Monday, 29 May 2017


I waved goodbye to my boyfriend through the train window and made my way back to Obaachan’s. It was a Sunday, so I shared the carriage ride home with all the drunken sleepers retracing their steps on the first train creeping in to the suburbs, the dusty velvet green cushions smelt of stale smoke and cocktails, whilst I dreamt about the mountains.

Yagisaki Station – Yokokawa – Karuizawa

Hiking shoes on, rucksack strapped, walking stick bought. We’re on our way in to the countryside for a five day hike in the Kiso Valleys, following the Nakasendo Trail, an old Edo trade route linking Kyoto and Tokyo (which used to be called Edo). Doing the whole trail would be impossible in the time frame and with my short legs, but we can walk a fair stretch of it and take in the beautiful historical scenery. Aidan planned the route superbly with train rides to break up our long walks, so I’m hopeful that I won’t drag down his pace or morale if I get tired and hungry.

Yokokawa station is at the foot of some big mountains and when we arrive there is a cold drizzling mist blanketing the earth. I look around and it feels like we’ve come to a nowhere town. The mist tastes great. My aunt Mariko told me the night before we left on the trip that Yokokawa is famous for their kama meshi; a ceramic bowl filled with warm rice and delicious things that travellers ate on their way. A bento bowl. I had that on my mind as we disembarked the train but we were too early as none of the shop fronts were open, and so, we two ventured out in to the mist like the brave explorers we were. Halfway down the long road we realised that we were going the wrong way. So we turned around and trundled back up the road and here my co-pilot and I learned our first lesson of hiking holidays: Setting off in the right direction is the first and most important hurdle. On the bright side, when we returned to Yokokawa station the shops were open and serving kama meshi. Yay! We bought two solid pots that were radiating heat, and I stuffed them in to the top of my rucksack.

On the road again, walking by the side of a winding highway for the first part, until it got quieter and we passed a shrine at the foot of the mountains with no discernible name. I’m always up for visiting shrines/temples when we come across them on the way, so we climb the steps and have a look. A plateau clearing amidst a dense dark forest with a wide wooden shrine standing at the back. It seemed forgotten, tranquil and held a subdued awesomeness - just the kind of shrine I like. I shook the bell, made a racket and did omairi (showed some respect) then we headed on our way. Sometime soon after we see a thin wooden post with a sign that reads:


It looked very unassuming so we doubted it for a second, but as we’ll find out over the course of our trip not that many people do this walk. And the truck drivers will wonder when they pass us on highways whether we’re mad or foreign, or both. But yes, here it was the first sign of the old road! It led us under a newly constructed tunnel and then up a steep hillside to a shelter. In the shelter were an old Japanese couple who looked like true hikers, so I knew we were in the right place. To the left of them was a small dark path that led upwards in to a thick forest and mountains and then disappeared. The initial clamber was steep and sweaty, and as we rose above the road we’d left behind, the mist caught between the trees and dissipated a green glow around my ankles. At least it wasn’t hot or humid but cool and wet. I used Piston (the name I gave my walking stick) to haul me up the mountain, whilst Aidan strode out in front, bounding off boulders and I felt very heavy. There were small stone markers along the steep track, and we passed an Australian group of hikers who chirruped some friendly comments, which I can’t remember because I was concentrating on moving my feet. Already feeling so tired I wasn’t sure if I could actually keep this up for five days, but not listening to my brain, I carried on struggling up rocks. At the steepest point we passed a huge pile of stones that previous passers-by had accumulated on top of each other, which I guess was a form of encouragement. But I was still out of breath and feeling dizzy so I said I really want to - eat – lunch - please? My kind co-pilot told me that we were scaling a mountain, so, I shouldn’t feel too bad about being tired already and at the next carved out hollow on the mountainside we opened up our kama meshi, still warm in the pot. I’m not going to lie, lunch was my favourite part of the first day. It held inside the best meal I could have wished for. A cute egg, mushrooms, sweet ginger, apricot, pickled plum, bamboo shoots, pork, chicken, and a chestnut all on a bed of white rice. After chomping down the meal and a good glug of water I felt ready to climb mountains again.

The rain had stopped but thankfully the cooling white mist was still present, and once we had cleared the steep rubble path we entered a surreal dreamlike forest. The tree trunks shot up in to the canopy like telegraph poles, and the earth beneath my feet was bouncy. Good for treading. The green leaves above and the foliage all around produced a matcha mist to walk through, whilst in the distance you could make out a smokey blue horizon. When you stopped all you could hear were raindrops far above, dripping on leaves upon leaves. Bird song and silence. The walk had become satisfying and Piston was doing a good job of holding me up. Eating the lunches had lightened my load and the whole thing seemed magical now, and comparatively easy. We pass a stone Buddha on a lotus leaf encased in a green thicket. There are a multitude of  おじぞうさん or jizo we pass along the path, protectors of travellers and markers for the old Nakasendo road. Inconspicuous stone saints with bald bowed heads, whom I want to give a nod of appreciation to every time I notice one. We press through a high peak between the mountain, splitting the North and the South side, and when we reach the “middle” of the way there is a tumbledown teahouse, well abandoned with smashed panes of glass and sagging roof. Quite surprisingly looming in the mist high above us is a long-forgotten hotel. A ruin and a relic from the Bubble Era, with a skeleton of a bus precariously driven to the end of the road and parked there for the rest of time, beside this eerie collapsing building. I thought about the last hotelier who must have closed-up shop, turning his back on that strange mountain life of luxury and loneliness.

