When we first decided to visit Japan earlier this year, trying to plan where we wanted to visit quickly became overwhelming. Three weeks, which initially seemed like a decent amount of time in a geographically small country, was quickly filled up when we realised just how much there was to do in the show-stoppers like Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka. While these must-visit cities held the allure of bright lights and non-stop action, I also really wanted to get out into the mountains to see the autumn leaves in all their red and gold blazing glory. After tossing up a few options in the Japanese Alps, we decided that a visit to the mountain city of Matsumoto and a hike along a Japanese feudal ‘highway’ would be a leisurely introduction to Japan.
What was not so leisurely was flying into Tokyo after about 20 hours of transit then jumping straight on the train for a five hour plus one stopover journey up to Matsumoto. Getting straight on the road had seemed like a great idea on my couch months before but it quickly turned into the last thing I wanted to do after a red-eye flight (with more red wine than was reasonable) and a long queue to pick up our rail passes. I consoled myself with the fact that even if we had stayed in Tokyo we wouldn’t have been able to check into a hotel anyway, reminded myself I was lucky to be on holidays and spent the trip alternating between napping and gazing in awe out the window as the city gave way to gorgeous mountain scenery with stunning autumn colours.
The next morning, after a great sleep, we were up early to take a walk around Matsumoto Castle. Otherwise known as the Crows Castle, this one of five castles designated as a ‘National Treasure’ of Japan. Unlike many others in Japan that have burnt down or suffered other ill-fates, the castle that stands today is the original that was built between 1592 and 1614.
Inside is steep wooden stairs, narrow corridors that were once reserved for samurais to run up and down, and small windows for them to launch arrows and fire rifles out of in their bid to defend the city. We climbed all the way to the top and were rewarded with beautiful views of the city framed by mountains.
After wandering around the castle, which took a fair while, we kept walking up the street in search of a snack. Along the way, we stumbled across the Kaichi School Museum. The Kaichi School was one of the first schools in Japan, and while most of the displays weren’t in English the museum is an interesting display of what once was on these grounds.
On our way home from here we detoured down a pretty little street called Nawate Dori, which has been preserved in a way to give visitors a feel for what the town would have been like when the castle was in use – except of course the tourist shops and hordes of people! We also passed a particularly pretty well – one of many around the city that locals use everyday for drinking or cooking water. I couldn’t help but reflect on how well this would work in Australia, and how likely it was that it would be filled with dishwashing liquid for someones 5 minutes of amusement.
After a little rest we headed out to dinner, on our way passing a craft beer bar called Hop Frog where we got our first taste of how expensive craft beer is in Japan. 1000 yen ($12-13AUD) for less than a pint of beer seemed steep at the time but turned out to be pretty standard – ouch! So we just stopped for one beer before heading on to Sakura, a small ramen spot around the corner from our hotel for dinner. This still remains one of the best bowls of ramen I had during the whole trip. A rich tonkotsu broth, the pork falling apart on my chopsticks, and a healthy dose of pork mince – this was everything I needed after a long day. We had another learning experience here with the ramen vending machine – after mashing the buttons on the machine for a minute or two we worked out that you need to put your money in first before selecting what you want (oops). After dinner it was back to the castle for a quick glimpse of it all lit up before heading back to bed – that lack of sleep was still catching up with us.
The next morning we were up early and on a train for an hour to a small town called Magome. It’s a ‘post-town’ on what was once part of feudal Japan’s network of highways. The particular highway we were headed for, the Nakasendo, runs between Kyoto and Tokyo through the central mountains. We weren’t quite planning on walking that far though – our aim was only to walk about 8km between Magome and the next town, Tsumago. Both of these towns have been preserved as they would have looked when they were constructed, an effort that has gone beyond just maintaining shopfronts to undergrounding the power lines. We grabbed a quick, and surprisingly good, coffee here (Hillbilly Coffee) before getting setting off from the lookout above the town.
The first half was all uphill, and steep enough to get the blood pumping at times. We soon came across the bear bells that were dotted along the trail – apparently there are black bears in this area and you need to ring the bells at regular intervals to scare them away. I thought it was a bit of overkill until I realised that all the locals walking the trail were wearing little bells on their backpacks! We didn’t see any in the end though – in reality there are quite a few people walking the trail so they probably stay away unless food gets really scarce.
The scenery along the trail was really beautiful and changed constantly – we passed over mountains, into valleys, along rivers, through bamboo groves and many small towns. The one constant all the way through was the absolutely stunning autumn leaves – every shade of green, gold and red was out there on the trail with us.
A particular highlight about halfway along was a little tea house where you could sit for a moment and enjoy a drink of green tea and a chat with other walkers for a small donation.
One of my favourite spots was close to the end, where we took a detour off the trail to walk down to the bottom of some the Odakimedaki waterfalls. Waterfalls are one of my favourite natural sights to see, along with mountains (lucky the two go so well together!) and the cool spray coming off these little ones was really refreshing after a long, warm walk.
While the walk was lovely we were getting pretty hungry towards to the end, so it was exciting to finally reach the town of Tsumago, where we had some soba noodles, dumplings and icecream. After wandering around here a while, we went to pick up our bags from the visitors centre and realised that the language barrier where we dropped our bags off meant our luggage had been stored there rather than transferred to Tsumago – oops! The very kind man at the visitors centre actually drove Ollie back there to pick up our bags though, which was just so nice of him. He also refused to take any money for doing so, which was just so typical of the type of hospitality we received from Japanese people while we were there.
After that we were off to Fuki no Mori, a ryokan in the mountains above Tsumago. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, so here we were staying in traditional tatami rooms and having a Kaiseki dinner, which is basically a Japanese degustation. They usually feature seasonal produce that is presented simply in a way that highlights the natural flavour of the fresh ingredients. The one that we had in our private dining room featured a range of appetisers from tofu to horse belly along some delicious plum wine. This was followed by creamy salmon sashimi served with wasabi and some bitter seeds, then a ‘make-your-own’ ramen with fresh tender beef, tofu, mushrooms and an egg. More soba came next, followed by a fish that was deboned at the table – I left that one to Ollie! I thought we must have been finished at that point but there was still tempura and eel sushi before dessert finally landed on our table. Japan is known for its gourmet fruit and this was no exception – the most perfect grape and sweetest apple slices were served with some smooth and creamy custard.
The next morning I got up early to use the onsen. I wanted to take advantage of this one as I have a few tattoos and these are a big taboo in Japan, so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit any public onsens later in the trip. However, I was a bit prudish about getting nude in front of a bunch of other people (getting your kit off is a requirement to use the baths) so I got up at the crack of dawn to indulge in peace. It was worth it as I had the outdoor bath overlooking the mountains all to myself which was absolutely beautiful. After that we had our traditional breakfast which also featured more horse meat and an entire fish – a little too much for me in the morning if I am being honest. I chowed down on the eggs and fruit though, and before we knew it we were back on the train with a bento box in hand to head to our next stop, the city of temples – Kyoto!