Monthly Archives: May 2014

Magome to Tsumago, hiking the old post road in Japan

The Nakasendo, literally “Post Road” (“Naka” is the base of the British slang word “knackered” meaning to tire from walking or exercise1, and “sendo” to send something) connected the then capital Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto through some of the most beautiful scenery in Japan.

Original ishidatami (stone paving) of the Nakasendo between Tokyo and Kyoto (this section is just before Magome, on the Kyoto side)

Original ishidatami (stone paving) of the Nakasendo between Tokyo and Kyoto (this section is just before Magome, on the Kyoto side)

While longer than the southern Tokaido post road that ran along the Pacific coast south of Mount Fuji, the Nakasendo was more popular because it was well developed and didn’t involve ford crossings.

Magome, Japan

Station 43 – Magome in the early morning light

One of the most popular sections of the Nakasendo is the 8.5km between Magome and Tsumago that climbs over the Magome Mountain Pass and crosses the prefecture boundary.

Magome is a small town set on a steep hill. After finding our accommodation for the night – which wasn’t easy as all the buildings look the same from the outside, and their signs aren’t prominent (and they’re only in Japanese) – we walked downhill to see some of the original ishidatami (stone paving) post road.

Julie and I at the end of the old post road section just before Magome

Julie and I at the end of the old post road section just before Magome

Besides the splendid scenery, the fresh air and the exercise, the other major draw for walking the Nakasendo was the opportunity to stay half-board in traditional Japanese inns, or ryokan. In Magome we stayed at the Tajimaya where we were served tea and biscuits upon arrival in our tatami matted room. The futon beds were already made and we looked out onto the Nakasendo we were to walk the following day.

Tajimaya evening meal, Magome

The feast that is the Tajimaya evening meal, Magome, Japan

Dinner was fantastic. First of all it was nice not having to decide what kind of restaurant to eat at, and they presented a little bit of everything, including some local specialities that we hadn’t tried yet.

The following morning, we sat down to an equally varied spread for breakfast before handing our heavy bags over to the Magome Tourist Service where the small, kind Japanese lady struggled to move them into the office! When we said we were walking to Tsumago, she asked for the name of our inn and told us our bags would be delivered there rather than the Tsumago Tourist Information office. This turned out to be very fortunate because we didn’t yet know where our ryokan was, and when we found out, it was a good 20 minute walk from the centre of town!

And so, with a light day sack between us, we set off in the direction of Tokyo!

Panoramic view just outside Magome, Japan

“A spot with a panoramic view” according to our map of the Nakasendo. The view back down the valley as we ascended from Magome.

The map suggests this well-maintained walking path will take about 3 hours, but we like to stop often to take photographs so it took us a bit longer.

Magome is higher than Tsumago, but there’s still a gentle uphill to climb to reach the Magome Mountain Pass. The pass marks about a third of the way between the 43rd and 42nd post road stations, and the Prefecture boundary of Gifu (Magome) and Nagano (Tsumago).

The route is a lovely untaxing walk through forest and paddy-field farmland. There was plenty of beautiful sakura (cherry blossom), including a 250 year-old weeping cherry tree in full bloom.

250 year old weeping cherry tree of Ichikoku-tochi

250 year old weeping cherry tree of Ichikoku-tochi

Surprisingly, we didn’t see much wildlife and we were a little alarmed at the frequency of the bear warning bells which Julie felt compelled to ring. I thought the bells might have had the opposite effect, sort of like a dinner gong, but despite ringing every one we saw, we still didn’t meet any..

Julie ringing the bear bell

Julie ringing the bear bell

Odaki and Medaki waterfalls near Tsumago

Odaki and Medaki waterfalls near Tsumago

With tired legs and in need of a ryokan, we arrived in Tsumago to find it a flatter, straighter, quieter version of Magome, having thoroughly enjoyed hiking the section of the Nakasendo.

The main street in the town of Tsumago

The main street in the town of Tsumago

After exploring Tsumago’s main street of lovely lattice-fronted buildings, and sampling the regional delicacy of gohei-mochi – baked rice on a stick whose only redeeming feature is the sesame-walnut sauce, we retired to our ryokan, the Hanaya. After a well earned onsen (hot spring bath), we sat down to another amazing feast of Japanese food.

1 No, “Naka” isn’t the base of “knackered”, I completely made that up. Nakasendo can really be translated as “central mountain route”

Museum Meiji-mura, Japan

You wouldn’t think that just a week after visiting the Hida Folk Village in Takayama we’d want to go to another museum preserving old buildings, but this one has a very different focus from any of the other outdoor museums that we’ve been to. Meiji-mura doesn’t focus on traditional wooden architecture but examples from Japan’s Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). This period marked an opening of Japan to foreigners and the architecture is notable for combining Western and Japanese elements. For example, the Principal’s Official Residence of Peers’ School is effectively split down the middle with European style office and reception rooms on one side with high ceilings and wide staircases, and Japanese style family rooms on the other with tatami floors and sliding paper doors.

