Two nights in Kiso Fukushima

We’re getting pretty good at trains.

At Kyoto station we locate our train quickly and realize we have some time to kill. We go find snacks for the train. Bottled green tea for her. I find a good looking ekiben with fried chicken and rice.

We don’t want to stand around on the train platform so we look around the station for a place to buy something in exchange for some time in a chair. We see a Starbucks which we shun immediately. Starbucks is Starbucks, even in Japan. We start to walk away, but I spot the tell-tell sign of hanging lanterns down a little hallway next to the Starbucks. Train bar!

We get a table in the bar next to a man who is three or four beers in. He is visibly drunk and gregarious but not loud or rude. We have tea and then large Sapporo beers. Our friend at the other table has another beer and another as we leave.

We board the bullet train to Nagoya, settle into our seats, and we zip out of the station. It feels like we’re out in the countryside almost immediately. I try to focus on these journals but I’m distracted by the speed of the train and the fall colors flashing by. Instead I tuck into my lunch and enjoy the landscape.

At Nagoya we change trains to a Japan Rail line for the rest of our trip into the mountains. We are deeper into the mountains, the sky is blue, and the trees gleam yellow and red. A young businessman sits across the aisle from me and dozes.

The station at Kiso Fukushima is a small platform and a small station building. We take the stairs down under the platform and out through the station onto the street. Our hotel is almost directly across the street which is directly across from a high wall of tree-covered mountains.

We scoot across the street and let ourselves behind the curtains and through the sliding front door to find darkness. The building is quiet, the lights are off, our luggage waits by the stairs wearing pink delivery tags hanging in plastic sleeves. Check in is not until 3pm and they mean it.

We are running low on cash so we slip back out the sliding doors, slip our shoes back on and check Google for a nearby ATM. We find one nearby and start walking. I spot the momma-cat-carrying-baby-cat logo of our luggage forwarding service and realize our bags must have been there just hours ago.

The town lay in a valley and the train station and hotel are up on a ridge over the main town. To get down to the grocery store with our precious ATM we have to wind down some zig-zagging steps and through a parking lot. We find the ATM through the rear sliding door of the grocery store; we both try to get cash and fail.

I try once more, tapping a button on the screen marked “International” and presto. We have cash again.

Back up the hill by the hotel we find a small restaurant. I think we’re lucky they are open, but then I think that perhaps they’re serving train passengers who arrive in between meal times.

The restaurant is prepared for foreign tourists with a giant vending machine with labels and pictures of items to order. Find what you want, insert some money and get a ticket. Put the ticket on a tray with a wooden plaque with a number on it. Take the matching number to your table. Your order comes to find you. We drink large beers and talk and scan the travel guides and local papers lining a shelf near our table.

After two beers we gamble that the hotel is ready for us. We are greeted by a gracious man in a kimono who helps us check in. He provides us with our key (a real key on a wood keychain, not an electronic card) and directs to a small elevator to go up one floor. When we arrive on our floor he has sprinted upstairs to meet us. He shows us our room and explains where dinner is served and how the air conditioning works and how the bath works.

We are staying in a samurai movie. The floors are tatami mats. Rooms are partitioned with screens. The furniture is low to the ground for kneeling or sitting crosslegged. The center of the room holds a table and chairs while our futon beds wait in the closet for later. We make tea and stare out our giant window at the mountain for a little while.

My wife tries the bath. The bath is on a  raised wooden platform over a concrete floor with drainage. So you step up into the bathroom onto the platform. At one end is another large picture window with a screen made of reeds for privacy. The traditional sitting shower is close to the window. At the other end is an enormous wooden bathtub. On the wall above the bath is a tiny control panel. Tap a glowing button, the control panel chirps happily, and begins filling your tub with hot spring water. The tub is almost cube, 3’ x 3’ x 4’ or thereabouts. Deep enough that I can rest my head on the edge while sitting comfortably on the bottom.

