The day begins with bleeding feet and quite a lot of sweary words. We don’t have enough cash for our train ticket and Matt has raced off in pursuit of some (from an ATM – he wasn’t chasing after people and demanding their wallets or anything).
Despite the fact there’s a machine just across the road, the streets of Takayama seem to swallow him up for a long, long time. I end up having to say a very rushed goodbye to the more organised Bart and Binny who are on their way back to Tokyo. I’m sad saying farewell to our companions, with their passion for umeshu, and sparkling ‘Under The Sea’ karaoke performances.
I’m even sadder when Matt returns, sweating and incandescent with rage, convinced the whole of Takayama – Japan even – is involved in a conspiracy to stop him getting money out of an ATM. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Needless to say his budget H&M laceups aren’t built for sprinting events and having run about 5km in them, his heels look a little ‘slasher movie.’ He rips the shoes off and stomps into the ticket queue. We miss our train. I wonder whether to mention the ATM just across the road about 20m away. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did.
The resulting journey to Magome is longer than we planned for, switching between little commuter trains and eventually finding ourselves in Nakatsugawa, trying to kill time before our bus. We enter a high rise building with promises of coffee on the 6th floor. We emerge from the lift to what feels like a post-apocalyptic universe. It’s vast but empty, silent and white-walled, with peeling paper and ageing ceiling panels. It doesn’t feel like your average cosy coffee spot, and I find myself pricking up my ears for zombie groans. I make a mental note to stop watching The Walking Dead.
A lone man appears in front of us, sitting in a sea of empty chairs, gazing at a laptop. He clocks us and stands, and I push Matt in front of me so he can take the first bite and I’ll have time to run. Really must stop watching The Walking Dead. Turns out it’s actually the coffee shop owner. Presumably he’s survived by eating raw coffee beans and teabags, and surfing porn sites. He leads us into a space tucked away in the corner with tables and chairs and brings us hot drinks. In fact, there are quite cool views of the city from his odd, silent little sanctuary. I manage to relax a little, until I have to venture back out into the stark silence of the empty building to find the toilet, one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
A taste of tradition
Half an hour later we’re safely chugging uphill on the local bus, marvelling at the sparky Japanese ladies, so old they can no longer stand up straight, yet still making their way purposefully towards their neat vegetable patches as they disembark.
Magome is ethereal in its beauty, a teeny village perched among cherry blossoms and sweeping mountain views, full of compact wooden houses and rural charm. The prettiest stretch of the town consists of a single, steep winding path flanked by traditional homes. This is where we are staying, based on a recommendation made on Nicki’s excellent travel blog.
At the front door of Inn Tajimaya we are greeted by a stuffed racoon in a straw hat. It’s a traditional inn with tatami mats and green tea laid out to greet us. From our bedroom window we can hear the trickling of a nearby fountain, and watch swallows swooping and chattering against a mountain backdrop.
Magome is a post town positioned along the Nakasendo Way connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. Tajimaya still follows the customs of old, and dinner is served communally in a large dining space at a set time, all the guests perched on benches at broad wooden tables. The idea of this layout is for travellers to come together and share experiences. It’s a beautifully laid out feast, consisting of a selection of small dishes. There’s chicken stew served bubbling on an open flame, sushi rolls, chicken katsu, grilled mackerel, and more and more. Before we eat the kimono-clad owner summons the attention of the entire room to offer a formal greeting and invite us to post-meal music and dancing.
Walking the Nakasendo Way
In the morning we decide to take the walking trail linking Magome to Tsumago, an 8km hike through mountain paths. It’s a stunning day, sun bursting out of a cloudless blue sky. At set intervals there are bear bells which it’s quite fun to set a-clattering. We pass a waterfall where Miyamoto Musashi, a famous samurai, was said to have overcome his lust for a woman in order to perfect the ways of the sword.
Sections of the path are fringed by towering pines, silent but for our scrunching footsteps. And we pass through tiny villages where dark wooden houses are punctuated with neatly potted plants and immaculate vegetable gardens. Most people we see are elderly, perched on their doorsteps or slowly treading the footpaths, gardening implements in hand, woven seamlessly into this landscape as if they always have been. I know it’s a way of life that’s dying in Japan, but it feels like time will be forever frozen here.
Further ahead we’re passing an old tea house when a man pops out of the doorway and ushers us inside. He’s a volunteer, he declares, would we like to come inside for a free cup of tea and a history lesson about the trail and the building?
There’s no way we could say no to his hopeful face, so we venture inside. He offers us a basket of sweets and heads to a makeshift kitchen in the corner to lift a blackened kettle from the stove. This Tateba – tea house – was built in the Edo period and served weary travellers passing between post towns.
The volunteer’s name is Stomo. He looks to be in his late 50’s and he tells us he quit his job in the city to come and live in one of the local villages. He spends a fair bit of time growing vegetables now – cucumbers, pumpkins, cabbages. And a few days a week he comes here to volunteer, meeting people from all around the world. I am unsure if I’ve ever met anyone as cheerful, and proud of their post in life. He reminds me of a kindly tortoise.
