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:



“Iizuna Kogen!”


When he calls:


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!”


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!”


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?”

hand things

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


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


“Sokkou, same as the last two”


“Tekken, means iron fist”

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


“Fukiya, blowguns”


“Tessen, Iron Fan”


“Doku ire, poison containers and blow guns”


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


” Touki, climbing device”


“Shikoro, a kind of saw”


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


“Shuriken, ninja throwing star”


“Nunchaku, probably you know what it is?”


“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.


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

Okay, okay, only I play around….


Finally, we pose as ninjas.


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

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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.


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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A Night In Tsumago

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.

“Maruya ryokan!”

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”

“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!

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Morning Walk In Kamikōchi

We waken before seven. The promise of the starry night sky has been fulfilled, the long black veil of the shivering night has floated away and we emerge from our cabin, blinking in the soft morning light. The temperatures are already starting to rise and the tall shadows cast by the trees are shortening as the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky.

With the cabin door open, we sit on the porch and have breakfast. Rice balls are the staple and we use the simple gas cooker to heat up some gyoza, miso soup and instant coffee. As we’re enjoying our breakfast in the clear fresh air, our neighbours in cabin number two come out and we chat to them briefly. They’re also up early and were planning to hike the high-altitude Karasawa route in the mountains, but they’ve just learned that there have been avalanches in the early morning, and their plans are now on hold. One of them tells us that some people have been injured and that some helicopters will be coming to airlift them to hospital. We’re safe on the valley floor however, no avalanches will reach that far.

Before leaving, we clean out our cabin (with the sweeping brush provided) and then we bring our packed bags, pots and sheets to the reception cabin. We were the first to check-in and we’re the first to check-out. Because we’re not leaving for a few hours, we leave our bags at reception; our bus leaves at 10:15 so we’ve enough time to walk the Kamikōchi valley and savour the beautiful morning. On the ground we see a puddle than tells the full story of the last 12 hours: the water which froze in the sub-zero night temperatures is already starting to thaw with the early morning warmth. We then hightail it to the nearest opening in the trees so we can get a proper view, untainted by low clouds, of all those majestic mountain peaks, which we could only glimpse yesterday. Today, the mountains are epic.

As I work my camera, taking pictures and trying to capture the view, it strikes me that the scene of dense forest in the foreground, snow covered jagged peaks in the centre and deep blue sky overhead is so iconically perfect, that the picture I take feels very little like “my picture”. It has none of the imperfections of personality. The photograph looks too much like a postcard and that’s not enough to prove that we were here! So after much undignified crouching and crawling around on the ground with my camera and tripod…

We finally get the money shot, the one to send home to the relatives… yes, we were here!

After getting an invigorating dose of grand mountain views, we walk to the Kappabashi Bridge. The koinobori are out in full flight. These tubular kites of a family of carp fish are traditional decorations hung up for Children’s Day, a national holiday on May 5th. Usually, a carp for each member of the family is hung up: Daddy, Mammy and each of the children, as this song explains. The koinobori we pass have four children, an unheard of large family by Japanese standards.

At the Kappabashi Bridge, we encounter a small crowd of other visitors, which is more than all the people we saw yesterday. Today (April 29th) is Showa Day, a national holiday to commemorate the former emperor, Hirohito. It’s also the first day of Golden Week, so called because four national holidays fall in the same week. In general, the Japanese work hard and don’t take many holidays, but during Golden Week, millions of workers leave the cities and escape to the countryside. Among the holiday makers in Kamikōchi are lots of serious hikers and mountain climbers kitted out in immaculately clean North Face and Lowe Alpine gear and sporting a plethora of special equipment: hiking sticks, crampons, helmets, ice axes and more.

We join this bunch of climbers and hikers on the Kappabashi Bridge. Like them, we’re captivated by its brilliance in the morning. Once again, we marvel at the soaring snow peaked mountains framed by the clear blue sky. It’s a far cry from the conditions on the bridge yesterday when we were shivering  with the cold and saturated in drizzle and sideways rain. But while it may be a breathtaking scene to look at, the impact of the hot sun on the snow covered mountains at this time of year isn’t all pleasant. It’s spring and the temperatures have been rising for some weeks; no fresh snow has fallen for some time and the heat from the sun is now starting to melt the snow, which leads to avalanches and danger for anyone in the line of fire.

As we leave the Kappabashi Bridge we hear the rescue helicopters overhead. We don’t know if they’re still searching for the missing climbers or if they have found them and are air lifting them to safety. Either way, it’s a sure sign that the climbing season in Kamikōchi is in full swing. After we’ve walked a short distance, I spot a lone monkey down by the river, just underneath the bridge. As someone with a European childhood, I’m reminded of the infamous troll who lived under a bridge and terrorized the three billy goats. But here in Japan, the monkey looks more like a kappa, ready to prey on some unsuspecting humans. Perhaps it was just such a scene that led to the bridge being named after the kappa in the first place? I go over to the side of the river to take a picture. For Sachiko however, this monkey-troll-kappa hybrid is of little importance: for her the main event is the sunny morning and she sits on the river bank basking with the warm sun on her face.

We leave the Kappabashi Bridge behind, and continue on our walk. Each time I stop to take more pictures of some mountain view, Sachiko renews her love affair with the sun…

She’s not the only one relishing the weather, the snow monkeys are out as well.

