While Steven travelled onwards to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam with the kids, I embarked on a break from our break (haha!). I flew to Japan to meet up with 2 friends in Tokyo. We would hike part of the Nakasendo trail for 3 days, and then spend 2 more nights in Kyoto. And oh, what a fantastic break it was. We shared stories and laughed to tears. Exactly what I needed!
The Nakasendo is a long-distance trail that linked the imperial capital Kyoto with the political capital Edo (present day Kyoto) in the 17th and 18th century. It was one of five major routes established to connect Kyoto with the rest of the country. The trail is about 550km long, and 69 postal towns were established along the route. The name Nakasendo literally means mountain road, and was less popular than the coastal road “Tokaido”. But princesses did get to travel along the Nakasendo on their way to get married in Edo, as the route was more safe and didn’t flood as much. So the route is also dubbed “princess road”. We learned quite a few other fun facts – like that the local lords had to establish a presence both in their rural domain as well in the capital of Edo, and to stay alternatively in one and the other place while their wives and heirs were required to stay in Edo as hostages. It was so expensive to keep lavish palaces in 2 places, and to finance the regular procession from/to Edo that the feudal lords did not have enough money to wage war. Pretty clever ….
I travelled super light to Tokyo with just a carry-on backpack. As I disembarked from the plane and headed to immigration, an officer pulled me from the line. If I could please follow him? First to a table in the arrivals hall. Just a couple questions he said. Was I travelling alone? Yes. Did I have checked luggage? No. He presented a placard with images of substances I could not bring into the country. Did I have any of those with me? No. Was I sure? Yes. He turned around, got a big binder out of the cupboard, and showed me detailed images of each forbidden substance. Was I sure I didn’t have any of those? Yes, I was sure. He then pulled a form from another binder, with the same pictures. Going over it again with me, could I please tick the box yes or no next to each picture, and sign the form? Off course. I ticked ‘No’ next to every picture and signed the form. A little thorough, I thought, but OK. They certainly weren’t thinking this mother of 3 and business executive was a smuggler?!? Seemed that’s exactly what he thought … This examination was not even close to over. As soon as I handed over the form, he asked me to follow him to an interrogation room, where a female officer joined him. She performed a padded search on my body. At this point I must admit all sort of doom scenarios did flash through my head. Had I kept my bag in sight at all times? I was coming from Cambodia after all. He first asked for my passport. Left the room. Came back and pulled out a binder again. The same pictures. Did I really not have any of the substances? No, I did not. Could they open my backpack? Off course, please go ahead. I think my palms got a little sweaty at this point. The lady officer proceeded with great care and accuracy to unpack e-ve-ry-thing in my pack. In parallel, the officer continued to ask questions. When did I book my flight? Eu, not too long ago – maybe 2 weeks ago. Why? Well, I decided at the last minute to join my friends for a hike in Japan. Mm, I see. Who are those friends? 2 girlfriends of mine. Are they Japanese then? No. Mm, he mumbled. Why are they not with you? Well, they arrived already. Where are they from? Eu – one flew from Shanghai, and the other from Portland. Ah, he seemed to process that – with a frown. Are they Belgian too? No – in fact, they are both Dutch nationals. But they live elsewhere? Yes. Complicated, he said. Complicated, yes, I agreed. OK then, he asked, where do you stay? I have a hotel in Tokyo for tonight, and then I join my friends as we head by train to the Nakasendo hike. When did you book your hotel? Eu – 3 days ago. Where are you staying after Tokyo? Hu … not sure, it’s an organized hike, but let me show you the documents. I pulled out the travel company confirmations (I was so relieved I had those printed – I usually never do that!). He walked out of the room with the confirmation. (Was he calling them??). Came back. All right, more questions. He scanned through my passport, painstakingly slow. Lot of stamps, he said. Have you been to Japan before? Yes, for work. When was that? Euh – can’t quite remember, a couple years ago. 2007 maybe? Mm. I see. And you were in … (he named a country – Costa Rica?), Yes, I was in Costa Rica. When was that? Eu … must have been September-ish. (He was not happy with my “ish”, I could tell). Mm, I see (his catch phrase). Where else did you travel to this year? Eu ok … Costa Rica, Peru, Chile … and I named the list. His eyebrows raised. So where am I travelling to from Japan onwards? Well, to Vietnam. Is that where you live? No, I am re-joining my family to keep travelling. Oh – where do you live then? Eum, well, we lived in Portland but are now travelling as I mentioned. Is your home in Belgium? No, we have not lived there for 12 years. Before Portland we lived in the Netherlands. Why is your family not with you? Well, as I mentioned (numerous times by now, but I was not going to loose my cool or my grace) my husband, the children and I are travelling for a year – we were in Cambodia together and we split up. I left for Japan to hike with my friends. He will travel with the kids to Vietnam and I will re-join them there in Ho Chi Min in 5 days. Mm, I see. (Mind you, he was very courteous. His English was ok but not great. So things were also lost in translation. Here I was, trying to explain our extra-ordinary journey in short, pre-school level sentences). In the meanwhile, the friendly lady had my backpack dismantled and all my belongings down to the contact lens case inspected.
