your holidays so far?”
We tell them all about Kamikochi. The couple are also on holidays for Golden Week and when we’ve finished our dinner, they wish us well for the rest of our trip. We leave the dining room and we return to our bedroom, we find that our bedding has been left in the room. That’s one good reason we can’t lock our door. We then adopt the traditional after-dinner/after-bath custom and change into our the kimonos that were provided with the room. Thus attired, we go downstairs to relax in the communal area.
While we’re sitting around the fire, the front door of the building slides open and a young child steps through and calls out in a loud but soft voice,
“Oshoyu wakete kudasai”
“Spare us some soya sauce”, Sachiko translates.
The child is from next door, where they’re clearly having a bit of an emergency: no soya sauce left!
We’re back in our room by eight o’clock. After a largely sleepless night (due to the freezing conditions) in Kamikochi, the long hours of train travelling and the busy touristic sightseeing, we’re both absolutely exhausted. The relaxing comfort from the bath, the full meal and the quiet atmosphere of the ryokan is so thorough that my tiredness is starting to become overwhelming and by the time we go to bed, I’m beginning to feel slightly unhinged. Tucked into the futon, I quickly fall asleep.
My sleep is long, and in the morning I awaken refreshed, after ten hours of continuous deep slumber. But, not all is as it seems and my memory of an untroubled night is punctured when Sachiko tells me of a troubling event that transpired during the night.
At an unknown dark hour, I suddenly sat bolt upright in the futon. Looking around wildly in all directions, I shout rapidly in a panicked voice,
“Hai, Hai, Hai, Hai!”
The Japanese word for yes, and I say it with a staccato quickness.
Naturally, Sachiko is woken by this clamour.
“Are you alright?” she asks with great compassion.
“I’m just tired” I reply and slump over, as emphatically as I rose up, and fall asleep.
When Sachiko tells me all this in the morning, I have absolutely no memory of it whatsoever. I’m at a loss for an explanation. I’ve no history of sleep walking so it seems very out of character. To Sachiko however, there is a simple explanation. Sometime in the past, a Samurai soldier was murdered in the room we slept in. However his soul was unable to flee and so it stayed trapped like a ghost in the room. During the night, this ghost temporarily inhabited my body, before fleeing after it was confronted. You can’t get more authentic than that!