The rain started as we walked along the final stretch of the Nakasendo–the ancient Japanese postal road–between the restored Edo-era towns of Magome and Tsumago. Clouds gathered overhead and the air grew thick with the smell of petrichor (thanks for the word, Bijoy!) as the earth prepared to be inundated by the sky.
My friend Brandon and I had no desire to be inundated, so we increased our pace as we grew ever closer to Tsumago. A short distance from our destination, we passed an inn and happened to catch a glimpse of the menu as we did so. Something about it tugged at my memory.
“Dude, I think this is it.”
We looked around the first building, but couldn’t find any signage indicating it was Hanaya Ryokan–our lodging for the night. The rain had started by now, and the intensity of the drizzle was ratcheting up at a steady pace.
Luckily, walking around to the other building revealed that we had indeed found Hanaya Ryokan. We ducked inside and were promptly shown to our rooms as the drizzle became a downpour. No mention was made about us arriving several hours before check-in.
Our room was spartan and immaculate, as are those in most ryokans. The floor was covered in bare tatami mats, save for a small table in the middle. Waiting for us was a pot of tea with two mugs; some snacks were arranged alongside. After a long day of hiking, savoring a steaming mug of tea while the storm raged outside was just the ticket. Within the hour, the storm abated and we decided to venture into town.
While Magome was a lovely town full of well-preserved and restored Edo-era architecture, Tsumago has it beat. Tsumago’s preservation was initiated by the townspeople in 1968; eight years later, the Japanese government designated the town an Architectural Preservation Site. Today, it is one of the best places along the Nakasendo to explore and imagine what Japan must’ve been like in the 17-19th centuries.
Walking along the main thoroughfare, the Terashita, reveals a variety of old, wooden buildings. Many are houses still inhabited by locals, still others are shops selling local souvenirs.
Of particular interest to us was the chestnut flavored ice cream for which the region is know. Actually, it’s famous for chestnuts, but I’m allowed to play favorites; I’m a bit obsessed with ice cream. The chestnut flavored variety here did not disappoint, it was delicious! Pro tip: shop around at a few stores if you want to save (a little) money; some are more expensive than others.
Carrying on through town, we found ourselves walking once more upon a rural stretch of the trail. As we debated turning around, we noticed a sign indicating ‘Tsumago Castle’ a short distance ahead. To turn back or check out the castle? Hmm….
We made the obvious choice and found ourselves traversing some switchbacks leading up a steep hill. Here and there, small signs on trenches and dirt mounds indicated where moats and walls used to be. Each of us got the feeling that the ‘castle’ wouldn’t be much of a structure, but rather more of an empty space.
We were right, but it was still awesome.
The path opened up into a clearing containing a small shack for shelter and a large stone monolith. At the opposite end, the surrounding trees and brush revealed a magnificent view over the valley below. Heavy clouds still dotted the sky as the storm from earlier fled the sun. Flowers bloomed all around, framing the scenic view beautifully.
Check out the panorama below to get a better look at the view. It really was incredible!
We enjoyed a nice rest on top of the hill, soaking in the view. Soon, however, it was time for dinner. Having worked up quite the appetite over the course of the day, we had no desire to miss out on a feast.
And what a feast it was! Sushimi, grilled fish, veggies, tempura, soup, and rice dishes awaited us as we filed into the dining area. The spread was amazing and tasted even better than it looked.
Dinner was not without its discomfort, however. There was an elderly Japanese lady at the table next to us. She spoke no English, and my Japanese vocabulary was barely a week old. Unfazed by the unbreachable language barrier, she labored passionately to blast through by sheer volume of words–blasting bits of food from her mouth in the process. She’d previously tried to engage a Norwegian couple who blew her off after a few minutes, so I resolved to try and give her a bit more time.
Eventually, after another guest with a better grasp of Japanese informed me the woman kept saying ‘1945’, I pieced it together. She was talking about World War II. With that in mind, I was able to pick out ‘Pearl Harbor’ as well. My discomfort level went straight into orbit. I wanted to eat my dinner, not talk about what happened between our two countries 70 years ago. So, I feigned confusion and went back to eating. Seriously though, how would you react to that? Part of me wishes I’d been able to understand more, to actually have been able to engage her in conversation. It might have been interesting. But, it was a much heavier experience than what I like to accompany a meal; I prefer tea.
After our delicious/awkward dinner, Brandon and I decided to explore Tsumago by night. The helpful guest, a woman working for a tour company in England, came along with us. The town was eerily deserted–lit by streetlamps and silent save for the sounds of crickets, the river, and the breeze.
The next morning, we woke to a delightful breakfast. We headed back into town for a brief stroll before we began the long walk back to Magome and onward to Nakatsugawa. It would be several hours and 18 km before we wearily trudged aboard the train bound for Nagoya.