Kumano Kodo pt 1: Dawn in Osaka, Sunset in Takahara

We got the aforementioned overnight bus at Shinjuku Station.

It looked very much like a regular bus. I don’t know what I was expecting with the “dream liner” seats we purchased (not first class, but not economy), but I thought perhaps more than regular bus seats that flattened a bit more. Perks included: bus slippers (Liam immediately put his foot through the paper top), blankets and pillows.  We left the station at 10:30pm, which made sleeping easier (as did the bottle of Caol Ila Liam brought with him). Comfort or not, it was still a ten hour bus trip from Tokyo to Osaka. I woke up early with bus pains.

Sunrise in Osaka was an interesting experience. It’s a busy city, but like many big cities it was quiet at sunrise.  Groggy, we hopped off the train, grabbed our backpacks, and immediately searched for coffee.  Our train to Tanabe was not until 11am, which gave us roughly three hours to enjoy this incredibly popular Japanese city.

We chose Osaka castle and Dotonbori as our tourist spots.

I thought Osaka castle was lovely. We didn’t have time to go in, but the grounds were beautiful and not too crowded. Liam and I pondered how they moved the large stones for the walls. The stones were gifts from other warlords in the area – did they push the rocks on trees, perhaps? As always, early morning is the best way to beat the tourist crowds. As we were leaving, no less than four large tourist parties pushed forward, flags and mascot sticks held high.

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This is the largest stone in the wall. It’s so big, it gets its own photo spot (no mosaic setup)!

Dotonbori as a big shopping street/district, and perhaps one of the most iconic sights in Osaka. I did not take advantage of the shopping; I was in a hiking mentality. The only thing I bought was sunblock. Still, I saw the giant crab statue! I bet seeing it at night would really be something. I love eccentric capitalism. I was still feeling fried from the bus trip, so it was also mildly overwhelming.

Osaka made a great first impression and I felt a little sad to leave it after only a few hours. Still, it was exciting to head south, watching the grey cityscape turn to beaches and the smaller towns of Wakayama. I slept on the train – about two hours from Tennoji to Kiitanabe. Once in Kiitanabe, I used the information in our Kumano Kodo travel pack that I prepaid for. We had to take a bus to the start of the trail. Luckily, the bus stop is literally next to the station.

(If you are interested, you can also visit the Kumano Tourist office, which is located on the first block across from the station. Walk through the small plaza and you’ll see it on the right. It’s a small, welcoming space that sells some branded items, as well as maps and camping/hiking gear) – on a Google Map near Kiitanabe station, it’s labeled クマノトラベル . Munching on cold sausage and spaghetti sandwiches, we caught the bus heading to Takijiri-oji (one of the last stops on the bus, so be advised that you’re going to ride for farther than you might think). We stamped our Kumano Kodo stamp books at the community center there, grabbed some iced umesh to refresh ourselves, and started the official hike.

Yes, be advised: If you aren’t staying in Tanabe or somewhere beforehand, getting from Osaka to the start of the Kumano Kodo is going to take a few hours. Plan your trip accordingly.

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I’m always a little surprised by how little fanfare actually follows that first step. Much is made of starting a journey, or so I thought, yet every time I start a big trip I find that the start is a little less momentous than I thought it would seem. As I passed the giant boulder announcing the start of the pilgrimage, I did not feel a great presence. I searched for a connection to history, or a stirring in my soul, and I didn’t feel much. I felt a little apprehensive, a little travel-weary, and a little hot. You can’t force it, I admonished myself mentally. If you get a moment of grace, it won’t be because you’re demanding it.

Second note: the start of the Kumano Kodo is a steep uphill climb. It’s series of stone and root stairs, with not a lot of flat space or saddles to relax your muscles. Stretch. Stretch before you climb! I did not, and I started to struggle with the constant incline. From Takijiri-oji to our first stop at Takahara it was just over 4km. We paused to climb through the cave that was said to symbolize giving birth, and paused for our stamp books at the small designated shrine boxes.