Looking a bit sunburnt there buddy…

Out on the trail, we see lots of monkey activity with the males striding up and down the terrain and paths. They strut with great presence, but they pay little attention to us human visitors.

We also see a family of monkeys with their mother. They’re on the move, with mother leading the way, but they also take some time to dip and wash in the cold waters of the Azusa river.

We also dip our toes in some local water, but it’s the warm waters of the foot spa where we pit-stopped yesterday. Once again, we get a super dose of exhilaration – each of us with a pair of happy feet, we carry on towards the Hotaka bridge.

As we walk towards the bridge and are about to cross, we freeze when we see a very aggressive alpha-male snow monkey bounding across from the opposite side. He’s baring his teeth and snarling and barking with incredible volume – following close behind him are a troop of less aggressive monkeys all running to keep up with the leader. There’s a lot of people on the bridge at the time and they scatter with fright and rapidity as the monkeys come charging through. There’s no chance of photographing this melee, these monkey are dangerous and to be kept well away from. We scramble out of their way.

While the lead monkey is clearly picking for a fight, it’s also apparent that he has no bone to pick with the humans in the area. It’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on, but amongst the flurry of monkeys running all over the place, there appears to be some upstart monkey who has challenged the alpha male for the top spot. Alpha is having none of it. As the rowdies move on, a few more straggler monkeys follow behind in their wake. These monkeys are far more placid and tame like the ones we’ve seen already… and as soon as this dawns on all the tourists on the bridge, the cameras are out.

After this dramatic monkey encounter, we walk back to the reception area from where we retrieve our bags. There are lots of tourists hanging around the Kappabashi Bridge, these are all the day trippers that have just arrived.

There’s a painter with his easel, painting the bridge and there’s a local dressed up in a fancy costume offering to be in pictures with the day trippers. By 10 o’clock we’re waiting for the bus at the Kamikōchi bus depot. It’s been a short but amazing trip to the mountains. In less than 24 hours we saw a lot and fortunately we got to see Kamikōchi at its best. There’s a lot we didn’t get to see: the scenic ponds Taisho, Tashiro & Myōjin and lots of other landmarks, Takezawa Marsh and Tokusawa. But there’s little left for us to do, except pledge to come back again and see it all.  Onboard the bus, it pulls away from Kamikōchi, bang on time at 10:15.

There’s a remarkably simple but effective fare technology on the bus that gets me very excited: when we entered the bus near the back, we collected an automatically dispensed ticket, which has the number of the station we got on at – in our case, no 1. No payment is made at this stage, you just get a ticket. From our seats we can see a panel at the front of the bus, numbered 1 to 40, which is the number of stops the bus is going to make. The panel is updated each time the bus makes a stop and when one wants to get off the bus, to know the fare you owe, just check the figure underneath the number of the stop you got on at: in the photograph below, we owe ¥5 (an incorrect number: something was wrong this panel). You can’t get off the bus until you’ve handed over your numbered ticket and the appropriate fare as stated on the panel. There’s no room for argument!

Our journey takes us back down the hair-raising road we travelled up yesterday. At Shinshimashima we get off the bus and board the train which will take us to Matsumoto. Here we witness a charming Golden Week scene. Across from us sits a family from Tokyo (mother, father, three children) who are holidaying in Nagano for Golden Week. They are chatting to an obahchan, an old local woman, who is sitting on the same side of the train as us. She is regaling them with ridiculous details about her life and they are laughing uproariously at everything she says. She’s clearly delighting in the captive audience because she just keeps on talking and they keep on laughing. Unlike Irish people, Japanese rarely talk to strangers on buses and train, but this obahchan is refreshingly relaxed and unburdened by such cultural conventions. It creates a very convivial atmosphere on the train.

We change trains in Matsumoto, and head south towards our next destination in the Kiso valley, the beautifully preserved, Edo-period, wooden town of Tsumago.

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Planet of the Snow Monkeys

Another morning in Japan, another whiskey hangover. The cure is a full Kobayashi breakfast (miso soup, sticky rice, nori seaweed, tofu, pickled vegetables, grilled salmon, noodles, spring onions, an omelet, satoimo potatoes and green tea) and as it gets to work, we pack our bags and put them in the boot of the family car, a Mazda Premacy. The weather is warm enough for me to be comfortable in a long sleeved tee-shirt, shorts & sandals, but our bags are stuffed with heavy coats, wooly jumpers, hats, gloves, scarfs and waterproofs. We’ll need them where we’re going to. From Suzaka, we’re getting a lift to Nagano City bus station, from where a bus will take us up into the mountains, to our overnight destination, Kamikōchi, a scenic nature reserve in a high-altitude valley sometimes referred to as the Japanese Alps.

When travelling to Kamikōchi, our guidebook tells us, avoid the peak season in July when the valley is swarming with tourists and day-trippers. This is no problem for us because it’s only April 28th and the Kamikōchi opening ceremony to mark the beginning of the visiting season only took place yesterday. Despite the presence of a young heart-throb actor (Shun Oguri) and actress (Masami Nagasawa) at the opening ceremony, it’ll be some weeks before the numbers visiting the park start to increase. Another reason we’re predicting it’ll be quiet, is that since the March 11th earthquake, many Japanese have been reluctant to travel anywhere for recreational activities. This is, as far as I can tell, more for reasons of it seeming inappropriate than for any practical reasons, although after-shocks are still quite common.

