A hike in clear skies with waterfalls, a hint of cherry blossom, a friendly tea house and the architectural heritage of a living post town on the Nakasendo highway in the Kiso valley. What a wonderful way to go exploring. To start, a gorgeous coffee spot in Magome beside an old waterwheel, then on up the trail through the village.
At the top, a magnificent view of Mount Ena, then upwards to the Magome pass, ringing the bells to scare the bears as we went. This is logging country and we saw plenty evidence of that, but no bears. The bells obviously work. We rang a special one at 777m above sea level – the Nakasendo power spot of happiness.
There was wood stacked high at our next stopping place – a charming free tea house with wood burning stove, an old machine for making straw rope for sandals and lots of fellow hikers exchanging travelling tales.
On to the Otaki Metaki waterfalls – sacred waterfalls for cleansing the mind and body if you plan to climb nearby Mount Intake, Japan’s 14th highest mountain at 3067m. We headed on through little settlements, with fish ponds and ducks, bamboo, cherry blossom starting as it got warmer on our descent. Our route took us alongside the Kisogawa river and into Tsumago. The first thing that greeted us was a full size model of a horse made of straw – horses being an essential part of post towns. The old buildings proudly display dashibari, overhanging beams and udatsu, roof extensions designed to prevent fires. Tsumago is a nationally designated Special Cultural Property containing 223 carefully preserved old buildings.
Walking and sightseeing gives you an appetite and we could not resist sampling osaki , delicious steamed buns filled with either spinach, walnuts or aubergine, especially when served with green tea sitting next to a traditional open fire.
We walked on through Tsumago and stopped at a huge display of dolls. It was 3rd April, the day they celebrate girls and pray for their good health, so special displays of dolls were out for the festival. They were kimonos to try on and what girl could resist so I posed in a gold one! Displays are important in Japan and it was explained to us by a lovely guide in the museum and restored merchant house that placing things in three is key. A hanging scroll, a simple display of flowers or greenery and a beautiful object. Japanese aesthetics at its best.
Being an area famous for logging, she also explained how carpentry skills were highly prized. No nails could be displayed so the beams supporting the house had small decorative carvings covering the nail. In this old merchant house, it was a money bag to bring luck for his sake business. She also told us about the family hierarchy of seating around the fire. Father gets the best place with a block to warm his feet, mother, grand mother and daughter in law on his right and opposite him where the smoke blew, the children had to sit to learn to respect their elders.
The museum was very modern and although mostly in Japanese, there was enough to explain about life of the shubaku, or staging post which was to provide horses and labourers for the high ranking government officials.
The little Shinto temple set on a street above the main one was our last stopping point before we turned to retrace our steps and walk back to Magome. There is a bus service that is easy to use, but with such gorgeous scenery and beautiful spring weather to enjoy, who wants to use the bus.