The sun was setting as we reached Takahara. The rough path turned to a road, and suddenly we were up above the trees and looking down into a glorious valley of green. The beauty of late spring was everywhere, the hills stretching out into the distance. We paused, soaking in the sun and the view. I found a bench near the small community center, and sat under the giant carp flags flapping lazily overhead. A large chorus of frogs sang in the small ravines below me, and farmers worked in rice flats and vegetable patches.

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We were so lucky, I thought, to get to stay in such an idyllic spot. Little did I know that our accommodations for the night would be some of the best I have ever used. We stayed in a small cabin called Suzushiro, rented by a lovely family in the small hamlet. Our host, Kashiwagi-san, walked us over and gave us a tour of the tiny home. He said he would return to bring us our boxed dinner we had ordered. As Liam and I oohed and aahed over how well everything fit together in the small space, I went out onto the patio and immediately decided I could live at Suzushiro forever.  The views, the fragrant tea fields, the singing frogs – everything was picture perfect.

I had assumed when I bought the additional meal option with our tour that we would be eating simple bento boxes – rice balls, dried fish, mushrooms, etc. I did not anticipate a luxury bento filled with tempura, udon, and our our individual sukiyaki pots! It was more than I could have hoped for. Liam and I ate like monarchs and reveled in our food, which tasted like ambrosia after bus sandwiches, black 7-11 coffee, and steep hiking.

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As I fell asleep, I was aware of my own contentment. It’s a rare feeling, contentment. I knew that the real hiking would begin at dawn the next day, but as I drifted off to the sounds of frogs and the sensation of being held in the night I paused and allowed myself to be fully present and happy in the moment. Small victories.

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Off-Nagano: Komoro and Karuizawa

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Up till now I have been all about the trains in Japan, but let me take a moment to point out the economic option of the bus. Boyfriend and I had a weekend getaway planned in Nagano to see the koto (changing of the leaves) and the Shinkansen was set to get me there fast and expensive. That’s when Tori suggested the bus.

I’m a little prejudiced by bus trips in America. I’ve done Megabus (several successful trips, two broken buses), Coach USA (great airport bus before it cancelled service to my area), and plenty of long distance school bus trips. Buses are…fine. They do not have the sleek speed of Japan’s famed high-speed Shinkansen.

Still, the bus fare was much cheaper than taking the high-speed train, and I couldn’t argue with having more money to spend while on vacation, so we headed to Komoro on the JR Bus.

It’s comforting to know that bus culture translates. Unlike the Japanese metro, where the collective social weight of silence sits on everyone’s shoulders, the bus was full of more chatty Japanese people. They were definitely of an older bent (boyfriend and I might have been the youngest people on the bus), and they had their bentos and stories and they kept laughing and being happy for the three hour trip.

Let me move on, however, to the actual getaway.

We stayed at this AirBnb, a cabin at the base of the mountain, pretty removed from the town. It’s dark, quiet, and just about perfect for a couple looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Our hostess was very accommodating and friendly, which helped since we got in so late.

On saturday we climbed Mt. Kurofuyama, a peak adjacent to the sort-of active volcano, Mt. Asama. We took a bus from near our AirBnB property to Takamine Kogen (a large ski resort and onsen at the top of Mt. Takamine), and hiked over and up from there. There are two courses – the Omote and Naka. We started with the Omote, which is slightly longer and curves up the side of the ridge, as opposed to cutting up the mountainside. It was cold, and started to spit snow pellets at us as we climbed. I did not mind it, but I did have to get used to hiking at a sudden high altitude (2000m) – my brain and body felt slightly disconnected as we climbed.

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We were lucky when the sun came out! It went from grey and snowy to brisk and sunny during our climb and hike along the ridge. We even got to see all of Mt. Asama, and the surrounding Nagano prefecture. It’s a beautiful scene, though you can see the effect of the eruption – pyroclast dots the landscape and there is a clear line where the tree-line was flattened. We joined the small group of tourists at the summit and had our beers and homemade trail mix. We walked on ahead down the ridge line, but turned around before we got to Jakotsudake.

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For the return trip, we took the shorter Naka path. This path is a little steeper and cuts through some beautiful forest. The views are not as grand – more peaceful and relaxing. There are also fewer manmade steps, so this path might be more challenging for climbers who rely on Japanese-style wooden stairs for stability.

