Thursday 23 July 2015

Nagano - the Nakasendo and Magome (The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray - Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a weekend trip to Nagano.  You can read Part 1 here.

I woke up early in the morning the next day, the day I had been waiting 6 months for, the day I was going to walk along the Nakasendo.  I woke up to sounds that sent chills down my spine.  I woke up to the sound of rain.....very heavy rain.....  I opened the curtains and looked outside to see torrential rain and my heart sank.  It looked like the typhoon had done a 360 degree turn and come back to haunt us again.

We trudged downstairs for breakfast, an extremely good breakfast I must say!

We had a solemn discussion over dinner about what to do.  The problem was there was nowhere in town to buy a poncho to keep the rain off and not all of us had brought umbrellas.  Even then, a danger in mountain areas that have just received a lot of rain is that there is a small risk of landslides so we decided we had no choice but to cancel the walk along the Nakasendo.  It was a disappointing decision to have to make, but one that was unavoidable.  I immediately thought "Okay, this just means that I have to make another trip back here another time", and that was not such a bad thing.  I was in a beautiful part of the world.

Walking back down the stairs to my room, I glanced outside and it looked as though the rain might be lifting.

It was only brief, however as pretty soon it started up again.

We decided not to let ourselves be totally defeated by the rain and grabbing a loaner umbrella from the ryokan, we headed out into the rain to look around the village in the gloomy daylight.  Evidence of the amount of rain that had fallen came in the way of this.

The previous night as we were walking around, this wheel had not been turning at all.  Today it was spinning so madly that I feared it would come off and go racing down the street leaving a path of destruction in it's wake!

We walked further along the street and we passed what Miwa told me was a place for the upper class to stay on their journey along the Nakasendo in the old days

and a little further along, a place for the royals or the ruling class to stay.

All the way along the street there were examples of the beautifully manicured Japanese gardens that I love so much.

Soon we arrived at a temple that had been closed the previous night when we had been exploring and now we found it open so we walked inside

and poking our heads inside we found this.

Miwa got her temple and shrine book signed by the resident monk (who looked like he had just woken up.  I thought the life of a monk was a harsh life, with early starts and prayers under freezing cold waterfalls!) and we left the temple and headed back out onto one of the streets.  This street was quite beautiful, lined with rustic old houses dating back at least a couple of hundred years.


Continuing along the path, we began to hear the roar of the river, much louder than it had been the previous night, so we walked in that direction and soon enough, the river came into view.

There was much more water and it was flowing much more ferociously than it had been the previous night.  Another sign of just how much rain had fallen overnight.

Soon enough we decided that we had had enough of walking in the rain and found a coffee shop and wandered in and out of the rain.  The owner greeted us and totally surprised me with his perfect English.  He asked me where I was from and I said "Adelaide" to which he replied "Ah, the capital city of South Australia".  Now there are not many people who know Adelaide here in Japan, and even less who know that it is the capital of South Australia!  Naturally, I asked him why he knew that and he said that he had worked for SAFCOL (The South Australian Fisherman's Co-operative Limited) for 32 years!  Amazing, in the middle of nowhere to meet someone who I had a connection with was surreal.  We sat down and he left us to enjoy our coffee.

Most of the shops were now open (I guess they carefully coincide opening time with check-out times of most of the ryokan) and we came across a guy who was working a lathe and making beautifully crafted pens from a huge variety of different kinds of wood.  They ranged in price from about 1,000 yen all the way up to 10,000 yen, depending on the wood used.

We stopped for a quick snack of beef skewers and pickled cucumber

before jumping in a taxi and making our way to Magome.  As we were driving along the road, every now and then we caught a glimpse of the Nakasendo and a reminder of what we were missing out on.....

We arrived in Magome and while it was an old town, just like Tsumago, it had a completely different feel to it.  Part of the reason for that might have been that the rain had eased somewhat and the place appeared a little brighter.  Most of the reason was that Magome was a more polished offering.  It was a more pristine, tidy place, a place that had prepared itself to be an attractive tourist town whereas Tsumago had a much more rustic, authentic appeal to it.  While both were great examples of small country Japanese villages, I think I preferred Tsumago with it's innocence and "this is what life was really like" attitude.

We started out along the main shopping street that was lined with shops, ryokans, guesthouses and restaurants.

As you can see from those pictures, Magome really markets itself to a different kind of tourist than Tsumago does.  Each has their own special charm and while Magome had more of a small town Kyoto feel to it, Tsumago was more like a Takayama or a Narai.

At the end of the street there were some beautiful rice fields.

Stomachs had started rumbling by this time, however, so we made our way back up the street to a restaurant we had see earlier and sat down to a delicious (late) lunch.

The chicken and spring onion rice bowl was great, with the chicken having a beautiful smokey flavour to it.  We set about enjoying lunch being cooled by numerous fans (the restaurant had no air conditioning.  Well I guess that was authentic!), sweating away in the stifling humidity that is the Japanese summer.

Finishing up, we caught a taxi back to Nagiso station and jumped on a train to go to Nagano city.  At this point Lydia left us to make her way back to Tokyo, work beckoning her the following day.

Yuuki and I were able to get front row seats for the ride to Nagano!

