Share toilets and showers aren’t my cup of tea, and with my deteriorating agility with age, I’m not overly fond of struggling up and down from the floor to sleep, Japanese style, on futons. But, for a particular ryokan in a 100 year old house in the ancient Tsumago in Japan’s Kiso Valley, I made an exception. And so glad I did! The stay was a highlight of my November, 2022 visit to Japan.
In Edo times- 1603 and 1867- Samurai, their families, servants, and royal messengers, would undertake journeys along the rugged Nakasendo mountain route between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Along the way, tiny Tsumago – nestling in the Kiso region alongside the Central Alps – was a popular sojourn for resting and recuperation on the 500 kilometre plus journey. Today, Tsumago is one of Japan’s best preserved Edo era ‘post’ towns, with its mainly wooden buildings hugging the main street just as they did in Edo times. The town is actually is much older than the Edo era, originally part of a minor trade route through the Kiso Valley. People have lived in this valley as early as the 700’s.
It’s a stretch to suggest I have ‘lived’ in Tsumago, but after a two night stay, like the journeying Samurai, I know now what it’s like to wake up in this ancient Kiso Valley town, what it’s like to take a quiet evening stroll along its lantern lit historical streets and to experience the pleasure of a sunrise amble – sans the throngs of daytime tourists. It’s in the early morning particularly that you realise that this is ancient village is truely a living town, as schoolchildren emerge from homes to head off to school in a nearby town.
Modern times and a new railway that bypassed Tsumago almost brought this remote tiny town to its knees, facing extinction as its relevance diminished. Like many other small country towns in Japan, houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair. But in the late 1960’s Tsumago’s remaining townsfolk took a stand – putting in a major effort to keep Tsumago alive and to ensure future prosperity by becoming attractive to tourists in its traditional Edo form.
Homes and structures of historical significance were renovated, and electricity and utility lines running through the heart of the town, were buried underground or rerouted around the centre to return the main street of Tsumago to much how it looked in the 1800’s. Measures were introduced to preserve the town’s edo buildings and landscape. NO new fancy hotels in this town! NO high rise! A charter agreed that no place in Tsumago should be ‘sold, hired out, or destroyed’.
In 1976, the town was designated by the Japanese government as a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site. The efforts by Tsumago residents paid off and today the village is regularly filled with day trippers arriving by car or tour bus to see what a post town in Edo times looked like. The old buildings are mainly used for small shops, many with products produced in the Kiso Valley.
Many also remain as homes. Because this is a real town – not a tourist replica – and families still live here.
Amongst Tsumago’s attractions is an informative tourist office in the centre of town, and a combined police/post office worth visiting for the historical display it has there. There are the ruins of an ancient castle that was the site of a battle in the 1500’s – a steep uphill climb that we didn’t try – next time perhaps!
There are a few small eateries, and one quite good little coffee shop – Kojitsu Coffee – that takes pride in its coffee beans and ice creams. They also make a extremely good large biscuit – two choices – almond cream or chocolate!
A day visit would have been a big mistake for me because I doubt it would have captured the town’s spirit. Fortunately, there is a small handful of traditional ryokans to stay in, and my feeling is that staying overnight is an experience not to be missed.
We chose the Fujioto Inn, highly rated by Trip Advisor and inducted into its Hall of Fame – praise indeed for a Inn coming up to 120 years old, and run by the grandson of the man who built it. It’s not luxury accommodation, but it’s immaculately clean, very traditional, and the tariff included meals – cooked by the family’s matriarch Keiko, are simply wonderful. Keiko learnt her skills from her mother and grandmother, and in turn she is now passing her those culinary skills and traditional recipes onto her daughter, who is working with her parents at Fujioto.
The multi course feast she provides guests is so good that I found it amazing when she told me she has never studied at a cooking school. Dinner and breakfast is included in the tariff, which for us was $299 Australian a night for two. Wonderful value.
Dishes with meat and fish were always included at our table. Vegetarian meals are not provided. Though, there’s plenty of vegetarian small dishes in the set meal. Vegetarians won’t go hungry. Wheat and fish allergies also aren’t catered for, as many of the dishes use soy, vinegar, miso, and fish stock.
Let me stress here – these multi course meals were feasts! Gochisousama! An opportunity to taste a wide array of beautifully prepared and presented traditional Japanese food, without breaking the budget. And a chance to have traditional dishes explained to you.
We were each provided with yukata and haori (short jackets), and encouraged to wear them to the dining room. There were some other guests, but tables were set well apart and separated by bamboo curtains – I presume because of Covid precautions. It felt like we had our own private dining area.
