Dinner and breakfast are part of the ryokan experience which came with the booking. I had made prior arrangements with my want’s and don’t’s. They accepted this request. We looked forward to dinner. We were back early from exploring the laid back town and streets of Tsumago. We wanted to savour the rather large room we had. We sat at the veranda slouched on the rattan chair with a cup of green tea and enjoyed the garden and mountain views. Then we moved on to the cushions at the low table. With our legs stretched out on the tatami floor and our back against the wooden backrest, we felt relaxed while consuming yet another cup of tea. After a long shower in the common bath, we were ready for dinner. Lee Cheng enjoyed her “onsen”, a cypress hot tub.
In a communal dining area on the ground floor, Catherine, our American dining host, dressed in a surgeon’s blue overalls, explained each dish and its origins in English. Fine displays of delicacies were already laid on the table. We looked forward to this ryokan dinner experience. Each dish had its unique flavour and taste. Like most Japanese taste – sweet, sour, tangy and salty were represented here as well. Presentation was immaculate. Sometimes, I hesitated to dissemble the artistically assembled dishes. Bit by bit, as we consumed seemingly small amounts of food, we were getting full. We managed to complete the 8 courses and the fabulous desert. The food was delicious and satisfying indeed. It was quite unlike dining at a restaurant. The atmosphere, unhurried, being served and attended to plus a fabulous meal. The total ryokan experience – stay and dinning was beyond comparison. It ticked all the boxes. It was not opulent but just the way they are. We strolled in the quite streets wearing the “geta” and later dressed in our “yukata”, crept into our comfy futon beddings. It was good feeling indeed.
“In total, there were 8 courses (yes 8).
The first course was a platter…: roast chicken piece, rainbow trout
sashimi and many more nibbles…….fermented bees and green tea soba
sushi…..lightly salted fried fish with lemon and pickle……
Then the 2nd course ….pickled mushroom and cucumber with the
perfect acidity and sweetness to tingle our taste buds.
3rd…was winter melon served on a pumpkin sauce with a mushroom,
prawn and green bean shavings on top. Our hot plates of beef and miso
were close to being cooked…..
but…the 4th course – tempura, The batter was extremely light…..
Now, our beef (which …were fed apples …beer and massaged) was
cooked…..with veges and a light and tasty miso soup..
A light soup flavoured with mushroom and chicken ball…
7th course…rice stick with sweet savoury sauce. By now we were
getting quite full……
The next course was desert…..green pandan cake, light and fluffy,
grapes and apples that looked like rabbits. Also …frozen coffee cup
with cream on top….
……headed back to our room
……and one of the best dinners I had ever eaten in my life”
“The next day….breakfast was every bit as good as dinner …breakfast – fried salmon, egg rolls, a variety of pickles, azukini beans, seaweed with soya sauce and rice….miso soup….full and satisfied” – Navindd
After a delightful breakfast, we once again looked around our ryokan. Bills settled, the staff bid us farewell, as we left idyllic and atmospheric Tsumago for Nagiso by a local bus. From here, we caught an onward train to Nakatsugawa and then to Nagoya on an ordinary train. Kiso Valley had indeed been a very pleasant and enriching bygone era experience. To have walked and resided in the very places Daimyo, Samurai and merchants during the Edo Period is gratifying. Even more pleased that the people had maintained not only the buildings of that era, but also the atmosphere (although touristy).
This institution is Japanese tradition where Inns or Ryokan were established during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) serving travelers along major roads. Many of these ryokan are located in scenic and rural area. To stay in one of these Japanese icons is not only as a place to stay but to re-live the times of the Daimyo and Samurai. It is also is a place to experience the Japanese lifestyles and hospitality. It incorporates arts, design, and nature. It certainly includes gardens – “tsukiyama”, traditional garden, “karesansui”, dry garden and “chaniwa”, tea garden. This experience if further enhanced with exquisite rooms with sleeping on tatami flooring and futon bedding; sophisticated local cuisines; “onsen” and more.
