Having encountered so many sight-seers in Kyoto, we were anxious to get off the well-trodden tourist route, and so we tried a different technique for the Japan Alps. Throwing the Lonely Planet guide aside, we took a map of Japan and followed the Japan Rail train lines from Nara northeast into the heart of the Alps. At each little town along the way, we checked online for hostels and guesthouses until we found a couple of places that seemed interesting.
Our first stop was a town called Matsumoto. It was lovely seeing the countryside change as the journey progressed, the land pulling itself into creases, towns being tippled into valleys, and eventually the mountains heaving themselves free of the tangled life below. As the light dimmed, we pulled into Matsumoto station, where we picked up a few leaflets about the town. It was a nice surprise to discover that it was home to the oldest castle in Japan, so our plan for the next day took little effort.
We were to be staying in a ryokan that night – a traditional Japanese guesthouse. Higher end ryokan provide you with all your meals in your room and you can swan about in a kimono, but our budget didn’t stretch that far! The building itself looked quite new, and the walls inside were not made of rice paper screens, but there were woven straw mats on the floor, futon style beds and a low table with floor cushions to sit on. We debated whether to go out for dinner, but instead elected to get a take away meal and make the most of our dining area. We had a lovely Katsu curry, then spent a good couple of hours periodically running up and down the stairs checking whether the bathroom was free. Instead of individual showers, the set up here was more traditional. There was one large tiled room for bathing – there were four showers along the walls and a deep bath that was kept full of hot water at the back. There was no privacy at all; Japanese families would bathe together. Similar to the onsen (hot springs), the idea was that you got yourself scrupulously clean before having a soak in the bath.
In the morning we made our way into the town centre in search of the castle. At first, Matsumoto didn’t seem like the sort of place you would expect to find the oldest castle in Japan, most of the architecture being modern. However, we spotted one very old building jammed in between the concrete blocks. It was a second-hand bookstore, and it looked so inviting we just had to pop in for a look around. It was small, with a curving roof which was capped with two leaping stone fish, and seemed so improbable in the context of the rest of the street that it gave the impression of being a time machine that had landed and squeezed itself in amongst the buildings in the hope that no one would notice it. The contents of the shop were spilling out onto the street and inside it was even more disorderly. Shelves were stacked with yellowing tomes and towers of books and roughly bound paperbacks leaned in from either side, leaving a narrow passage for us to walk down. I spotted a pretty Japanese print of a harbour and decided to buy it. The owner was a very old man, possibly in his 90s, who merrily hobbled his way around the little shop and seemed to know where everything was in spite of the apparent chaos. He told us the book shop had been there for 80 years! We asked if he had any books of haiku poetry, thinking it might be a nice thing to have, and he rummaged around in a cupboard, before pulling out a tattered blue booklet, bound with a ragged ribbon. He spent a long time battling with the knot to get it undone, before opening it and showing us the price – 40,000 yen (about £200)! He told us it was written by a very famous poet and was well over a hundred years old. The paper was delicate and the handwriting was graceful, but even with the 50% discount he offered, it was way beyond our budget for something we couldn’t read! Nevertheless, he gave us another picture free with our 50p purchase, before pottering off to get a large piece of thick blue paper, which he folded into quarters. He then handed me a fat marker pen and asked me to write my full name, the date and the country I came from on it, which I presume then went into his collection of many years. Before leaving, we got a photo of him in his shop. He grinned and stuck his fingers into the ‘V’ for victory sign just as all the Japanese teenagers do!
The castle had a similar appearance to Osaka castle to European eyes, with floors of diminishing sizes stacked up like a layer cake and sloping roofs with curved tips. It was surrounded by moat, which was full of fat carp, which cruised around the perimeter hoping for food. We fed them a little bread and watched with a mixture of disgust and fascination as the waters seethed and their blubbery fish mouths gaped and slurped for the titbits.
In the grounds, we were greeted by a lady in a kimono and a man in full Samurai armour. We had to remove our shoes to go around the castle, as in so many places in Japan. The floor inside was really cold and Luke spent the time jigging about from one foot to the other as if he was tobbing for the loo! There was a large collection of firearms inside, many of which were really beautifully crafted and some of which were enormously heavy and cumbersome. There were the usual holes for windows that you see in European castles – the narrow ones used by archers and the square ones for muskets. The interior floors were held up by huge wooden pillars, and in the past there would have been screens dividing some of the levels into smaller rooms. One floor, the one which would have been used for storage of weapons and gunpowder, had no windows and so was hidden from the outside, giving the impression that there were fewer floors than there actually were. The steps that led from one floor to another were huge and very steep; even more so when you consider that Japanese people are not renowned for their height! You had to lift your knee almost to your belly to climb them. I wondered if this was a defence mechanism – any enemies who gained entry to the castle would have had a hard time getting up those steps in a hurry, but it would be relatively easy to run them through from above! The top floor had a great view of the surrounding land, and it was from here that the general and his top men would assess the state of play of a battle and make their plans. In peaceful times, the castle had an extension built – a moon viewing platform, which sounds lovely and romantic! Very few castles in Japan have this feature, as the addition tends to reduce the security of the fort as a whole.
