Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Travel to the Nakasendo Highway

I just got back from two days in Miyota, a small town in Nagano Prefecture (State/Province). Nagano is where the 1998 Winter Olympic games were held. It is a mountainous area with plenty of ski hills. If you remember, this was the Olympic games in which after the American hockey team was knocked out of the medals they trashed their hotel rooms in the party that night.

On my trip, it was the first time in five weeks that I slept in a bed. I was really looking forward to it but then when I checked it out, the bed was a cross between a flat rock and level concrete. I didn’t sleep any better there than I do here on the floor in Mitaka. I have to admit that not bending down all the way to the ground to lie down was considerably easier with the bed.

The trip was very easy. A one hour Shinkansen (bullet) train from Tokyo station to Karuizawa then 14 minutes on a smaller train line to Miyota.

I lucked out with the hotel. The real town I wanted to see was, Otai, and it was about 500 meters from my hotel’s entrance. Otai was a small Post Town on the Nakasendo Highway in Japan. There were two main roads between Edo (present day Tokyo) and Kyoto; the Tokaido and the Nakasendo. The Tokaido was much busier because in earlier times, around 1600, the Nakasendo was designated for use by the Emperor and Samurai on business of national interest. Merchants and pilgrims were to use the Tokaido. As time went on the restrictions were relaxed and more people were allowed to travel the Nakasendo.

Miyota, the town where I stayed, was a tateba (rest stop with a tea house) that did not have overnight accommodations. In modern times a railroad station was built in Miyota but not Otai so Miyota is now a larger and busier town while Otai is gradually dwindling.

The Nakasendo traveled through Otai to Miyota and then on to the next Post Town called Oiwake. I chose Otai as the location for my third novel but since there are no hotels in Otai I stayed as close as I could get and that was Miyota.

I had difficulty finding parts of the Nakasendo. I don’t think many foreigners visit the Nakasendo in Otai. (Many go to a part of the Nakasendo north of Nagoya to the two post towns of Tsumago and Magome.) I walked on highway 9 which is listed as the Nakasendo Highway on modern maps but ended up in the next town without finding any of the buildings I was looking for, so I went back and walked a little further toward the middle of town.

I spotted a shrine and went to look around. I took some pictures and left to go back to the main streets. Along the way I met an older gentleman and said hello then told him I was looking for the old buildings. He pointed to a street light and told me to turn right. All this was done in Japanese so I was feeling pretty good about my language skills. I went to the light and turned right. I walked about a block and there stood the old gentleman again. I guess he knows a secret short cut he wasn’t willing to share with me.

He walked me down this street and stopped in front of a building which turned out to be the Honjin, main inn, of the old Post Town. It had a post in front that had a brief description in Japanese. I took pictures and asked if I could go in but inside the gate was a modern house where a family now lives.

The older gentlemen then indicated that if I stayed on the road I would see many more of the original buildings and he was right. I took some great pictures and thought I was going to just snap away like crazy but within a few pictures my ‘low battery’ warning came on. Big problem since the battery charger was back in Mitaka. Turned out not to be an issue but I didn’t take as many pictures as I wanted because I was conserving battery.

I got some great shots anyway. As I write this blog entry the battery is recharging and the picture posted to the right on the site was loaded later.

I was able to walk on the actual Nakasendo for a while because it was and is the road that these old buildings reside on. The Nakasendo at this point is now a paved road but only wide enough for one car and still has the curves and elevations of the original road.

The next day I took the train to a town called, Chikuma. It took about an hour. Chikuma is an agricultural area but I didn’t go there to find out how oats, peas, beans and barley grow. A Japanese author who’s historical novels I’ve read, Shimazaki Toson, lived in Chikuma as a teacher for many years. He wrote one book called, The Chikuma River Sketches, that described his life in the area so I was interested to see where he lived. I hadn’t realized that Miyota was so close to Chikuma when I planned the trip and therefore hadn’t refreshed my memory of the book and his time in Chikuma, so I didn’t get as much out of the trip as I would have liked. It was still interesting to walk where he walked in a place that had inspired him to write.

I did a little reasearh on Chikuma after I returned and the city’s website doesn’t even mention him and his history in Chikuma. Chikuma has a more famous history that took place around 400 A.D. but that’s not a period that I’m interested in.