“The journey is the destination”. This Zen wisdom is aptly applicable to a stay in “ryokan” and “minshuku”. Ryokan is not a place to be rushed. Check in and departure time is quite rigid. Therefore arriving late or departing early is not the norm. Check in is between 3 and 5pm. No later as dinner will be served between 6 and 7pm. Guest are expected to conform for their best enjoyment and relaxation. This etiquette is strictly advised when booking. I had some “no’s” in the dinner menu and had corresponded to them. Initially, it was explicitly mentioned that dinner menu cannot be changed. However, in the subsequent correspondence, they accepted my request graciously – “just for you”. Usage of footwear – outdoor, indoor and toilets must be adhered too. The Japanese way of life – wearing of “Yukata” or kimono, bathing etiquettes and use of communal bath, arrival and conduct at meal time, etc. are essential to any guest. Some even have age limits (children). The ryokan experience is really living the Japanese way of life in tradition and culture. Initially it appears to be rigid and intimidating. However, all these are instituted, with good intentions, to enhance one’s inner experience. Once explained or understood, it results in “correct behaviour”. The idea here is to adapt and immerse into the traditional culture.
To stay in a ryokan is generally expensive. Remember that you are paying for a refined and pampered lifestyle. The cost will determine the type and size of room. Typically, tatami floor rooms are simple but artistically decorated. Communal baths and toilets are typical. Modern ryokan have en- suite and western style bathrooms. Attire – “Yukata”, a cotton garment cut like kimono is provided and used as a summer wear. With appropriate footwear, “geta”, these can be worn to walk on the streets or to attend meals. Beside, usage of the “onsen”, one of the highlights of a ryokan experience is dinner. Naturally it varies. However, they are usually lavish. Meals can be served in the guest rooms or private rooms or in communal halls between 6pm to 7pm. Meals are inclusive when booking is completed. No options. There are dining etiquettes but most places are flexible. Common sense should prevail. High end ryokan may provide entertainment – music and dance. Some even performed by Geisha. Breakfast is also provided at a pre-arranged time but not too late. Typically it consists of rice, grilled fish and a few other condiments. Finally, check out times is around 11am. Bills are settled at the reception and typical sending off is with a bow.
Once out of sight, the cold reality of a rushed life becomes a norm. However, the memories of a pampered lifestyle, a typical Japanese tradition, are an experience to cherish.
“Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.”
― Ryokan, Zen Master
A descending stone pathway, with trees and shrubs on either side, led us away from the road, towards a dark wooden double storey building. This is Fujioto, a 100 year old “ryokan”, traditional Japanese Inn, our accommodation in Tsumago. We wanted to experience real Japanese hospitality, a ryokan experience – being taken care off, pampered and fed from beginning till departure. We choose this ryokan for its historic and scenic location. This is our only planned ryokan opportunity, as it can be expensive, to experience this quintessential Japanese culture.
Past the wooden slated sliding doors, we entered the foyer, “genken”. An enthusiastic staff greeted us as we removed our footwear, and placed them into wooden compartment box, before entering low lit reception area with dark polished floor. A row of “geta”, wooden slippers, for exterior use and a row of red slip-on shoes for interior use were neatly laid. They face the direction their use was intended. A long corridor led to the dining hall. Light beamed in, from a traditional garden, “tsukiyama”, landscaped with pond, shrubs and trees. Koi fish provided dabs of colour. A “tsukubai”, water basin and “ishi- doro”, stone lantern complemented the garden.
It was around 1.30pm. Perhaps, it too early to check in I wondered. After brief formalities at the reception, we were ushered upstairs to our room, Hinoki Room, through a narrow dark wood floor passage with sliding doors on either side. I was quite surprised by the spaciousness of our room as the rice paper wooden latticework sliding doors, “shoji” were opened. Our host left us to settle in.
The room is sparse with little furniture but artistically decorated with a few pieces of art and furniture. We walked into a hall with bamboo tatami mat floors. The room led to the “engawa”, an attached wooden veranda overlooking a small immaculately manicured garden with sculptured pine trees and pond filled with colourful koi, furnished with 1920s and 1930s style cane furniture. A painted scroll, “kakemono” and foliage – flower arrangement, “ikebana” occupied a raised platform or alcove, “tokonoma”.