A couple of hours later we arrived at Nagano and Yuuki and Miwa made sure I knew where to catch my bus before they headed off to nearby Ueda city where Miwa's parents live.  They were to spend the night there before meeting up with me the next day in Tagakushi which was to be my next destination.

I jumped on my bus for the one hour ride to Togakushi readying myself for the next phase of our adventure, hoping that Mother Luck would finally smile on us and we would have a trouble free day.

Thanks again for reading this update.  Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this post, and please join me back here again soon for my next post.  See you soon.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Nagano - Tsumago (The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray - Part 1)

In January of this year, I took a trip to Matsumoto, and at the same time, spent a nice day in Narai.  I told myself that I wanted to come back and visit a couple of the other old villages in Nagano and walk along the Nakasendo.

The Nakasendo was one of the 5 old Edo Period (1603 - 1868) highways that linked Tokyo with various other areas of Japan.  There were 69 Post Stations along the Nakasendo that served as rest points and places for travellers to eat.  Two of these Post Stations were the villages of Tsumago and Magome.  There is a patch of the Nakasendo between these two villages (about 8 or 9 km long) that has been well maintained and is a popular hiking path.  It is (from all reports) pretty undulating so, for some, it could prove to be a nice challenging walk (I include myself in that group).  Last weekend was when I was finally able to make the much anticipated trip back to Nagano to walk along the historic Nakasendo.

I remember during secondary school (or high school depending on where you come from) reading the classic John Steinbeck novel "Of Mice and Men".  English was not my favourite subject at school but this book stuck in my head because of the tragic storyline.  The title of the book was taken from an even earlier poem by Robert Burns which contained the line (translated into modern English) "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray".  Basically the same as Murphy's Law, it doesn't matter how well you plan things, what eventuates doesn't always go according to your plans.  This trip started out as though it was following along that theme......

I got to my train station where I was going to catch a train to meet a few friends, Yuuki, Miwa and Lydia, who were also making the trip.  You know those moments you have as you are about to walk out of your door where you go over the entire contents of your bag making sure you have remembered every thing?  Well, standing on the train platform, I suddenly realised that I had left my pocket Wi-Fi at home.  Now, when I go traveling, my pocket Wi-Fi is indispensable, especially if the place I'm staying at doesn't have Wi-Fi.  Looking at my watch, I realised that I didn't have enough time to run back home to get it and still make it to meet my friends in time.  Oh well, maybe the ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) we were staying at would have Wi -Fi.

It might be prudent to point out here that at this moment there was a typhoon passing over central-western Japan.

I got to the Shinjuku station, where we were all meeting up, a little early and immediately heard an announcement saying that the train we had tickets for had been delayed due to the typhoon......  Pretty soon we were all together and Miwa spoke to the train station staff who told us that we could go to Tokyo station and catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano city and then switch to another train and make it to Tsumago (where we were spending our first night) only and hour and a half later than we otherwise would have.  Realising we didn't have a lot of choice we jumped on the Chuo line and raced across to Tokyo station.  We got there and were told that our tickets would be non-reserved so we dashed up to the platform to get in line so we could get seats all together.  Luckily we were the first ones in line!

It might have had a lot to do with the fact that we were lining up 50 minutes before the train was due to depart, but hey, we were going to get our seats!

Eventually our train pulled in to the station

we were happy that we had lined up early because there was now quite a line-up.

One of the simple pleasures of catching the shinkansen is the ekiben (train station lunch box).  The food is nothing special but it is a nice treat.  I forgot to take the plastic off on mine before I took the photo........sorry.

Needless to say, we all enjoyed our ekiben!

Fast forward a few hours and we finally arrived at Nagiso train station, the closest station to Tsumago 

where we caught a taxi to our ryokan, Daikichi Ryokan.

It was a lovely little Ryokan that had been chosen by Miwa.  The rooms were quite cozy but the food was amazing!!

Soon after we had arrived we were called for dinner.

Soba with vegetables in a vinegar sauce,

A few small dishes which included duck with a nice miso paste (on the left) and an assortment of vegetables (on the right) 

and in the middle........grasshoppers!

I had eaten these before, and in all honesty, they taste fine.  It just tastes like candied something.  They are cooked in a sweet soy sauce mix and the only problem a lot of people have is with the thought of what they are eating!

Next on the plate was horse sashimi (which tastes very good),


and a clear soup.

Of course, rice was also served with the meal.

Pretty soon all of the food had been devoured (it had been a long day!) and we got up and made our way out of the dining room feeling very satisfied.  Now, ryokans are very traditional style hotels, so be prepared to sit on the floor both in your room and in the dining room.  For those who cannot cross their legs very well (me included), it is fine to stretch your legs out under the table.

Next we decided to go for an evening walk around the village.  It was getting close to dusk and the street lamps were on which made for a really nice walk around the streets.

The buildings were old and beautiful, and similar in architecture to the ones I had seen in Narai and Hida Takayama.  I was looking forward to the next day when i would have a chance to see the same buildings in daylight before we made our way to Magome along the Nakasendo.

With each of us feeling all zen, we went back to the ryokan for a couple of drinks before bedtime, anticipation building inside of me for what the next day would bring.

Thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoyed part one of this update.  There will probably be three, so keep checking back for the next 2 parts over the next week or two, or alternatively follow me or enter your email address for automatic updates whenever put up a new post.

See you again soon.