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Day 14: Further along the Nakasendo by train and then north west: 11th May 2017

We were continuing our train trip along the Nakasendo. So up early again to find some breakfast before our train trip. We passed a lovely bakery on the way so I decided we should buy some buns in case we did not find an open cafe that would serve something simple. I have to admit although I love Japanese food I cannot do noodle soup for breakfast. Another thing that surprised us, a little, is that these small post towns do not rise too early in the morning. In fact it is hard to find anything open before 10 o’clock and they are all closed up by 5p.m. So much for our impression of very hard working Japanese! However we did find an open ‘cafe’. I put this in parentheses as it resembled someone’s front room more than a cafe and the tiny yappy dog really did not want us to enter. Granny came to the rescue, banished the pooch, and made us a mean cup of coffee. One of the best we have had. I am feeling a little green tea(d) out!!!! We did not dare bring out our buns – we had already tested the wrath of the dog we did not want to offend Granny…

Then we had to find an ATM machine. We had been warned that very few places accept credit cards and this has turned out to be true. Another strange thing is that despite alerting our relevant banks of our trip it took almost a week before Barry’s bank took this on. Then we discovered that only 7 Eleven supermarket ATM machines work with foreign debit Irish cards…. Other machines, despite being marked with Visa signs, only accept our French credit cards. I wonder would it be possible to find out, when we return home, why this is so. Then again will we have the will to pursue this.

After this aside we set off for Masimoto on a fast train. We said goodbye to two lovely Australian people we had met en route. The only thing we learned about Masimoto is that the railway announcement of its name is made by a lady with the most annoying voice. She elongates the ‘o’ for about a minute. But the take away lunch of semi fried fish and noodles and rice was lovely. It was served in a plastic bowl. We ate this with relish to the dulcet tone of the announcer.

We rang the owner of tonight’s Roykan who had promised to collect us at the station. He is American, married to a Japanese lady. As always in our travels being lucky is better than being rich. There was only two trains to our destination, Obsute, that afternoon and we were just in time for the first. It was a two carriage local, one man, train. But we hit the day that the driver was being tested/inspected on this trip. This involved him and the inspector sitting in the glass cabin, up front. The driver then proceeded to roar out all the checks he was making before we moved off. The roaring was accompanied by very precise hand signals. As we moved along at quite a clip he continued to shout out his movements and, what seemed to us, salute to every tenth poles on the way. He also had to shout out the name of every signal point. It was hilarious. But we did arrive at our station after about ten previous stops. We had to exit through the front door as these tiny stations are devoid of personel and the trains are one man operated so the driver has to see when everyone has alighted from the train. In our case that meant us two and a young lad!!

Our host arrived in about 5 minutes. We was about 7 foot (2 meters) tall. That’s tall anywhere but here in Japan it’s enormous. He unfolded himself from a tiny car and we got in with our backpacks. He set off down a tiny narrow road towards the huge conurbation below. En route our host pointed out the rice paddies which are just ready for planting. The seedlings were there in blocks. This will be harvested in September.

Togura Onsen, where we are staying, is a ‘quartier’ of the big town of Chikuma It has natural sulpher springs. There is that weird odour of sulpher around the area. It reminds me of working in the laboratory. Our Roykan, guest house, is one of the originals. It has its own natural spring which is used as a hot bath (onsen). The guesthouse is beautiful with a lovely tiny garden squashed in between other houses. The owner is really helpful, maybe a little too helpful!

He did supply maps and loads of advice for which we were very grateful. We set off to walk up to an ancient Castle on the hill behind the town. This is a very wide part of the valley. It is a skiing area surrounded by high mountains, some with snow still on top. Our walk was steep but worth the view from the top. Another thing that surprised us was that smack behind an ancient Japanese shrine there was the ugliest solid concrete shell of an abandoned hotel building. Not something one expects to find here.

Back down the hill we were ready for a beer and then an onsen. Its sulpher water and was HOT… but it is a wonderful way to end a day and prepare for dinner. We had decided to have dinner in our guesthouse. There was only four guests. It was a culinary experience, thirteen dishes. There is no starter and for the main course there was a mix of small dishes, meat, cooked in steam at the table, raw fish, beautiful veg, tofu, a sort of custard, a piece of perch in a lovely sauce with tofu and fruit. Wonderful.