Four hours in to our six hour walk is when you’re feeling grateful for the escape that the mountains provide. No people, no talking, just trees. But then I feel a little sad that I’ll be leaving this mountain behind, even if I did struggle at the beginning - that this soon will pass.

We reach Kumano Jinja near the summit of Mount Asama, which has two shrines and a very old bell and tree, both as holy. Cutting through Kumano Jinja is the border of two neighbouring prefectures of Nagano and Gunma, so I guess we were in both at the same time. There is a spectacular view over the mountain ranges from the precincts of the shrine but due to the mist we saw nothing. But we ate a Calorie Mate snack bar (the maple flavour is the best) and imagined the view we could see through the freezing fog, and took it all in. We only had to walk down a proper road made for vehicles and we would soon be in Karuizawa town. Instead of following this boring road we took a winding trail that led us through woodland, betwixt the second-homes for the famous and wealthy. Odd modernist shapes stuck out from the fertile ground, one had an indoor swimming pool and others looked like the Sylvanian Families house. The hiking trail shot us out in to Karuizawa Ginza, a classy boulevard of designer shops and bakeries. A funny spot to see us in after hours of sweaty trekking. We walk through this rejuvenated Edo post-town of Karuizawa, a resort-town now for tourists and a hang-out for moneyed families, and keep on walking to our out of the way motel.

Karuizawa Station – Kiso Hirasawa – Narai juku

We are now chasing the sun riding on a tetsudo train called the Shinano WanMan ンマン* It's very exciting because we’re chugging along over the railway tracks and I love old trains. Mountains appear broken up by towns and sometimes I get a glimpse of river. After yesterday’s long and arduous walk I’m glad to be plonked down on a train seat, eating gummy sweets and looking out over fast-paced scenery. The train ride takes approximately three hours, with a transfer break on a station platform where we share an Ebisu beer. The mountain range we left behind in Karuizawa looked like it was about to be engulfed in swathes of rain, so good riddance, because here we are on our sunny platform drinking a beer. My sun hat from Okinawa is being used for the first time after a soggy start.

*Until recently I thought it was called a ManMan train, but when I visited my friend Moe in Kyoto we rode on a similar kind of train driven by one conductor aka. one man aka. WanMan - even thought it was a woman - so now I know what the train is correctly called and why.

The train drops us off at Kiso Hirasawa Station, where no one else gets off and it’s a clear blue sky day. The JR ticket office attendant did her best to hide her wonder when I asked how much a ticket cost to this place, and the lack of trains presumably attests to how unpopular this post-town is with tourists. Kiso Hirasawa is famous for lacquer ware, because in the Edo Period the profitable post-towns along the Nakasendo had to diversify to make their income after the Shogun made it illegal to sell off their timber. The Kiso Valley has lots of forest and good sources of cypress, which the Shogun zealously controlled and taxed. Walking through Kiso Hirasawa there are lots of lacquer ware shop fronts, beautifully embellished with Edo period architecture but for some reason all the shops are closed. It is a dead zone. With the lack of people and the old wooden roofs however, swallows swoop in and out darting every which way, tinged with cobalt blue and red cheeks. Enjoying the sun we walked around this pretty post-town twice, swinging by the main Hachiman shrine at the end of town. On the second time round we passed a pickle van and man, who had parked up beside two old obaachans in the street. I asked them Why were the shops all closed? and one says because Nothing happens and if we were looking for somewhere more interesting then we should try Narai, the next town. That’s lucky because we’re staying there tonight, I think and buy a packet of dried apricots from the pickle man. But the two old ladies are perfectly happy basking in the sun with their pickles.

Following a well-trodden path beside a river we head toward Narai juku. Juku I find out simply means post-town, so a lot of the towns along the Nakasendo have this adage as they were built for the purpose of serving runners and riders along the mountain way. There are five main historical trails in Japan: Tokaido, Nikko-Kaido, Nakasendo, Mito-Kaido, Koushu-Kaido. And they all linked cities to Tokyo in the feudal times but are now out of use because we have cars and aeroplanes. The trail we’re taking is called the Nakasendo, also known as the Princess Road, because a famous princess from Kyoto once travelled across it to reach Edo after she got married. The Nakasendo was better suited for women and their entourage plus all their belongings and dowry, because the trail does not cross any rivers, which the speedier Tokaido passage would have encountered. I imagine, getting expensive silks wet or drowning men for a cedar closet wasn’t a risk a daimyo was willing to take when it came to his wife. But it must have been knackering for all those carriers and commoners (many probably died) to help move important possessions along this narrow and steep path, bravo feudal barrow boys.

Reaching Narai juku by foot is a sight. The exquisite Edo period features remain on the minshuku & ryokans (inns) and shops lining the main road; the upper half of the buildings jut out slightly over the lower half, giving the street a lean-to feeling of antiquity and bygone bustle. We reach Narai in the late afternoon sun. Western tourists are wondering the street admiring the wooden frames and swooping swallows, and I discern the figure of a busy innkeeper wiping down the back of a frosted glass door. Not quite sure where we are staying but knowing that it is in this idyllic postcard post-town makes me excited and nervous, but as we look at the street map with all the names of the minshuku and find ours, we walk on as a green-blue mountain steadily rises over the road in the distance. We find it with a wooden sliding door and a small lamp outside, which has a blue and white stencil of a crescent moon and two stars; Tsuchikawa Ryokan is a blessing. Going through a long corridor and up the stairs in to an old Japanese house, we’re met by an angelic woman who feels like a mother. She lets us take off our muddy shoes, and shows us the way to the top floor, to our spacious room, then gently leaves us. The view from our tatami is breathtaking. Mountains upon mountains and sky. Later at dinner she tells me that we are 934m above sea level, so tomorrow our walk up to Tori Toge Pass won’t be too difficult as we’ll only have to ascend another 100m, or so. The air is pure and the stars are bright. And we have a wooden bath tub to soak in, and there’s only one other guest whom we don’t see until breakfast, who turns out to be a lacquer ware specialist out on fieldwork. This place is a mysterious precious stone you should hold on to but not stare at, keeping it safe in your pocket. A writer wrote about the room we’re staying in at Tsuchikawa Inn and we flicked through his book in the evening, but as we’ve noticed when the sun starts to set in the mountains, it gets dark fast so we turn in to sleep early and wake up with the dawn.

