Japan – Days 3-4

Catching up a bit…

Inn Tajimiya, Magome

Yesterday was a day I’d been building to for a long time. I’d skipped the Kiso Valley in the Japanese Alps on my first two trips despite really wanting to visit – it’s a tough place to fit into an itinerary because it takes a while to get there and it isn’t really on the way to anywhre else. But I made time for it, and I’m really glad I did. Took another trip on th wondreous Shinkansen to Nagoya, then on to the little hamlet of Magome. The Kiso Valley is the route of part of the old Nakasendo Road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. Some of the old “post towns” are splendidly preserved – living relics of the nineteenth centuy with cobled streets, no antennas or wires (or cars) and main streets of small inns and merchant sellers.

Magome is one such town, and there’s an 8 KM stretch of the old road between there and the even more splendidly archaic Tsumago that makes a wonderful hiking course. This was the Japan of my dreams – tiny shrines in the forest, a tea house in the woods that’s been welcoming the footsore for hundreds of years, ancient way stones with faded carvings of Jizo, clear mountain air and tumbling waterfalls. It’s a magnificent experience – truly like stepping back in time.

My innkeeper at Inn Tajimaya was quite a character. His old ryokan is in a machiya tonwhouse with a welcoming tanuki (raccoon dog) out front. The reception area has a recessed hearth in the floor, and after the splendid dinner he invited the only guests – myself and a Japanese family consisting of young husband and wife and two impossibly adorable little girls – to learn how to do the local Kiso Odori dance. Not easy, given my limited Japanese and his limited English – but a unique and warm exerperience. After tea, I walked out into the sub-freezing night air, walked the cobbles lit only by the lanterns in front of the shops and inns, and watched shooting stars. Not bad.

Hikone-jo
Nanzen-ji

Today was my first exposure to real Sakura in Japan. I’d been a bit disappointed that they really haven’t seemed to be in bloom, but after a pleasant morning visit to the little castle town of Hikone on Biwa-ko (the second oldest fresh-water lake in the world) I returned to a wonderful surprise in Kyoto. In the hills of Higashiayama the sakura are exlploding to life. Nanzen-ji, the great Zen temple, was gorgeous in it’s own right – with it’s zen garden, colossal gate and romanesque aquedect (running from Biwa-ko) but all the more so in that i’s cherry trees were in bloom. The Philosopher’s Path was even more stunning – the canal lined with hundreds of whitr and pink trees reflected in the water. It was an amazing day – chilly witn a stiff breeze but exquisitely clear – and it would be impossible to describe the magic of the sakura in those surroundings. The pictures won’t do it any justice either – no pictures could and certainly not with my limited skills.

Philosopher’s Path

Japan, as always, is full of surprises and delights. Like the pack of 8 cats that appeared on the path. Like the gentleman who sat next to me on the bus and regaled me with his English skills and talked of visits to California. There still aren’t many Westerners here – too many have stayed away – but they’re missing a glorious season in a glorious place.

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