Driving through the Japanese Alps
Our time in the centre of the Japanese Alps was now over and we were going to head to the southern Alps to the Kiso Valley. The Kiso Valley is well known in Japan because the Nakasendo, which was one of the main ancient highways between Kyoto (the capital) and Edo (before it was renamed Tokyo), ran through the valley. The journey took about 23 days between the two cities and was used by everyone, from samurai to officials, tradesmen, pilgrims and just ordinary people looking for work elsewhere. Along the route was 69 Post Towns, which had lodgings and food for the travellers. These are the ryokans that Japan is famous for. They provided an evening meal, a bed and breakfast the next morning. We were going to the post town of Magome (pronounced MA GO MAY) and staying in a ryokan which offered food and a traditional room (albeit with modern amenities such as power, lights, fridge, kettle, flushing toilet). This was a family run ryokan and looked better than the one we’d stayed at in Takayama. It cost a lot more too, so we had high hopes.
But first we had a day to kill. We were tempted with finding a walk in the mountains but a few things put us off. It was boiling hot in the sun, we had to be prepared for rain which meant carrying umbrellas everywhere and we couldn’t find much information out about paths and routes. So we decided to take a scenic drive through the mountains on some small roads for most of the day, then visit one of the later post towns further up the Kiso Valley, before getting to the ryokan in good time. Evening meal is served at 6pm sharp. Be late and it’s gone! Plus we needed a bath before eating.
We grabbed some lunch from a convenience store and put it on the car for later. Hopefully we’d find a scenic spot to eat it. Then we set off up the back roads in our lovely Prius. The car itself is comfortable to sit in and everything is well laid out and easy to use, but it’s awful on corners because the suspension is so soft, it feels like the car is going to fall over. Then the engine, well it’s more the automatic gears, are annoying. In eco mode the car has no power (but uses about the same amount of fuel), in power mode the car keeps the gears about one lower than it should be, so it makes a huge noise but unless I floor it there’s little extra power to justify the noise. On the roads in Japan every steep corner on a narrow road has a mirror to let drivers see around the corner. This meant I could put the car in power mode and go for it up roads which are one car wide and have 90° corners every 100m or so. This was fun for a while, but then we settled down to normal driving to appreciate the scenery of the landscape we were driving through. It was densely forested and so green, really nice. We pulled over a few times to take a look around.
At the top of a hill there was a car park and we stopped to take a look around. A few paths led off up the hill in one direction and down the hill in the other. There were a couple of cars in the car park and we saw one person dressed for hiking. We walked down into the forest for about 5 minutes. The path had a few small Buddha statues beside it.
For some reason we have both been very tired all the time in Japan. Just walking along this little path left us feeling awful and breathing heavy. How did we climb those mountains in China? Let alone all those climbs in Nepal? What’s happened to our bodies? My knees creak and ache when I sit still now. Annemarie gets aches and pains from very little strenuous walking. Plus we just have a lack of energy. So we walked back to the car, surveyed the area for somewhere to eat and found none in the shade so continued driving. A bit further down the road Annemarie saw a seating area, literally in the middle of nowhere. We pulled over and found that the seats, under cover were beside a river with a bridge and a footpath which led off to god knows where. There are hiking paths in the area, but you have to know where to look and where to start I guess. Just like walking on the UK, unless you know where the path will be and where to park the car you won’t stumble on many hiking paths. The sun was extremely hot now and we got into the shade quickly to enjoy yet another meal of cold noodles from a plastic tray.
We continued driving through this beautiful landscape until we reached the Kiso Valley. Here we turned left to follow the valley up to the post town of Narai. This was the largest and one of the most preposterous post towns in the valley. We parked up and went for a walk. The old section of town is one street, maybe a kilometre long, with traditional looking buildings on both sides. Obviously, the original post town would have been run along the side of the road. The modern town is a little larger but it still has the feel of an old town. Every shop was selling lacquered goods. Bowls, plates, mugs, chopsticks everywhere. We bought some Japanese chopsticks for ourselves. Japanese chopsticks have very fine tips which makes them very good at picking up small pieces of food. We walked back through the village and back to the car. It was still an hours drive to the ryokan and we were aiming for about a 5pm arrival.
We arrived in the village of Magome on time and parked the car on the main road which runs along the top edge of the village. From there it was a 500m walk down through the heart of the old town to the ryokan we’d booked. The road is now a pedestrian area and all the buildings by the side of the street look old. But this is Japan and everything is in pristine condition. The street is spotlessly clean, no litter, no cracks in the paving stones, no moss growing around the edges. The buildings are the same. Although they look old everything is in excellent condition, as if they were built only a few years ago to a traditional design.
Inside the ryokan we were shown to our room, which was more like a suite of rooms. We had a living area with a table, TV, fridge, etc. Then a sleeping area. And our room had an en-suite toilet. Excellent.
We were the only people in the ryokan so we headed off for a bath before eating, and also before anyone else turned up. The bathroom was very small but very relaxing. The water inside isn’t as hot as the spring water so it was much better.
At 6pm sharp we went to eat. The table was already set and we had about 10 dishes each of food. There was an amazing selection of dishes. Puréed potato, tempura, rice, miso soup, salmon, chicken, more fish, tofu. It tasted delicious. This was fantastic and has to rank as the best meal we’ve eaten on the trip.
Later that evening the owner taught us the words to a traditional song from the area. After a few goes we were then taught the traditional dance to go with the song. Then we were given the wooden shoes and told to go and try the song and dance in the street. We did it, badly, and nearly fell a few times. But it was good fun and we learnt a little about the area. We were joined by a Swiss lady and her son (although he quickly went back to the room to avoid the singing and dancing).
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