Mm I see, he said again., travelling for a year. What do you do for work? I am a vice president with Nike. President?!? (with surprise in his voice). Well, (I chuckled, couldn’t help myself), technically a vice-president, sir. Vice-president?!? O-o, I see. (His eyebrows raised almost to his hairline). And “Mm I see” was now replaced with a “o-o” (a disbelieving o-o, I should add). And you travel, for a year? Yes, I was able to take a leave of absence. Do you still have job? Yes, I do. (Somehow I was quick to add “but I don’t get paid”. As if I needed to justify myself). Mm, leave. And what is job of your husband? Well, he takes care of the children. And BAM!! That is where it got awkward. He laughed. A short, surprised, but undeniably dismaying laugh. With a jolt, I felt humiliated. But at last, he seemed satisfied, shook his head, and gave me the hand wave that I could repack my stuff. I got my passport back, and I was good to go…. It took me a couple minutes to process what had just happened. Everything I take for granted about my life, my opportunities, my career, our family – he had questioned it all with just one little laugh. It made me reflect on misogyny, especially with all that is going on around #metoo etc. We still have a long way to go …
(A little disclaimer – I am not entirely sure of the exact sequence of questions, but this is a very very close account!).
It was late when I arrived, and I knew I had to catch a bus to my hotel, as well as get all the necessary train tickets for the Nakasendo trail. As I was quite late in deciding to join the party, the tour company was not able to supply my train tickets. But they gave good instructions on what to buy. Because we were hiking, there were parts of the journey by train where we would reverse in our steps, and where the arriving and departing stations were not the same etc. It took the incredibly nice person at the ticket office ages to figure it all out. He and his colleague peered into a big book with all the railway connections … I kid you not that it took at least 15 minutes, and then they told me they couldn’t sell me all the tickets as their machine was too old. I would have to sort it at Osagawa station in the morning. Good thing I got to the station well in time the next day, as it took another 30 minutes to sort out the train tickets there. The very friendly young man at the office also had to pull out the big-book-of-Japanese-railways. Showed me the stations on the map. Was I sure? I said Yes, but thought No to myself as the book’s in Japanese. He finally was able to print the tickets, but quickly realized his mistake as he printed the tickets in Japanese. Allrighty – get out the visa card again to cancel the transaction! He frequently and profusely apologized. Started over. He clearly was embarrassed about his error, and this was another glimpse into Japanese culture. He used his ipad to google-translate phrases that helped us communicate. Long story short … finally, finally I was on my merry way, to meet up with Anke and Tamara on the train from Tokyo to Magome.
We were so excited to meet, and our loud chitter-chatter was probably amusing to the entire train-coupe. We had a traditional Japanese lunch with udon noodle soup, and before we even set foot on the hiking trail stopped by a little coffee shop called the Hillbilly Coffee Company :). Turns out a) this was more like a coffee lab, where the coffee was prepared with the greatest precision and b) everything in the store was Oregonian! What a coincidence … chocolate bars from Oregon, paraphernalia, books and Pendleton wallets on sale. Turns out the guys’ brother lives in Seattle (or was it San Francisco?) and our barista travels there several months out of the year for inspiration….
We had such a blast together!! The Nakasendo trail this time of year was amazingly beautiful; with old postal towns turned into museums, views of snow capped mountains, spring streams and cherry blossoms.
