Nagoya and the Kiso Valley

Two things I’m very thankful that we organised for our trip to Japan:

1. JR Pass
2. Reserved seating on the longer train trips

On our last day in Tokyo we plotted out our train journey and decided that we would visit one of the information booths in the Tokyo train station to determine whether we had picked the best trains to take us to our destination(s).  Luckily – being the complete over-planner that I am, I had written down not only the times, but the names of the trains and the stops that we wanted to get off at.  Despite the information booths professing to have English speaking assistants, the conversation was still a bit of a struggle.  That being said we were able to organise reserved seating on all our trains with printed tickets which meant we knew exactly where we needed to be and when.  I even managed to ask in Japanese to put us on the side of the train that would give us a view of Mt Fuji. Had we not have taken the time to organise this, what can be a very stressful experience navigating train stations and transit maps would have been so much more difficult.

Mid morning we left Tokyo via Shinkansen Hikari Carriage; riding the Shinkansen for the first time was certainly an exciting experience.  Very comfortable and very quick however unfortunately the weather was rather overcast and we missed out on views of Mt. Fuji.  We arrived in Nagoya around midday and navigated our way through the underground labyrinth.  I couldn’t help but notice just how grey everything was.  It seemed like all the people were wearing were different tones of black or grey, there didn’t seem to be any colour in sight.  Everyone moves in unison, as one but yet so singular.  Perhaps this feeling was amplified by the weather which was for the duration of our stay in Nagoya quite overcast and grey.

Again, we had an Airbnb accommodation sorted which was a couple of train stops away from the CBD.  This apartment was a little less pleasing than the first which bizarrely included (without mention in the description) a glass box that took up more room than the bedroom which included a shower, bath and toilet – on full display.

We headed out to explore the nearby Nagoya Castle.  The gardens here were not as far along as those in Tokyo, with most spring plants yet to begin budding.  We wandered throughout the garden and some of the reconstructed outer castle buildings.  The castle itself was absolutely stunning.  Walking through the main gates and seeing the ornate detailing of the roof took my breath away.

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The Donjon, the main structure of Nagoya Castle was open with exhibits on various levels.  Damian and I found the experience quite hallowing but also quite uncomfortable.  Much of the castle is under reconstruction after it suffered an immense amount of damage through fire bombing during World War II.  The thing about Japanese tourist locations is that they are extremely popular first and foremost amongst Japanese tourists.  To be a westerner viewing the damage caused by the western world amongst a crowd of Japanese people was certainly an experience that I won’t soon forget.

The top floor of Nagoya Castle had views across the city from every angle.  Despite the grey quality of the day, it gave us a great opportunity to appreciate the city and get a feel for how this centre of 2 million compared the the 13 million we had just experienced in Tokyo.

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On the way back through Nagoya we checked out the shopping district called Sakae, here I could start to get a sense for what Nagoya was really like.  The area of Sakae was thriving, there were people everywhere and it felt much more like a little hive than we had experienced in Nagoya so far.  The evening included exploring the city, checking out some of the amazing architecture in the city and experiencing quite possibly the worst restaurant based faux pas we will ever experience.  It’s really too funny not to try and explain…

We found a restaurant by the name of Torikai on one of the top floors of a building in the city.  We had great views of the city, a great looking menu and were already enjoying our first round of “Japanese Ciders” (…beers).  Damian had picked what he wanted already from a picture and tried to explain to the waiter what he wanted.  It seemed simple enough and the table behind us had the dish also.  There was much confusion from the waiter and from us as he tried to explain something in broken English.  I tried my best, but my Japanese knowledge was going to be useless.  Thinking it a brilliant idea Damian asked the table behind us to explain to the waiter that we wanted what they were having, which they seemed happy enough to do and gestured to the waiter to bring two plates.  Pleased with ourselves for overcoming the difficulty, we sat and had a few more swigs.  It was then that the waiter returned with two plates and went not to us, but to our neighbour’s table and began to carve the dinner off their plate to give to us, because, as we could now understand they were completely out of the dish we had requested and Damian had been adamant that he wanted what they were eating.  We almost died.  They wouldn’t take it back… at least we agreed it was delicious…

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We headed back to the apartment for a very uncomfortable night’s sleep on a mattress that may as well not have even been there.  We managed a few hours sleep before arising early to head out of Nagoya on a day trip into the Kiso Valley.

By train to Nakagatsugawa and then bus to Tsumago so began one of my top 3 experiences in Japan.  The walk from Tsumago to Magome was an easy 9km, but it was simply beautiful.  We started in the little town of Tsumago where we trekked up to the top of a hill, all along the cobblestoned path through the town were souvenir stores and little eateries.  We stopped at one where an elderly woman was preparing little steamed buns which we took inside and had with green tea.  I love how everywhere you go in Japan, it doesn’t matter what you order, tea just comes with it as standard.  The buns were fresh and delicious and made a warm start to our morning walk.

The walk follows the old postal route through valley linking Tsumago with Magome and it was a beautiful day to explore and experience the first real exposure we’d gotten to the old world of Japan outside of the metropolitan centres of Nagoya and Tokyo.  Not only was the weather great for the day, but for almost the entirety of the walk we were the only people we saw on the path.  Apart from a few fellow walkers, a shiba-inu and the birds we were alone in the middle of the Japanese valley.

At the midpoint between Tsumago and Magome a tea hut with tea by donation brewed over an open fire was a great rest spot.  We chatted to the friendly man and I managed to have a bit of a conversation in Japanese about the snow and the weather in this area in comparison to that in Tasmania.

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I’m not sure if the threat was real or not but all throughout the path there were a number of bells to ring to ward off bears that may be “wandering through the area”.  I sincerely doubt that there are many bears that frequent the area, but we didn’t want to be those naive travellers who were eaten by bears simply because they laughed in the face of a bear bell.  So ring the bells we did and loudly.

We headed back to Nagoya in the early afternoon and picked up some take away (Japanese street style food – not dirty burgers) and headed back to our room to have a night in with food and a few drinks.  The walk through Tsumago and Magome only gave us one full day in Nagoya but I really think that we made good use of our time in the area.  When I think back on the trip now the walk is definitely still one of the highlights of the two weeks.  Next stop, Takayama.

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