When our bus pulls away from Nagano City bus station, there’s only one other person onboard. Dressed in hiking gear, the other passenger making the trip to the mountains is an elderly woman, but her age is nothing surprising. After all this is Japan, a country that holds the record for the oldest person to climb Mount Everest (Yuichiro Miura, 75 years old) and where one famous 100 year old (Keizo Miura) celebrated his centenary birthday by skiing down a ski-slope with four generations of his family.

The bus journey takes us across Nagano prefecture. Although known as a prefecture of farmers, there’s plenty of development too. As the bus whizzes along on a two-lane highway, we see shopping centres, small factories and pachinko parlours dotted across the landscape. The sky is clear and to Sachiko’s delight, there are lots of cherry blossoms still in bloom and koinobori blowing in the wind.

After over an hour of flat land, the distant cloud-capped mountains are growing nearer and the terrain begins to incline. We make a short stop in Matsumoto and thereafter our bus starts to pass through an increasing number of tunnels. The route is a steady ascent and the bus’s diesel engine rumbles louder and louder as we pass through tunnel after tunnel, on each occasion passing a few minutes in darkness, before emerging into the sunny light of a new valley. With increasing altitude, the broad U-shaped valleys become more steep V-shaped valleys. The higher land is more rugged and tree-covered, there is less and less development and the few buildings that exist are mostly made from wood. We’ve climbed to true alpine territory, with the narrow road clinging to the side of the sheer valley, high above the deep river gorge below. The road twists and turns. The bus is moving much more slowly and tentatively now, the uninterrupted drop below exhorts caution.

We continue to pass through numerous dark tunnels, drilled deep through the rock. On the mountainside above the road, there are large concrete structures protecting against avalanches. As the road continue to climb, the weather worsens. We’re driving into the clouds that have been hugging the mountains since early morning. The bus driver keeps up a steady patter of information about the route and the tunnels we’re passing through: one of the tunnels is famous for splitting in two halfway through, other tunnels are over 2.5 km in length and there’s one tunnel (Kama) after which private cars aren’t allowed to enter the Kamikōchi reserve. In time, the steady stream of information transitions to a series of announcements about the set-down points of the bus. We’re in Kamikōchi valley now. There are various accommodations and points to disembark but we’re going all the way to the last stop.

By the time we reach the end of our journey, we’ve been travelling in the same vehicle for nearly three hours. When we got on the bus in Nagano city in the morning, the weather was warm and balmy – this atmosphere sustained onboard the bus all the way up to the mountains, we remained cosy and snug onboard. But we’re at 1500 metres altitude now and when we alight, we’re stepping into a much colder world… and I’m still dressed in shorts and sandals. The bus driver, a true personification of a burly cheerful Buddha, laughs with fright when he sees my shorts and bare feet,

“Samui!” (cold), he cries aloud.

We quickly make for the large visitor centre. We’ve booked a cabin for the night, but we don’t know where it is, so Sachiko goes searching for a map and in the interim, I put on some long trousers, heavy socks, shoes and an insulated water-proof coat.

When we rendezvous, we study the newly acquired map of the area. Kamikōchi natural park is a valley of the Azusa river and our cabin is located up-river, past the Kappabashi bridge and about a 30 minute walk away. By the time we’ve figured all this out, the rain has come down out from the clouds making walking outdoors an uninviting prospect. So we stay inside the visitor centre and look around.

There’s not much that catches my interest until, glancing up at the high windows and out at the bare trees, I see one of the famed snow monkeys, tucked up in the trees, a lump of inactivity.

The visitor centre does provide lots of information about the geography, geology, fauna, flora and folklore of the Kamikōchi valley, but I mostly spend the time figuring out how to use the camera stand I got in the 100 yen shop. After a successful shot…

…we’re starting to get cabin fever inside the visitor centre. So we look out, convince ourselves that the weather, “isn’t that bad”, load up our bags and set off our towards our accommodation.

We’ve only walked to the other side of the building, when I have my first encounter with a snow-monkey. He’s a small guy, tucked up beside the wall and he’s sticking his hand into the cracks of the wall rooting around for something. The official advice about snow-monkeys, is to stay away, not interfere or get too close and definitely don’t feed them. The little monkey seems harmless and it doesn’t take much for me rationalize that he won’t mind a picture being taken. I get up close and quickly photograph the little animal. He’s very placid and doesn’t react at all as I snap my camera. I come away wondering what all the “beware of monkeys” fuss is about, but I guess it’s best not to judge a species based on an individual.

Leaving the snow-monkey behind, we set-off through the wintry weather and follow the route along the river and up the valley. There’s no traffic, only some other walkers, and each side of the road is bordered with tall, leafless trees. It’s very chilly, the rain is kind of sleety and for the first time since arriving in Japan five days ago, I see snow piled on the side of the road. Only yesterday we were basking in the radiant spring of the cherry blossoms! But just one morning’s travel is enough to reverse the seasons. The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather says it’s winter.