Day 13: The Nakasendo by train: 10th May 2017

As I said, this is the old walking trail from Kyoto to Tokyo. However some parts of it have more or less disappeared under the roadway. This means we might have hadtowalkon theroadsif we wanted to continue on the Nakasendo. We do not like walking on roads. Other than the part we have just completed it was extremely difficult to get any information about where it is possible to stay along the way. If we had got the book, we now have, earlier we would have made different plans and walked more along this ancient way. More about this book later.

We rose in our splendid hotel and had breakfast. There was a huge choice of both Japanese and European food. We were not sure where we would lunch so we ‘laid our ears back’. The shuttle bus took us to Nagiso station from where we would travel along the Nakasendo trail. There was a couple of foreigners, four, as the lovely JR lady rep told me! She took a piece of scrap paper and made a small drawing of what we sould look out for along the train trip. We met a young Japanese firefighter while we were waiting. His English was quite good. He had learned it from the Internet. Unlike many Japanese, in the hospitality sector, he understood as well as spoke some English.

The trip by train was along the Kiso valley. At places it is quite narrow and in others it is wide. The mountains rise up on either side, some deep green and then a lighter green plantation blocks. These mountains have obviously been planted with trees a long time ago. The dark trees were either cedar or pine. I am not sure what the light green trees were. Because today the sun has not come out this dark green is reflected in the river. Each of the three foreign couples was clutching a piece of paper, similar to our own, on which the JR lady had marked something they should look out for. It turned out to be a massive rock formation in the river.

The trip took about 1.5hr and we arrived at our stop – Kiso Fukischima. Our accommodation here was the cheapest on our whole trip. So it was with some trepidation we asked at the tourist office where it was. The staff in these rural tourist offices are extremely polite and helpful. We found a café where it warned patrons about exactly how many minutes the preparation of a cup of coffee, would take. Having got our cup of coffee in the exact time predicted, we headed off with our backpacks for the 15 minute hike. At the point on the map where the tourist lady had marked our accommodation there stood a building that looked like it had not been ‘lived in’ for many years…. Since this night’s accommodation was so reasonable we were prepared to expect anything.

I left Barry at this spot with the bags and retraced our steps. Phew! Our place of rest was quite posh but did not announce itself too loudly. It looked like an apartment block. I had to sneak into the lobby and see the password for the wifi which was the Royokanl name we had. Back up to collect Barry and bags. We rang the service bell but it was too early to check in. They took our bags and off we set to explore the ancient forest up the mountain opposite our accommodation.

Since it had rained on and off all night it was quite wet under foot. The ascending path was very steep. We had got a map from the tourist office but soon realised that it was high on artistic quality but very low on fact. Eventually we came to a spot with a signpost showing an easy way back down. So having had our picnic and taken in the view way below we set off back down.

Just a word about warning about information Japanese pamphlets. One would never put a foot outside the door if you were to heed them. We were to be aware of all sorts of poisonous snakes, biting bugs and wild animals. All we saw was a squirrel that was neither grey nor chestnut coloured but a dull brownish green! I did get a fleeting glance of a brightly colored bird. Other that these few animals our trip was sadly wildlife free. As always on these trips there is so little time to get a good handle on the flora and fauna. 

Now, the book… the restaurant where we ate last night was a bit strange. It was run by a man who seemed to be alone as there was nobody else about to serve tables or take orders. So, when he was in the kitchen one just stood and waited watching him through the big kitchen window! It was a fairly long wait… While we were waiting I found the book. It is the most comprehensive description of the Nakasendo we have ever seen, with a trace of the route in enormous detail and notes in English and Japanese. If we had had it before we started we would have walked more of the trail. The irony is, Kiso Tourist Federation produces the book, but, to our knowledge, it was not available in any of thetouristofficeswevisited!!This is a slight kink in the normally comprehensive Japanese organisation.

Our Ryokan has a wonderful onzen (hot bath). After our walk we both made our way to our male or female hot bath. These are such a wonderful experience after a walk. After a half an hour’s soak we decided to do our washing in the washing machine. There was a dryer too so we were confident we could get it dried. This was a false hope as the drying machine seemed to be permanently fixed on cool!!! Now we have a mountain of wet washing draped around our room. Staff seemed to disappear from view as soon as they had dealt with you so we did nto want to recall them with the bell. But the drinks machine dispensed lovely cold beers.