20140512-145314.jpgPrincipal’s Official Residence: European part of the house from the outside, a very Western dining room, a traditional Japanese room on the other side of the house

The museum contains more than sixty buildings with a huge diversity of original uses, from churches, shops and houses to prisons, a theatre and a lighthouse. Despite the grey weather and drizzly rain that arrived in the afternoon we really enjoyed the variety of different buildings and their lakeside location and found that even a full day wasn’t enough to see everything.

20140512-155237.jpgSome of the preserved “buildings” are very small such as this sentry box of the Akasaka Palace, and this ornamental lamp from a bridge in front of the Imperial Palace

20140512-162408.jpgThe imposing St John’s Anglican Church was built in 1907 and originally sited in Kyoto. It’s structure is adapted to withstand earthquakes being brick on the first floor and wooden above with a copper roof.

20140512-162417.jpgThe interior of St John’s Church is split into two levels with a hall downstairs for Sunday school and the upper level where services were held

20140512-163403.jpgThe Sapporo telephone exchange building included an exhibit of equipment used in the early days of telephone services in Japan

20140512-163646.jpgSome of the museum’s buildings were arranged as a high street

20140512-174512.jpgTomatsu house was a tradesman’s house in Nagoya City. Although it looks fairly small from the front, inside it is a rabbit warren of rooms and passageways. It also contained the coolest stairs we’ve ever seen with drawers hidden in the risers (unfortunately we didn’t get chance to snap a photo). Clockwise from top left: facade, view from an upper floor window, the owner could sit in this room at the top of the atrium and listen to the conversations below, reconstruction of the office at the front of the building.

20140512-161249.jpgWe really enjoyed the tour around the Kureha-za Theatre which included a chance to sit Japanese-style in one of the audience boxes as well as to walk along the basement passage leading to the area where the revolving part of the stage used to be turned by some very hard-working slaves

20140512-161257.jpgStriking a pose on the stage of the Kureha-za Theatre

20140512-164530.jpgThe stained glass in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral shone brightly even without much sunshine outside

20140512-143431.jpgWe met this lovely lady in the rather incongruous setting of the Kanazawa Prison. She helped each of us play a short tune on her koto before searching her music book for something English, Auld Lang Syne was the closest she could find!

20140512-170706.jpgOne of the highlights of the museum is the magnificent main entrance and lobby of the Imperial Hotel. The Tokyo hotel originally opened in 1890, and this redesign by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright opened in 1923. This portion of the building was moved to Meiji-mura when the hotel was revamped again in the late 1960s.

20140512-170715.jpgWe treated ourself to afternoon tea in the tearoom of the Imperial Hotel Lobby

20140512-174032.jpgPart of the site contains buildings with an industrial history. The Shimbashi Factory of the Japan National Railways where railway carriages were once built now contains a collection of industrial machinery, much of it linked to spinning and weaving.

20140512-173745.jpgA drizzly view from the edge of the museum site over Lake Iruka. The structure on the right is all that remains of a Tokyo religious college, its entrance porch.

Shirakawago, Japan

The UNESCO listed villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama in central Japan are known for their high concentration of gasshō-zukuri style thatched farmhouses. The steeply pitched roofs are designed to prevent snow accumulation in this mountainous region where snowfall is heavy each winter. According to the Lonely Planet:

The name gasshō comes from the Japanese word for prayer, because the shape of the roofs was thought to resemble hands clasped together.


We had hoped to spend the night in one of the farmhouses, many of which are now running as guesthouses, but unfortunately our planning was not far enough ahead of the game and all were fully booked for dates that fit into our schedule so a day trip was our only option. We took the return bus (1.25 hours each way) from Kanazawa although it is also possible to visit from Takayama (1 hour each way).

20140510-163941.jpgVillage houses

20140510-163948.jpgEven the temple’s bell tower is thatched!

Because the village is situated up in the mountains, snow was still visible on the surrounding mountains at our visit in mid-April and signs of springtime were just beginning to show through. Seeing lots of daffodils everywhere reminded us of spring at home.

20140508-221329.jpgSpring flowers (clockwise from top left): daffodils in front of a gasshō-zukuri house, violets, this cherry tree was just starting to bloom, unidentified woodland flower

The day was clear so we walked the 20 minutes up the hill above the village to get a good look at the view down the valley. This is where the castle was situated although nothing remains of it nowadays.