Eventually he releases us back to the path and we continue on to Tsumago, another historic post town, very pretty, filled with open fronted tourist shops. It’s a very pleasant place for a wander, and I’m intrigued by the sight of the ‘shape-like-carp-stone’. I’d love to know what you think – does it look like a carp?!?
We get naked
It’s been an ambition of ours since we arrived in Japan to go to an onsen, and we think we’ve found our opportunity – there’s one at the nearby Hotel Kisoji. We jump on a local bus there and expect to rock up, discard our keks and leap in.
In reality we’re greeted by the most confused receptionist ever. She tries to hide her confusion with a fixed grin that looks very like this:
Ie, her eyes give it away. She doesn’t speak much English, but we manage to communicate that we’d like to use the onsen, and this causes her severe anxiety (again, visible behind the grin). At first, she seems to be saying they don’t have an onsen. Then she’s like, ‘Oh, THAT onsen. Yeah we do have one but it’s only for guests.’
She flutters for a bit in the face of our disappointment, then she makes a call (fixed smile firmly in place the whole time), presumably to the onsen overlord.
And suddenly, if we pay a small fee, they will allow us on this occasion to use the onsen.
We pass through the lobby to the onsen entrance, and come face to face with the onsen overlord, a small but formidable woman in her sixties. This time she speaks not a single word of English. We pay her but as we head towards the changing room we break some sort of footwear rule and she starts bobbing around and barking at us. We’re rescued by some English speaking guests who translate for us. A lengthy diatribe from the overlord turns out to translate as: ‘Please remove your shoes and put them in a locker. If you want to, you can hire a towel from me’.
Once we’ve got past the gatekeeper we have to head our separate ways – no mixing of sexes in the onsens, which are fully nude.
I feel a little apprehension at this prospect at first. But then all the other women are pottering about inside without a care in the world, so I dispense with my hangups and also stroll around as if I’m totally used to getting my bits out in front of strangers.
It’s a giant cliché to say so, but it is liberating. I discover to my alarm that given such heady freedom, I’m suddenly gripped by the urge to waggle lewdly at the polite Japanese ladies (c’mon, I bet it’s not just me. It would be so funny). Perhaps their reluctance to admit us wasn’t unjustified.
Urge suppressed, I head outside to the hot baths. The air is cool but not too cool, low 20’s. The sun is shining. There are statues and blossom trees and a slight breeze that tugs softly against the skin. Wisps of steam caress the air just above the baths. I lower myself into a wooden hot tub for one, warm water spilling onto the cool paving stones. I feel the glow of the sun on my face and listen to the trickle of the fountains.
It’s hard to tear myself away from the tranquillity, but clearly not as hard as it was for Matt. I wait outside for him for an additional 45 minutes, wondering what he’s found in there to keep him occupied for that long. The onsen overlord seems personally affronted that I’ve been kept waiting and marches herself on in there. I picture her tiny frame bursting into a throng of naked Japanese men shouting and then seizing an astonished Matt with a firm claw. I chuckle to myself.
We are aliens, we are little aliens
Back in the plush hotel lobby, we are informed the shuttle back to Tsumago leaves in 30 minutes so we sit down and order a drink. But two minutes later a lady approaches and starts talking at us in Japanese and gesturing towards the exit. She seems to be saying the shuttle is going now, and we try to communicate by flapping our hands that we’re waiting for a drink, and then she disappears looking worried and the café staff approach and start talking at us in Japanese and we flap our hands to try and cancel our drinks and all of a sudden my ear tunes out of the confusion and I become aware that in the background is being played a shrill pan pipes version of ‘Englishman in New York’ and somehow it seems so ridiculous and so apt that I am gripped by a fit of hysterics.
Somehow we make it back into Tsumago and make a foolhardy decision to walk the 8km home. We soon discover we’re not 25 any more and start having to do things like lifting one thigh up with both hands to keep moving. It’s still a gorgeous walk though. Children are returning home to the villages after school, bounding out of mum’s car and spilling into the gardens. Passing over a footbridge we find an olive coloured snake, coiled in the afternoon sun.
We’re walking through a hamlet when the most almighty sound starts echoing across the fields and down the tiny lane towards us. It becomes recognisable as jingoistic music, the kind you hear on old war propaganda ads from the 40’s. It’s utterly incomprehensible, until we find there’s a giant pole with two huge speakers attached planted in the corner of one of the fields. Considering that you barely hear a noise at all in the Japanese countryside, we definitely would not have expected the silence to be broken this way. What it signified we have no idea.
That night we sit down to another delicious feast at our inn, and this time it feels very well earned. We pretend we’re samurais recovering from a long ride. We slip into our special Yukata, and head down to the steaming baths to soothe our aching muscles. Under a clear and twinkling sky, we spend our last night in magical Magome.
Japan has been the most wonderful adventure. We’ll be back.