Normally I am not one to participate in guided tours. I prefer to travel solo, spending half the money, and having unique experiences that usually only happen while you are wandering about on your own. But, somewhere along the line, I had read about a company that specialized in hiking the ancient pilgrimage routes of Japan and I perused their website, intrigued. It turned out they had a multitude of interesting tours and when I read about snowshoeing in the mountains of rural Japan, I couldn’t resist. I knew I would not be able to put together such an itinerary on my own, traveling from hamlet to hamlet in the mountains, the trails covered in deep snow. So, I winced as I gave the company my credit card number and signed up.
Back in Tokyo Station…
I waved goodby to my sister-in-law Hannah as she returned home to work and family in California and greeted my new tour group. Our leader Toru, was Japanese, and the other four participants were coincidentally from Singapore. It seems like in every group there’s always “that person”, the difficult one, the complainer, the one holding up the group, the trouble maker. Not in this group. To a one, they were all extremely polite, pleasant, punctual, and easy going. After introductions we stopped in at a little kiosk to buy bento boxes to lunch on during our train ride. Why oh why do we not have anything like this in America? Healthy, pretty, delicious, and reasonably priced, it beats our horrible fast food 100 to 1. We were whisked away on the bullet train (like an airplane without wings!) from Tokyo to Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
A driver was waiting for us at the Nagano Train Station and we transferred once more to the little town of Togakushi where we promptly donned our snowshoes and hiked through the forest for about an hour to reach our accomodation. It was good to be outside and stretch our legs. We saw the tracks of rabbit and fox and learned that Asiatic Black Bears or “Moon Bears” known for the white crescent on the chest frequent the forest. As we checked in, we learned that if we hurried, we might catch a special ceremony at the Shinto Shrine down the street. We left everything there (Japan is so safe. You could leave your suitcase on the sidewalk and it would still be there when you came back.) and rushed down to the temple. We creaked the door open and slipped off our shoes and into the dark interior. A priest with a mask on, danced and chanted and twirled in colorful robes. As I watched with delight, Toru nudged me and hissed something to the effect of “Don’t be obvious, but look at the two men to your right! Mountain priests!” I tried to stare without staring and took them in. Two men, in brown robes knelt in front. They had conch shells in woven bags resting between their knees. Their hair was shaved into mohawks and they looked very serious and fierce indeed. They were hardly the sort of people you’d run up and take a selfie with. Toru told me that it was rare to see them as they spend their lives wandering the mountains, blowing their conch shells, meditating and training. We were very lucky.
Back at our traditional inn called a ryokan, we were given robes and slippers and we convened in the dining room for the eating extravaganza that is typical of these inns. Course after course of tiny dishes are brought out. Just when you think you couldn’t possibly eat another thing more, another platter arrives, laden with some new culinary delight, always beautifully presented, as if it were a tiny work of art, not something that was about to be chewed and swallowed. We all gleefully took turns buying bottles of sake and the evening became very festive. Bellies stretched to aching, and happily wobbily, we headed off to the onsen for a soak before bedtime. I’m sure there are multitudes written on onsen online so for here, I will just say they are natural hot springs and there is a whole Japanese bathing ritual around them that is very much a part of Japanese life.
Breakfast was only marginally less expansive than dinner and I thought I was sure to weigh 500 pounds if we continued to eat so. But as it turns out, we ate like this three meals a day and I didn’t gain a pound because it’s mostly vegetables and fresh fish and we spent every day hiking. Today’s route led us past several frozen lakes, over a small mountain and to an ancient gate. Beyond the red gate lay a path lined with 400 year old cedar trees and the path led to a shrine. It suddenly struck me that the 1994 book Snow Falling on Cedars had a quintessentialy Japanese name. It is a beloved and common scene in rual Japan. We paused on one of the frozen lakes to take in the surrounding mountains, watch the snowflakes drift down, and enjoy some hot matcha tea from a thermos. As we stood and appreciated the scenery and scalding tea, we heard a noise over the wind. “Hooooooo! Hooooooo!” Toru and a man who’d accompanied us from the village chattered excitedly in Japanese. They pointed out to us, two small figures, working their way across the side of the mountain. Mountain priests! It was the conch shells we were hearing. It was as rare and exciting as spotting a yeti I gathered. And here we had the luck of seeing two in two days!
Our day ended at a country restaurant run by a wizened old apple of a woman. The tables surrounded a live fire pit. It was so, so heavenly warm and I was cold to the bone. After the usual courses of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and a mug of ale, we were served great platters of leeks, wild mushrooms, and duck. I nearly licked my plate clean and wondered if anyone would mind terribly if I just crawled under the table and curled up next to the fire to nap.
The following morning we took our little mini bus to the village of Nabekura. It seemed that wherever we went, people mentioned the “warm” weather and the lack of snow. Apparently a normal February would see the houses completely buried and indeed we saw doors in roofs that this year were useless. The people said they’d never seen it like this before. Our accomodations were little cabins out of Hansel and Gretel. Truly a fairy tale come true. We each loaded our luggage into little red sleds and snowshoed to our cabins. Our hike today went through the beech and cedar forest and the young man that showed us the way loved his village and the forest so visibly that it warmed my heart. We saw the scratch marks of a bear’s claws on a tree and our breath curled from us like smoke in the cold.
An exciting development! It started to snow in earnest, and snow hard and fast. Nevertheless, we decided to do our planned night time hike in the forest. No lights were allowed. One would think you’d be blind and hopelessly lost in heavy snow at night, but the snow glowed as if from the inside and lit our way. All I could think of was Narnia. We waded slowly through the silver powder, everyone silent, just looking and listening. I kept thinking I saw something out of the corner of my eye. What was that? A creature? No, just a rock formation with a cap of snow. Did I just see something spirit from one tree to the next? Maybe just a gust of snow in the wind…it was very easy to see how people of old would have thought the forest to be full of magic and spirits. At our turn around, the young man asked us to spread out and lay down (!) for 5 minutes. It sounded cold and wet but I plopped back into the soft snow. I watched the dark cedars sway and “sssshhhhh” to each other, a synchronized dance, while the beech trees clacked and rattled their bare branches. The snow lay in untouched pillows and blankets, soft mounds of sugar. The snow fell down on me and quickly encrusted my clothes, making me feel like a creature of the woods.
All too soon we were called back around. Lo! A small candle had been lit, and Toru had thoughtfully prepared a thermos of hot, mulled wine. We sat in the blizzard, huddled around the candle enjoying the little flicker of light like hope. It struck me that we were from all different corners of the world and yet, at our primitive core, we were exactly the same.