As we walked back to the bus stop, we opted to go to the Takamine Onsen. It’s a natural sulphuric hot spring, small cafe, and store. The hot spring was very small – one room for men, one for women, each with two small baths (hot and lukewarm). The view was beautiful, though I embarrassed myself because I used a hair dryer to dry myself off (I forgot to ask for a towel). The water was wonderful after several hours of cold weather climbing – it warmed me right to my bones and thawed my sinuses.

IMPORTANT – THERE IS ONLY ONE BUS THAT GOES DOWN FROM TAKAMINE. DO NOT MISS THIS BUS.

That night, we roasted apples and I taught the British Boyfriend how to make s’mores. It was delightful. I love the smell of fire and leaves – it fills me with nostalgia for growing up in the Midwest.

Sunday was real koyo viewing at Komoro and Karuizawa

Komoro was a very easy tour – the castle is just on the left of the train station (on the south, if you’re on a map). It’s an odd assortment – castle grounds, a small zoo, and a children’s amusement park. There is even a museum containing samurai armor, weaponry, and Japanese kimono specimens. Entrance to the grounds is 400 yen, and the museum entrance fee is extra.

The grounds are really pretty, and there are a couple of viewing stations where you can see the surrounding mountain ranges. It’s quite a view, and you can even see Fuji poking up in the distance. I swear, it’s like you can’t escape Fuji on a good day. It makes places touting “a view of Fuji” seem less and less impressive. I’m almost 80 miles from Fuji, and I can still see it! Anyway, the koyo were striking.

Side note: I would maybe skip the zoo. Most of the animals look ok, but they have one or two in cages that look unfortunately small. It might make you uneasy to see. The zoo does cost extra (which explains a lot).

Having seen every colored leaf in Komoro, we hopped on the train for a jaunt to Karuizawa. If Komoro is the Covered Bridge Festival in Indiana, Karuizawa would be the…I’ve never been to Aspen, but I bet it’s like Aspen. Resort town full of big, beautiful houses, lots of expensive customized honey stores, people walking around with beautiful mountain dogs.

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And don’t forget the rickshaw ride! (Note: I don’t do the rickshaw rides)

Boyfriend and I rented tourist bikes (so cheap – 2600 yen for two hours of riding around) and made a circuitous route around Karuizawa’s town center. I was surprised by all the churches and retreats dotted throughout the area – I later learned that the town had a large Christian community in its history. This whole day appealed to my lightweight adventurer side – the part of me that wanted to be active, but not too active. Biking around a sunny autumnal forest, parking to look at lakes and peruse artisan milk and honey shops (but not buying any of it) made me feel very catalog.

We went back to Komoro to catch the JR bus back to Tokyo. As I ate my supermarket sushi and tried to think past the cold growing in my throat, I closed my eyes and reflected on a well-done getaway. It’s difficult when work doesn’t give you more than a weekend to enjoy yourself. If you plan ahead and aren’t worried about using late night buses (or high speed trains if you’re feeling fancy), you can escape the city and get away to the mountains.

And make sure you know when your last train leaves for home from Shinjuku Station! Don’t want to spend the night in the station or a capsule hotel.

 

 

A Weekend of Cultural Woofs

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Sakura season is coming to an end – by the time this goes to print I think all but the sturdiest cherry blossoms will have been stripped by the powerful winds that have been blowing through Yokohama/Tokyo the past few days. I have a sort of philosophy about Sakura and why it’s so popular here in Japan, but I will save that for another post.

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I took a weekend to enjoy some cultural events in the Tokyo area.

First, I headed to Naka-Meguro after getting a Facebook suggested post. It said, “Go to the Danish Royal Embassy and see the floral arrangements!” So off I went. I’ve never been around Naka-Meguro that much. It reminded me of Chicago’s North side a little bit, full of boutiques and a multinational collection of restaurants. Just outside the Embassy a giant tree was losing its leaves, so I got the strangest conflict of impressions, as the street, temperature, and scents made me think of autumn, even though spring was all around

The cost of the Danish exhibit “YELL” is 500 yen. And let me say, it’s worth it if you have the time to spare (it runs till April 27).