The area which is famous due to its relationship with, Shimazaki Toson, is the area where the previously mentioned Nakasendo Highway is preserved, Tsumago and Magome. Shimazaki grew up in Magome and in fact his father was the last Honjin of Magome. The Honjin I mentioned in Otai is the main inn of the town and the main inn of all Post Towns was referred to as the Honjin. The manager of the Honjin had the official title of, Honjin, throughout the Tokugawa Shogunate Period and the Honjin was also considered the mayor of the town.

Shimazaki’s novel, Before the Dawn, was about the last years of the Honjin in Magome before the Meiji Restoration, when the Tokugawa returned power to the Emporer. The site of the Honjin in Magome is a museum dedicated to Shimazaki Toson. The Honjin of the novel's time period was Shimazaki’s father so the history is very accurate as Tosan himself was present during most of the events that occurred. The novel is considered a historical text and is often used as a reference because of the accurate depiction of life in the Post Towns.

An interesting option for tourists is to stay in Magome or Tsumago one night, walk the path of the original Nakasendo for the five miles between the towns and then stay the next night in Tsumago or Magome if they are really into that history. I advise that you check to see which way is downhill before you go. They have a luggage forwarding service so you don’t have to carry it with you.

After visiting Chikuma I rested at the hotel for two hours then at 5:00 I went for another walk. I wanted to see what it was like to walk from Miyota to Oiwake to experience what the travelers of old experienced. From the center of Miyota it is maybe 3 miles to Oiwake. At that time of day it is much cooler and with a slight breeze the walk is very pleasant. There was one draw back; it’s uphill all the way. (That's why I advise checking out the walk from Magome to Tsumago before you choose a starting point.) I walked for about an hour and when I took one more bend in the road I was met with a much steeper grade to the next bend so I decided I’d had enough of the experience.

I turned and enjoyed the downhill walk back to my hotel. I’d had a big lunch so I didn’t even stop to eat and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve skipped dinner. Besides, breakfast was included in my hotel rate so I just had to find a way to sleep on the ‘granite-sleep-number-bed’ that was permanently set on 1,000 and I would wake up and eat in the morning.

The breakfasts were good, too! The first morning they put out ham and eggs as well as onion rings and French fries. Boring sounding isn’t it? I skipped those and instead loaded up on a few of the fried, whole iwashi (sardines, heads and everything), shumai (steamed dumplings), and some daikon radish salad. And yes, you eat the heads of the iwashi, all three dishes were delicious. The next day they served a fried rice noodle dish (the clear ones), salmon that was cooked in a vinegar broth and little half-moon, fried egg raviolis that were scrambled eggs with a fried pork mixture stuffing. I can’t imagine how they got them stuffed. Both days there was also miso soup and steamed rice but I didn’t eat either one. I really enjoyed this breakfast offering. It was light and tasty.

For lunch both days I ate ramen. Huge bowls of noodles, meat and vegetables. The first day I had the shio style which is in a white, salt broth. I’d never had it in that style of broth so I wanted to try it and I wasn’t disappointed. It was the best ramen I’d ever had until the second day when at a different restaurant I had a pork and garlic based broth with sprouts, cabbage and onions. That day I also had a side order of gyoza (Japanese ravioli, sometimes called potstickers). That’s why I didn’t eat dinner that night.

Both days at lunch I confirmed that ramen goes great with cold beer.

The restaurant in the hotel offered unagi (grilled eel) and I wasn’t disappointed in their preparation of the dish the only night I ate dinner. Unagi is reported to help cool your body in the summer and I needed cooling. Instead of cold beer I had cold sake and they were perfect together. The dish came with miso soup, pickles and rice. A nice balance of fat from the unagi and acid from the pickles and, just the right amount of food. The Japanese have a knack for that. Even though the portion is designed for the smaller body size of the Japanese it is sufficient for us larger Americans as well.

It was a great little trip and the only one I have planned for the entire three months of my stay. It was so easy to get where I was going that I will suggest another trip to my girlfriend when she comes to visit, perhaps to Tsumago and Magome.

There is more information about Japan on my author page at my publisher’s website,

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