Narai juku – Tori Toge Pass –Yabuhara – Route 19 - Miyanokoshi – Kiso Fukushima

Today was the first hot day. As we left the minshuku of dreams the innkeeper gave us two sweets, which I sucked on all the way up the steep mountain path made of rubble, Piston again helping me to survive. The song of the uguisu also kept me going, that Japanese bird of springtime, as beads of sweat rolled into my eyes and made them sting. Aidan was in shorts and climbing heroically, along the trail we passed a few points where fresh cool drinking water could be caught and drunk straight from the mountains in two blue ceramic cups left there by some lovely person. The town of Narai juku we left behind was the real deal, with 200 stone jizo statues and graves for ancestors carved in to the steep mountainside overlooking the town. As we climbed, I thought what a relief it would have been for travellers making the descent to end up in that thriving civilised post-town, but sadly we were going the other direction. There was a respite at the end of all of this clambering, which turned out to be this Big View of mountains Far Away and a feeling of accomplishment. I took a long drink of water whilst Aidan drenched his cap in a clean spring and slopped it back on top of his hot head. He’d adopted a walking stick on the way up, one that had been left behind by previous ramblers, and named it Magnus.

The Tori Toge Pass should be somewhere around here - but neither of us knew what it looked like or what it was, so we walked around in circles at the top of this Big View for almost an hour, getting lost and ending up at a maintenance facility point for an electrical satellite. We finally decided that the Tori Toge Pass was this crossroads that we’d walked over several times now, and we were right, it’s an ancient checkpoint for guardsmen who had been off duty for about 400 years. We took a wide gravel path that descended down the other side of the valley, nowhere near Narai anymore and ambled happily under the shade of the tall trees heading towards the next post-town called Yabuhara juku. The Nakasendo trail led us out on to hot tarmac and no shade in the midday sun, so we walked through this quiet town until we spotted the railway. Positioned on a peak next to Yabuhara Station was a shrine, so we climbed up to see it, and we sat down on the cool damp earth and looked over the town, deciding whether to take a train or not, and more importantly where to have lunch. We found Oginoya soba restaurant, where the pugnacious dedicated chef provided us with refreshing zaru soba seasoned with ginger and ume, a tart plum sauce. In the dark interior of this renovated old Japanese house where we ate the noodles, there was a Colorado family who were loving the mountains, and walking the Nakasendo in the opposite way. We’re heading towards Kyoto, and they’re heading towards Tokyo, and from what they said it sounded like we had a lot of interesting post-towns to come. The head chef owner gave me thorough advice in rapid fire Japanese about what we should do next. The train wasn’t leaving Yabuhara Station for over an hour so we should carry on to the next post-town called Miyanokoshi, and get the train from there to our end destination. OK I said, and he warned us there was a strip of motorway on Route 19, but it wouldn’t be too bad, so that’s what we did.

Leaving Yabuhara there is a preserved steam locomotive with flowers growing up and through its spokes, and a farmer couple planting down rice saplings in neat straight lines. The paddy fields where Obaachan lives have been seeded for a while now, so they must plant later in the mountains, as it’s cooler in the higher altitude. The temperatures in the morning and afternoon differ by ten degrees or more, and it gets really hot around 2-3PM. We’ve come in a good season when it’s not raining or blistering, although it feels like it as we walk hugging the highway, buffeted by hot gusts of wind from cars and lorry exhausts. After one ugly mural and my asphalt based nose runs, we reach this calm divergence off the highway crossing the river. I stop in the well-needed shade and chew up all the apricots I bought from the pickle man, then Aidan spots a little vermillion snake swimming avidly upstream and not making it very far. Entranced by the slippery snake I slap on more sunscreen over layers of old sunscreen, and we head on south through the valley. Suddenly there’s a snow-peaked mountain far off in the distance (probably Mt. Kyogatake) and we break out in to the open, amongst placid sun-baked paddy fields. Luckily we took the scenic route avoiding a causeway tunnel we can hear thundering off in the distance, but I spoke too fast, because coming up is the highway again and jesus we have to walk through a tunnel. Murderous vans roll past perilously close I feel, but there’s a raised pavement so I guess we’re safe. Echoes like rumbling thunder strike every time a truck goes through the entrance or exits, and it feels like we’re getting close to Mordor.

