Had this been during the time of the samurais, we would have partied all night.
This used to be a popular place. Somewhere in the mountain regions of central Japan, this little town of Magome used to be packed with people like me traveling between Kyoto and Tokyo. At a distant time when there was no shinkansen, the Japanese had the Nakasendo. And along this ancient highway, there were 69 official post stations where weary travelers could rest. This town was #43.
Whose house was I haunting that night?
7pm and I was walking on egg shells. The wooden floors creaked with each step. Too early to set the futons, I kinda went in and out of my room, but always careful not to break the prevailing silence. As I was staying at a minshuku and not the fancier ryokan, the ghosts I was haunting were probably those of the ancient backpacker types or that of the daimyo’s entourage: his advisors, his servants, and the coolest of them all, the samurais. I wasn’t prepared to meet them in real life though, so I left the light on to accompany me in the stillness of the night.
The Nakasendo became obsolete when traveling on foot became obsolete. With its disintegration came casualties like Magome, where modern rails and highways rendered them isolated from their bread and butter traveling clientele. The nearest station – Nakatsugawa Sta. is about an hour away, and another hour or so is the nearest big city – Nagoya. If not for the government’s efforts to preserve its heritage, Magome would’ve been another ghost town. People would’ve completely stopped visiting.
Almost forgotten, this town was. It’s for this reason I came to visit.
In the morning, daylight brought with it sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and a bunch of tourists. The town sprung to life as it catered to these passers-by with its numerous souvenir shops, a few restaurants, a postal office, and a photogenic water wheel somewhere in the middle of its sloped path. It is a very small neighborhood that one can breeze through it in less than an hour.
Each post town has an official notice board called kosatsuba, placed in strategic areas so that no one can feign ignorance of the prevailing laws and orders. In Magome, the town’s kosatsuba also marks the start of a preserved section of the old Nakasendo trail, which leads to another Edo-period post town, #42 Tsumago. It’s a popular 8-km hiking trail that takes about 3 hours to complete. Visitors who get to hike its entire length will earn a stamped certificate.
At this point in my trip, I was already patting myself on the back for my superb nav skills. In my head, I’ve cracked traveling around Japan. I was at that level of ease that I could get around intuitively with just a set of general directions. Well to be fair, that was the case… until Nakasendo happened, or should I say, didn’t happen.
Apparently my nav skills went completely kaput ‘coz i totally missed Nakasendo and followed another mountain trail leading to I don’t know where. I treaded this path for close to an hour when I finally accepted I botched this job. Scratching my head, I turned around and sighed. Oh well, props to me for choosing the worst way to miss the directions. Good job!
I found myself back at the kosatsuba, still in disbelief of this super face palm moment. Really, as in really? Shakes head. Repeat. With not enough time left to start another hike along the correct route, I decided to hop on the next local bus. In less than 30 mins., I found myself in Tsumago. Shortly after, I saw a couple of familiar faces whom I first encountered in Magome. I’m pretty sure they didn’t take the bus to get here. Grrrr…
Tsumago and Magome are two towns sharing twin fates. Then and now, they are visited and left behind by the same people.
Tsumago though has a more rustic feel. It has its own share of souvenir shops and restaurants, but at the same time it has properties converted into museums that tell stories of how life was when this region was prosperous and hosted the most important people in the country, including the emperor.
Wood, wood, wood. Everywhere, there’s wood. It’s a testament to how rooted these two towns are to their past, and how determined they are to stay the same. Signs of modern life are consciously concealed to keep its old world charm. And speaking of being rooted, many of Magome’s and Tsumago’s residents are descendants of proprietors who ran the inns and shops for many generations.
They are the people who’ve kept still for those of us who roam.
The sun sets early in this part of the country, so at 4-ish I went to the parking lot to catch the next bus that will take me to the train station. I was headed for Nagoya, and from there I was scheduled to board an overnight bus to Tokyo. Yet another transition for me.
As I was waiting, a school bus pulled over and a few kids hopped off it. They were greeted by their moms who I distinctly remember were all wearing track suits. Random observation. I also distinctly remember how refreshing it was to see kids in the area because to be honest, all the locals I’ve encountered up that point were aged people. These old towns may have survived the threat of modernization, but without a new generation to hand over their traditions to, everything is once again at risk of fading away.
The parking lot went quiet again after the kids and their moms were gone so I resumed to looking at the nature around me. This time around, the stand out wasn’t the autumn foliage but these bare branched persimmon trees. At least to me, they looked like they were preparing for Christmas. At the time, December was just around the corner, which means another season will be visiting. That’s right, even the seasons are mere passers-by.
Soon enough, my bus arrived.