Our meals included locally caught trout, simmered for over a day and then marinated. Divine! Readers who personally know me will no doubt exclaim “You don’t eat fish”. Well, finally at my late age I do, thanks to this Inn. It’s all in the preparation method and cooking! There was also beef, salmon, intriguing pickles and .. well.. like the many of the babbling brooks in this area, I could go on and on. So check out my photos!
Host ‘Franco’, the grandson of the original owner, lived for many years in Italy, and speaks both Italian and English. He and his staff explain each dish on the table in detail. His wife – chef extraordinaire – did emerge briefly from the kitchen to meet us, and was a delightful lady.
Our room was spacious, with tea making facilities, a table and chairs, reverse cycle air-conditioning and a television. It came with its own balcony that looked out onto the Ryokan’s beautiful Japanese front garden, with another window looking onto its back courtyard garden. Our room was in a separate area to other rooms, so we never had any neighbouring noise problems. It was a bit of a shuffle (in Japanese slippers) to the toilets and share bath/shower room, but quite manageable. With a select number of guests, we never had to wait to use the facilities, which were immaculately kept.
Taking a stroll through the small village after dinner is recommended. A quiet and enjoyable way to walk off the kilos!
One other reason I chose to go to Tsumago is because there is a good 8 kilometre trek on the historical Nakasendo trail between Tsumago and a neighbouring town, Magome. If you are not up to walking the whole route, then this is section is recommended as an enjoyable slice of it.
I had seen British actress Joanne Lumley walk this section in her Japan television series in 2016. That visit is still celebrated at a tea house en route where they proudly display photographs of Joanne and her crew. Joanne was roughly the same age as me at the time she did the walk, so as a fellow baby boomer, I figured I could tackle it too. And that’s how Tsumago landed on our itinerary for our planned 2020 trip to Japan, torpedoed by Covid, and resurrected for our 2022 trip. But in the month leading up to last November, my right knee began to give me serious trouble, and so an 8 kilometre trek, with lots of ups and downs, no longer seemed possible. We decided Tsumago still looked a lovely place, so we went ahead with our two night booking.
There are a number of ways to access Tsumago if you are travelling independently. It is all achievable, and largely depends on which direction you are coming from. Some bus services have been suspended during the pandemic, but it’s worthwhile checking to see if these have resumed if you are heading there (eg:there was a direct bus service between Tsumago and Takayama on the other side of the Alps, but at the time I visited there was no indication of when it would begin again).
We travelled to Tsumago from Matsumoto (near Nagano) by train to a nearby small town called Nagiso – all on the JR pass. We understood when we booked our seats that we would need to do a train change at a place at Shiojiri. But, it was a miscommunication, and we stayed on the train from Matsumoto which changed lines – not us! Frankly, I’m still not clear on this. All I know is that we didn’t have to get off the train.
From Nagiso, we caught a local bus for the short journey onto Tsumago. I’d read that you could wait for a bus for sometime, so we had considered a taxi for around $20 Australian. We also considered having lunch at an Italian cafe, recommend by other travellers, that was across the road from the Nagiso station before moving onto Tsumago. But two buses were waiting and ready to go when we arrived in Nagiso, so we had a quick changeover from the train, with me looking wistfully back from the bus window at the Italian eatery which did look quite good!
We were deposited at a large bus area on the outskirts of Tsumago, and dragged our bags up a steep slope to reach the main street. Actually .. MJ, my dear knight in shining armour, dragged both our bags up there because my knee couldn’t cope with the effort! Afterwards, we found a much easier route without steps into the heart of the town! We used it to return to the bus area and onto Nagiso for our onward rail journey to Nagoya a few days later.
If steps are a problem, you might consider a baggage forwarding service that operates for Tsumago. The little Nagiso railway station has a big bank of stairs that you must tackle to get up and down to the platform. No elevator or escalator. Again, MJ came to my rescue! We have never used Japan’s baggage forwarding services, but friends who have say they are reliable and cheap.
Note that, as in most traditional Japanese houses, there are steep staircases. I still coped with these at Fujioto, despite my crook knee.
The toilets and shower areas can be a bit of a trot from your room, but they are very clean – and with a limited number of guests staying at Fujimoto, we never had any waiting time to use them. You can, however, choose to book times for the shower and the Inn’s wooden bath, made from beautifully scented Kiso Valley Cypress wood and excellent for a soothing soak after a busy day.
The NAKASENDO TREK
Now, about that little Nakasendo trek that drew me to Tsumago. The one that was on and then off because of my knee problem. Well, as it turns out – we gave it a go! On our spare day in Tsumago, the November weather was perfect for a trek and my knee was feeling in a reasonable state. So, we decided to see if we could try to complete a kilometre or two… or three .. or..
Well, tune in for my next blog later this month to see how we went!