Rather than talking about a particular day, I’d like to capture my interactions with various people here. My hope was to put myself in various situations where I would have to use my (limited) Japanese. I also wanted to simply immerse myself in another culture just for the fun of it. That requires getting off the beaten tourist track, which, when you’re excited also to see many of the sites seen only before in pictures, takes some balancing. And time.

(and I’ll write about my fellow foreign travelers in another post).

I already wrote about meeting Yukiko my first night in Osaka, Yuriko my first night in Nara, and then Higashi (and company) in Muro-ji.


Steps at a shrine in Nara that I wouldn’t have seen without Kato-san’s help.



Nara was beautiful. My first full day there I met up with Kato-san, a woman my friend Mike Seki connected me with. She had given Mike and his family a tour of Nara, and he recommended her highly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Kato-san volunteers for the YMCA giving tours of Nara and staffing the Information booth there. She’d had an experience in the US where someone went out of their way to help her out, and that person said that when she had been in Japan, someone there had gone out of their way to help her out. And so Kato-san’s son thought she should start volunteering for the YMCA to show people Nara, and so continue the pattern. And so, she does.  Kato-san is an avid traveler. Next trip for her is Mexico City. She will be traveling alone, though her husband doesn’t approve. “He doesn’t own me.”

In Hawaii I’m a minority, but it’s nothing compared to this. In larger towns, adults tend to ignore me in the normal way adults do, but the kids would often times take the opportunity to shout “Hello!” (which does sound like ‘ha-ro”) or “How are you?” or “Have a nice day!”.


Matsumoto castle at night. Oh yeah, that’s a swan. And a castle. At night. Sorry I’m not showing you the whole reflection, but, …that’s a swan. And a castle. At night.

The minute I left the larger cities though, the adults started paying attention to me too. A businessman sat down across from me on the train on the way from Matsumoto to Narai. He waited about three minutes before he launched into conversation. Where was I from? How long was I in Japan? Am I traveling for business or pleasure? There was a group of school girls across the aisle and they giggled at my attempt at Japanese. Of course this man was fluent in English, but I tried. We were talking about Matsumoto castle and how it was one of the best castles in Japan, particularly because of the pond/moat around it and the reflection of the castle in the water. He taught me how to say “castle’s reflection”, but of course, now most of it escapes me “Oshiro no m…….”. He was on his way to a harvest celebration given by a colleague. He lives and works in Tokyo. When he got ready to leave the train he rummaged in his bag and gave me a snack he’d been carrying (peanuts with some spicy coating on them), and wished me good luck on my trip.  Gifts are important here. Shopkeepers all give a postcard or discount, or some other trinket. At the best ramen place I visited, after a conversation with the owner (who rides a Harley Davidson) he gave me keychain that was a model piece of sushi. “Don’t eat” he smiled.

Walking into Narai was walking into a town without a single roman letter on any sign. There was a map that had the tourist information person handed me at the train station (she spoke about as much English as I speak Japanese). I saw what the first few kanji were for Iseya, and proceeded up the one main road. It had been raining in Matsumoto but it was pouring in Narai, remnants of the first typhoon to hit during my trip. Luckily I had covers on both my backpacks (I carry one on my back, the other in front), a rain coat and an umbrella. I looked like a pregnant turtle in bright orange and turquoise, with a yellow umbrella. My shoes from the day are still recovering though.

I stopped at one store along the way, making sure I hadn’t passed Iseya. She assured me it was just a few doors down. Sure enough, there was the kanji I was looking for. I slid open the door and stepped out of the rain. The man who I now believe is the owner approached, asked my name, and showed me along a corridor, pointed out where breakfast would be served, and where dinner would be served (different rooms) and then out into a charming courtyard (showed me the two bath rooms) and then into a newer building, up the pine staircase and to my tatami matted room. The shared toilets (separate rooms for each of the three toilets) and sinks were just outside my door.


Soggy, but lovely, Narai.

