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Monday, September 14, 2015

Walking Japan's Nakasendo Trail

Decisions. Sometimes they are as small as switching from one gear to another while you're riding your bike. Or deciding where to plant your feet while trying to avoid puddles on a rainy day. As a traveler though, decisions can make a world of difference. They can even change your life.

My decision to walk Japan's Nakasendo Trail opened new worlds to me. I discovered a Japan I had never experienced, one markedly different from the Japanese cities like Kyoto and Osaka I was familiar with. But the solitude of the Nakasendo, or Central Path, as it’s translated, gave me the time and space to rediscover something else, myself.

The trail beckons. Near the beginning of the trail in Magome
Ironically, I found my way to the Nakasendo during a board game night with some friends. I was randomly assigned to "that table over there" where the game Tokaido was spread across a card table. Players take turns walking their way across medieval Japan, stopping at inns, restaurants and hot springs acquiring points. The idea of an excursion across ancient Japan grew on me. I did some research, discovering there were actually a number of these trails crisscrossing Japan.

I settled on Oku Japan, a company that specializes in self-guided tours. After designing a hiking itinerary matching my interests, I left Korea for my 8-day hiking adventure in Japan.

The Nakasendo Trail weaves its way from southwestern Honshu
northeasterly to Tokyo

Imagine a full day of hiking along quiet, verdant forest trails. You arrive at your Japanese inn sometime in late afternoon. Escorted to your room, you are given a robe and directions to the inn's hot tub. The hot water, piped in from a local hot spring, inevitably melts away your cares and any soreness from the day's hike. "This is the life," you tell yourself, knowing full well that a heavenly Japanese dinner and comfortable night on the tatami floor still await you.

For fans of Japanese food, the dishes prepared with pride in the inns along the Nakasendo are mesmerizing to the palate. I am reminded of the lyrics from the Eurythmics’s hit, "Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas. Everybody's looking for something." Well, this was exactly what I was looking for.

As promised by Oku Japan, a package was awaiting me at the front desk when I checked into my Kyoto hotel. It contained everything I needed for the walk: maps, train tickets and information guides. After leisurely exploring Kyoto for two days, I took my first train to Nakatsugawa, then a bus to Magome, the final stop on the line. The setting greeted me like an old friend. I had seen this medieval Japanese street-scene motif in many photos. A wide-stoned path that meandered gently up hill welcomed me. I abided letting myself slip into the moist air, the low clouds and the mysteriousness of the Nakasendo Trail.

Stone path and view of valley below

July, they tell me, is a quiet time on the trail. It’s often rainy and children are still in school. That explains why I had the trail largely to myself. Other than meeting a father and son from Seattle on that first rainy day, the trail was my own. Well, that is, if you don’t count the brown bears and monkeys that inhabit the mountains along the trails. I didn’t see either species, although bear bells dotted the trail. Not one for surprise bear encounters, I rang each bell vigorously, then loudly sang favorite tunes from elementary school as I walked along the trail.

Bear bells like this one were along much of the trail

That first day’s final destination was the magical town of Tsumago. Its curved main street, lined on both sides by dark 2-story wooden buildings, was quiet and seductive. I found my inn at the far end and I was the only guest.

My host at Matsushiroya Minshuku in Tsumago

The trails provide contemplative space. Each hill, each bend reveals a secret offering, an inscribed stone, a view, a shrine, a story from its past. They complimented the almost fictional characters I met at night at the inns. The staff, inn keepers, and servers, most of whom were dressed in traditional Japanese attire, were like characters in a play I was part of.  I needed only to let go and be carried away by the happenings as they unfolded.

Mr. Goto, one of the unique people I met along the way

Each day’s destination Nagiso & Nojiri, Yabuhara, Narai, Hirasawa, Karuizawa and Yokokawa, in turn, revealed its own unique personality.  I could almost sense the excitement of the entertainers and merchants who once walked the trail. The low clouds that clung to the mountains added a sense of mystery, reminiscent, no doubt, of the dangers that confronted those early travelers from the Japanese royal class as they walked the trail town to town during the 16th century hoping to avoid encounters with bandits and thieves.

Iseya Inn in Narai

My encounters along the Nakasendo were more magical. Walking the Nakasendo-a good decision indeed!

Isolated stretch along the Nakasendo

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Old Korean Inn

Two zany ladies in their mid-thirties ran the place, an otherwise no-frills inn with five or six rooms
Nearly always smiling, the ladies of
my Korean inn
and an austere garden. Their antics created an oasis for me over the course of a year, down an otherwise unremarkable street about three blocks from my university.

I was greeted with a knock on my door early each morning. Ms. Han or Ms. Bae would bring my breakfast on a tray-usually rice in a metal bowl, soup, fish and several side dishes of vegetables or black beans along with some barley tea. Before I left for the day, they always would ask if I would be home for supper. 

My days there were strands of solace in place and time.  The world inside the heavy metal gate was warm and comforting. On cold days the heated floors drew me in like a toasty pouch. I washed at the outside faucet. Hot water was only a dream.

As with any stage, there was a cast of unusual characters. The cute little girl who brightened my day like a wild spring flower. Friends of Ms. Bae or Ms. Han who came to share gossip and play Korean card games. There were, of course, other guests too, though they brought an itinerant sense to the place, coming and going, fleeting glimpses of life at the inn.

The sign says "yo-gwan," Korean for inn. I washed
here, along with other guests.
In those days inns were almost everywhere in Korea. Their rooms were on one or two floors in layer cake fashion, or if older style, off wooden verandas that surrounded quiet gardens with tiny ponds. Shoes outside a door would trip your imagination about the guests inside and their stories.

Like the old Korean coffee shops and public baths, these inns have all but disappeared. They were the anchors of Korean neighborhoods, places of tradition and social sanctity. The winds of change have swept through Korean society leaving the likes of motels and Starbucks in their place.  My old inn? The inn, the street, the entire neighborhood, were razed by bulldozers years ago. Now only memories remain, entrusted to me and perhaps to a little girl with a smile.