Monday, 12 October 2015

Caroline vs. The Nakasendō Trail


I knew for sure I wanted to stay in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) before I left Japan, and luckily I had the chance while my family was visiting.  We took a train to Nagiso and then a taxi to Tsumago, a tiny village in the Kiso Valley that looks like it hasn't been touched in a hundred years (except when all the shops open and sell tacky souvenirs to tourists), where we checked in at the highly rated Ryokan Fujioto.

Ryokans typically include at least one meal per day, and Fujioto included breakfast and dinner, prepared in traditional ways with local and seasonal ingredients.  I was a little nervous since you don't get to pick and choose, and we all know I'm a little iffy with seafood.  But it was all fantastic, and I made sure to try everything, but luckily my dad (who eats EVERYTHING) was on hand to take something off my plate if I really couldn't deal.  I of course loved the tempura vegetables, the shabu-shabu beef (thin slices cooked in boiling water by flicking it back and forth for a few seconds), and the matcha-flavoured desserts, and I even (surprisingly!) liked a fish that had been soaked in sake and soy sauce for 24 hours, which had dissolved the bones and guts and made it really sweet.  (Full disclosure, though, I did not eat the head.)

While at the ryokan everything was very relaxed.  We wore traditional indigo and white printed yukata, slept and lounged on futons laid over the tatami floors, and drank lots of tea.  The room my brother and I shared had a tiny balcony off the window, and I loved sitting there with a good book, especially after having a dip in the scalding cypress bath.  Some really fancy ryokans have personal "maids" for every guest, but I think that would have been a little too much for me; Fujioto had a balance of fantastic staff who were helpful and friendly, but who weren't catering to our every whim.

We were in Tsumago to hike part of the Nakasendō Trail, one of five Edo-period trail that linked Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo).  Tsumago was one of 69 post towns along the Nakasendō that helped the Shogunate (government) control travel and trade along the trail.  Some of the original Nakasendō trail still exists, and is open for hikers; we chose to do the route between Magome and Tsumago, which is very popular, and offers gorgeous views of the lush Kiso Valley.  After breakfast at the ryokan we took a local bus to Magome (600¥ each), where we poked around in some of the shops and stopped at a tea house for some drinks and snacks before hitting the road.  There is a small barn along the trail out of which a local man sells tea, but there is nowhere to buy snacks or a meal along the road; we should have packed granola bars or something to tide us over before getting back to Tsumago for lunch.

The path between Magome and Tsumago is only 8km, but with the hilly and rocky terrain it takes most people around three or four hours to traverse.  It had been raining in the morning, but cleared up as we started, so the weather was sunny but cool.  There was also some miscommunication between my parents and me about what we were doing on this trip so I hadn't packed proper footwear, but I was comfortable doing it in my ancient Keds runners.  To be safe, though, make sure you have shoes with good traction; I almost slipped on rocks a few times.

We got back to Tsumago by mid-afternoon, and had a look in some of the local shops.  We bought some snacks and drinks for lunch, and then headed back to the Ryokan to rest, at which point I slipped into my yukata and headed down to the bath for some me-time (travelling with family is great but exhausting!).  Some ryokans are attached to an onsen (public bath at a natural hot spring), but since I'm more than a little self conscious I was very happy that Fujioto had a couple private baths.  Each bath room had a few sinks and shower heads to wash up before getting in, as well as the the giant cypress tub filled with hot water.  The water was so hot I spent about ten minutes easing myself in!  I only ended up staying for about 20 minutes, but felt so much more relaxed, both mentally and physically.

Though I would have enjoyed maybe having a full day to relax at the ryokan (which is basically what they are used for now!), the day and a half we spent in the Kiso Valley were perfect.  Good weather, beautiful scenery, and unbelievable food.  Staying in a ryokan is not very cheap, but for the experience, the cost is more than worth it.

xx, C.

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