Out on the other side there’s a Seven Eleven where we rest for half an hour sipping on cold sweet coffees, dusting ourselves off, and making the most of the free wifi. There’s still a leg to go before we arrive at Miyanokoshi Station, but on the way we pass a great deep lagoon where a dragon who disguised itself as a princess is said to be sleeping. Peering over the edge in to the dark turquoise waters we encounter a boy of about three or six who thinks I’m an obaachan (a very old woman) because of my attire (towel draped over my head under a sun hat), and he explains to us that if his Obaachan fell down the abyss then she would turn in to bones. Yes that’s true. We walk on. To reach the station we pass through a hamlet and fields being irrigated by gurgling sparkling water, storehouses filled with timber and made of the stuff, a few people walking their dogs and finally here we are in Miyanokoshi juku. There is a museum here dedicated to a samurai family with a well kempt garden, but we don’t have time to investigate it because there’s less than one train per hour and it’s almost time. We hurry on through the sleepy post-town and enter the station where there’s not a soul in sight apart from a cleaner who is mopping the stairs. I ask her How do we get to Kiso Fukushima Station? And she gives me a toothy grin and tells me to Cross the bridge over to the other platform then wait exactly in that white square. When you get on the train you take a coupon then pay for a ticket. We collapse in a heap on the other platform gulping lots of water, knowing we probably hadn’t drunk enough. My face is all red and dirty from the road, and Aidan is sprawled in the shade. The small train comes on time and we board feeling like the muckiest passengers alive, and the cleaner with her mop boards with us; she tells me, I live in Fukushima. I come here every day and clean that platform and by the time I’ve finished cleaning the other platform my train pulls up. I do it every day. It’s my job. That sounds like a nice routine I think, and nod to show her my appreciation, then the brilliant landscape of the Kiso Valley opens up and flits past us through the carriage windows.

Off the train at a neighbouring major post-town called Kiso Fukushima juku we pop in to the tourist bureau to ask for directions to our hotel. It’s on the other side of town but we get to walk beside the Kiso River to get there; the sun is setting as we venture through the most urban place we’ve visited yet. Wearily treading over the pavement that skirts along the foot of the impressive Mt. Ontake, we pass a crowded graveyard full of ancestors cut deep in to the hillside looking over the town, the remains of a chapel, and lots more jizo. It’s the time when school ends, so we pass a lot of children in yellow caps carrying randoseru bags, and as we pass each child Aidan gives them a hearty greeting like he does with every other walker we pass on our travels. One cheeky kid mimics his foreign accented Konnichiwa! leaving me laughing. We stay in Kiso Mikawaya that night which has an onsen (hot spring) in the basement and a view over the Kiso River. It’s beautiful at dusk, but I’ve got a primal fear of the raging river outside in the darkness and Aidan’s eyes are red from an allergic reaction to the sun cream, but I feel like a queen to not be wearing walking boots.

Kiso Fukushima Station – Nojiri – Junikane – Route 19 / Kiso Valley - Midono – Wago – Godo – Watashima – Tsumago – O-Tsumago

A big day of walking ahead so we get an early train out of Kiso Fukushima. It was a nice town with historic sites and a visible population that made it tick to a modern clock. Many people spend a day hiking around Mt. Ontake, which is a spiritual spot for healers and good for creative inspiration. And passing through the town I saw a road sign that read like poetry:

Please drive slowly
Swallows are flying lowly

So I liked the place. It was a shame we didn’t have more time to explore it but we were on a tight walker’s schedule, you know how it is. When we got to the station half an hour early for the train it was crucial to stock up on food before it came, otherwise we’d have to do a whole day’s hike with no provisions apart from those dry Nature Valley bars, which no one fancied. Some guy who looked like a tech start-up founder walked over to us and started talking in English, with confidence, which is a rare and brilliant effort from a Japanese native. And we asked him and his lovely wife standing there beside him Dyu know if there’s a supermarket nearby? And he said Sure, we need to go anyway, I’ll take you. And with that we followed him not down the road but in to his car and he drove us at a pace to the nearest convenience store, then drove us back in time to catch our train! What a top bloke. His name is Naoki and he loves walking too, he’s even done that 88 shrine pilgrimage around the Japanese islands and now lives near the mountains to live out his hobby. Hi-five for Naoki. With a swift goodbye and plastic bag full of onigiri, sweets, and drinks we boarded the train that would take us to Nojiri.

From Nojiri Station the plan was to walk through mountain paths to miss out a highway and then drop down somewhere in the remote valleys, but alas, we walked up into woodland and then got lost down a logging track and had to retrace our steps. It was hot but early, so, undeterred we found another track that looked promising, which led us through a tori gate towards a shrine that looked undiscovered or wholly attended by spirits, but we figured that we were still lost however mysterious and pretty this all was, so we left that place. We returned to Nojiri juku and walked through this peaceful village following its main road that had been built with sharp right angles to deter attackers. It may not be exactly here - but it’s in the area anyway so it’s worth mentioning - in the near distant past a samurai came through the Kiso Valley and was asked by a small village to help them fight off the raiding bandits. The samurai agreed and won the battle for the village but lost his life in the fight, and this inspired Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai. Neat. We were soon in the neighbouring post-town of Junikane, a sleepy hamlet and one of my favourites because all the inhabitants owned Shiba-ken dogs. They look like foxes with a smile and they’re keen-eyed without being nosy. As we turned a bend the whole verdant valley opened up before us and we were greeted by a rounded-back obaachan in the fields, and a friendly peaceable natured Shiba pup who loved to be petted. Junikane is comprised of a few houses and shrines, so we sat in the main shrine precinct and ate an onigiri before deciding to press on.