The road becomes a track and soon we’re minding our step to avoid the puddles that have gathered on the ground. After a number of landmarks, we spot the reception area through the tall trees. We’re a few hours early, we’re not meant to check in until 2.00 p.m., but thankfully we’re received hospitably. It’s only the second day of the season and we’re staying in Hut No. 1, so we’re probably the first visitors to check-in this season. We sign our names on a few forms and receive sheets, pillow cases, some pots, a box of matches and a torch. It doesn’t take long to check-in, but in the few minutes of waiting around, we’re starting to freeze.

A nearby thermometer records the temperature, a cool 5 degrees, though it feels much colder. We’re given another map, with our little shack marked at the  far end of the over-nighting quarter. As we walk towards it, we pass all the other accommodations, which all look extremely comfortable and warm. However, as we get nearer to our own place, it’s starting to dawn on us that the luxury and standard of the cabins is declining as we go. You gets what you pays for, and when we reach the edge of the accommodation area, we find our cabin, a simple wooden shed with a bunk bed. Its spartan simplicity is, I try to tell myself, a more authentic Japanese experience than I would have had in the five-star huts.

Our shack has no sink or toilet, for those needs we’ll have to use the communal sinks and communal toilets located nearby. There’s zero ornamentation and no luxury, but there’s no shortage of functional quality: it’s a sturdy cabin. In the porch, there’s a little gas pipe and stove where we can heat up food or drink. We deposit our sheets and equipment and transfer some essentials from my rucksack to a little backpack. We use the gas stove to heat up some food, some Japanese curry and a few rice balls and when we’re still feeling cold, we decide to have a cheeky little cup of warm sake too. But we don’t stay indoors for long; there’s no heat in the cabin and it’s too cold to remain anywhere without moving, so we go back out into the chilly day.

Outside, we walk across the winter accumulation of dead leaves and needles, a thick, uneven forest carpet. As we step to avoid the puddles, Sachiko spots a tiny little plant on the ground. Popping up out of the winter leaves is the fukinoto, also called the symbol of spring, though it’s a far cry from the cherry blossoms. Fukinoto, also known as bog rhubarb, is apparently quite tasty when fried in butter with miso paste and sugar and served on top of rice.

We continue on in the direction of the Kappabashi bridge, the number one landmark in Kamikōchi. If by some miracle you ever visited Kamikōchi, without having first seen a picture of the Kappabashi bridge, on arriving at it, you’d instantly recognize the bridge as the premier landmark due to it being festooned with tourists pointing their cameras every which way. When we come upon the bridge, the rainy weather has made it distinctly unphotogenic, but that’s hardly a reason to not photograph it. The cameras are out, we take a pile of pictures, but don’t hang around for long. It’s too cold and at any given moment on the Kappabashi bridge, some part of you is in the backdrop of somebody else’s photo. It’s an unnerving feeling.

The bridge is named after the kappa, a mythological Japanese creature that always lives in rivers and is apparently rumoured to have lived somewhere in a nearby pond. In modern times, the kappa has become a quite friendly, cute creature that often features in  cartoons in a helpful guise. This is far from its origins, in the past the kappa was a creature that often got humans into trouble, even sometimes killing them with quite gruesome methods. There’s no sign of the kappa today though. He’s too smart to be venturing out on such a day of lousy weather.

After coming off the Kappabashi bridge, we’re slightly rudderless and the prospect of a day wandering about in freezing cold, windy, wet weather starts to make my heart sink. There’s the option of  visiting some outdoor snack bars near the bridge, but the respite they offer is fleeting. I’m starting to get cranky and instead of savoring the experience of being in the Japanese Alps, I’m pining for familiar comforts such as tea and an open fire. There’s a five-star hotel right beside the bridge and I leer longingly in at the restaurant. It’s way outside our budget, but I’ve had enough of the cold, so I suggest we go inside and just have a drink. When I state that I’ll pay for everything, Sachiko agrees to the idea. Goodbye bad weather.

When we enter the lobby of the hotel a smiling, but curt woman says something to us in Japanese; it’s short and to the point, I know the Japanese for welcome (irashaimase) and this isn’t it… for a moment I’m fearful we’re being barred because we clearly don’t have five-star wallets. Thankfully, I’m just paranoid and it turns out she’s just asking us to leave our umbrellas in the special umbrella holder, they don’t want any lowly rain droplets gaining access to their pristine premises. When we enter the restaurant, we’re greeted with a chorus of “Irashaimase” by the beaming small army of waitresses.

It’s blessedly warm. On soft cosy cushions we sit back and are waited on by several staff. The restaurant is atmospherically lit and it’s real comfortable. Money has functioned like an Abracadabra, a magic password instantly transporting us from the shivering outdoors, where refrigerated souls pose for pictures on the Kappabashi bridge, into a world of warmth and luxury. The chimes of the waitress’s voices fill the air around us. We inspect the menu. The drinks are expensive, as we expected; less expected is that the word drink is spelt wrong on the menu: dirnk! I order black tea, Sachiko, a cafe latte.

As we enjoy our drinks, I get to witness what Sachiko often describes as “obachan power”. An obachan literally translates as aunt, but it is much more commonly used to describe a certain type of women about 50 years or older. This kind of obachan is usually either retired or has raised the kids and tends to go on excursions with her obachan friends in groups of three, four, five or many more. They bustle about with great energy, confidence and mirth and they often raise a lot of noise with their indomitable, good-natured spirit.