Dinner was taken in the above restaurant, the only one that was open. It was simple fare but delicious and the draft beer was great…

Day 12: From Magome to Tsumago: 9th May 2017

As I said yesterday this is the beginning of the ancient post route from Kyoto to Edo, the original name for Tokyo. We are again really grateful to our good friend, Christine, who, when she heard we were thinking of visiting Japan, sent us an article on the Nakesando Trail. Once read we really wanted to go there. We started sporadically to research it. Unlike the Torres del Paine, there is not a lot of information in English, online, about this trail. Most of what we read was written either by the organizers of walking trips or people who had been on these organised walking trips. There is a group called Walk Japan who seem to do most of the organising. The only other report we could find was by a lone guy who was walking the whole 300km!!! Given our allergy towards organised trips we decided to work out our own route and accommodation. The only difficulty is the lack of English translation of the accommodation sites. Dr Google really does not do a good job on Japanese translation!

So here we were setting out on the Nakesando trail. We had read somewhere there was a service organised by the Tourist Office and run by the post office, which would carry your bags to the next post town. This was simple to organise so we were up early at the tourist office with a couple of other intrepid travellers to off-load our backpacks. On the dot of 8.30 the doors opened. We paid our 9 euros equivalent for two bags and were on our way. First priority was to find coffee. The village of Magome does not wake up until 10 o’clock. But a delightful little eatery did open for coffee and delicious toast and jam. With fuel for the trip we set off in a state of real anticipation. The start of the trail is steep enough but the fact that it is paved with big uneven stones makes it a little uncomfortable to walk on. We were surrounded by magnificent hills with trees right to the top. The signposting on the trail is excellent. It is only 7.7km to the next post town. So we sauntered along drinking in the views around us. There are some trees still in blossom. It must be magnificent at blossom time. We met a couple of other hikers, but these were few and far behind, and were Japanese. At one point we were passing a lovely old building from in which emerged a gentleman who offered us tea. We decided to accept. The building was an original teahouse on the trail and is maintained by the government. Not only did the gentleman offer us tea but also prunes soaked in Palm wine. Just the job to propel us along the route.The prunes reminded us of the fruit soaked in a rhumtoff in the German way.

Further along the way we stopped for our ‘pause cafe’. We had bought delicious rice cakes each with a different flavour, followed by tiny biscuits.

We arrived in Tsumago just after 1 o’clock. Our bags were there for us at the tourist office. Our accommodation for the night was well out of town. That was as much as we remembered. We also knew the hotel collected guests from a train station further along the trail. We asked the lovely man in the tourist office who asked where we were staying. We gave the name and he replied “very nice”…. He gave us a bus timetable in Japanese! He indicated where we could find the bus stop and where we could have some noodle soup before our bus.

We had hit Tsumago on the same day as some youth Japanese baseball team. They were delightful teenagers but their presence in this small village resulted in it being crammed. In the middle of this melee a lovely Australian lady approached us to ask where the noodle house was. Just at that moment I spotted it. Already installed was a young French man and his 5 year old son that we had met on the road. In the manner of these encounters it turned out he had worked in Bantry in Ireland!!! The world is getting ever smaller.

Ourselves and the Australian lady had our noodle soup, chatted and parted as one does on these trips. Unfortunate lady had chosen a very akward travelling companion and they had decided to go their separate ways for the moment.

At the bus stop we checked the timetables none of which seemed to correspond to ours. While waiting we were approached by a small group of Chinese girls who were on a school trip from Beijing. They wanted to practice their English. Turned out their teacher was Irish!!! We Irish do get about.

A bus came, at no time which corresponded to any timetable. It turned out to be a shuttle bus from our hotel. It was then I remembered we had booked a fairly snazzy hotel for tonight. This was for two reasons. There was nothing available in Tsumago and I also thought we might need a little pampering.

What splendour! We, in our hiking boots, entering this hotel was somewhat incongruous. Our backbacks were transported to our room which was a completely serene experience. The room was bigger than any of the apartments we have stayed in! We were told we could wear the Japanese dressing gown throughout the hotel. Everyone was wandering around in these. It was hilarious. It reminded us of Reid’s in Madeira. We profited from all that was on offer including the outdoor heated jacuzzis. Dinner was a culinary experience, a vast buffet of salads, hot and cold meats, curry, etc.. The hotel seems to be owned by a brewery. Only disappointment was the dining room was a vast characterless space. Most guests are older than us!!!!