Down below us we could see a railway track, which meant we were by Junikane Station. I had a look at the train timetable and there was no train for over an hour so we walked on as planned, and were soon joined by a bunch of healthy-looking old people, all possibly embarking on a group walking tour. It meant we had company for perhaps the first time on our holiday, and it gave us confidence that we were indeed walking in the right direction. An old couple in matching bucket hats leads the way. Hurray. We walked beside the Kiso River, sandwiched between stunning scenery and a busy highway (Route 19 that’s built on top of the old Nakasendo road), moved along by the calming presence of pensioners. The enormous boulders on the riverbed, cracked and bleached bone white by the sun looked immovable; but the ice-water melt off the mountains and the litres of rain during typhoons gushing in to the river, means they must be have been budged. It was scorching hot and my eyes were dry even though I was downing lots of water, all thanks to my over-active sweat glands. When the single file of oldies in front started to cross the highway, one by one, and we followed I was pleased. Then when we got into some shade and felt a cool breeze I was joyful. Aidan bought me a can of cold drink from the vending machine and I stripped off in to my bra and wiped down my sweat, and did a little dance under the shade of a tree. Free from the straps of my rucksack! We were now in Midono juku where there’s also a station, but we’d made it through the toughest leg on the motorway, so after my breather, I was happy to carry on going.

Early afternoon in the mountains is hot and the shade from bamboo groves is a solace. We pass through a post-town named Wago, I think famed for their sake because another post-town was prohibited from making any. Then Godo, which I like because of its name that sounds like my favourite play. We take a break in the shade of a monument erected for a particular professor. Whenever we find running water, Aidan douses his cap and slaps it on to his head to cool down, whilst I continue to wear my obaachan attire with the hand-towel draped over my head and under my hat. Caked in sun cream and sweat. The gardens of the residences in this area are super well cared for, pruned and preened to perfection, not a pine needle out of place. There is a breezy cobbled path that leads us through bamboo and I laugh at how idyllic it is here. It’s as hot as a summer’s day and we spot two small kids, a brother and his younger sister, being sprayed down by a hose by their dad. He’s cleaning out their coy carp pond and the little girl comes to show me, there’s a round plastic pool brimming with water holding gold and orange fish. Her brother looks like the boss because he’s got a fishing net, casually slung over his shoulders like the barrel of a gun. You know we’re almost where we want to be? And that’s Tsumago: The Postcard Post-Town of the Nakasendo.

Before we reach Tsumago juku we climb yet another steep mountain path - because why not - that leads us to the ruins of Tsumago Castle. It curves through dense forest to a clearing on a mountain top where the castle used to stand. From here we can look down in to the valley and see the straight long narrow street of Tsumago in front, which is famed for it’s Edo Period authenticity, thanks to a ban on overhead wires and vending machines. The view makes it feel like an accomplishment and I stretch out my un-baggaged arms to the stratosphere. My shoulders are going to ache tomorrow but it’ll be the last day, so I’d better make the most of it. Piston helps me down the ridge and we take the final part of our route that leads us straight in to Tsumago juku. I’ve become accustomed to our solitude and so find it alien to encounter the multitude of clean tourists in town, especially anyone who looks fashionable, they’re an exotic bird to me at this point. First thing we do is grab an ice cold beer in the garden of a tea place. Yes. There’s a small dark pond with brightly coloured coy darting through it, and we sit and drink and cool off.

Walking down the street of Tsumago there are museums and souvenir shops, you can buy geta (old wooden sandals) and I overhear a shopkeeper showing off that he once killed a black bear There’s his skin, hanging right there! Our post-town experiences have all been of a similar shade but this place feels like a living museum with no town’s people living here, perhaps they run the shops and commute in. At night when we come back to walk the streets, it is dead quiet and we stumble across a few other tourists taking night time photos, and one cat. Our minshuku for the evening is located at O-Tsumago, which is an off-shoot post-town a few kilometres away, so we amble slowly through the historical settings to reach it in time for tea. The croak of the frogs in the night time, a million horns and trumpets rising out of the rice paddies, sounds like a hilarious orchestra, drowning out the sounds of the trees and rivers.

O-Tsumago – Magome

We stayed the night in a cheerful inn called Hanaya Ryokan, where the innkeepers had a family of their own, four or five boys and a girl. We encountered a little one in the corridor who showed us his grazed palm, and I was witness to another one’s meltdown when he found out the bath wasn’t ready. The whole family looked picturesque in the fading light of the evening playing with fireworks by the river.

After breakfast we set off in to the mountains to walk the most popular part of the Nakasendo Trail, between Tsumago and Magome juku. You pass two waterfalls on the way, the male waterfall Otaki and the female waterfall Metaki. We posed according to gender in front of those watery wonders. At some point on this trail is a tea house run by an old man dressed in a jinbei. He serves tea for guests and walkers and keeps a record of everyone who passes through and their nationality. Yesterday: 124 people. Canadian, Spanish, Australian, French, Mexican, Taiwanese, Dutch. Friday: 108 people. American, English, Brzailian, Finnish, Chinese, German. His eyes light up when I ask him about the traditional hearth he’s prepared, and why there’s always a model of fish hanging on top of iron kettles? The fish is a water creature and the kettle is of fire, so the fish will work to keep the fire below its line to protect the rest of the house from catching fire. He chops wood blocks with an axe and serves us tea. The phone rings and a fire announcement for the mountains crackles over the loudspeaker. We bow and place some coins in the donation box to get on our way to Magome, but afterwards I’m still thinking about what he said, in the few moments of dark quiet we stole in the smokey shade of his world. In that old museum piece of a Japanese house on the Nakasendo. He is interested in telling people about the original walkers of the Nakasendo, commoners who had to carry loads, run to feed families, sell wares to make money. They stopped along the way at havens like the place he’s housekeeping, slurping noodles, drinking water, sharing stories. Today he is the only volunteer working 360 days a year to keep that place running - I get five days off for New Year.