On the eternal debate between flowers and chocolate, I fall firmly in the flowers camp. There’s more variety with flowers, better smells, and as neither chocolate nor flowers last forever I’d prefer to have the colors and variety. Looking at master arrangements can be just as thought-provoking as more traditional artwork, and Mr. Bergmann’s arrangements evoke a range of emotions, from austere wheat spheres to loud and brash collections of stems and blooms. I was impressed with the sheer variety of plants on display.

I also enjoyed the temporary structure of the gallery – pine and canvas that suggested camping and emphasized the fleeting nature of the installments. I love it when space and purpose meet. I bet I’m not alone in this thought…

There are other pieces as well, as there appears to be an upcoming celebration of Danish-Japanese relations in May (I would link to the websites, but they are all coming up as “suspicious” by my virus software. I don’t want to post bad links). When I get more information, I will try to post it here.

After the Danish exhibit, I headed further into Tokyo to attend the second of my cultural events – the 10th annual Tokyo Wan-Wan Festival in Yoyogi Park! What’s a Wan-Wan?

Why this is!

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It’s the Japanese interpretation of a dog’s bark. I think it’s fun to compare how something as “universal” as a dog’s bark gets translated across the globe. I believe I read somewhere that dogs bark in different languages (*Google search* yep, here is an example). And the Japanese take almost too good care of their dogs. Clothes, strollers, custom grooming – these are the fanciest of dogs.

I miss my own dogs. It’s one of the hardest things about living abroad; leaving all my animals behind. So this was my opportunity to shamelessly pet some fluffy doges, doggos, and puppers. The festival was far larger than I anticipated, with rows of dog-related stalls selling custom treats, leashes, and clothing. There was a space for showing off the well-groomed dogs, a space for demonstrating tricks, and at least two or three other spaces the purposes of which I did not figure out.

This is obviously my shameless attempt to lure readers with pictures of dogs. Here you go:

 

After this, I went to Shibuya to meet up with some coworkers. I took a final photo of another, more famous dog, and went out for a night of carousing. Nomihodai (all you can drink), combini beers, and some mucking about in the famous crowded crossing of Shibuya square. I met some of my former students, and was luckily not so drunk as to agree to go clubbing with them. I also met an “avant-garde” jazz musician who was photographing his cover art along one of the avenues.

All in all, this was a fine day.  Sometimes I fear that I get so caught up in the day-to-day of working in Japan that I forget that I’m actually living in Japan. When I was in China, there were not many means of getting out of my city, but everything was so utterly different that my daily life did not have a recognizable routine. Here it’s different. I have co-workers, a full day of classes, and a pattern that repeats itself. My company enjoys and promotes this sort of unchanging repetition I believe, and that’s alright. Nevertheless, it’s important to take the opportunity to go out into the world, especially when the world offers such wonderful sights.

Nikko Part 1: Uphill Always

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Today I awoke to a pristine mountain morning – far earlier than I intended. It turns out that when in completely unknown circumstances my imagination really lets loose. I woke up twice thinking there were hunter spiders in the room, and really all it takes is twice to ruin a night’s rest. So I awoke at dawn tired, but filled with a sense of purpose. I was going to see some temples before the tourist buses arrived.

The 5 million kilometer walk downhill was much easier, as anticipated. I took a back way that cut off 15 minutes of walking time, since I did not need to go back to the train station. It also unexpectedly cut out all food options. I arrived at the Inari-gawa bridge, just off my destination, without finding a single café. Luckily, my rental came stocked with welcome snacks – dried dates stuffed with walnuts. They wouldn’t last me long if I didn’t find anything within the temple complex. But then, in my experience where there are tourists, there are food vendors.

Nikko’s most famous attraction, apart from its rugged natural beauty, is Toshogu shrine. While there are many famous sights in the area, Toshogu Shrine is what earned Nikko a place on the World Heritage Site list. My plan was to see Toshogu and all the heavily trafficked places early in the morning, and then hike up to find Takino’o Shrine, as I had read that it was largely not crowded but also beautiful. My second reason for wanting to beat the crowds concerned the season. Fall is a big tourist season in Japan, especially out in the mountains when the leaves start changing. Much like the hanami parties in the spring, flocks of tourists come out to look at the flaming and golden Japanese maples. I had no desire to be shuffling along in that mess.