That first afternoon we covered a little over 8 km from Magome to Tsumago, another beautifully restored and well-kept town, with immaculate gardens and woodwork. We stayed at a small family owned inn called Shimosagaya Minshuku in Tsumago. As we got there, we could slip into a super comfortable cotton gown or “yukata”, and have tea in our room (essentially a bare room with bamboo flooring and a small low table). We could also use the bath … The bath was pre-heated; picture a traditional bath-tub, covered, heated just like a hot tub would be. According to ritual, you first take a cleansing shower on a tiny stool, and only then you can enjoy the bath. This bathroom was not communal, so here you take turns in the same bath tub, in the same steaming water…. Oh yes, there was the couple lonely hairs floating around. I purposely ignored them, and told myself that it couldn’t be worse than your average hot tub, and relaxed. Heaven!! No constant kiddie chatter, and no one complaining about the hiking (“How far is it still? I hate hiking! Are we there yet? MORE uphill?? Can we stop?? … You get the picture).
Dinner was a piece of art; a lot of effort is put into the communal meal. While we ate, tatamis were rolled out and our room converted into sleeping quarters. After dinner, I did not join Anke and Tamara for an evening stroll through town. It would have been appropriate to walk the town in my cotton robe, but that was just one step too far for me. Turns out they were called into a little home for a drink, by a man who was one of the founder fathers of Hello Kitty who retired here.
The second day would be our “big” hiking day with close to 20km to cover. More incredible scenery, more laughter, even some tears as we bonded and shared some of our most intimate stories. Ideally we would make it to our end point by 3pm to catch a train to our next hotel. We missed it by like 10 minutes. No biggie… we’d just have to sit and wait for our next train at… 6pm. It was Sunday and everything seemed closed. We eventually found a bar – but when we first opened the door, a waft of smoke emerged, and Tamara declared it seemed like a private home with some sort of party going on inside. Someone gestured to come inside, but we thought the better of it. We walked not even 100 meters to see the bar empty out. So we returned and enjoyed a beer and tea, and Japanese straight-from-the-freezer-apple-pie.
Our hotel that night was spectacular. We stayed at a traditional ryokan, Komanoyu Ryokan near Kiso Fukushima. We started our evening with a truly amazing dinner (in our cotton robes, as is expected). So many small dishes, presented with great care and detail. All (well, almost all) so incredibly tasty yet light. Served with tea and sake if you wish. And then, all 3 of us were curious to experience the women’s communal bath. Same concept here. A row of showers lined against the wall, right by the large hot bath. Each shower has a tiny wooden stool, and the wall is lined with a massive mirror (no stalls, no walls, no separation whatsoever). We all sat, trying to make ourselves as small as possible (imagine 3 tall women on these tiny tiny stools). Trying desperately not to get your own shampoo and soap onto your neighbor. Making sure your eyes don’t dart anywhere but your own toes. But I have to admit, it’s a unique experience. And I can completely imagine that the baths were an important part of communal village life. As modern homes are built with bathrooms and hot water, this tradition is rapidly disappearing – although you’ll find quite a few hotels in the city still have communal baths. The in- and outdoor baths were hot, hot, hot and heavenly. The perfect ending to a fantastic day.
When the hotel’s driver (who was also our receptionist, servant and we presume owner) drove us to the train station in the morning, we turned around just in time to see one of her staff making a deep, perfect bow to our car as we left. Had we not coincidently turned around, we would not have seen it. But he would have still bowed. This to us symbolized everything Japan stands for … Orderly, respectful, ritualistic, courteous and service-oriented.
The 3rd section of the hike had a reasonable climb to Torri-toge, and we were rewarded with great views over the valley. Our hike ended in Narai, from where we would take the train to Kyoto. Narai was once known as “Narai of 1000 inns”, and it was the most prosperous of the 69 post towns along the Nakasendo trail. Residents of Narai chose to renovate their historic houses and impose strict rules on ownership and use. It’s a little gem of a town! That night in Kyoto we walked around the district where Geisha’s are trained and live, hoping to catch a glimpse of one on her way to an appointment. (Anyone read Memories of a Geisha?). Like a million other tourists. We ended with a sushi feast at a local sushi place, ordering of the belt (We all totally overate. It was so so good!).