At dinner I was seated with two fellow female travelers. They were, if I remember correctly, from Tokyo. They arrived a little later than I did, and in the meantime I’d been trying to spy on the table next to me to see how they approached various bits of food. That table had three men and one woman. She saw me looking, but I couldn’t tell what she thought of my intelligence gathering. Soon after that, my table companions arrived. There was the pause that is now becoming familiar that I assume is an inner monologue of: “oh shit, a foreigner, and I can’t remember my English”.  We exchanged pleasantries (where are you from, how long are you in Nara?, are you traveling alone? Sugoi!) and then my Japanese was exhausted. They were speaking in their normal, casual conjugations and without my formal ‘masu’ tense, I’m lost. Everyone also speaks very quickly and I’ve forgotten the phrase for ‘please speak more slowly”. Not that it would really help.

I was looking down at my plate, when all of a sudden a loud voice in my right ear says “NIHON WINE-O”. I looked up to find the woman from the next table over, hovering beside me and handing me a cup of sake. She patted me on the back and returned to her group, lifted her own cup and said “Kampai!”. And that’s what she thought of my spying.  When their table got up to leave she passed behind me, gave my shoulder blades a good squeeze and said “HAVE  A  NICE  TRIP”. She reminded me a bit of the woman I’d met at the yakitori place in Nara.


Narai in the sunny morning.

The following morning I was eating breakfast in the room where you don’t have to take your shoes off, and a couple came in who were then seated in the opposite corner of the room. After a few minutes he got up and came over to ask me where I was from and how long I was in Japan, and what I thought of Nara. He spoke in English and was from Tokyo. It was his first time to Nara too and he thought it was as fantastic. When he and his wife got up to leave he stopped by again, wished me a good trip, and said that the Olympics will be in Tokyo in 2020 and that I should come back! I said I hoped I was back before then. (For pictures of all my fellow guests at Iseya, see this blog and search for 10/21.  The two women were my dinner companions; the group of 4 with one woman shows you my sake patron; and the gentleman who invited me back for the Olympics is in the only couple there. There’s a photo of me too :

The train trip from Narai to Nagiso (where I picked up the bus that seemed have been waiting just for me) was ridiculous. I sat with my camera in my lap and realized that most of the stunning scenery was out the windows on the opposite side of the train. Most of the people on the train were kitted out with Mountain Hardware, Deuter and the like. My kind of people. Most were day trekkers and most were over 60. At the rate that Kato-san ran me into the ground in Nara I had no doubt what these folks could make of those mountains.


Ummmm, sometimes the guide books completely fail to prepare you for what you’ll see. Take this view from Magome for example. Are you kidding me?!?


Hike the Nakasendo, ….or have a beer. There’s always another day. (that red thing is a tomato)

One of the other key experiences/sites I wanted to see/do on this trip was hike the bit of the Nakasendo road (pretty sure that’s repetitive because ‘do’ means road) between Tsumago and Magome. I hadn’t been good about keeping up with my guide books so wasn’t sure which direction was better to walk the trail. I lingered in Narai and so didn’t get into Magome until after 1pm. By then the inn-keepers thought it was too late to start the trek and still catch a bus back before dark. I toyed with the idea, and started the walk up through Magome, but lacked ambition, and had seen a nice little bar with an overlook of the gorgeous view. I’d heard some less-than-stupdendous reviews of the walk, and so thought, “well, if it isn’t this trip, I’ll just have to come back”. And headed back down the hill to the bar. All she had were gi-normous bottles of Kirin, but, what can you do? (I didn’t finish it).

At dinner I sat with some people from the UK and they gave me the low-down on the trail. It was doable in 1 hr 40 minutes in one direction, so I could do it in the morning and still catch a bus back to Magome in time to pick up my bags and catch my next bus to Nakatsugawa (where I would catch a three consecutive trains to get to Gero, or so I thought).


No one on the street(s) of Magome before 8:00.

I packed my bags before breakfast, ate, checked out and charged up the hill. I left my big camera behind because I needed to make tracks. It’s a 7.8km walk, but only the first two kilometers are uphill if you’re starting in Magome. I was making pretty good time and not stopping too often for pictures. I realized about fifteen minutes into the hike that I’d left the map of the trail behind. Well, I’d be relying on Japanese signage and the kindness of strangers once again. The thought rather pleased me.

