With the sun trying to push through stubborn clouds our departure from Kyoto was announced. A comfortable journey across Japan lay before us on Shinkansen (bullet) and local trains; a few changes for sure, but barely no waiting. We were heading to Nagiso and from there a short journey by bus would take us a world away from modern Japan.
Unfortunately we were to find ourselves a track away from Nagiso.
When I said ‘Nagiso’, the ticket lady heard ‘Nagisa’. We didn’t notice. We didn’t say. And whilst we were on a track only about 30 kilometres north of where we wanted to be there were no trains or buses to get there easily.
The sun was setting and we past our expected arrival time already. What followed was a fraught – not to be deeply recounted – muddle-of-a-mess, in-and-out of train after train and finally a taxi. But what awaited us…
A minshuku (guest house ryokan) tucked away on a cobbled side alley of Tsumago with a rock hewn river below. It was as if all the stress, worry and hurry of the afternoon was whisked away in an instant.
And sleep was found soon after.
We were in the heart of the Kiso Valley; a thick alpine forest region through which winds the twisty and craggy Nakasendo. The former post road that connected Edo (Tokyo) with Kyoto and enriched the towns along its route.
Two of these towns – Tsumago and Magome – have been dutifully preserved in their own right, as has the 7.8 km road that connects them.
The way was clearly marked, and we had but to step through the front door and onto the path before us… to Magome.
Before that, and whilst Tsumago (and my faithful companions) slept I scuttled and shot the peaceful early morning town; a chill invading gloves, scarf and hat, until the sun finally broke over the hills and its rays glanced the resting road.
As the town (and companions) woke… breakfast was served (see above picture of dinner. It was more of the same. It was more wonderful!).
With bellies full we took that first step… Equipped with a supposedly necessary – many years ago – bear bell*.
First through the town. Ascending. We left the morning yawns of people, the wakeful barks of dogs and the scurry of shop owners opening stores.
With the sun on our backs and in high spirits we walked past roaring water…
… And roamed along sun drenched forest tracks…
With a couple of kilometres to go, before we reached the second post town of Magome, and our lips calling out for something to drink a old wooden house appeared before us.
Out of the house popped a man as timeless as the timber from which he emerged.
‘Tea’, he beckoned. Perfect.
We supped and we snacked on the goodies he generously offered. We spoke in broken English of who we were and where we were from. We smiled. We connected to this most genuine of men. And then he revealed, quite unprompted…
‘My name, Sususki’, pointing meaningfully to his chest. ‘I drive’, hands holding a mock steering wheel, ‘Susuki’. He chuckled. We chuckled. Time for another cup.
But even in a timeless place, time presses on and so did we.
Rambling – almost rolling – down the steep pass we reached Magome in time for lunch. Well, I say lunch, it was more a menagerie of nibbles and snacks as greedy eyes fell from one goodie to the next… We needed the energy to walk back you know!
Magome, although more modern in appearance has beauty in equal measure to Tsumago. And if you take your time and search its white washed walls, and dark black wood, its history is there to be found.
Wheeling around we headed back to where we started. Same track. Different direction. Once again we found ourselves rustling leaves with our steps and finding tranquility amidst the sound of rushing water.
Before we emerged onto the timeless streets of Tsumago…
… Once more embraced by the stillness. The tranquility. The richness found in the simple things.