20140508-223424.jpgFrom the view point it was clear how densely the gasshō-zukuri houses are sprinkled throughout the village

We were able to have a look around one of several houses that are open to the public, Wada house. Both this house and the gasshō-zukuri house that we saw at the Hida Folk Village in Takayama were huge. Much bigger than I would have expected for a single family. I suppose several generations of the extended family lived together.

20140510-164000.jpgInside Wada House (clockwise from top left): Irori (sunken hearth), the house’s altar, dried flowers, painted paper screen doors

It was interesting to get up into the roof and see the construction from the inside. Most of the houses have at least two levels of attic space which were utilised for storage and sericulture (silk production).

20140510-163954.jpgThe upper loft of Wada House

As we walked around the streets we noticed thatch in various states of repair with some roofs looking threadbare and mossy while others were still golden and looked quite new. We even saw one house being rethatched.

20140510-164005.jpgThatched roofs of different ages

20140510-164010.jpgThatching team at work

As bus seats are limited we had reserved our return seat on almost the final bus of the afternoon giving us about six hours to explore but actually, even at our slow, meandering pace that was far too long. 3-4 hours would have been more than long enough to walk the whole village including the viewpoint and go into a couple of the open houses.

The fabulous float festival of Takayama, Japan

Held twice a year in the spring (April 14th & 15th) and autumn (October 9th & 10th), Takayama’s float toting families close the streets to proudly parade their delightfully decorated 4-wheeled chariots.

The resplendent Takayama Floats

The resplendent Takayama Floats – Seiryutai in the foreground, followed by Daikokutai and Ryujintai

Called “yatai” which means “festival float” in Japanese, these multi-tiered resplendent rovers symbolise the erstwhile rich of Takayama, and exemplify the fine works of craftsmanship of the region. Twelve yatai take part in the spring festival, and eleven in the autumn, and once we’d spotted our first, we made it our mission to find them all, like some kind of brilliant treasure hunt.

Shakkyotai festival float close up

Shakkyotai festival float close up

The detail in the different materials used on each of the yatai is breathtaking. All of them looked in such good condition it was as if they’d all been recently refurbished – their dark lacquerwork polished to a mirrored finish, complemented by fine wood carvings and metalwork adornments of dragons or sea creatures.

Takayama yatai detail

Takayama yatai detail (clockwise from top-left) carved wooden dragon, golden dragon, leaf biting dragon and embroidered koi side curtain

The route of the floats through the small town wasn’t readily advertised, but the owner of our guesthouse remembered that he’d seen it printed in the previous days newspaper and kindly translated it for us. Essentially, all of the floats make their way from their individual storage sheds dotted throughout the town, towards the square next to the beautiful red bridge on the Takayama Jinja side of the Miyagawa River. Throughout the morning, there’s a procession of yatai over the bridge and south towards the Hie Jinja Shrine, where we found them lining up along Shimmeicho street.

Hie Jinja Shrine, Takayama

Hie Jinja Shrine, Takayama

Takayama yatai pulling team

Takayama yatai pulling team

While all of the yatai are stunning, 3 in particular have an extra charm.. for they have animated puppets that put on an amazing show twice daily.

Takayama yatai puppets

Takayama yatai puppet display (left to right) Sambaso, Shakkyotai, Ryujintai

The puppets are controlled from within the yatai by up to 35 different strings and the performances were more impressive in turn. The last float, Ryujintai, was the closest to us, and I still haven’t been able to work out how they made it work the way it did – it was spectacular!

Yatai pulling team taking a break

Yatai pulling team taking a break

Accommodation in Takayama gets booked up quite a way in advance as the festivals are held on the same dates every year. We were only able to stay the night before which unfortunately meant we had to leave before the night festivities, where each of the floats is kitted out with tiny lanterns and once again paraded through the streets, but we’re so glad the weather was good and we got to see them during the day.

Us in front of Daikokutai

Us in front of Daikokutai

Takayama, Japan

The train journey from Nagoya to Takayama was beautiful. The train wound through narrow valleys and tunnels giving us views up gorges with fast flowing turquoise rivers flowing through them and we knew we were going to enjoy staying closer to the Japanese countryside. And the glimpses of the snow capped Japan Alps that we got in the last 30 minutes of the journey sealed the deal although we were disappointed that our first proper journey on the famed Japanese rail network was 8 minutes late arriving – we had heard that trains here run to the minute…

20140501-183711.jpgSpectacular scenery from the train to Takayama

However, winding up into the mountains meant that when we arrived it was cold! Not really having had a winter this year, spending our time in SE Asia and then Bangladesh, it was quite a shock to the system to dig out our jumpers, jackets and even scarf and gloves! So having dropped our bag off at the friendly hostel and wrapped up as warm as we could, we set out to explore the town. Don’t feel too sorry for us, although it was close to zero during the night, the afternoon temperature was about 15 degrees so we were never likely to get hypothermia.