I made it to the sites just as they opened (8am). The parking lot already had cars in it, and there was one tour group already passing up into Toshogu when I arrived. I got some good photos, and took all the “required” tourist pictures. Chief among them? The “see no, hear no, speak no evil” monkey engraving. The original monkeys are somewhere on the site, but as the whole shrine is under construction they could not be seen. There is a lot of gold leaf, and some really beautiful painted engravings all along the walls of the shrine.

Note: Entering Toshogu costs 1300 yen (about $13.00). You get to see some beautiful architecture, but there is a lot of scaffolding and restoration going on.

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Oh! I finally started filling my calligraphy/seal book (shuinchō). The monks/priests in two of the Nikko shrines put in their markings – one for the Toshogu shrine, the other for the Roaring Dragon Shrine. And because I have my own book, the on site cost is considerably less – only 300 yen each!

Another note: You can buy calligraphy books at temples, or at tourist shops. They vary in price. I bought mine at a religious store in Minatomirai (Yokohama) for 1900 yen. I saw them at Toshogu for 2100 yen.

I wandered around, fighting hunger. I listened to the “roaring dragon,” a trick involving the acoustics of the roaring dragon temple. Standing under the dragon and banging two sticks together reverberates, making the dragon appear to “roar.” I can’t tell if it’s a gimmick for tourists or something that was believed at one point. I mean, the ceiling has the dragon painted on its length, so perhaps it was always a point of reverence. It felt a little more like a tourist grab when I saw it. I wonder how faith and ceremony alter when you begin to incorporate tourism into the mix.

In any case, when I finally left Toshogu, there were vendors at the exit selling hot vegetable soup and mochi balls. I lack the space here to wax poetic about the vegetable soup, but I will try. It’s chilly. I’ve been walking for about two hours, and I’ve eaten two dried dates with walnuts. For a mere 300 yen, a man gives me a bowl filled with hot broth, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, tofu, and probably radish or turnip. I sprinkle some chili flakes on top. Let me tell you – it was Heavenly. Or Nirvana-esque, or…I’m not sure what the Shinto version of paradise is *Google check* Takama-ga-Hara.

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Sated and saving the mochi for later, I walk over to Futarasan shrine. According to my map, I should be able to walk around behind it and eventually wind up on the path the Takino’o. Futarasan is less crowded than Toshogu, but also far simpler in terms of architecture and grandeur. It also seems far more functional. Is that intentional? And I found the path, wandering up the side of Futarasan.

In a way, it reminds me of being in Sequoia National Park, or Kings Canyon National Park. The ancient towering cedar trees glow in the morning light with the moss on their trunks. Old dark stone steps climb higher and higher up, and the air is crisp and clean. I may not be a climber, but I appreciate a good hike, and this path does not disappoint. Not too strenuous, plenty of gorgeous scenery – this is exactly why I came to Nikko.

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And then I had to walk back down.  This surprised me, as reviews suggested the shrine was at the top of the mountain. Nooope.

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It occurred to me, rounding a bend to reach Takino’o, that I had just walked the entire hill in vain. There are two paths to Takino’o – the more arduous up and down of the hill, or the relative flatness of the service road/main path leading from the parking lot near Toshogu. I was mildly put out, but then I consoled myself with how my harder won victory would make me all the more appreciative of my final destination.

I was right on that point – Takino’o was removed enough from the temple complex that there were very few people there. I stopped and spoke with a Frenchwoman, who was waiting for the path to clear of the couple in front of us so she could take some more atmospheric pictures.

“Do you know the story of the stones?” She asked me.
“Yes,” I respond. “You throw a stone through the hole in the gate, and your wish will come true.”
“I did it,” she said. “And I missed.”
“You could always try again,” I said. “No one would know.”
“It’s alright,” she replied stoically. “I’m ok with missing.”

I felt that was a very French way of handling the situation.

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As this post has gotten quite lengthy, I’ll wrap it up here and continue on from Tokino’o (including my walk back to my house…uphill. Always uphill.)