On the other side of the restaurant, there’s a table of five obachans having tea & coffee. They’re talking and laughing happily to each other, they’re clearly out for the day and are having a great time. At a certain point, they ask a waitress to take a picture of them. When this unlucky woman picks up the camera to take the picture, she is subjected to a torrent of instructions, requests and advice from the five obachan: what background to include, which way to point the camera, when to shoot, etc. Each obachan simulataneously delivers her message without any regard for the waitress’s inability to process these five voices at the one time. The waitress seems paralysed about what to do and is becoming contorted as she attempts to please her elders. At times she looks set to drop the camera from nerves, but her professional steel holds through as she is repeatedly asked to take another picture, with another camera, from another angle… all the while, the obachans never let up their jolly, boisterous bossing.

We’ve finished our beverages and before leaving, I pay a quick visit to the toilet. Such an experience as a trip to the toilet, will in most countries not normally be something to recall, but in Japan, as always, normal goes out the window. In every category: hygiene, comfort, dignity and efficiency, the high-end Japanese toilet scores a perfect ten. Although there are many variations, the Japanese toilet is very distinct: it’s a marriage of technological ingenuity and cultural idiosyncrasy, which makes something that is common to all human civilizations, into something entirely unique. The five-star hotel’s toilet is a particular highlight, but the description that follows is a compilation of the features that any visitor to Japan is likely to encounter when they “use the facilities”.

Upon entering the cubicle, one finds the toilet seat down, never fear, a sensor quickly detects your presence and the toilet seat lifts automatically: an immaculately clean toilet seat presents itself. Upon sitting down, one is comforted by the pleasing sensation of a warmed toilet seat. Next, a real innovation: whereas toilets everywhere are rendered visually private by the high dividing walls, the cubicle screens, the privacy of a Japanese toilet cubicle extends to the acoustic realm. So as to avoid every Tom, Dick & Harry hearing the nature of your business, a selection of sounds is played throughout: running water and bird song are the two most common, classical music isn’t uncommon. One’s business done and one’s dignity intact, the next stage: ablutions. Turning to the panel of buttons alongside the toilet, one can turn on the fountain of one’s choice (male or female), finds the appropriate temperature and pressure, and remain sitting until the jet of water from below has done all its work. First timers may experience a tickling sensation, nothing to feel worried or guilty about. Once complete, the shower from below is switched off and the appropriate jet of warm air is switched on and the drying is done. Finally, one stands up and the last act is conducted completely autonomously: following an automatic flush, the toilet seat cleans itself (by means of a special cleaning arm) and returns to a closed position. It’s all over.

Back outside and sufficiently fortified with internal heat, we decide to embark on a walk that will consist of a loop down one side of the Azusa river, across the Hotaka & Tashiro bridge and back up the other side. There’s a lot to see in Kamikōchi valley, the Taisho, Tashiro & Myojin ponds, the Kamonjigoya hut, the peaks… but we’ve only got a few hours before it gets dark, so we settle for a short walk instead.

I’m hoping we’ll encounter some more snow monkeys. We’ve also brought our towels with us in case we pass any onsens. Nagano is famous for its natural spring water baths and despite having recently receiving a lesson in how to behave in an onsen, I’ve yet to sample its delights.

Thankfully the rain has stopped and by now we’re able to appreciate a bit more the unique atmostphere of Kamikōchi. A long river valley, formed on each side by towering snow covered peaks, leafless trees cover most of the landscape, and there is still a lot of snow on the ground. It’s far more than wintery than I expected.

We walk along stony tracks, avoiding the puddles as we go. The air is very clear and we fill our lungs with gulps of mountain freshness. There are a few other walkers out too, but the paths are much quieter than the Kappabashi bridge. We’re often out of sight of anyone else and at such times, there’s a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere. I’m glad we didn’t stay in the five-star hotel all day. We pass a number of other hotels, but the onsens are only open for the residents.

As for the weather, while the rain has lifted, and on occasion, there’s a glimmering hope of a clear sunny day breaking through…

… in spite of all, the clouds cling on, but that doesn’t ruin our happiness.

Although high up and quite inaccessible, Kamikōchi valley is no stranger to humans. During the Edo period, woodsmen (kikori) lived here and trimmed and maintained the forests. This ended in the early Meiji period when the hills were becoming deforested and gradually the population of woodsmen left Kamikōchi.

All during this time, the mountains remained mostly unclimbed. Shinto, the native religion in Japan considers many mountains to be sacred and in this cultural climate, the Kamikochi peaks were revered from a safe, respectful distance. There’s an echo of this outlook in the valley’s name: Kamikōchi literally translates as “place where gods descend”.

A unique and important exception to custom of not climbing the mountains was the ascetic monk Banryū who lived from 1786 to 1840. Initially a member of a sect of monks, Banryū left after becoming disillusioned with their ways and moved to Kamikōchi where he began climbing the mountain peaks as an act of prayer. Over time his feats and his legend grew and it was ultimately the path that Banryū built, that enabled a 29 year-old English missionary, Walter Weston to first visit the area in 1891, which in time led to Kamikōchi becoming famous worldwide as the Japanese Alps.