Takayama is a small city and has a particularly well preserved historic district with narrow streets lined with picturesque traditional-style wooden houses. Perhaps unfortunately, like many similar small picturesque towns (Tallinn’s centre, Pingyao and Hoi An spring to mind) it is somewhat swamped with busloads of tourists which means that many of the old buildings are now home to restaurants, shops and small museums all aimed at visitors.

20140501-183720.jpgWooden houses line the tourist filled streets in the historic Sanmachi-suji District

There are also more sake breweries than I would imagine an average small town could support. These can be identified by the large brown cedar balls, called Sugidama, hanging outside. We went inside one for a look and were pleased to discover that we could pay ¥100 (£0.60) for a sake cup which included a free taster of our choice. Even better, there didn’t seem to be anyone policing the tasting bottles. We watched several Japanese visitors work their way along a whole row of bottles before we made our way back to the front of the queue for another couple of glasses each. One looked milky in colour and perhaps because of that it reminded us of airag, the fermented mare’s milk drink that we tried in Mongolia. We later learned that this is just an unfiltered version of the rice wine and doesn’t actually contain any dairy products.

20140501-183727.jpgCheers! Trying sake at one of Takayama’s breweries

20140501-183733.jpgClockwise from top left: Sugidama cedar ball outside a sake brewery, the cloudy sake that we tried, sake barrels

We finished the afternoon by escaping the crowds in the Shiroyama-koen park on the hilltop which contains the ruins of Takayama Castle. The ruins were unimpressive but the views over the town and towards the snow capped peaks in the other direction were nice and the path through the forest was lovely.

20140501-183745.jpgShiroyama-koen Park (clockwise from left): path through the trees, view over Takayama, snow capped peaks

Our first stop the next morning was at the Miyagawa Morning Market. This runs every day and is more of a tourist market than a local one, but there were some nice stalls with traditional foods as well as crafts. We tried some tasters of pickled vegetables, bought Fuji apples from an apple farmer (it never occured to me that the Fuji variety came from Japan, but of course it is named after the famous mountain) and perhaps most memorably bought an Owara Tamaten each. This was like a toasted homemade marshmallow – definitely not a bad thing although it took a couple of read throughs of its description in Japanese English and a bite before we figured it out!

20140501-183810.jpgBustling morning market beside the Miyagawa River

20140503-224210.jpgMiyagawa Morning Market (clockwise from top left): candlemaker, Japanese vegetables called udo, Fuji apple farmers, meat products, sweetmaker, pickled ginger

20140505-191703.jpgThe Owara Tamaten and its cryptic description

Apart from its historic streets, there are a few things that Takayama is famous for. First, the floats displayed in the twice yearly town festival (more on those in another post), next the fine beef produced in and named after the area, Hida, and finally the sarubobo, a faceless toy given to grandchildren as dolls and to daughters as a charm for a good marriage. Plenty of the crafts at the morning market and in the souvenir shops featured the sarubobo but we spotted them elsewhere around town as well. And we tried the meltingly tender Hida beef twice – on our first day topping a bowl of noodle soup and also as sushi – yum!

20140501-183801.jpgSarubobos (clockwise from top left): offerings outside Hida Kokubunji Temple, incorporated into souvenirs, sarubobo waffles, large marble sarubobo

20140501-183753.jpgHida beef sushi, finished with a wave of the blowtorch and a slick of sauce

After a quick stop at Hida Kokubunji Temple to admire its pagoda and the huge gingko tree which is said to be over 1200 years old, we walked 30 minutes to the south-west of the town to the Hida Folk Village. Regular readers will note that we’re quite partial to outdoor museums of architecture having visited examples in Riga, Suzdal, Ulan Ude, and Hanoi and this was no exception. Located on a hillside above Takayama it has 30 examples of traditional wooden houses from locations around the prefecture of Hida situated between trees and surrounding a small pond. There were also craftspeople in some of the buildings demonstrating traditional skills (weaving on a hand loom, wood carving, wooden lattice creation) and a few activities for visitors to try including, bizarrely, stilt walking which it is safe to say we didn’t quite get the hang of.

20140502-222515.jpgPagoda at Hida Kokubunji Temple

20140503-223510.jpgHida Folk Village

20140501-184456.jpgWeaving demonstration

20140502-222522.jpgSplit second success at stilt walking

20140502-222532.jpgDifferent house styles