Nakasendo means Central Highway and was the mountain access road between Kyoto and Tokyo during the samurai times in Japan. As a major fan of Shogun (the book, not the political framework), Aron reallllly wanted to get a feel for the ancient way of life in Japan and a recent NYT article confirmed that Nakasendo is the place to go.
For those of you who haven't read Shogun (or seet it - the 11 hour 1980 miniseries is highly recommended), it was required for samurai and lords of various regions in Japan to visit the Shogun twice a year in Tokyo. Just in case they were planing on finking out of this visit(and planning a revolution in their spare time), they had to leave their wives/children as hostages to ensure your return. Thus, the two highways between Kyoto and Tokyo were heavily travelled. The Southern highway along the coast became the path of them modern day shinkansen, and the path through the Japanese alps was replaced with another train line, all but abandoning many of the old towns.
Tsumago is very proud of their history because in the 1960s, they made a decision to preserve their cultural resources, instead of industrializing like the rest of Japan. Now they have a legitimate claim to being the center of the preservation movement here.
We started our tour of old school Nippon with Mastumoto, one of the nicest castle towns in Japan. The castle is an original (well, as much as they can be since pretty much everything in Japan burned down nearly every 100 years). We borrowed bikes in Mastumoto and headed out to the Ukiyo-e (wood block print) museum on the outskirts of town. Housed in an ultramodern building, it is home to more than 100,000 prints, many of which tour the world. Much of Ukioye depicted scenes of the hikes between Tokyo and Edo. We had the museum to ourselves for an hour or two (until the tour bus hordes arrived), bought overselves some lovely prints and learned all about wood block carving.
From Matsumoto, we took the train to our first stop in the Kiso Valley, Kiso Fukushima. We have become somewhat adept at traveling in Japan- stop in the Midori office, get your train tickets, get off the train in your destination and head straight to the tourist information booth. This will net at least a good map in English of the area, but if things are really going well, we can also get a reservation made by someone who speaks better Japanese than me, and they get us a discounted rate. Sure enough, we got a ryokan just down the street from the station and an excellent room rate. Our Kiso Fukushima home was totally delightful. The owner spoke halting English and was super friendly. She sat in our room while we had our tea and talked to us about the Kiso valley and our vacation. Upon her recommendation, we headed into the well labeled downtown area with ancient samurai houses, temples, and a unique ashi onsen (foot bath) intended to soak your weary feet after the nearby mountain hikes. We ate in an Italian restaurant in one of the amazing old buildings in the center of town. Aron ordered! The food was good and the setting was amazing. It was like a Japanese version of Grazi, except I'm not sure Ann Arborites would go for the very black squid ink risotto (oishii kata!). (Note: this is where we took the toilet video that we're trying VERY hard to upload. Be excited).
The next day we did some hiking in the mountains near our hostel and toured the preserved samurai house. UNREAL. That house was massive and they had all these nifty recreations of the typical meals served in the house depending on season and who was eating. It was great. Our hike revealed a stunning waterfall and left us properly winded. We took another sojourn at the ashi bath and were just getting ready to leave when a man speaking English sat down. Turns out, he is a tv host. So, we got interviewed as part of a Nagano traveling program. It will be on next Monday at 7! (see the picture in our entry about gaijin). But, we will miss it as we won`t get Nagano stations next week in Kyushu. This will be my second fabuluous appearance on Japanese TV, faithfully representing America every time. :)