We have now shared an experience with Joanna Lumley, the BBC presenter, whose photograph is proudly displayed in the lobby of the Kiso Hotel. It has a message of ‘thanks’ from her to the management for a great stay at the hotel. We had watched her Japan programmes and were totally underwhelmed. We understood now why the programmes seemed to be so sanatised. This was because she had only experienced one side of Japanese life – that of the luxury hotel…

Another day another experience….

Day 11: Leaving Naoshima island 8th May 2017

We loved our stay on Naoshima but it was all to short and we had a long travelling day ahead of us today. The place we stayed on Naoshima was on the opposite side of the island from the ferry port. A bus took us across the island when we arrived. Wandering around we discovered a much smaller ferry from our side of the island so we decided to give it a try. It seemed to be a boat to take people to work and school on the mainland. It also left at 7.55am so we were up bright and early and down at the quay. Although this ferry was a much smaller affair the attention to passengers, by the staff, was certainly not lacking. Two uniformed gentlemen greeted us, accepted our fares and with white gloved hands escorted us to the boat. It had inside a very plush seating area and a  small outside seating area.We opted to be outside as the sea was flat calm.

The trip took about 20 minutes up the other side of the island. We noticed that there was a huge industrial production site at the end of the island. It could have been cement but it was well tucked into a bay so hard to see. A big tanker was pulled up at the quay and lorries were coming and going.

We arrived back in Uno, the port from which we had disembarked, to retrace our steps to Okyama. This time we got a direct train, no change at Chaimaya. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘direct’ on Japanese trains. It just means you don’t have to change but it usually stops at every ‘hitching post’ as we say in Ireland. At each station more and more people got on. Barry really wanted to see the ‘pushers’ at work getting everyone on to a train. But alas this did not happen.

At Okyama we had a bite of breakfast before continuing to retrace our steps as far as Kyoto. But this time we stayed on the train to Nagoya. Here we had to board a local train for Nakasugawa. This really was a local affair with no English translations and puffing along for 1.5hr. But it did arrive and from here we had to take a bus to Magome which is the beginning of the Nakasendo. trail. Almost everyone on this small bus was foreign. Most did not look like walkers. They had huge suitcases!! There was a mixture of nationalities, French, Dutch, American, New Zealand and ourselves. We were to discover we were all at the same Miniusku (guest house)!!! So much for originality…. It was the only place which had a site in English and could be booked through booking.com. There is a great job here for someone out there to translate Japanese web sites into English. However most places were totally booked out as I stood beside a rather alarmed couple in the tourist office who were trying to find a bed for the night. The prices were rising but still no bed was materialising. I left them to their search.

We had dinner offered by the guest house which was fine but not at all up to the standards of the lovely food we have been having and it was expensive. It was just convenient.

Magome, as I said is the beginning of the ancient Edo trail which used to go from Kyoto to Tyoko. Most of it has disappeared now but some parts are still walkable. This is what we wanted to experience. The trail goes right through the center of this village of Magome and tomorrow we will be following it to Tsumago.

The village has grown up around it’s place on the trail and is quite touristic. The old houses have been preserved but turned into souvenir outlets. Our guest house is an original old house. We have to remove our shoes on entering. The rooms have rattan mats on the floor. We sleep on futons with huge eiderdowns and rice filled pillows. On the road like this we are normally so tired that we sleep anywhere. Last night was no exception.

Our guesthouse also had those wonderful Japanese deep hot bathsr called onsen. I had my first one here. This was a stainless steel rectangular bath which is covered with wooden covers. You just lift the cover and step in. Of course this being Japan you have to scrub yourself to within an inch of your life before stepping in. It was a devine experience.

Day 10: Naoshima island 7th May 2017

Today we rose early, like six o’clock, because we were travelling south on several trains and a ferry, to the island of Naoshima.