In the centre is a low tea table. Floor cushions, “zabuton” on wooden backrest, surrounded the table. An adjoining room, through painted opaque sliding doors, “fusuma”, was our bedroom with “futon” bedding laid on the tatami floor. I was quite taken by the “futon” as I had used it in my previous accommodations. The mattress, “shikibuton” is covered with a quilt- like cover, “kakebuton” and with a pillow, “makura”. The traditional garment – the white “Yukata” with blue patterns were laid in an open wooden tray, “midare-bako”. Through the wooden lattice window, dense green vegetation and mountain views enhanced the atmosphere.
Our mood was relaxed. Our host returned with some hot green tea, “ocha” and sweets. She quipped that we have got the largest room. We rested in the palatial room savouring cups of green tea and little sweet delights. This is definitely luxury living.
“Our room was also very spacious and the biggest one we have had and will have in Japan – it was huge!” – Navindd
On the northern end of the lovely hamlet village, in Terashita area, two wonderfully restored rows of wooden houses led towards the dense bamboo and forested mountain. All the dwellings were restored to the old construction styles of the period. It is wonderfully serene. We stopped a shop and contemplated at a “mochi” display. We were advised that dinner at our ryokan was big. A man walked door to door with a flat box filled with bread. Large bamboo mats were sometimes laid out in the sun to dry. When a breeze came in, soothing sounds from wind chimes hung above the doors enhanced the ambiance of this charming place.
I am glad that we ventured to this part of Japan. Kiso Valley, surrounded by lush forested mountains and beautifully preserved post towns of Tsumago and Magome, is certainly a slip back in time. I could easily imagine the days of the immaculate shogun and sword wielding samurais trudged to the Honjins and Waki- honjins through these very streets. Although it is geared for tourism, it provided an opportunity for people, tourist and locals alike, to ruminate historic moments in this living museums.
We retired to our ryokan for a deserved rest and to reflect our walk and these wonderfully preserved towns of Old Japan over cups of hot green tea.
We passed a concrete bridge over a slow flowing river. As we entered Tsumago, in Nagano Prefecture, we were greeted with wide asphalt roads with a few vehicles on it. No vehicles were allowed during the daytime. There were hardly any “tourists”. Perhaps it was a Monday. We made our way into town and eventually located the Tourist Office. We collected our bags and I handed over the bell that I had obtained at Magome. Now where is our accommodation?
In Tsumago, we decided to stay at Fujioto, a ryokan or a typical Japanese inn, the most upmarket of all our accommodations in Japan. We planned to try out the various types of lodging on offer – hostels, “minshuku”, hotels and a “ryokan”. The locals are always helpful and directed us to the right place. Tsumago, in comparison to Magome, had a more authentic village atmosphere and experience. The main street, led us towards two rows of rustic dark wood double storey houses with sliding doors, wooden rain gutters and narrow balconies on the second floor. Indigo and white “noren”, cloth hung at the entrance of shops advertised their wares. Potted plants and a big sculptured broadleaf tree highlighted the deep dark brown of the wood. Further beyond, a dense mountain rose above the village.
Our ryokan was set in a lovely manicured garden with a koi pond several meters off the road. A stone pathway led us down to the entrance. We were greeted by the rather excited staff. This is our only planned ryokan experience. This conscious decision was the cost!
In our spacious room with a great view of the garden and mountains, we relaxed and sipped green tea. Later, we walked up the street and enjoyed the slow walk past inns, restaurants and gift shops. Through a back street alley, we emerged in a bright golden rice field. We soon discovered that something was lurking underneath. People smiled as we passed on the street. On a hill, we visited a temple. The vistas of the village below were attractive. Smells of hot buns wafted through the humid afternoon air. An elderly man was baking bread buns in a traditional fireplace with an assortment of filling, mostly sweet. It was light and tasty. There is certainly a homely feel to this place.
