We spent our last two nights in Japan in the sleepy alps town of Tsumago along the Nakasendo, the pathway that connected Tokyo to Kyoto in the Edo period.
We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Sleep was on thin futons on tatami mats, bathrooms were shared, and food was sensational. We’d been looking for this meal during our five weeks in Japan and were over the moon to experience it as our grand sayonara to the country.
To spend the last few days hiking from one small village to another, evenings strolling in traditional robes through the quiet cobblestone streets before sitting down to an amazing spread of new foods (baby wasps…really!) was the perfect way to reflect on our time in Japan.
Now five weeks is truly not enough time to understand a culture so private. These are my novice impressions.
We’ve been out of Japan for two weeks and I’m still bowing. It’s embarrassing to the children. The respectful bowing, the singing chant of “irashaimase” (welcome) when you walk into a store, the multiple “arigatou gazaimasu” (thank you very much) after making a purchase will ring in my ears for years to come. It’s easy to leave it at that…a simple retail interaction however we have so many examples of people going out of their way to help us. We were chased down twice when the kids left a travel bag behind. When we perplexingly looked at a subway map people stopped to offer help. And our guesthouse hosts went above and beyond to share the culture with us.
We were struck by the level of attention to detail around us. If you purchase a baked good, it is wrapped in a small plastic bag, taped, put into a larger bag and taped again. An apple resting in a styrofoam cozy, on a plastic tray, wrapped in plastic. The ritual of detail could also be agonizing…both for the environment and for an American used to a speedy transaction.
We were struck in our Tokyo neighborhood of Setagaya how bicycles were left out by the dozens, unlocked. We watched children as young as six making their way to and from school on their own…on the subway…in Tokyo! Unimaginable to most Americans…whether it be for safety or helicopter parenting. However, in Japan, the level of order provides a safe environment for both unattended bicycles and more importantly, unattended children.
Plush stuffed animals sitting in the cabs of construction trucks. Maid cafes where girls in get ups speak in over the top high voices while fetching you coffee and calling you “master.” There seemed to be many contradictions — tough but cute, modest but sexy.
The most perplexing of all was Tanuki. We saw sculptures of Tanuki everywhere in the country and we were a little shocked by this fox like creature whose private parts are proudly on display. We finally learned that Tanuki is thought to bring good fortune and is a welcoming icon in front of businesses.
As we started our 2nd week in gritty, topsy-turvy Luang Prabang, Laos, Julia wistfully said “I miss Japan.” And I agree. I felt a peace and balance there that I believe is unique to the land of the rising sun.
Fuijito Royakan, in Tsumago, is a special place. The owners are on site, involved in every detail. While the rooms are simple, the property is beautiful and the food is simply the best. It was quite pricey, this was our planned last hurrah in Japan and worth every penny.
The ryokan provides a large breakfast and a very large dinner. We skipped lunch to save ourselves for the dinner. The menu for one of the evenings is noted below. Incredible.
Besides chilling with tea and a good book, a trek from Tsumago to Magome is in order. It’s an easy 8k hike one way though picturesque countryside. Bears are said to live in the woods and there are bells to ring along the way. You can chose to round trip it or take a taxi or bus one way. We took a taxi to Magome and then hiked back to avoid the mostly uphill trek in the opposite direction. We owned the path that day and cherish that quiet meander.