The water smells of minerals and a bit of sulphur. The water is hot and melts your bones and softens your joints.

While she bathed I try on the hotel-provided toe-socks and lay flat on the tatami mats to doze.   We traded places. I took a bath while she napped. I let my bones soften in the hot mineral water while I watch the window fog over.

It’s now time for dinner and we join the other hotel guests in a large dining room. The man who helped us to our room is doing double duty as a waiter. He explains how the dinner will work, many small courses, and takes our drink order. Wine for her, Sake for me, also tea.

A small cauldron of “local soup” (local vegetables? local broth?) arrives followed by nine courses and then dessert. The courses are themed:

I believe that it is important to note that the rice dish comes with an additional miso soup in addition to the previously mentioned local soup.

Each course was small but contributed to a very full belly.

After dinner my convinced me that we should go see the town. I resisted. I would rather go see the tub again.

But we got dressed and headed downstairs to the front door. We explained as best we could that we wanted to walk around the town. The bewildered man who has been helping us all day clearly thought we were insane. This is because he knew what we didn’t: Kiso Fukushima goes to bed early. The town was dark, silent, and cold. Nothing was open, no lights on anywhere. We returned to the hotel. I tried very hard not to say “I told you so” but I may have failed.

In the morning breakfast was served in the same dining room but this time breakfast was an endless pot of green tea and an elaborate bento box with many, many compartments.

We gathered ourselves up and headed across the street to the train station.

The uniformed men behind the counter helped us buy tickets to Nakatsugawa.  We slipped through the gate and back upstairs to the platform we arrived on yesterday.  The train is late. This never happens. Maybe it’s to be expected. We’re in a small, rural, mountain town. Oh here it is. Three minutes late.

The trains are so reliable and the schedules so tight that a three minute delay caused us to miss our connecting bus by one minute. Once we figured out where we were supposed to be, we saw the bus pulling away. Instead we caught a cab to Magome.

We are here to hike along the old Nakasendo Way. The Nakasendo one of five trade routes from the Edo period. The Nakasendo connected Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo).  Along the way are many post towns which fed and sheltered travelers. Some sections of the route remain unchanged and have been declared National Historic Sites. Perfect for day hikes

Our taxi driver knew exactly what we were up to and drove us right to where we needed to be. We found the sign pointing to Tsumago and followed it to a stone path between historical shops and homes. We stopped at Hillbilly Coffee for some excellent pour-over coffee and watched a film crew prepare for a shoot just outside the door. The trail was covered with fake snow, cables, cameras, lights, bounce cards, actors,and crew. A man with white gloves and a uniform waved us around the commotion and we were on our way.

The trail starts uphill gently through the town. The buildings disappear quickly. The paving stones become river stone, which becomes gravel. Soon we’re walking through the forest. The small crowd on the trail spread out until we were alone in a forest on a mountain in the middle of Japan.

Along the way we cross streams pushing small waterwheels, pass waterfalls, ring bells to scare away bears, and generally just lose ourselves until we encounter a group of tourists coming the other direction. Who are these people and what are they doing on my trail?

Past the tourists, we arrive in the next little town along the way, Tsumago. We arrive in another historically preserved little village of homes and shops and emerge in a parking lot by a bus station. We realize we have some time to kill before the bus arrives, so we head back into the little historic town to find an iced coffee to go. With our iced coffees, we walk around trying to find some place to occupy ourselves and end up in the not-so-historic part of town and find a little restaurant-bar-curio shop, order two beers, and rest our legs. After our beers we decide it’s probably best to be close to where buses tend to be and return to the bus station. As we arrive we find a taxi has magically appeared, seemingly waiting just for us.

Back at the hotel we dressed in the traditional robes provided for us and went downstairs to soak in the onsen baths for before dinner.  The next morning we packed and boarded the train to Nagano, then caught a train back to Tokyo to fly home.

I kept the toe socks.

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