Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Silver-Lined Week part one: Forest Therapy

A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend passed along an article with the caption “not sure Emily’s into traditional Japan”.. just for future reference, I am always into ancient stuff. The older, the better. Old buildings? Sweet! RUINS? Absolutely.

Just today, another friend sent me this Smithsonian article about the same place!

Anyway, the first article was about some well-preserved little towns somewhere in Japan, which still looked more or less like they had in the Edo period hundreds of years ago. They are outposts along the old Nakasendou, or inland highway that led between Tokyo (then called Edo, a’ course) and Kyoto. People used to have to walk this route to get between the two major cities.

Little towns like Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku were places for travelers to rest, eat, wash up, find a place to crash, and nowadays, purchase souvenirs. The Kiso Valley boasts some of the best preserved of these little post towns, as well as some pretty nature sights and mountain views. Kiso is located in the Central Japan Alps, sort of north-east of Nagoya.

Upon reading this article, in which the author walks the trail from Magome to Tsumago and stays the night in each, I of course wanted to visit this place. I spent most of the last year kind of going along with other people’s weekend trips because I didn’t really have plans of my own, but finally I decided to plan a venture out on our three-day-weekend. We decided it would be a roadtrip, because out in the middle of nowhere mountains, trains are more scarce, and bus schedules can be harsh mistresses. The guidebooks said that a car would be the “most flexible” mode of transport. It’s actually much cheaper, too, if you get more people in the car to share the gas and tolls.

We got caught in some pretty merciless traffic right outside of Kyoto (go figure.. and if you remember, last year in Kyoto at this time was more crowded than Nami-san ever remembered seeing it!) which slowed our roll tremendously as we pushed toward our destination. I had hoped we would take our walk from Magome to Tsumago on Saturday just after arriving from the drive.

Instead, we pulled off at the first sight within the area that seemed to hold any promise. We followed a little road snaking along beside the Atera gorge, where the rocks were large and white, and the river a crystal blue. We wanted to make the most of daylight, while we had it.

Not content to simply feast on the view, of course, we were soon scrambling into the canyon to clamber over rocks and dip our fingers into the holy-looking water.

Further up the gorge, we found a path to a waterfall we’d seen from the road, so we ambled on down to explore and enjoy the scenery.

By the time we got back on the road, the light was basically gone, and it was about 6pm. I’d tried to book us accommodations in Tsumago or Magome, but everywhere seemed either full or 7,500 yen (including dinner). Then, there was a youth hostel in Kiso-Fukushima that only cost 3,000; I figured we weren’t going to have a $40 dinner, so I booked that one.

It turned out to be incredibly difficult to find, so after enlisting the help of some forest park (?) workers in the dark, we finally found our way to the hostel. The inside was lovely and sprawling and all four of us agreed that the place really “had character.” It reminded me of Centro Due (The Villa Vergiliana) in that it was beautiful and there was farmland all around.. it felt oldschool and homelike while simultaneously rustic and inn-like.

We also felt like we had the run of the place, since we only saw a few other travelers in the common rooms and corridors. We played cards and went to sleep, hoping to be fresh for morning explorations.

Our first stop in the morning was the Nezame-no-toko, a gorge much greater in size than the Atera. It was very pretty, and a lot of fun to climb on, but it lacked the subtle beauty of the more or less deserted Atera from the day before. We underestimated the impressiveness of the Nezame-no-toko from afar, so we were quite pleased once we got down to it.

From there we went on to Magome to start our hike. We managed to park for free, grabbed a noodle lunch (mine was zaru soba, yum!), and hit the trail. The walk itself was really nice, not too strenuous, but still a good challenge. We rang the bear bells set up along the way and labeled “Ring the bell hard against bears.” Some of the uphill portions were a bit daunting.

We reached Tsumago a bit tired, and after the departure of the last bus back to Magome. We knew this was a real possibility and were prepared to take a cab (it was only a couple hundred yen more per person to do that) for our return trip. Ah, the joys of traveling in groups.

Tsumago was very nice, though I’d read too much about how enchanting it was to really appreciate it in its tourist-crawling state. Although one could imagine oneself back in old Japan, it would take a great force of imagination at that time of day.

We returned to our car to finish our evening in Nagoya.

Nagoya traffic surprised us (though it shouldn’t have, perhaps), though we did like the look of the city. Nagoya’s roads are wide and the city lacked Osaka’s tendency to bear over on a person. I’ve heard that clubbing in Nagoya is a lot of fun, but we were pretty exhausted, so we just ate some curry and crashed in our Toyoko Inn.

The next morning we toured Nagoya castle and ate at a Denny’s (which wasn’t serving breakfast – argh!), and got back on the long road home.

Kiso Photos, because I was too lazy to pick out just a few and pepper them into the post.

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