Like most of post-tsunami Japan, the streets of Tsumago lay empty, very unusual for the tourist magnet this picture-friendly town is.
Walking into town from Magome felt like walking on the set of a wind-blown deserted street of a spaghetti western, minus the tumbleweed. If not for the tarmac, you could easily believe you’d stepped back in time.
More than two hundred years ago, Tsumago, Magome and other small post towns flourished because they were useful links between Edo, seat of power for the shogun, and Kyoto, where the imperial palace was. There were 69 of these post towns along the way. Then came progress, the Chuo railway line which bypassed the towns and the gradual erosion of population and interest in small towns like these in favour of the bright lights of Tokyo or Osaka.
They languished for a while, faded and forgotten until tourism changed the whole equation. The decision was made to preserve the town’s dark brown wooden streetscapes that had not changed in hundreds of years. Houses were faithfully restored, telephone and power lines were buried, cars were not allowed on the streets to preserve authenticity. The facades of Terashita no Machinami – the street of old houses – remain much as it did more almost two hundred years ago.
Today, the town is a beautiful living musuem set in the lushly green Kiso valley. Thanks to tourism, the area is again humming with visitors. The section of the Nakasendo is once more in use – not by couriers and peasants and samurai, but by visitors – Japanese and international alike – who want to walk in days of old. Every single house is owned and there is a charter that prohibits the sale or demolition of any building in the town.
Just as it used to, Tsumago continues to host travelers in inns and minshukus, drawing visitors who would like to soak in historical ambience.
Earlier in the day, before we started the hike, we had dropped our bags off at Fujioto. Tsumago in the morning was as deserted as Tsumago in the afternoon – except for a very friendly cat out for a morning stroll. He was fat with a luxuriously thick coat of fur and a bottle brush tail that stood jauntily. A red collar clearly denoted that he belonged to somebody, which would also account for his familiarity with strangers. It reminded me so much of Tigerlily, who would also roam the neighbourhood after breakfast. Having just lost Tigerlily, it was a sweet moment to be able to stop and play with this guy.
When we dropped our bags off at Fujioto, firstly we were also very very early but they were kind enough to let us leave our bags there and even kinder yet to allow us to use their washing machine (it was brand new – we were the first to use it!) for our laundry.
While waiting for the cycles to complete, we walked around the first of two important buildings in Tsumago – the Tsumago-juku Honjin. This used to belong to the village headman, from the Shimazaki family. The famous Japanese novelist Toson Shimazaki’s mother came from this family. Nobles and feudal lords would spend the night here or in the Waki-Honjin. Structurally when you look at the house, only a very small area was dedicated to the family. The rest was for VIP visitors and their retainers and servants. There was even a separate entrance for these VIPs.
But while the grounds were spacious, I did not think it was as impressive as the Waki-Honjin which we visited later in the day.
Near the town’s iconic pine, and just in front of Shimosagaya minshuku where we stayed the previous night, is the other Shimogasaya, empty and typical in layout of a commoner’s house, complete with earthen floors and a small irori. It is not original, having been re-built in the late ’60s.
Like any small town, Tsumago also has its own small temple – Kotokuji temple, white-walled and on top of a small hill overlooking the town. Pity it was closed when we visited. But close by is a small shrine containing a huge rock with an image of a Jizo on it. The rock was found in the river just outside town. As usual, KH could never pass a shrine without stopping to pay his respects.
It was a beautiful day in Tsumago and I was happy to see that the sakura in the heart of town at least were in bloom.
The star attraction in Tsumago is probably the Waki Honjin. Sprawling over two lots, this building is still owned by the Hayashi family, who come from a long line of samurai. Known as Okuya, the building was made of hinoki cypress in 1877. I guess they must have jumped at the chance to use hinoki cypress after the Meiji Restoration lifted the ban on cypress as building material.
The Waki Honjin existed as the inn of choice for retainers of the daimyos travelling the Nakasendo. Inside is a special toilet that was built specifically for the visit of the Meiji emperor. Alas after all the effort, it was not used and the emperor only stepped in for a brief visit and some tea before leaving. We had a lovely guide who gave us a very interesting tour in English.
To visit the Waki Honjin and the Honjin, there is a combined ticket of 700yen. Worth it because the Waki Honjin’s entrance fee alone was 600yen! The combined ticket also includes entry into the excellent museum at the back of the Waki Honjin – the Shiryokan which exhibited the history of Kisoji. There were English signage and explanatory notes on the exhibits – rare for Japan. Had we not been pressed for time, I would have loved to linger.
But it was getting late and we were due at the lovely Fujioto.
Warmly welcomed by the owner, Mr Fujihara, we were given a very beautiful large room which fronted the house and had views of both gardens. Once up the stairs, it seemed like the entire section was given to us. The room also had a tiny rather precarious-looking balcony that overlooked the garden and pond.
Dinner too was a feast. The Fujihara have run Fujioto for at least two or three generations.
Sayaka Fujihara, the daughter of the house was serving dinner and revealed that her father, who speaks several languages including English, French and Spanish fluently, fronts the ryokan while the rest of the family help out. Her brother who is less gregarious than she is, cooks and runs the backroom operations with her mother.
Sayaka, who lived in the US for a few years, is a warm and outgoing personality. For the first time in Japan, I felt that I understood what I was eating and I felt comfortable and at home with a kaiseki meal. She took pains to explain to us, delighting in giving us the background of the food we ate and how we could eat them. After so many meals of ayu sweet fish, I finally learned how to eat this and to enjoy it without fear of choking on a bone.
One highlight of the meal is this little pile of brownish black bits on the blue dish. Sayaka refused to tell us what it was until we’d tried it. I had a rough idea what it was but I was not squeamish to try. It’s hachinoko – wasp larvae! Marinated in a sweet sauce. It’s really pretty good – crunchy and sweet – if you can get over the idea of chewing on a bug! This trip is really full of unusual, interesting food and I’ve just added hachinoko to my list!
Sayaka added that hachinoko was really expensive because it was rare and hard to harvest. The larvae is chock full of protein and other nutrients and is said to be good for the complexion. Well, bring it on then!
Here’s the ayu: before and after. Sayaka showed us a nifty way of deboning the fish but warned that the fish had to be absolutely fresh before one could debone it this way.
Later after dinner, we took a short walk, venturing past the TI and Shimosagaya at the other end before turning back to Fujioto. There were no streetlamps and no electric lamps hanging outside the houses. Light, if any, came from dim lanterns.
A walk through the dark lantern-lit street of Tsumago at night in a yukata is as close as you would get to an Edo time warp. We had a torch but we saw a few people carrying lanterns which we envied – that would surely have added to the atmosphere.
Still, the dark and the stillness, the utter quiet, with the shuttered shophouses and the lack of human activity in the street, just combined to give me the chills. Too atmospheric for me. My imagination was working overtime and I half expected to see samurai with their two swords or a maiden with an umbrella popping up round the corner. Truth be told, I was quite happy to return to the warm lights of Fujioto.