Walter Weston now bears the unofficial title, Father of Japanese Alpinism. A Church of England missionary and a keen mountain-climber, he was based in Japan for 15 years between 1888 and 1915. Weston popularized the already coined, but little known phrase, “Japanese Alps”, through his many lectures and book, “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”. Today, Weston is remembered and commemorated with a festival and a number of statues, one of which we come across on our walk. At Weston Point, there’s a bi-lingual plaque tribute to the man for his role in making the Japanese Alps the popular place it is. Of one of his trips to Kamikōchi, Weston wrote,

“The air of the valley was fresh and pure, and the dewdrops trembled like diamonds on every leaf. The sweet scent of the tall straight pines that shaded our road, the murmuring torrent below and the deep blue vault that spread a narrow canopy above the tall sides of the now familiar ravine, made even existence itself a delight. Truly we were in Nature’s Academy, hung with some of the choicest of the Creator’s masterpieces.”

It’s no surprise that so many were moved by such rhapsodical descriptions to visit Kamikōchi themselves. Although Weston is said to have wept at the prospect of mass tourism destroying the unique peaceful atmosphere of Kamikōchi, based on the evidence of our visit, the valley is being well maintained and is nowhere near being overrun.

Although we’ve had no luck finding a hotel that will let us visit their onsen and dip in their hot waters, we do eventually get lucky when we find a free, outdoor natural foot spa.

The weather may be cold, but we waste no time taking off our shoes and socks and plunging our feet into the warm, soft water. It’s a wonderful sensation. We stay for about ten minutes, basking. Having put on our shoes and socks, we discover it’s incredibly uplifting to suddenly have clean and warm feet. I’m bounding around the place like a hyperactive mountain goat. Warm feet is a super pick-me-up boost to the spirits.

Just as we’re leaving the foot spa, a Japanese couple come over and ask us if it’s warm water. They chat briefly with Sachiko, saying that they’re from a nearby prefecture (Wakayama), but that they also love Nagano prefecture, so they visit here very often. We’ll be visiting Koyasan, in Wakayama prefecture, later on in our trip so they wish us well and we say good bye. A short and friendly conversation with strangers is so much easier in the mountains.

Our walk continues and later on, I encounter a sign which gives the phrase, Japanese Alps, a strong personal resonance. It’s a sign for a hotel which is named after Grindelwald, a beautiful little village in the Swiss Alps nestled below the Eiger and Wetterhorn mountain peaks.

Over a decade ago, in the year 2000 and long before I ever planned to visit Japan, I visited Grindelwald and aside from being awed by the village’s location and natural beauty, I was struck by the unusually high number of Japanese tourists. It wasn’t until many years later, and after I made my Japanese connection, that I learned that Grindelwald was twinned with a town in Nagano.

It’s early evening and we’re on the home strait walking towards our accommodation when we encounter another snow monkey. Although normally a pack animal, so far the only ones we’ve come across have all been on their sweeney. This little fellow is foostering about in the leaves and the snow.

Although clearly at home foraging for food in the snow, the name “snow monkeys” is a bit of a misnomer. For this is actually a macaque monkey, a species of monkey found all over Asia, from Japan to Afghanistan. The Japanese macaque (Nihonzaru, in Japanese) is native to Japan and can be found in both subtropical lowlands and subalpine hills, a temperature range of 40 degrees.

It’s a testament to their adaptability that they can survive in such a variety of climates and it is their talent for celebrity-like stunts that has earned them the title of “snow monkey”. In 1963 in Nagano, a female monkey took to bathing in a natural hot spring and very soon her troop were doing the same. This was completely new behaviour and the image of bathing monkeys quickly became a phenomenon with Life magazine dubbing them “snow monkeys”.

Other behaviours that have kept the monkeys in the spotlight are cleaning potatoes in water, making snow balls and working in restaurants. It’s interesting to consider these behaviours as customs that are passed on from generation to generation, rather than innate practices driven by natural selection. Like humans, they have an inherent adaptability.

The little fellow before us roots around in the forest floor, using his hands and opposable thumbs to pick up various leaves, which he chews on. In the few minutes we stay watching, he displays a range of facial expressions: mostly, complete absorption in his task and no awareness of my presence, but also I suspect, apparent resignation at another damn tourist pointing a camera at him.

I’m adamant about getting as many photos as I can, so I hunker down and snap him from all angles. I don’t make the mistake of looking him directly in the eye, just through the view-finder in my camera, and he doesn’t interpret my presence with hostility.

By the time we’ve reached the restaurant at the end of our walk, it’s nearly six o’clock. Our programme for the evening is some warm food, a warm bath and hopefully this warmth will stay with us after we go back to the cabin, which has no heating. Hopefully we’ll survive the night without getting hypothermia.

The restaurant is a simple, humble joint and for dinner we have a steaming hot bowl of Ramen and some tasty Japanese beer. I’m definitely developing a bit of a taste for the Ramen and quite a lip for Japanese beer. Happily, there’s more Japanese experiences to follow: my first onsen. We fetch our towels, and I review the rules of onsen behaviour with Sachiko. The onsens are segregated, so for the first time on our holiday, we’ll be separated meaning I’ll have to rely on my own wits.

