Thursday, 8 November 2007

Day 17: Sakudaira - Karuizawa

Distance covered: 18.9km
Weather: Fine

After a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, we set off at 8.20am, later than usual due to the fact that it was our shortest day, but also because we were a bit reluctant to leave the comfort of the Hotel AQA.

Soon after rejoining the Nakasendo, we passed through the old post-town of Iwamurada, which in its modern guise resembles a seemingly endless shopping arcade. The scenery improved as we left the city and headed towards the foothills of Mount Asama, whose imposing form loomed over us for most of the day, although the smoke that was visible the day before was now absent. There where occasional rises and falls in the road as we negotiated these foothills, but nothing nearly as demanding as the passes we'd negotiated earlier in the week.

Our first goal was to reach Oiwake, where we planned to visit the museum we'd heard about from the Japanese hiker who'd stayed in the same ryokan as us in Hosokute. The only problem was it wasn't marked on our map, and we were unsure of exactly where it was.

We reached Oiwake at around noon after a leisurely morning's walk. I noticed a building with a sign outside it on our left as we entered the town, and on closer inspection it turned out to be the very building we were after. It looked like a large two-storey house. There didn't seem to be anyone around as we walked up to the door and entered the museum.

As soon as we set foot inside we were greeted enthusiastically by a middle-aged couple. We'd been told the man who ran the museum was a Mr Yamagishi (I'd even written this down in my diary), but his name was in fact Mr Kishimoto, which made for a rather complicated round of introductions. We soon realized, however, that Mr Kishimoto was expecting us, which explained the warm welcome. Apparently the hiker from Hosokute had rung Mr Kishimoto after meeting us and told him a New Zealander and an American would probably be dropping in sometime over the coming days. How very Japanese!

Anyway, Mr Kishimoto used to be a high school geography teacher, and it showed in his manner. As soon as we'd taken off our shoes and put down our packs, he took out a pointer and began his "lesson" by explaining the route of the Nakasendo on a large map above the entrance. Every so often he'd break off this lesson and allow us to explore the museum on our own or to enjoy the tea, coffee and snacks his wife brought in, but before long he'd bring us together again to continue the lesson in another part of the museum.

The lessons were enjoyable and incredibly informative. These are just some of the things I learnt during our short stay at the museum:
  • The wood-block print artist Eisen (famous for his prints of beautiful women) was originally commissioned to produce the complete series of The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido, but after producing the first 22 he was "fired" and replaced by Hiroshige (whose Fifty-Four Stations of the Tokaido had been a hit) because the prints weren't selling.
  • In the prints, the kai in Kisokaido is written using the character for "sea" instead of the standard character for "town" because this would associate the series in people's minds with the successful Fifty-Four Stations of the Takaido series (the kai of Tokaido is written with the "sea" character).
  • The post-town of Shiojiri (literally "salt junction") was so named because it was the end point of the two so-called salt trails in Japan, one of which was used to transport salt from the Japan Sea coast of the country and the other of which was used to transport it from the Pacific Ocean coast.
  • Lacquerware was once so closely associated with Japan that it was referred to in the West as simply "Japan" (in the same way that porcelain came to be known as "China"). It was originally thought that, like so much of Japanese culture, the art of lacquerware-making was imported into Japan from China, but recent research suggests it may in fact have originated in Japan.
Incidentally, to show us how durable Japanese lacqueware is, Mr Kishimoto showed us an Edo period lacquerware tray that was over 150 years old. It barely had a scratch on it and looked almost new. It was amazing!

Erik and I were both incredibly impressed with the museum and with Mr Kishimoto's knowledge and enthusiasm. But Mr Kishimoto's involvement with the Nakasendo extended beyond just establishing and running his museum. As well as publishing a guide to the Nakesendo, he also took it upon himself to travel along its length erecting small green route markers to guide people along the more difficult stretches of the track. What's more, he'd even gone out and cleared sections of the original track that had become overgrown. We'd seen some of these signs along the way, and wondered who'd erected them. Now we knew.

Soon after leaving the museum we stopped for lunch at a spaghetti restaurant. We then pushed on to Karuizawa, arriving at around 4pm. It was already quite cold when we arrived (the ski season had already begun, and we could see a skifield not far away on the opposite side of the station), and it got even colder as night fell.

After checking in to our hotel, we went out for coffee and cake and to try to find a coffee shop that was open early in the morning where we could have breakfast. Our search was in vain, and we ended up buying various breakfasty things (yoghurt, raisin bread rolls, coffee, etc.) at a Lawson's convenience store to eat in our rooms the following morning (we were determined on principle to avoid the exorbitantly priced buffet breakfast at the hotel).

Later that evening we braved the cold and went out to a cheese restaurant for a fondue dinner. We ended up ordering extra bread and fondue, plus I had a glass of white wine. It was extravagant by our standards (it came to just under 6000 yen for the two of us) but it was a very enjoyable evening, and the perfect way to end a great day.

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