Kiso Valley

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We huffed up a steep path pulling our heavy luggage behind us and pushing a sleeping toddler in front of us, the late afternoon sun felt unseasonably warm as sweat beaded our faces.  As the town fell away below us, the path showed no signs of leveling out, and we were relieved to finally arrive at our minshuku, a simple bed and breakfast.  The minshuku was called Magome Chaya, located in an old wooden house, much like all the houses around it.  Inside we were greeted by the customary shoe case and rows of guest slippers.  The house creaked and moaned with our footsteps, and the sunlight filtered in sepia-toned from the paper screens.  It was like stepping back in time.

The entire town of Magome was meant to be a time capsule.  Carefully preserved wooden houses lined the cobble stone path that is part of a famous trade route that dates back to the Edo period called the Nakasendo Trail.  Post towns dot the 300 miles long trail, but the two most popular and well-preserved towns are Magome and Tsumago.  The two towns are only about 5 miles apart and so this segment of the Nakasendo Trail is the most frequented by tourists.

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Walking is the most natural way to slow down your travel.  When you can walk from one place to another instead of going by car or train, you have the chance to see the details and suddenly you experience a shift in priorities and the journey becomes more important than the destination.  Although the Magome-Tsumago segment can be done in a day, I recommend staying at least one night in one of the towns.  The towns can get quite crowded during the day, but by early evening the day-trippers have rushed back to catch the buses and the town is all but empty.  It was nice to wander around town watching as the last rays of the day wash the houses in gold, the shadows lengthen, the sky turn purple then inky blue as dusk arrives.  Back at the minshuku, the dinner kaiseki meal was prepared for the six or seven sets of guests at the dining hall.  Although not as fancy in presentation or number of courses as the kaiseki at the fancy Shirahone resort we’ve stayed at earlier, the food here is by far my favorite.  Simple food, cooked and seasoned to perfection is really unbeatable.

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After a loud night of rattling windows in the wind (taken in stride as part of the charm of old houses I guess), we took an early morning stroll to a tiny, hip coffee shop that would have belonged in San Francisco as much as in Magome.  After another amazing kaiseki breakfast at the inn, we went to the town information center and arranged to have our luggage transported to Tsumago ahead of us.  Baggage transport between towns is common and makes walking the Nakasendo trail so much more feasible and enjoyable.

The trail itself winds in and out of forests and passes through small farming villages, and falls bounty was everywhere.  Persimmon trees dot the hillsides, heavily laden with hundreds of ripe fruit hung like vermilion lanterns.  In front of all the houses hung garlands of persimmons drying in the sun, reminding me of my favorite childhood snack.  Of course, the maple trees steal the show, a spectrum of different colors dazzling in the sunlight.

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But what made the walk even more memorable than the scenery were the simple touches of kindness from the people that we’ve met.  We’d stopped to buy some water and the ladies pressed two persimmons into our hands for the journey, at another place Ellie got a paper crane, and after eating at a restaurant, the owner rushed to wash the biggest apple I’ve ever seen to give to us.  It’s amazing how friendly people were, even though they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t say much in Japanese.  They seem to understand that people can make a common language out of small acts of kindness.  That left the deepest impression on me.

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