Inside the male onsen changing room, I undress and take my little hand-sized bath towel into the bathing area. The tiled floor space is quite large inside. As I enter, on either side of me are walls with mirrors, with a number of showering & washing posts in front of each mirror, at the far end of the room is a large bathing area with two men relaxing in the hot waters. I was secretly hoping there’d be nobody, so I could relax and swan about without any regard to what is appropriate behaviour, but in an odd way, it was the simple presence of these two Japanese men, that re-affirmed that I was in Japan and must abide by their norms.

So I sit on the little basin seat in front of the shower and using the hot water taps and shower head, start to wash myself with great vigour. After a thorough soaping, scrubbing, washing and rinsing, I feel ready to dip into the bath. It’s hot, so I sink only my feet in first. But quickly, I get used to it and gradually I lower down into the hot water until I’m sitting with the bath waters all the way up to my neck. It’s bliss. I lie back for a number of minutes and as my muscles relax, I feel a great temptation to fall asleep…

After ten minutes, I start to wade out from the bath, but with a super-relaxed head on me, I accidentally dangle my towel in the water. I realize almost instantly my mistake and rapidly recover my towel from the bath waters. I’m terrified one of the men has seen me. It’ll be hara kiri if they have. But nothing is said. Though I clearly look the foreigner, the Japanese men have a way of calmly keeping to themselves without giving the impression of actively ignoring you. I’m feeling quite self-conscious, but I do my best not to come across as feeling conspicuous.

45 minutes after entering, I leave the onsen. A few minute later, Sachiko emerges from the women’s bathing area, looking thoroughly cleaned and fresh-faced. I report success and total enjoyment! Looking forward to many more baths. We’re all warmed up now and feeling strong. The weather has cleared up a bit and even though the sun is setting, there’s enough light to go for a walk. It’s much quieter now in the valley, most of the day trippers have gone home. But it gets cold and we quickly retire to the cabin. Here we use the gas stove to have some more warm sake. We turn in early, wrapped up in as many layers as possible. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, we manage to find sleep.

During the night, nature calls and I have to go outside. In the stilly silence, I tiptoe from the dark cabin and walk the short distance through the trees to the toilet area. It’s completely dark, and when I look up, high above the leafless trees, I see a marvellous carpet of stars covering the night sky. After spending the day under cloudy overcast conditions, this is a crystal clear and beautiful sight. It also bears good news, telling me that the weather tomorrow will be completely clear and sunny.  The excitement of waking-up in Kamikōchi to a clear sunlight drenched morning, is nearly too much for to get back to sleep, but soon enough, I return to the cabin and drift back into dream.

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Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

The stereotype of Japanese tourists abroad is that they’re constantly taking pictures, frantically shooting their cameras in every direction at every little feature of life in the foreign country they’re visiting. But as soon as I arrive in Japan, I completely understand this mania for photography. To me, the Westerner, everything in Japan is different and I’m seized by a need to snap, snap, snap and record it all.

But in spite of such a start, after a few days of constantly photographing temples, cherry blossoms, sushi, yakisoba, Japanese bear, skyscrapers, paintings, old buildings, badly written signs in English, I’ve got a lingering feeling that I’m not capturing the “true Japan”. This is because I’m not taking enough pictures of the people, who are everywhere and are everywhere, beautiful. So on the train to Nagano, I make a resolution to take more photos of strangers. When I spot a smartly dressed, photogenic little boy with his mother, I get a dose of encouragement and instruction from Sachiko…

“Shashin, onegaishimasu” (Picture, please)

…and I go up to the child’s mother, with my request. She’s only too happy to have their picture, so I take a quick snap of the serious little fellow, who cheers up no end after I show him the picture on the camera display.

We’re on the way to Zenkoji Temple, by far the most famous landmark in Nagano city. It’s over 1,300 years old and has been a site for visiting pilgrims for a very long time. Located on a hill in Nagano city, it has a commanding, central aspect. Despite being a very modern city with lots of skyscrapers and a Metropolitan hotel, Nagano is still very clearly oriented around Zenkoji Temple. After we’ve gotten off the train, we walk around Nagano city a little bit, before taking the traditional route up Sandoh St which steadily ascends to the temple.

The Zenkoji Temple is a Buddhist Temple but it is so old, it pre-dates a split in Japanese Buddhism between the Tendai sect and the Jōdo Sect. Consequently, it is jointly shared between the two sects with the management of the temple alternating every six months between the abbot of the Tendai sect and the abbess of the Jōdo sect. Unlike many other Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkoji has never barred women, and it is surely unique in having an abbess in charge for at least part of the year. It certainly indicates that the Nagano lassies are tough cookies.

We walk up along the steadily inclining Sandoh Street, taking our time; up ahead in the distance, the large entrance gate of the Temple is slowly getting bigger and coming more into focus. The street is immaculately maintained by the shop keepers who are lucky enough to have a shop on such a busy thoroughfare. We pass lots of little flower plots and trees planted in the footpath, and we see many shopkeepers outside, sweeping their section of pavement and manicuring their shop frontage. We pass shops selling keyrings, souvenirs, lanterns, t-shirts, incense, beads, chopsticks, fans, manju (fluffy cake), icecreams and nozawana (a kind of pickled radish considered a local snack). There are some benches too, where a tired pilgrim can rest his feet. On the way up, we have some oyaki, a little sweet bean snack, and rest awhile before carrying on.

