We were the last ones in the bus, sitting in the back seat with our backpacks still on. We craned our necks to find any kind of sign as to where we were, but night had already fallen, and there were no streetlamps on this zig-zagging mountain road. It reminded me very much of the bus stop scene in My Neighbour Totoro – a cold rain drumming on the roof of the bus, the dark and eerie forest climbing over the mountains, the squeaky old bus, occasionally a weathered street sign in Japanese characters.
The driver stopped, and announced the destination in Japanese. Magome, we figured. We started to walk up the only road in town as a thin rain continued to fall. The town was pedestrian only, built along a steep uphill section of the route. The traditional wooden houses were very pretty, but we were more preoccupied with the fact that there wasn’t a single light on, and we seemed to be the only humans in the whole town. Hungry for dinner, we were also acutely aware that there wasn’t a single restaurant, or even a vending machine. Nevertheless, we were excited to finally see the countryside of Japan!
We found our ryokan for the night, and knocked on the door. We waited for a few minutes before a lady appeared. She let us inside, gave us slippers, and showed us to our room. It was a typical ryokan style; tatami mats for the flooring, shoji (japanese paper stretched across a sliding wooden door and window frames), cushions and a low table for meals.
As she unrolled the futon mattress for our bed, we asked about restaurants – we were ravenous. She explained that winter is the low season, and that the whole town is basically closed during this time. Although we were the only guests, she agreed to prepare something for us. As we waited for our meal, we each put on a yukata, a light cotton kimono, and watched some unusual TV game shows. An Olympic ice skater was pranking people by dressing up as an elderly lady, and then launching into some crazy spinning tricks, to the amazement of the other skaters. Our host returned later with our meal – rice with marinated pork, and a teapot of tea.
Early the next morning, we put on our rain jackets and began our trek under an icy, drizzling rain. Magome, shrouded in mist, was still deserted, and we were able to appreciate how pretty it looked. With historic, feudal period wooden buildings (faithfully rebuilt after the originals burnt down), trickling streams and water wheels, Magome was an Edo period waystation frozen in time. The narrow main road was a stone path leading up into the mountain route. Only one other couple was undertaking the trek today. We started uphill, past small hamlets and up into a tall cedar forest, and watched a handful of furry monkeys skitting across the road.
We passed a sign, next to a big metal bell. Ring hard against bears, it advised. Bears? I never expected to encounter bears in Japan. I rang it, and the iron clangor echoed through the forest. Suddenly I became terribly paranoid about bears; it was winter and I knew that they were probably hibernating – but what if the loud bell just woke them all up? I had recently watched Leonardo DiCaprio get mauled in The Revenant, unfortunately, and the scene stuck in my head. And besides, during this season we were all alone in the middle of nowhere. I took up a long stick as a walking stick/bear defense weapon. But it was sodden, and it began to crumble in my hand. Oh well.
The rain was getting heavier, so we took a break and waited under a rest stop. We needed to rest our shoulders too; we were carrying our big backpacks, far too much weight to carry for hiking. Starving, we were eating the only food we had (thin biscuits, with cute wrappers, probably meant for a gift), when the other couple on the hike appeared. They were from Singapore, and we had a friendly chat, but they laughed at me when I explained the function of my self-defense wet stick (and I knew that every time I rang the other bells further down the trail, they were laughing at the sound).
The hike continued through ghostly bamboo forests, tightly packed evergreens, and past gushing riverside vistas. We passed through small hamlets along the way, too. There were still no people about, although several friendly akita dogs met us as we approached the houses, chaperoned us along the road, and left us on the other side of the village (tails wagging) as we continued on our way.
We reached Tsumago after hiking for three hours, shoulders aching and bellies rumbling. It was gorgeous, just like Magome, with Edo-era houses and temples, worn wooden signposts, stone walls, and round manicured hedges. There were no cars on it’s narrow central street, and an effort was made to hide all power cables, allowing visitors to imagine themselves back in time. There was a bus stop nearby (allowing for a smooth exit, and no more hiking), meaning that it was filled with quite a few more tourists.
We sat down for a hard-earned breakfast of dumplings; the old man running the shop had a counter out front, but we sat inside on small wooden chairs, next to a huge circular fire pit. As we ate, the old man poured us tea from a teapot suspended from the ceiling, hanging over the fire.