There used to be five main roads between Kyoto and Tokyo (Edo) during the Edo period. The most famous is the Tokaido, which winds mostly along the coast. The Nakasendo follows an inland course over several mountain passes. While steeper than the Tokaido, it had fewer (or easier) river crossings and was less frequented by bandits. The towns of Magome, Tsumago, and Narai are all post towns where travelers would stop to rest along their journey.


Just your typical house along the Nakasendo.


Okay okay, so I did hike that bit of the Nakasendo.

The preserved bits of the Nakasendo wind along, with and across modern bits of road, but you also pass through a bit of forest and through small communities you wouldn’t normally see.  I was nearing kilometer 2 when I saw a woman bending over in her garden. I was approaching closely enough that I felt I should announce myself. I’m not entirely sure about this, but when I was on the Kaiko-Maru I learned to always announce myself when coming into a room, so people knew you were there. It was rude to just appear when no one knew you were there. So I called out “Konnichiwa!”, and she abruptly stood up, saw me and said “Konnichiwa!  Hi!”, and followed up with an energetic “Five minut-o mountain top-u!” as she gestured uphill, and then, emphatically, “Down!” with a big smile.  “Arigato gozaimasu!” I bowed. So sweet.

A little ways further I came into a valley. There was a man in traditional dress walking into a building that had a nice wood pile stacked next to it. When I reached him he asked where I was heading. I told him Tsumago. He turned (he seemed to have either a store or information booth set up of sorts) and handed me a map of the trail and a descriptive booklet of the Kiso valley. So much for relying on the signs (which were excellent by the way). Much of the Nakasendo in this part follows along the Kiso River. This meant that during most of my walk I could hear the river next to me.

(As I’m writing this I can hear the sounds of a dinner cart outside my room. I’m staying at Yunoshimakan in Gero, and more about this experience will be posted next. I did just have to clear the table and surrounding area because I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for presentation, and while most of the presentation will be out of my hands, the least I can do is neaten up the room.)


The river/stream that runs along the Nakasendo for this portion.

I made it to Tsumago with about fifteen minutes to spare. It wasn’t enough to see the town, which was disappointing,  but I did have time to buy a kurikinton, local confection made of chestnuts (similar to marzipan in texture). I reluctantly left for the bus stop and debated skipping the bus and just getting a taxi back to town (which later I learned would have been not a good plan at all).  I got on the bus at a stop after the main Tsumago stop. After I sat down the lady two rows up from nearly pounced on me. She whipped around (in a friendly way), “Where are you from? How long are you in Japan? Are you traveling alone? (some consternation there) Where did you stay last night? Are you staying in Magome tonight?”  (this mostly in Japanese).  She had wanted to hike the Nakasendo too, but “jikan-kunai desu” (I think I’m remembering that correctly?). She didn’t have time. So she was taking the bus.


Kurikinton- a confection made in Tsumago (and surrounding areas). Similar to a marzipan but made with chestnuts. Served with tea :-).

I got off on the bus stop at the top of Magome (learned that the hard way the first day) and sped down the hill. I had ten minutes to grab my pack and make it down the hill to catch the bus to Nakatsugawa. I turtled up and nearly bounded down the hill, past two businessmen taking up the whole path, and onto the main road. The bus was sitting at the stop, waiting for the minute hand to hit 10:40.  I put my bags down in an empty seat, exchanged a 1000 yen note for coins in the handy change maker at the front of the bus, and we were off.

Following my new habit of simply asking for directions instead of consulting my map, or phone or what have you, I stopped at the information desk at Nakatsugawa (well, not really sure what the first desk I stopped at was, but he helped me and then walked me over to the real information desk). I kept telling them I wanted to use the train (stupid JR Rail pass that I hardly use) but they ignored me and put me on two consecutive buses. When later I checked another map and schedule I think they saved me between 2-3 hours. It cost about 2300 yen (~$23) but, I’ll take it.  However, had I missed the next bus to Kashimo-mae (short for Kashimo Sogo Jimusho-mae) I would have been delayed another three hours. So it’s a good thing I didn’t skip the bus out of Tsumago.


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