Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Day 16: Wada - Sakudaira

Distance covered: 30km
Weather: Fine

I slept right through to 6am, when I was woken by Erik's alarm. We breakfasted at 7am on the usual Japanese fare of grilled fish, rice, miso soup, and various side dishes of pickles and vegetables, plus in my case a cup of coffee from the pot in the dining room.

We left at 7.50am and got a warm send off from the couple running Hontei ryokan. It was downhill all the way to the next post-town of Nagakubo some 7.5km away. While resting there, we were approached by a Japanese man. He asked us if we were interested in history, and if we knew anything about Nagakubo. I consulted my guide and read from it the description of Nagakubo, which had a population of 720 in 1843, with a considerably higher number of females compared to males due to the high number of meshi-mori onna, or serving girls who doubled as "entertainers." Our new friend said he had a letter from one of these meshi-mori onna, and invited us into his house to look at it.

It was a love letter addressed to a local boy, asking him why he hadn't kept an appointment and imploring him not to break off their relationship. Our host explained that life was tough for these women, who were usually sold into the business by their out-of-town families. Many of them died in their twenties from TB, and some of them resorted to trying to burn down their places of employment in an attempt to escape their retched existence. The man then invited us to look at his collection of statues, but we had already stayed too long and so we said our goodbyes and pressed on.

Soon after leaving Nagakubo we began the climb up to Kasatori Toge. It was much easier than the pass we'd conquered the day before, and the temperature much warmer. During the descent we passed a famous avenue of pine trees originally planted in the Edo period. When they came to build the new road they had to do it alongside the existing road because the gap between the rows was too narrow.

Further on we met a young woman coming the other way who stopped and struck up a conversation with us. She was out walking for the day. She worked as a pharmacist but painted in the Nihon-ga style as a hobby. We asked her if there were any places to eat on the road ahead, and she kindly gave us a map of the next town, Mochizuki, with several restaurants marked on it.

We arrived in Mochizuki at around 12.30pm (after getting a bit lost near the entrance to the town) and had lunch at a restaurant on the main street. We left at 1.15pm, and while the remainder of the day's journey into Sakudaira was largely uneventful, we were impressed by the countryside, which was dominated by Mount Asama, an active volcano which was spouting a visible plume of smoke.

Just before reaching the post-town of Iwamurada, we left the Nakasendo and walked a kilometre or so down a busy road to the town of Sakudaira, where we'd arranged accommodation at the AQA Hotel. We were very impressed with our rooms, which although on the small side, were ultra modern looking with nice wooden floors and views of Mount Asama from the bathrooms (in fact the bathroom windows had been designed in such a way that one could see the view while relaxing in the tub). It would have to be one of the nicest business hotels I've ever stayed in.

Sakudaira is a modern bed-town with lots of shops and restaurants and even its own Shinkansen station. For dinner we went to a Coco's family restaurant. I had a lovely tomato-flavoured seafood spaghetti with bread. We also went to a supermarket inside a huge shopping mall to stock up on nuts and dried fruits. It was very cold in the evening, so I wore my woolen hat and the new gloves I'd bought in Shimo-suwa.

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