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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1 Response to Morning in Tsumago

  1. angrygaijin says:


    30% of the world’s seafood???? Wow~

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