It is hard to get lost on this trail as wooden markers are embedded into the ground intermittently along the trail. It indicated direction and distance. We walked through a picturesque village set in a valley with a few homes but seemed devoid of people. No sound of chatting or music. Only birds’ chirping and rustling of leaves. Perhaps they are out working in the nearby fields. Corn and other tubers on bamboo trays were left to dry in the sun. Wooden horse cart wheels lay leaned against rustic brick walls. Near a water trough, a few stem of an orange inflorescences was left to dry in the sun. I had seen these several times along this trek – sometimes hung on windows. This place seemed distant to the neon lit cites not too far away. A single female Japanese trekker walked past us with a lovely smile. We basically walked alone on this trek today. Signs of life, a fruit orchard emerged. The trek continued and sometimes along little streams. This made the walk pleasant although humid. It was great and a relief not lugging our luggage on our backs. Kudos to the luggage transfer service.
“Hi my name is Suzuki. I drive a Suzuki car”, said this small elderly but affirmable man dressed in a Jinbei and straw hat.
“He was very kind and friendly……..Then, he wished us luck and we once again plunged into the forest” – Navindd
Just below the pass, we were greeted by Mr Suzuki, whom was the care taker of an old inn. He invited us for some tea, fresh fruits and sweets. The wooden house was spacious and had an old fire place, “iorii” with a rusted pot hung above it. Typically it had a fish symbol on it. We bid farewell and descended further into a densely forested area. Thoughts of bears had vanished. Some of the trees seemed old with impressive buttress roots spreading out.
The flora became more diverse with broadleaf plants. A roar drowned the sounds of rustling leaves. The path led to two waterfalls, O-dake and Me-dake. The coolness of the forest here was like an elixir. Ferns covered parts of the ground. Shafts of light filtered through the forest canopy heightened the natural beauty of the forest. Eventually, after about four hours of trekking, the forest cleared and we entered Tsumago, another prosperous and preserved post town. It was a nostalgic walk, at places the original path, on a piece of Japan’s historic highways of a bygone era.
“Sitting at the base of a huge waterfall felt refreshing and very cooling……the cool water droplets dabbling our faces made us feel fresh……” – Navindd
The first thing we did this morning was to haul our luggage up on the steep path to the Tourist Office. They, for a small fee, would transfer our luggage to Tsumago as we embarked on our 8km walk on the old Nakasendo Highway. That done, we headed to a small noodle shop for breakfast. The smells of miso and soba noodles were enough to get us excited. To complement the noodles, I tried the sweet potato porridge with red beans.
After that sugar fix, I was ready for the hike. During the Shogunate period, all were required to walk on the designated paths to control movements. Other that walking by foot, horses and palanquins or sedan carts were used. We climbed to the top of the town and began our 8km walk. Eventually we entered a densely forested area. We passed young trees on the mountain slope wrapped in silver tape. I wondered why? During the early days, felling of trees meant severe punishment. A dirt path wound round the mountain slope. The walk itself was not demanding. At certain stretches of the walk, the stone pathway gave way to asphalt roads only to be re – connected. Therefore, it was still very pleasant to walk.
Cedar and Japanese Cypress, like sentinels, stood tall and the dense canopy restricted light from penetrating to the ground. One of the unique signage here was about the bears. “Ring bell hard against bears”. Shiny brass bells had been installed intermittently along the way to scare bears that might be wandering nearby. A shopkeeper in Magome did mention an incident not too long ago. No bears were sighted. Nevertheless we rang the bell hard! In Magome, I had obtained a small bell from the Tourist Office, tied onto my daypack, for the same reason.
A shopkeeper mentioned that there was an incursion in town not too long ago. Finally, we reached the top of Magome- tōge [pass] at an elevation of 800m. From here, the trail was downhill.
“I wondered how on earth people could take this entire pathway from Kyoto all the way to Edo (Tokyo) just on a horse. It would take weeks!” – Navindd
“The forest was dense but the pathway carved through it easily” – Navindd