The castle tickets also gave access to the Matsumoto museum, a small but interesting museum that gave an insight into the history of the area and its traditions.
That evening, we boarded the train again, this time heading just a short distance south to a lakeside town called Shimosuwa. We stayed in Masuya guesthouse and yet again, we asked to extend our stay because it was such a wonderful place. If you ever come to Japan, be sure to make a detour for this fabulous hostel, you won’t regret it! Kyon is only 27, but she and her friends took on this old ryokan early this year and renovated it. It is clearly a labour of love! Inside it was all dark wood and cosiness, there was a homely bar area with a wood burning stove, a large kitchen, and in spite of the small size of the doubles, the rooms were lovely. They even provided us with little baskets of shower gel, shampoo and moisturiser for us to take to the local onsen. The atmosphere was such as you would get if you had gone on holiday with a bunch of close friends; full of relaxed laughter and fun conversation. An infectious cheerfulness permeated the place and all who stayed there, and we didn’t want to leave!
I spotted a guitar in the lobby and told Kyon that I played the flute, thinking it might be fun to play together. She had never seen a flute before, so I played a tune from one of my classical study books at the bar. For once, I got nearly all the right notes and because I am not disciplined at practising, I was pleasantly surprised to find I was having a ‘good tone’ day and it sounded quite beautiful drifting through the rafters. At times like these, I feel a bit of a fraud, because I can seldom pull this off; it’s a bit like someone else is playing instead of me! I could pick up the flute a couple of days later and on the high notes it would sound like I am blowing with fluff in my mouth.
Kyon recommended a sushi restaurant and, very bravely for me, we sought it out. Inside we sat cross-legged on flat cushions at a low table, and the chef brought out a large bowl of fresh, raw, mixed seafood with wasabi and ginger on a bed of sticky rice. There was also a thin broth with balls of minced fish in it. I truly did my best. I am sure to a fish lover it would have been wonderful, but for me it was hard work! I ate several pieces of raw fish, which were not unpleasant, but drew the line at the suckered chunks of octopus and jelly-like fish eggs. I had felt I was doing quite well, and began to tuck into some grated white turnip – then I realised all the little pieces had eyes and they were actually tiny fish, probably some sort of fry. After that, I felt myself retching a bit with each mouthful, so stuck to the rice! Luke profited well from my aversion and had a hearty meal! I am not sure why I have such a problem with eating fish – it clearly isn’t just about the flavour; there’s something more visceral than that. As a child I had a nightmare where the fish in our pond came flapping out of the water, flobbering on the floor in the greenhouse. Perhaps seeing them out of water and on my plate harks back to that somehow!
The open mic was at a bar called ‘Charly’s Café. It was fairly quiet inside, there were probably only about six people in there when we arrived, but a few people from the hostel came and joined us as well. A couple of men played the guitar and sang; one in particular had a beautiful, sonorous voice. I sang Fly Me to the Moon and played a couple of flute tunes, then sang along to some Beatles songs played on guitar, to which I kept forgetting the words! Later on I did a bit of flute freestyle with Kyon’s boyfriend, who was a brilliant guitarist. Luke sat and sketched; he has been doing some really beautiful drawings and they are a great way to meet people and explain about our trip. I finished up with my GCSE piano composition, the somewhat pretentious ‘Theme to an American Court Case Drama’, which is aptly teenage and melodramatic. At the end of the night, a lady who had sang some jazzy numbers came up to us and started talking very emphatically in Japanese, seeming to think we would understand if she persisted! I was floundering, but I think she was saying she was pleased we had come and also may have been giving me tips about syncopated rhythms… anyway, I just had to nod and hope that was the correct answer in the end!
Back at the hostel bar, we tried sake – I had it hot and Luke had it cold. It was nice and warming, but beer is better! Earlier on, Kyon and Rie (another very smiley girl) had shown us videos of a Japanese childrens’ program called Pitagora Switch (‘Pit-AG-o-RA ser-WITCH-ee!’, whose music had been playing when we arrived. It is a wonderful, entrancing program and deserves a YouTube search if you like marble runs and silly contraptions that have no purpose other than to entertain. The repetition of its perky little theme tune later that night led on to an exchange of silliness. Kyon showed us how to make our fingers dance and how to make a frog with our hands; Kyon and Rie demonstrated an extremely complex playground hand clapping game that apparently all girls in Japan know how to do; Luke and I showed them how to make owl hooting noises by cupping your hands and blowing through the gap in your thumbs. No one had ever seen his before, and the Japanese were all very excited and impressed, with cries of, ‘Ah! Segoy!!’ (cool!) and ‘Ehhhhhh!?!’. They all had a go, but at first no one could do it, and the rest of our stay there was punctuated by muffled hoots as people wandered round the hostel trying to get a sound. When they managed, they would run up to us and try to demonstrate, but often the hooting power would desert them at the crucial moment! It is hard to hoot under pressure. I like to think that if we were to return to Japan in 10 years, all Japanese people would be able to hoot with their hands, and it would all be down to us.
