Samurai, Shogun and Bears, Oh My! 1

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On Wednesday, I left the chaotic city of Tokyo in a 10 person passenger van with two guides and 7 other women.  We traveled 4 hours to Narai, an ancient city along the Nakasendo trail which is an 8th century “highway” linking Kyoto to Tokyo.  The highway was used during Japan’s feudal period and was the road through the mountains travelled by feudal lords and their retinues, samurai, merchants, and miscellaneous travelers. Along the route were 69 “post towns”, where weary travelers could rest before continuing on the next leg. Our journey began in Narai where we visited a lacquerware shop and learned about the extremely intricate process involved in making lacquerware.  Then it was on to lunch at a soba shop that has been around for hundreds of years.  Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour and served either hot or cold.  Very good and very good for you too.  After lunch we had time to walk around the town which almost looked like a movie set of old Japan – except it was the real deal.  There were tons of cute shops selling the wares of local craftsmen – everything was either wood or lacquer.  From there we drove to a comb shop where we saw combs being sawed individually by hand and then we finished the journey that day in Tsumago, another town on the Nakasendo Highway.  Tsumago is known as one of the best preserved post towns.   Cars are prohibited on the main street in the daytime and phone lines and power cables are kept concealed.  You feel as though you have stepped into a time machine and are back in feudal Japan.   Our ryokan was fabulous, the dinner delicious and after being served at least 7 courses, we took a nice walk around the town. Each small house had a lit lantern outside lighting the way along the main street.  We bumped into a few Japanese women also staying in town and they were carrying their own personal paper lanterns which looked incredible walking down the street.  There were 5 women in each room on the tatami sleeping on futons.  We all bathed together in the public bath on the first floor and after a quick apples to apples game it was time for bed.  In the morning, we ate breakfast in our yukata, took some photos in the garden and walked the town during the daylight.  More fabulous shops and quaint restaurants.  We packed our purchases in the van and started our 3 hour walking journey from Tsumago to Magome.  The trip would take us up and over a mountain, along waterfalls and in and out of the main road.  We were told there were bears in the woods but that we were too big a group to probably see one.  About half way up the mountain, we spotted a little Japanese man in a straw conical hat, peeking out of a wooden structure.  As we approached he came out to greet us and asked us in for tea.  We went.  He had a nice size table made out of  rough-hewn wood.  There was an open fire going in the tatami floor with an iron pot hanging above it from the rafters.  We sat and had tea and some small conversation (a few of our group spoke japanese).  It was an unexpected stop that was priceless.  When we got to the top of the mountain, our tour guide Betsy hitchhiked down the mountain to pick up the van to drive to Magome, the town that we would eventually end up in when we came down the mountain.  She was there waiting for us and we had another great lunch in a small noodle shop.  We spent the next hour walking around Magome, another of the 69 post towns along the Nakasendo Highway.  Back in the van, we decided we were hot sweaty and dirty and the group made the decision to pull over at an onsen Betsy knew about in the area.  We ran in, shed our clothes, soaped up and jumped into the outdoor onsen.  It felt amazing.  Clean with wet hair, we pulled over at a convenience store, loaded up with Japanese junk food (they have the best stuff) and I drove the van 4 hours home to Tokyo.  Upon arrival, I grabbed all the treasures I had picked up along the way, said goodbye to my new friends and met Tom and the kids at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant.  I had only been away for 36 hours but I felt like I had travelled back in time…off to Kyoto tomorrow!

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