As we near the Temple, we pass more and more minor religious sites and statues. In the final approach, the street narrows and is for pedestrians and pilgrims only. Up ahead we see an enormous wooden construction, the Sanmon Gate, the inner gate of the Temple; in the distance beyond are high hills of thick forests. We cross into the Temple through an outer gate which is comprised of two large ornate stone pillars.

Before we’ve reached the inner gate, we encounter the Roku-jizo, a row of six statues of Bodhisattvas, who so the story goes, gave up enlightenment in order to help others achieve salvation. They can commune with the realms of hell (地獄), starvation (餓鬼), beasts (畜生), carnage (修羅), human beings (人) and heaven (天).

The Sanmon Gate itself marks the threshold between the sacred and the profane. There are three gateways that can be passed through and the three apparently represent the gate of emptiness, the gate of formlessness and the gate of inaction. Beyond the Sanmon Gate, we’re inside a large central courtyard. This courtyard is dominated by the main temple, a towering wooden structure (the 3rd largest in Japan) with a double arching roof, with gold lacquer, huge hanging lanterns and much Buddhist iconography. For pilgrims, there’s the chozuya where you can wash your face and hands with water; finally, there’s the decorative lion censer, an incense burner where the smoke is waved onto your body.

The most treasured possession of the Zenkoji temple is the Amida Golden Triad, an image of the Buddha said to have been created by the Buddha himself in India in the 4th century BC. It has had a turbulent history. During the 6th century AD, the Korean king gave it as a gift to the Japanese Emperor, making it the first ever image of the Buddha in Japan. It arrived during times of war, and got quickly caught up in the feuds between the many clans competing for supremacy. Very unceremoniously, the image of the Buddha, like another famous native of Nagano, ended up in a canal, before being rescued by a passing kind-hearted stranger. Today, Sachiko tells me, the canal incident has been confined to the past, and the image of the Buddha now resides in the inner sanctum of the Zenkoki temple, permanently shut off from public view.

Although, the most hallowed object of the Temple is shielded from public view, there’s still good reason to go inside the enormous temple. We clamber up the wooden steps, and move inside, our eyes adjusting to the low gloom. The first thing Sachiko shows me is a Buddhist statue, well worn but with very human-like features. Apparently one can rub any part of the statue that corresponds to a part of your own body that ails you. It’s like a benevolent voodoo doll. I’m feeling alright, so I refrain from doing any rubbing but I do notice that the shoulders of the statue seems to be particularly well worn.

We walk around the rest of the temple. Unfortunately it’s too late to enter the Okaidan, one of the main attractions of the Temple. This is the final destination for those who make a genuine pilgrimage to the Temple. It’s a long tunnel of complete darkness, and inside one is given the chance to find the “key to paradise”. But when we go to find the entrance, we learn that it’s too late. The tunnel has closed for the day. I’m gutted that I came this close, only to be told, “Sorry, paradise closed at 5.30”.

In consolation, Sachiko tells me, I’ve an incentive to return one day, an affirmation I’ve no trouble making. We go back outside the main Temple building. This is the second major temple I’ve been to in Japan and like the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, there are extensive grounds surrounding with a great amount of land with trees and little walk-ways in between. In terms of comparative understanding for this Westerner, it’s more like a monastery than a church.

Since it’s gone a bit late in the day, a lot of the day trippers have gone, and the temple is very quiet. The weather is still warm, but there’s a lovely breeze blowing. We walk around the Temple area and find the impressive looking belfry.

At the base of the bell is the following message:

The Nagano Olympic Games began with the solemn sound of the Zenkoji gong. The pure sound pierced the minds and hearts of all who heard it.

We ramble around a bit more and find a stone pillar, with a heavy stone wheel inserted inside it. It’s called a Rinnetoh and Sachiko explains that it’s like a lazy man’s road to salvation. Having so narrowly missed getting my hands on the keys to paradise, I’m totally ready to sign to any quick-fix solution to salvation. The Rinnetoh works thus: a full rotation of the wheel is equivalent to reading one full sutra of the Buddha’s teachings, simply rotate the wheel and you’ve done enough to save your soul. I rotate the wheel. It does take a bit of effort, but not that much.

The explanation on the accompanying sign isn’t as optimistic about salvation, however; it suggests it’s only a possibility…

Rotating the stone wheel (transmigration wheel) may save one from pain and suffering

Towards the end, we find a statue of Jizo Bosatsu which was built as a petition. Like a lot of old buildings in Japan, the Zenkoji Temple is made of wood and in it’s lifetime, has burned down 11 times. The statue of Jizo Bosatsu was made as an appeal to the Gods to stop this from reaccuring.

Our last “hangout” in the Zenkoji Temple is the Daikanji, the home of the high priest.

All in all, it’s been a very pleasant visit to the Temple. With so few people around, the peace, quiet and stillness of the place have left me feeling very zen.

We leave the Temple behind us and stroll back down the hill towards the railway station. On our final walk back through an arcade, I encounter something every Irish person encounters when travelling, no matter how far you are from home: the trail of other Irish people.

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