Despite Japan shaping our concept of what "Asia" was like during our formative years (Godzilla and samurai movies, anime, sushi, Picky, Iron Chef, etc.), we'd only yet passed through Japan on our way to and from the USA. We were a bit nervous about visiting, since we knew that 1) English speakers and signs were going to be less prevalent, 2) places were going to be cramped and hectic even by Southeast Asian standards, and 3) costs for everything were going to be higher than during our usual jaunts to developing nations. So, of course, we found an itinerary that basically dialed all of these concerns up to eleven, and dove in head first.
In 1603 the first Shogun to unify Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, moved the imperial capital from Kyoto in the southwest to Edo, which was renamed as "Tokyo". He required that all court officials maintain residences in both cities, and spend alternate years in each (largely as a means of keeping them away from their political strongholds and reducing their strength... not dissimilar to the court at Versailles). As a result, two imperial roads were established along existing highways: the Tokaido which went south along the coast before cutting inland, and the Nakasendo that went southwest over the Japanese alps. As more and more court officials used the road, post towns developed which attracted more travelers. At its height there were 69 towns full of ryokan (inns) and onsens (hot spring baths).
In the early 20th century much of the original Nakasendo trail was converted to rail lines and highways as trains and automobiles became more prevalent during Japan's aggressive campaign of modernization. Many of the post towns chose to embrace modern industries and replaced the ancient inns with modern shops and apartment blocks. In the 1960's the government of Japan began to restore some of the remaining sections of the Nakasendo trail, improving the trail itself but also providing support to the remaining authentic post towns and to the family-run inns, some of which have been in continuous operation since the 1600's. Some of these towns now have strict building codes restricting building materials and methods to what would have been used in the 17th and 18th century, preserving the historic and cultural legacy of the Edo period of Japan.
Because Japan's high-speed rail system is amazing, tourists interested in hiking the "nice" parts of the Nakasendo can start their tour in either Tokyo or Kyoto, since from either city it's a relatively short ride on the Shinkansen bullet train to the first trailhead. We decided to honor the spirit of our "wandering samurai vacation" and do an open-jaw trip in which we flew into Kyoto (more accurately Osaka, and then took a bus to Kyoto), hike the trail towards Tokyo, and then fly straight from Tokyo back home to Singapore.
To start, we had a full day of exploring the ancient capital of Kyoto. Our guest house was nestled between palaces and temples, with our room being in the attic of a small house. It was the first of many nights sleeping on futon bedrolls on tatami floors, and somehow no children managed to fall off the steep ladder that led up to our room.
The first morning we enjoyed an elaborate breakfast with a delightfully absurd array of little bites and morsels, about half of which we could identify. This set the stage for the food on the rest of the trip, which was both amazing and inscrutable.
|We could fully identify about 25% of breakfast|
We then ventured out out to explore the nearby Higashi Hongan-ji temple (essentially the Vatican for one of the two dominant sub-sects of Buddhism), the Shosei-en gardens (a traditional garden with tea-houses used by shoguns, emperors, and the abbott of the Higashi Hongan-ji temple), and - a surprise hit - the locomotive museum. It was the tail end of the cherry-blossom season in Kyoto, but the weather was still briskly chilly in the mornings and the trees were still mostly covered in white and pink flowers.
|Kids playing tag in front of the largest all-wooden building in the world|
|Apparently this is "past the peak" of spring.|
|This locomotive was just for show, but we did get to ride a steam train.|
Once we had sent our big bag on into the unknown we took a bus across town and visited the Kiyomizu Dera temple complex, a 1200-year-old UNESCO world heritage site bustling with tourists in rented kimonos taking selfies. There we also had a course of Japanese street food, including yakitori (meat on a stick), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), and sprite-flavored ice cream. After escaping the rain into a tea+coffee shop (it was actually a single drink, made with both tea and coffee. Not unpleasant, but don't need to do that again) we took a bus to a ramen shop that specialized in gluten-free noodles so that Elizabeth and Eldest Monkey could experience the real deal.
|A little rain wasn't enough to dampen our spirits|
|Korean tourists taking a selfie with our prop children|
|Michael is pondering how our kids got so weird.|
The next day, it was time to get on the trail!
|A beautiful day for a stroll through medieval Japan! Complete with an umbrella we bought at FamilyMart.|
We hiked down to the train station and rode to the first leg. For the next 5 days we mostly hiked from one train station to another, and then took a train or bus to an inn or a hotel where we changed into traditional robes (yukata) and slippers, took a _very_ hot bath, had a sumptuous multi-course dinner, and slept on bedrolls on tatami floors. We woke up to a sumptuous breakfast, and then made our way back to the trail.
|Ryokan breakfast. Dinner was even more elaborate.|
The later inns were very cozy, and the model of what you expect from traditional Japanese hospitality and lodging: impeccable service, wood and paper walls, and lots of green tea.
|Miyazaki movie night|
The trail itself varied between paving stones, soft mulch, rocky scrambles, paved trails through towns or following old railway beds, and dirt track along the side of country roads. We hiked through forests of bamboo, cyprus, and cedar and through fields and farms and flower gardens. We hiked beside rushing rivers littered with great white boulders, through medieval post towns filled with inns, noodle shops, and trinket sellers, and over mountain passes where patches of snow lingered in the shadows of ancient temples. Spring comes a little later in the mountains, and so were able to see valleys of cherry trees in peak bloom with gentle winds carrying a rain of white flower petals; as we got up to the higher passes we found budding forests that were poised to explode in color. All of this was framed against the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was aggressively beautiful.
|A representative section of trail.|
|Danger Monkey a.k.a. Asian Baby was confused by snow.|
|Next step: climb over those mountains!|
|Shinto gates and shrines were everywhere|
|An old carved marker. Still on the right trail!|
|We saw no bears. Probably because all three kids rang every bell.|
|Communing with the cherry blossoms|
|Matsumoto Castle is one of the 4 remaining original medieval castles. It is also SO PRETTY.|
|No one loves trains the way the Japanese love trains|
After five days of heavy exertion and tranquil beauty, our time on the trail was at an end. We arrived in Tokyo via the local train on Friday afternoon, checked in to our hotel to freshen up a bit, and braved the metro during rush hour to meet up with an old high-school friend of Michael's for a conveyor belt Sushi feast.
|Mt. Fuji is somewhere in that haze|
We then hiked through the neighborhood of Shinjuku, stopping to play wacky arcade games at the arcades that were already noisy and bustling at 11 AM.
Next was a bit of a scavenger hunt to find a cat cafe that allowed 3-year-olds, followed by a metro trip to the harbor to see the life-size Gundam Unicorn statue and visit the Museum of Emerging Science and Technology. There we played with various hands-on exhibits like a functional mechanical marble-run model of the internet, a working-backwards model and game for thinking about climate change, and an Asimo robotics demonstration.
|Hot cocoa goes great with kitties|
|Such meow. Much purr.|
|NT-D System enabled: Psycho frame ACTIVATED|
|Black and white balls stand for zeroes and ones|
And that wrapped up our time in Japan. It was even parts relaxing timeless hiking and whirlwind tour, we could have spent a whole week in Kyoto and probably a lifetime in Tokyo.
|Stopping to smell the flowers|