The next day we opted to go to a traditional tea house for tea and treats. OK – not my cup of tea. The tea to me is more like a spinach soup, and the treats didn’t gel with my pallet either. With hugs and kisses we then waved Tamara goodbye. Anke and I spent the afternoon at the theatre. We first attended a traditional tea ceremony – a quick 10 minute happening, where rows of tourists are stationed in front a stage where the geisha’s-in-training serve tea. We each also got another cup of spinach soup, and a treat…
The highlight of the day was a spectacular traditional Geisha show that is put on every year during the month of April, to allow the public to admire their arts. The storyline covered a love story, with a backdrop of the changing seasons from the end of spring to the next spring. Accompanied by traditional music and song. We couldn’t understand a word, and opted out of the English language guides as we heard those are quite distracting. It was impactful nevertheless. The Japanese women are so exquisitely beautiful in their traditional dresses. (Sadly no pictures allowed).
The following morning, we visited the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, hiked up and were treated to fantastic views over the city. It was time then to say goodbye to Anke with a quick hug (neither of us are good at goodbyes) as I rushed to the airport.
It was such a refreshing break, and I was eager to return to the family. We knew we finally had that big decision to make … in Dutch we say that it was time to “axe the knot”. The decision of where we would make our home at the end of our adventure had been looming over our trip from day 1 and we could not delay it any longer …
Where we stayed:
- Tokyo – MyStays Kamata. Very conveniently located; I took a bus from the airport and the bus stop almost around the corner from the hotel. The hotel was a 3 minute walk to Sinawaga station. A tiny room; like most in Japan and my feet stuck out over the edge. I couldn’t imagine Steven in that room!
- Nakasendo Trail:
- Shimosagaya Minshuku in the town of Tsumago
- Komanoyu Ryokan near the town of Kiso Fukushima
Here’s what our guide book had to say about the Ryokan: Ryokan are traditional Japanes inns, and a visit to one is a highlight of a trip to Japan. Rooms are invariably simple, but elegantly decorated, with tatami matting. Most ryokan have large, communal segregated baths, and it is common to bathe either before or after dinner. Dinner will usually be served in a dining room. In most ryokan, dinner is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients; one of the high points of travelling in Japan, particularly for the Japanse, is to try to local specialties. While you have been eating, the ryokan staff will have laid out your futon in your oom, ready for sleeping.
Where we ate:
- The inn/ryokan along the Nakasendo trail, and lunch/coffee places along the trail. Check out this Oregon-inspired coffee shop:
the Hillbilly Coffee Company!
- The sushi place: Musashi Sushi – we found the place to be fantastic and totally totally stuffed ourselves (or at least I did)
- The Syrian place: Arash’s Kitchen (#1 of 85 places serving Indian and Middle-Eastern food, according to tripadvisor). The owner made sure we were well taken care off, but urged us just one time to many to write a tripadvisor review 🙂
- The traditional tea place: Kagizen Yoshifusa Honten. Very “chique” if felt like … We were just a little out of place 🙂
- The place where we had a nice breakfast near our hotel (nice décor): Terminal Café by Room Lab. We stumbled upon this place by accident – good coffee, good breakfast.
Where we played:
- Nakasendo Trail with Oku Japan. We chose the self-guided option.
- Miyako Odori – a traditional public performance by the geisha of the Gion Kobu district, providing a glimpse into their arts. (As the traditional theatre is being renovated, the show this year was held at the performing arts center of the university.)
- Gion – one of the most famous and exclusive Geisha quarters in all of Japan. Catch a glimpse of a graceful Geisha here (I am sure I am using all the wrong terms!), on her way to an appointment. We admired them … the clothing, the make-up, the hair … exquisite!
- Fushimi Inari Shrine – the well known shrine, with thousands of orange (technically vermillion) “gates” forming pathways, dedicated to Inari, Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be messengers from the god, and so the grounds have a lot of fox statues as well. The pathways lead up the mountain from where you can catch great views of the city. Time your visit well – it was very busy when we were there.
- Kyoto Free Walking Tour: There is a free half day guided city walk, and it’s free. But it rained cats and dogs.