We pass a famous twinned cypress tree; two trees that grew in to one. And for the final memorable time on our hike we pass a group of stone jizo, or saints marking the way. I have loved how the sunlight dapples the forest floor and the sheer amount of green I have grown used to seeing every day. The path leads us out of the mountains and onto a road that winds steadily downwards towards Magome juku. There’s a viewpoint from where we can see several mountains under the searing sun, and it feels like we’ve done something. Magome is another touristic post-town, not too dissimilar from Tsumago, hence maybe why they’re linked together in the guidebooks. There’s a general hustle and bustle but because it’s 28 degrees and rising, everyone is melting (or maybe only me) so we duck in to a soba shop and order noodles and beer. We’ve got a bus to catch out of the mountains back in to the city of Nagano, then a bullet train to hurtle us back towards Tokyo, undoing all the beautiful labour of the last five days. And we’re happy.

Thursday, 4 May 2017


It’s been two weeks of being away and what differences I notice in Kasukabe. The leaves have sprouted on the plum blossom in our garden like healthy locks, luscious and verdant reminding me of Okinawa.

I came back with my friend Genny yesterday on the morning flight. What a “shocker” is how Genny described it post-landing and feeling unwell after a heavy night of drinking and karaoke-singing in a smoke-filled bar in Naha. But the trip itself was everything we wanted and more. Okinawa exceeded our expectations and at every turn something lucky befell us. Let me tell you about some of them.


The first day was not too hot with the sun gleaming all day, it made the horizon a haze and the air was warm to breathe in. We went to Shurijo Castle at the end of the line of the monorail, which skirts across the skyline in the south of the island. Train tickets are like those in Tokyo but smarter because you don’t feed them in to the machine, they’re digital instead, no magnetic strips. On the way to the castle grounds from Shuri Station we found a stone stairway arched with leaves and the red flowers you find so many of in Okinawa. We climbed and I took a photo of Genny looking happy in the sun, she’d come off a flight the day before and this was the first day of our holiday, so hopes were high. The stairs led us to a road that wound around a fortress wall. A sign read Be Aware of Cobras and the hilltop view of Shuri and the sea in the distance opened up before us, it didn’t seem likely that we were in Japan, and as we learnt at Shurijo the islands of Okinawa were part of the Ryukyu Kingdom up until the 19th century, so we weren’t really in Japan after all. The Rykyu Dynasty was started by envoys who were sent across the East China Sea to meet with the Kings of the Ming Dynasty, hencewhy the Rykyu architecture looks so colourful and Chinese. A lot of red lacquer, gold adornments, and dragons topped off with swirls for their legendary whiskers and bright white fangs. The modern Okinawan houses and places all have Shi-Sha guarding the entranceways. Shi-Sha or Shi-Shi are ferocious lion-dogs with hind legs reared to pounce and jaws agape in a constant roar. We had traditional tea and cakes in the newly opened sasunoma of Shurijo, where we were sat at low tables that had a Japanese-style dug out floor with wooden slats to place our feet on, spreading a cooling sensation that felt nice against our warm soles. I asked the guide who served us tea what the red flowers were called I kept seeing in Okinawa? She replied in a benevolent amused tone that there are many red flowers in Okinawa. The ones I keep seeing are probably hibiscus she told me, but soon there will be bougainvillea and then many more. The colour red saturates the Okinawan scenes and flowers adorn the sides of buildings and the threads of shirts. Standing in a bar that only serves Hoergaarden in Asato, or as the locals call it Sakaemachi, which was an “absolute find” a la Genny, we learnt that the salary men of Okinawa wear floral pattern short-sleeve shirts instead of boring dark suits to work. What? The fabric and the style is resolutely Ryukyu and the men are tanned with darker features and wider eyes, they smile more and speak softly in clipped tongues. The shirts are called kariyushi and the fabrics are lightweight and すずしい some have geometric designs or wave patterns but often I see flowers and bright colours, Aloha.

We strolled out of the castle grounds and down the hill and passed a lake filled with coy carp in the waters and coy nobori draped above for Boy’s / Children’s Day. Then we found a hipster coffee shop that served us designer coffees ground by a could be male model barista, and we watched two old folks straddle in with moped helmets slung around their arms, a retired tanned Japanese couple who had a sweet attitude to life. Yes. I want to retire here. Genny found a recommendation for an izakaya in a town nearby called Asato and we could walk there in forty minutes so why not? The day was still going strong filled with sunrays that began to slant slightly when the afternoon set in. We took a winding road and sharp steps down through a tropical urban landscape and curved round the foot of a giant Hilton hotel. We ended up in an unfilled dam, the lowest part of town where we found jungle cats hanging out; one had electrocuted hair and golden orbs for eyes. The bank surrounding the dam was spotted with ohaka or mausoleums for the dead, and the ancestor-cult here I’ve heard is more pronounced than in other parts of Japan. The luscious vegetation everywhere gave the air a stillness, like us humans had been and gone and all that was left was untamed peace. Cutting through the empty reservoir we came to a street and then a main road, police sirens turned round a corner and flew down the motorway. Genny the navigator led us to a rundown sho-tengai where the locals visibly hang out. I see a raggedy old white bearded fella with coffee coloured skin leaning on a red plastic chair, ash trays made of empty tin cans, weathered lanterns slowly turning in the dusk. The place she’s found is called Urizun (うりずん), which I learn in local dialect is the time of year we’ve happened to bumble in on. Urizun is between late April and May, when the heat of the summer simmers before breaking out in to fiery storms in June. The dialect of Okinawa could be called another language, they say ma-san instead of oishii for delicious, they even have a ˚ which I can’t imagine how it sounds. The girls in the taxi that we shared to the aquarium told me that the Japanese made the Okinawan language fit their alphabet, like when you force a jigsaw puzzle piece in to the wrong shape. It’s like that. And then Toru, who we’ve been drinking Hoergaarden with tells me that the Americans when they took over the islands expected everyone to learn and speak English, much like the Japanese had tried and expected them to speak Japanese. He smiles wryly in to his pint as if to make a quiet point about these colonisers. The Okinawan beer is called Orion and it suits the fatty pork food and the tropical climate, whilst their Awamori nihonshu is flavoursome and has a bit of a kick, but it’s nothing as pungent as it used to be, our taxi driver tells me.