The following morning, we hired electric bikes from a place just around the corner. It was only 50p an hour; a real bargain! They were beautiful machines and it was rather fun trying them out for the first time. They are the perfect lazy way to cycle. You can cycle without the motor on for as long as you like, then when you need a bit more oomph, you switch on the power and the hills are a breeze! Shimosuwa borders lake Suwa, and there are a number of old temples, shrines and historical sites scattered about the town. We took a route that allowed us to see the majority of these – beautiful old temples made of elaborately carved dark wood, with huge tree trunk pillars at the four corners of the temple site that get changed every 6 years. This is a town ritual and the humungous trees are pulled down from the mountains by hand, taking about 2000 people in total we were told. It probably doesn’t really need that many, but who wouldn’t want to join the party? There were also big woven straw twists that hung above some of the entrances, and in one of the temples there was a wedding – the bride was beautiful in a white kimono and a sort of piled up hat of white drapery. There were also stone dragons that spouted hot spring water from their mouths, that were surrounded by billowing steam. We saw a big fat stone Buddha, who was rather crudely carved and had an endearing, slightly comical appearance. He is probably my favourite Buddha so far. We finished up cycling partway around the lake, from where we were lucky enough to have our first view of Mount Fuji in the distance, peeping its flat white head over the mountains between. We took the opportunity to stop at an outdoor hot spring footbath on the way back. The temperature of the water was around 42°C, which is pretty hot! We sat with a family, who laughed at us when we had to dry our feet on Luke’s scarf (well, we could have used mine, but there’s no point in wetting two, eh?).
I attempted a Japanese style dinner that evening, with lots of garlic, ginger, leafy veg, shiitake mushrooms and soba noodles – it worked out pretty well and we had enough left over to extend into a soup for the following night.
After some careful and invaluable instruction from Kyon, we went to our first onsen. It was a huge improvement on my Russian banya experience! I was prepared with all my cleaning products and had been told exactly what to do. What’s more, the ladies in the onsen were smiley and welcoming, and evidently proud of their hot spring culture! The baths were split into male and female areas. You stripped off in the outer room, then took your basket of soaps into the bathing area. The walls were lined with showers and you took a stool and a basin and sat at a shower and scrubbed and soaped yourself thoroughly and washed your hair. Then, when you felt as clean as possible, you took yourself over to the onsen (the hot spring bath in the centre of the room) for a relaxing soak. The temperature was 42°C, like the footbath, much hotter than a bath I would have at home. The ladies giggled at me as I gasped my way into the water. Once you got used to the heat, it was quite pleasant, but after a few minutes I began to feel a little dizzy and had to get out and cool down. Some of the ladies repeated the washing, bathing cycle a few times before leaving. This filthy English girl only managed it once!
That evening, we had more fluting and hooting and we were introduced to a lovely chap called Shige, who worked as a chiropractor but whose passion was hiking in the mountains, and really wanted to become a guide. Lucky us, he offered to take us on a hike the following day for a very cheap price. He collected us from our hostel early the next day and we bought provisions at the supermarket. He drove us about 40 minutes into the Alps and we climbed a mountain called Nyukasa. It wasn’t too difficult, having trails all the way up through forest and bamboo grass, and it was a gorgeous day. When we reached the top, we had magnificent views across the Alps – we could see the South Alps, the Central Alps, the North Alps – and in the distance, we could even see the crisp white crater of Mount Fuji! Shige had brought a camping stove, so we were able to have a proper Japanese hiker experience, eating cup noodles on the top of a mountain! In front of us, we could see billowing gases coming from a volcano in the far distance. This had erupted recently, killing around 60 people with rocks that flew from the explosion, some of which were as big as cars. Japan is extraordinary; living here must be like living on the back of an enormous dragon, which quakes and breathes fire at whim – you really feel conscious of the Earth as a force of nature. Later that evening as we were sitting down to dinner, we felt our first earthquake. From where we were, the tremor was mild and lasted only a few seconds, but about 80km away it had been strong enough to bring a building down, although no one had been killed. The attitude of the Japanese was almost blasé – it happens all the time, don’t worry about it! So we didn’t!
On our way back from the mountain, Shige took us to another beautiful old wooden temple. I bought a fortune paper (which was fairly good, third out of six levels of luck, so can’t complain) and tied it to one of the frames there. This temple even had a sumo wrestling ring, and Luke and I had a wrestling match, which somewhat disturbed the calm of the place. He would argue that he wasn’t trying very hard in order to give me a chance, but I’m not sure… As for who won, let’s just say that I was first out of the ring, but Luke flew the farthest! In the heat of the contest, I ripped the knee of my trousers and spent the evening sewing a patch on. Kyon gave me some nice blue and white spotted material that had been used for the hostel, so I chose a contrasting red thread and embroidered ‘Masuya Sumo’ on it, so I would remember the story behind the hole!
The following day we had to bid a sad goodbye to our friends at the hostel, but first they requested a group photo, posing with the persimmon crop, which they were going to post on their facebook page. They had a few persimmon trees which produced rather a lot of fruit (we know it as Sharon fruit) and they had dried a lot of them on strings hanging from the windows. They were really succulent and tasty. As we wandered back to the station, we smiled to hear a few hooting noises in the distance!