A trip through a 500 year old forest to visit a 1200 year old temple.
Greetings blog fans! We took the train from Matsumoto to Nagano City today. Another slow local train through the Japanese countryside and through mountainous wilderness… This whole holiday business sure is hard work – NOT! Half the fun of going from place to place here is the scenery along the way. Hopefully we’re not boring you with too many glorious photos!
Our home for the next few days is Nagano City, the capital of Nagano Prefecture. This town of 200,000 people hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998 and is busiest in winter when hundreds of thousands of visitors use it as their base to access the many ski slopes around here. There are literally hundreds of ski lodges and ski fields within an hour or town of Nagano City, which at the moment, being summer, means there are hundreds of pretty little villages for us to visit and lots of bush for us to go hiking through! Not that we’ll be visiting them all – we’ve narrowed our choices down two places we really want to visit: Togakushi and Yudanaka. Togakushi for its famous temples and shrines, and Yudanaka for its monkeys – yes, monkeys!
Our train into Nagano City arrived at 10:00am, and since we couldn’t check-in until 3:00pm, we left our bags at the hotel and jumped on the 10:30am bus to Togakushi. An hour later we had travelled 20kms (another slow drive up narrow winding roads) and had climbed from 1000m elevation (Nagano City) to over 1500m. The forest up in the mountains was very wet – like the temperate rainforests we’ve seen in Tassie or along the West coast of New Zealand. Lots of ferns and moss, babbling brooks and leafy trees; the best bit was that it was a few degrees cooler under all that verdant green foliage.
Togakushi village is built between 2 dormant volcanoes (Togakushi-yama and Iizuna-yama) and is home to three legendary Shinto shrines, built in the 9th century. These shrines, like most Shinto shrines of significance in Japan, were built in areas known as “power spots” (i.e. places were natural energies coverage, where the physical world and the spiritual world meet). Generally this means the shrines are always in places of epic beauty, which is why we keep seeking them out!
Side note: We’re intentionally trying to see both sides of Japan: the crazy, hectic city side of modern Japan, and the quieter, peaceful aspects. So far so good – Osaka vs. Koya-san; Kyoto vs. Arashi-yama; Nagoya vs. Kiso Valley. In many ways having this juxtaposition is helping us appreciate both sides of Japan more.
The three shrines (Lower, Middle and Upper) are built at 5km intervals, with paths inter-connecting them. We started at Chuso-jinja (i.e the Middle Shrine) first, skipping the Lower Shrine as our guidebook said this was the least interesting of the three. The shrine itself is set at the top of a steep set of stairs, as you can see below.
By this stage it was lunchtime so we stopped for some soba noodles (translation = buckwheat noodles) at a traditional Japanese restaurant where we got to sit on the floor and were served our noodles and tempura vegetables with half a dozen different accompaniments – including lots of different types of pickles. The Japanese sure do love their pickles! The soba noodles from this part of Nagano prefecture are reputedly the best because the water up here is so pure. We certainly appreciated them!
With a belly full of noodles and pickles we set off once again to trek through the forest from the Middle Shrine to the Upper Shrine (Okusha-jinja). It was a very pleasant way to spend our Sunday afternoon; and hundreds of day trippers from Nagano obviously agreed! It was quite busy on the path, with a lot of Japanese folk out enjoying the walk and visiting the shrines to pray and pay their respects; we still had enough quiet and serenity to be able to really enjoy the walk though.
The best part of the hike by far was the final few hundred meters, approaching the Upper Shrine, where the path is lined by an avenue of majestic 500 year old cedar pines. Even with hundreds of other people around, the sheer scale of the trees around us still managed to awe us and make us feel very small.
The whole walk had been quite pleasant until we got to the last stretch, which basically consisted of another very steep set of steps. With the heat and humidity, that last bit just about did us in, especially because there was NO BREEZE, which just added to the “sweat factor” and also meant that the mushi (translation = bugs) came out in force. I swear Shane and I lost about a litre of blood in a few short minutes. Trying to climb steep stairs whilst swatting bugs and sweating copiously is NOT FUN. By the time we made it to the Upper Shrine we were smelly, itchy and exhausted. Small blessings being what they are, at least the shrine was at the very top of a hill so there was the faintest zephyr to resuscitate us. We sat and enjoyed the breeze for a while, drank some water and eventually cooled down enough to be able to appreciate the beauty around us.
Unfortunately it was all too soon time for us to head back. Walking back the path was much quieter, as most of the day trippers had headed home. We made it back to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare so we rewarded ourselves with an ice cream and then snoozed for an hour on the bus back to Nagano City. What a day! This holiday business is actually hard work sometimes! Mind you, we’re both really enjoying being this physically active after years of working in desk-bound jobs. At last count we’re averaging 7.5kms per day on the pedometer, which, given Japan is currently in the middle of a heat wave (it’s been up around 30 degrees with 60% plus humidity most days), is pretty good going!
After our regular mid-afternoon Nanna-nap we took ourselves out for dinner and found a funky bar and grill house where they lock you in your own private cell for dinner (seriously – check out the photos). I’m sure it’s for added privacy, but, errrr, it just seemed a little weird to me. The food was great – lots of meat on a stick, grilled and tasty. the funniest bit was when we order 2 salads (one each), and the waiter checked with us 3 times, in both English and Japanese that we REALLY wanted TWO whole, enormous salads. “Yes, yes we do want 2 giant salads please”, we said. So he went to the kitchen with our order, and promptly came back a minute later to reconfirm that we REALLY, REALLY wanted TWO of THESE particular enormous salads. He must have gone into the kitchen, handed over the order and then been questioned by the chef, who ALSO couldn’t believe that 2 people could possibly want to order that much food! Seriously? Is it THAT unusual for 2 people to want 2 salads? Obviously it is! We got our salads in the end, and lots of grilled meat on a stick, making for a very satisfying end to a very satisfying day.
A special note on tanuki
At this point int time I think it is necessary to explain about tanuki. This is yet another wild animal we have been warned to watch out for whilst trekking through Japan, but one which warrants some explanation. Tanuki are native Japanese racoon dogs; a critter than is related to the fox, but looks like a racoon. As you can see from the picture, they are pretty cute, but can apparently get quite aggressive if disturbed.
Tanuki are significant in Japanese folklore; they are reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shape-shifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded. They also bring good fortune and are often featured in traditional Japanese paintings and sculpture. Where ever we’ve been in Japan, we’ve seen tanuki statues of various sizes outside shops and restaurants. All makes sense so far yes? Except for the fact that these cute, cartoony statues of Japanese racoon dogs always have GIANT TESTICLES. Yup – ALWAYS. What the hell Japan?
Turns out prominent testicles are an integral part of tanuki folklore, and they are a symbol of financial luck. Errrr…, sure, if you say so. We found out that the whole giant testicle thing is so ingrained in Japanese culture that a common schoolyard song kids sing in primary school makes explicit reference to the tanuki’s testicles:
Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
Tan-tan-tanunki, your balls sway nicely,
Though the wind stops blowing,
They swing, swing, swing.
Apparently the legendary tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune:
1. A hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather;
2. Big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions;
3. A sake bottle that represents virtue;
4. A big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved;
5. An over-sized scrotum that symbolises financial luck;
6. A promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
7. A big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness; and
8. A friendly smile.
We first came across this truly unique bit of Japanese folklore a few years ago, watching Japanese anime and manga cartoons. If you want to laugh really hard, find your selves a copy of “Pom Poko”, an anime cartoon by Studio Ghibli (who make my favourite movie of ALL TIME: “Spirited Away”) all about tanukis. Ah Japan, just weird enough that you gotta love it!