We had a very odd western breakfast in Matsumoto with a really bizarre array of dishes, but at least we had good views out over the city from the top floor restaurant. Afterwards we were a little rushed to get to the station but the hotel minibus driver was shouting to us to indicate that it was free and she’d get us to the station, so we had time to relax before our train at the station and pick up some bento boxes to serve as lunch on the journey. The train took 2 hours, very slowly rolling through the Kiso valley to the west of Matsumoto and into the mountains before we got to Tsumago.
Tsumago is a village located on the Nakasendo Highway, an old postal and trade route that covers all the way from Kyoto to Tokyo and was used in Samurai times. Tsumago was a post town and even now retains the very traditional appearance that it would have had back then. It is the equivalent of a National Trust village, but exceptionally authentic aside from some of the old buildings operating as souvenir shops and a small number of cars parked nearby.
We got a taxi to the Daikichi ryokan on one end of town and dropped our bags off and got shown around. This was by far the most traditional accommodation of the trip. Our room was a small tatami affair and we shared a bathroom and toilet down the hallway with the 3 other rooms on the lower floor. We quickly threw on some hiking gear and packed up a bag and had them call us a taxi to Magome, the next post town in the valley so that we could walk some of the Nakasendo Highway. We were a little nervous because of the light rain and the rolling thunder from deeper into the valley but we were determined to have a go.
The taxi dropped us near Magome pass, making our journey a little shorter than if we’d gone all the way into Magome. Initially this was an annoyance but within seconds of arriving the drizzle turned to rain and then the rain turned to an almighty thunderstorm. I’d never been walking in anything quite like it, let alone on some slippery and unfamiliar paths that I’d heard were badly signposted. Luckily for us we were pretty well prepared and the signage turned out to be pretty reasonable. We had some waterproof sacks in our bags that we loaded everything into but even these were damp by the end of the walk. We bailed out our rucksacks a couple of times along the way too.
The walk took us just over 2 hours and went through some tiny villages in the valley and passed a couple of waterfalls. You could really get the sense that you were walking a very old route that many people would have had to undertake over the years, and they wouldn’t have had light waterproof jackets and trousers! At the end of the walk we slowly strolled through Tsumago which itself was bigger than we’d expected and incredibly authentic. We then changed out of our wet clothes, surveyed the soaked cash that hadn’t been stuffed away and lamented what happens to an iphone screen in the pocket of a waterproof jacket. We then shared a hot bath and got into our yukata for dinner.
We had high expectations for the food as this was meant to be one of the highlights of the trip and it didn’t disappoint. Along with a variety of dishes, we ended up eating grasshoppers, a whole trout (including head and tail) and some horse. I asked the Japanese gentleman dining near me what fish the red meat was. He explained it was horse. I then asked what the white fish was. Also horse. The white portion was the fat from the back of the neck apparently. We ended up sharing a lot of conversation with him over dinner about what we’d been doing in Japan, why we had come and about the food and his own history with visiting England (Milton Keynes no less!) as he had excellent English and was a lot of fun. After the meal we headed back to the room, lay our futons out on the tatami mats and got an early night.
I was pleased at this point to think that I’d not only survived the food in the ryokans where I’d have no choice in what I was given, but I’d also enjoyed a large amount of the food and some of it was truly wonderful. Google street view had shown me that once we got to Kyoto afterwards that there would be a Burger King opposite our hotel should it come to the worst (well, the worst is actually McDonalds) and that we’d finally be back in the land of fall-back options.