Some might feel alarm at the idea of having to work out and organise this sort of travel. But I cannot stress enough that travelling in Japan is easy. The trains are very clearly indicated and on all the main lines there is an English translation of the station names. On the Shinkansen bullet trains the announcements are also given in English. In most  of the big stations there are personnel, from the JR railways, to help you. They speak basic English but this is sufficient to arrange travel. If in doubt you can ask a fellow traveller and if you have the name of your destination they will try to help. For example we were on a very local train from Okyama to Chaimaya but needed to verify this was in fact the correct train. The gentleman we asked jumped off the train to verify if the train stopped at Chaimaya. His only words in English on his return were “stop Chaimaya” and that was all we needed to know. Big deep bows of gratitude and we were on our way…

From Chaimaya we took en even “localer” train to Uno. I was sitting beside a lovely Australian guy who had worked here in Japan. He was a little disappointed to see the train so packed travelling to Uno as everyone on that train was heading for the island of Naoshima. When we arrived at the port the ferry was waiting. It is an amazing ferry which takes about 50 cars and many passengers. The trip only takes twenty minutes. We were amazed when making the comparisons with our own West Cork island ferries. We are still in the dark ages. The fare cost 560 yen which is about 7euro return. So how do they do that when our ferry price has risen to 12 euro for a 7 minute trip in a fairly rickety boat? Subsidy, presumably, and a proper policy to support rural areas, end of rant.

On arrival on the island there are personnel to tell you what local bus to get to your destination. The helper tells the driver where you want to get off. Then on arrival at your stop there is someone who escorts you to your accommodation. Unbelievable! The island is physically small but has a significant population. The bus just runs across and back, we are on the opposite side to the ferry landing, but only five or six minutes away.

So now “Why Naoshima”? Thanks to some great advice by a friend of my niece who suggested we visit here and what’s more that we should stay the night. This island used to be solely dependant on fishing but as the fishing industry declined the Islanders looked for a viable alternative. They were very lucky to have the support of Tadao Anno, the world famous architect. I am not sure what is his connection to the island but he took on to develop it in an incredibly sensitive way. He has designed all the main buildings including his own museum, the Chichu Art Museum. We were lucky enough to visit this today. It is built entirely into the landscape mainly underground. The structure is amazing, made of polished concrete. The shapes of the building creates fantastic shadows. All of the walls are at an angle. Inside is cool and somber. Only three artists are represented: Monet, James Turell and Walter de Maria. Each of them has a room devoted to their work. The Monet resembles the Marmotan in Paris. It is about his lily paintings of Givernay. But James Turell’s work was new to me. He worked with light. One installation, a more recent work, is called walking into the light. This involved us entering in groups of ten. The assistant explained that we needed to be careful ascending the steps that were rising into an area of pinkish light.

 As we entered we walked slowly towards the light in a descending path. She warned us not to go further when she stopped. But guess who wanted to see why this was???? Barry moved forward really going towards the light and of course set off an alarm…. The reason for not going any further was because there was a void between where we were and the light. It was a very strange and unnerving sensation. When we turned back towards the entrance the opposite wall had a blue outline against the pale brown of the other side. It is hard to describe but an amazing effect.

De Maria’s work was also very interesting. Silence was part of the experience. It was a huge room with a gigantic black marble ball placed directly under the square opening to the natural light, way up in the ceiling. This reflected the open sky on the ball. On either side of this ball there were steps with wooden installations painted in gold leaf. My description is so lacking – I do not have the words to describe it. We feel very privileged to have had this experience.

Now to describe our accommodation. All I can say is it is way above our normal standard. We have a sort of Japanese chalet, very Zen. It is so beautiful with a little chair and table outside. Inside we have three rooms and a bathroom and WC. The wood is blonde stained cedar and very elegant. . Eating establishments are thin on the ground here especially those remaining open after the last ferry departs for the mainland.

Quietness descends on the island, just as in Sherkin after the last ferry. But we had spotted a restaurant which said it was open irregularly at night and reservations had to be made. So we headed off to find it when we returned from the museum. It was discretely signposted up what we would describe, in Ireland, as a very tiny ‘boreen’ (small road). The sign said ‘closed’ but Barry knocked on the kitchen door and sure enough the owner/chef was there and booked us in for tonight.

After a beer and shower we headed back. It looked lovely lit up at night. We have eaten in some strange places in our lifetime but this is among the most special. It was very simple, very local but full of charm and character. The food was delicious. Barry had blow fish, a first for him, and I had the most extraordinary coconut curry. We were really enjoying it when the four young lads who were eating up at the counter/bar leaped up and shouted something into the kitchen. Chef came running out with a huge bbq tongs. The lads chased the offending scorpion until they caught him and removed him to the outdoors. That too is a first for us. We have eaten in African restaurants where wildlife abounds but never a scorpion. Life is full of surprises.