The second day was spent not rushing. It was still the perfect heat with the sun shining and a cool breeze. The plan was to find a beautiful beach and see a whale shark and to achieve this end we needed to catch a special bus. Going via the backstreets of the capital city of Okinawa felt like we were walking through the cobbled streets of a Greek island. Brightly discoloured peeling paint, corridor-like pathways that gave us glimpses in to people’s living rooms, crumbling Shi-Sha born ready on rooftops. That early morning, two cats were heard howling causing an absolute racket outside our flat window but neither of us had done anything. I couldn’t be sure as to what to direct my anger at and Genny thought they were dying. The brightness of the sunlight bouncing off the walls and the shimmering heat stunned us in to a stupor, and I got distracted by a café specialising in chocolate drinks, which turned out to be more like ice-creams. We didn’t get very far finding the bus but that didn’t matter, as we station hopped from one ticket office to the other trying to find that special bus. So many different bus companies, and neither of us could ever keep on our tongues what the bus was called. We did eventually find the correct bus stop, but it turns out you have to book an advanced ticket and we were as advanced as about twenty minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. Oh well, we would wait and see – but then an old Okinawan taxi driver found us and offered to take us to Churaumi Aquarium for the same price as the bus. It was the best kind of deal because both sides wanted it to happen. To seal the deal, Genny and I shared the taxi ride with two pretty pleasant young professionals from Chiba Prefecture who were in Okinawa for a holiday. So the four lasses who couldn’t drive and the tanned reliable taxi driver pootled off towards the north of the island where the whale shark lives, a two and half hour journey, but driven in the most comfortable fashion. Japanese taxis are clean and swish, the back door opens for you and it feels like a luxury hotel on wheels. Our taxi driver made a few comments about landmarks we were passing but he didn’t ever chew your ear off. Maya and Chiyaki were our travel companions and they were great, chatting about how smart the Japanese crows were and giving us a top recommendation for a restaurant later that night. I didn’t know this and I am supposing you don’t but if you do then sorry to have to remind you, but the American military personnel who are stationed in Okinawa (there’s been an American air base here since Japan lost in WWII) don’t pay rent and don’t pay tax on goods. Okinawa also used the dollar up until 1972 when they reverted to being Japanese again. What a history. By now the wise taxi driver was my friend, and I asked him did he not feel a little put out by the fact that the American military personnel don’t pay rent? And he told me it’s the way it’s been for so long that no – not really anymore. We actually hadn’t seen any American army people and I asked him why was that? And he told us they’re all busy gearing up for North Korea, which could kick off any minute. Then he asked us if we four had already got out tickets to Churaumi? And none of had because we’re clearly all slackers who don’t book buses and stroll around drinking chocolate ice creams, so the taxi man let us in on how to get discount tickets from the Family Mart, and better still, he’d drive us there on the way. What a friend. When we stopped off at the convenience store I asked him if he ‘wanted anything getting?’ and this friendly dude of a driver said ‘yes please an ice coffee’ and Genny almost lost her shit at how un-Japanese his response was. I was also taken aback at how casual and warm-natured his reply had been to a question that would usually make Japanese strangers break out in to a cold sweat of awakwardness of holding back feelings of what they really wanted. I got him the ice coffee still flummoxed at that response and we bought our discount tickets and headed to the aquarium.

Churaumi Aquarium also known as Ocean Expo Park is exactly that. There’s a manatee enclosure, a sea turtle pool and a ‘dolphin show four times a day for free!’ as Minako our Airbnb host told us excitedly. Ah Minako. She was this bouncy petite-framed woman with equally bouncy hair and a gorgeous smile who described the supermarket near our apartment as ‘Ryubo: Safe and Fun – open til 1AM!’ We parted from the girls and entered the underwater world where it was chockablock full of fish and sea creatures. Those guys that look like those white mushroom guys from the Moomins, poking their heads out of the sand in unison and looking like rods on the moon. There “weren’t enough jellyfish” said Genny but it was all forgotten when we went in to the final how to describe it? IMAX fish tank? A whale shark swoops past and above all our silly tiny human heads and swims on gracefully. It looks like a flying building or a spaceship. It looks like a friendly flying whale shark. We both shout W-H-O-A really loudly and watch all the sting rays that look like Star Wars characters with funny faces, and the other big fish that don’t compare in size to the massive whale sharks, there’s two of them. As we leave mesmerised we’re just in time for the 1 O’clock dolphin show, but we’re a bit late so when we arrive at the pool the show’s already started and the auditorium’s crowded with people so we have to watch from the back. And as we play the audience and the dolphins do their singing, dancing and synchronized swimming I am overcome by such an immense feeling of humility - because these dolphins are so good at everything – one can hula hoop and I can’t even hula hoop – that I start crying. I tell Genny that the dolphin show made me cry out of sheer appreciation and she tells me it made her cry too but she felt dumb about telling me. How many others have cried at how amazing dolphins are? After this we see some manatees being fed carrots and cabbages, some ancient suave sea turtles floating their own way, and go on the hunt for our beach. Genny by now is starving but we only find one food shop that serves curry and noodles. We choose curry, which surprisingly doesn’t go too badly with a beach, and I buy a hat that’s been made in Okinawa. And we happen to be right next to a beach. It’s called Emerald Beach and it’s divided in to three very Japanese sections:

Calm Beach (which the signboard spelt Clam Beach, so that’s misrepresentative)
Playful Beach
Viewing Beach

Out of these three we picked Playful Beach as our go-to and it was a great part of the beach. Turquoise waters and white sand, hot but not sweltering and a clear blue sky. It was low tide and so as hard as we tried, we couldn’t ever fully submerge ourselves but that’s fine by me because look at the view. Paradise. We smacked on our sun lotion and I went in for a dip and got afraid of the seaweed tangling around my feet as Genny coolly splashed around me. The life guard kept a watchful eye over the children who would be hard pushed to drown in such shallow waters, and we saw one granddad walk in and out of the sea fully clothed and then wring out his money when he got back to shore. All in all a perfect day and it wasn’t even over. We found that elusive special bus to get us home, which took possibly three hours but I slept most of the way. That evening we found that recommended place to eat called A’pparishan (あっぱりしゃん) and had us some Orion beers, the great sweet pork, dishes made with delicious meats, rice and veg. They played Okinawan music over the speakers, in fact I’d heard the traditional music being played everywhere, and I love it because it always sounds like an omatsuri. Apparently Okinawan people break out in to song and dance more, but sadly I have no proof of this stereotype. Somehow we stumbled across some absolute gems of a bar, one that was styled in a Pan-Western theme with cowboys and Vogue fashion shoots, and another in the middle of a park next to some old ruins called Ichi Color. The owner with his smart haircut and strong jaw was originally from Tokyo and really liked Glasgow, though he’s never been, and the other bar staff with her feminine looks and shy smile was training to be a cabin attendant, she said working for ANA would be her dream. There was a jukebox and I made some bad choices but I can’t remember what the songs were because we were so intensely impressed by the blocks of ice they used to make the drinks, like chunks of crystal the size of a fist that twirled and melted into ice water in your glass.


Our last day in Okinawa. It had been my plan all along to visit Himeyuri noTou since I’d been served by a bartender-fashion-designer in Hikifune the week before who was actually Okinawan, who told me I must go there. I wasn’t 100% sure why but he said it had to be done because of Okinawa’s marred past and even though I sort of knew about the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, I was not at all aware about the Himeyuri students. There were two girls schools in Okinawa that were militarised by the Japanese government in the war effort, and as the war went from bad to worse for Japan, and the American ships invaded the islands in 1945, the Himeyuri Corps was dismissed. This meant that these school girls had to survive during full blown battle giving aid to wounded soldiers, doing surgery and running away from bombs and gunfire. Most of them died, and to make matters worse when Japan surrendered and the Himeyuri girls found out about it, the few remaining committed suicide in loyalty to their country. I know war is bad but I had never seen the extent to which brainwashing and loyalty and duty can play into the madness of warfare. Poor brave girls and their tragic story. There were a few survivors of the Himeyuri Corps who are my Obaachan’s age today, speaking to camera in the exhibition and I couldn’t stomach what a lot of them were telling me through the screens. Their ordinary memories are unbelievable horrors. It’s a moving museum and monument and well presented. And Japan does not come off well in the narrative, in fact, no adults do.

To get to Himeyuri no Tou we had to catch a local bus, there was one every hour, it probably didn’t help it was Sunday. If you’re ever thinking of doing Okinawa then Yes Totally Do It but maybe think about renting a car as getting around the island requires it. There was a glass factory and museum down the road from the peace memorial so Genny and I walked down there, we got to see some pretty neat glass-blowing performed for us by some skilled ogiisans. This one guy kept blowing these molten red globules in to pink glasses shaped like pineapples. And he lit some paper on fire for us, I think, to impress our tiny tourist minds. Earlier that day we had walked through Kokusai Dori, which translates to International Street but hey it isn’t as tacky as it sounds, and here we bought some rad Okinawan-esque shirts. When we returned to our apartment we decided to don these loud numbers and go to Naminoue Beach, which is the only beach in Naha to see what we were missing. When we got there it was night and we had some tinnies with us from the convenience store and two onigiri and both our reactions to Naminoue Beach was pretty much the same as the top Trip Advisor review: ‘Wow. Two bridges!!’ You should go to Naminoue just to see it because it’s really funny, there’s a causeway running over the sea right above the beach so the vibe is very unrelaxing, but well worth it. The moon was waxing in to a slice of white and after the beach we climbed up to the shrine and then back down again to find somewhere to eat. We found some crazy cheap deal at one of those very brightly lit izakaya, where we got two dishes and three drinks each for 1000 Yen. What? So we took full advantage of that and I drank more Orions and Awamoris and we had a brainwave to go and find that cool bar again. I had up to this point been saying that I wanted to sing karaoke but Genny had wisely pointed out it would be a mood-kill for the two of us to sit in a lonely booth crooning. I agreed and had shelved the idea until - out of nowhere in the street someone said ‘You can sing karaoke in here. 300 Yen for beer.’ We went in. It was a dark cigarette cloud dive with a bar-top that ran around the central bar and a big screen that hung on the wall, screening lyrics and tacky footage shot in the nineties, every stool was filled by some drunk tourist or local singing their hearts out to bad karaoke. Jackpot. Our flight was at 08:50 the next morning and we hit our futon at 04:30. But most importantly, we made it.