The trail is covered with twigs now. Old signs don’t have new ones to compete with anymore, nor do I with any day-trippers. An offshoot cuts left, marked by a rotting wooden plank with the word “castle” next to an arrow. So I diverge. Climbing, climbing, climbing: over downed trees toppled by the wind, through bamboo hillside amidst dancing dappled light, and up to the top of the lone steep hill. The bamboo gives way, cut back by unseen hands of the past, and I emerge onto a wide green field overlooking Tsumago below. But there is nothing here; the castle burned down a long time ago.
Back through the bamboo I go, onward to the Post Town of Kiso-Fukushima.
I am greeted by deep red carpets, shiny with the sheen of a fresh vacuum - it doesn’t fully hide the fact that they’ve been worn down to their nubs from years of use. The tatami floors, sagging and marked with stains, are in obvious need of a refresh. Placed on the low table is a welcome drink of dusty-tasting tea; nonetheless, it is refreshing as I don my yukata robe while taking in an expansive view of the parking lot. A small television from 1999 sits in the tokonoma, a recessed corner of the room usually reserved for a seasonal tapestry.
A kindly woman guides me through these halls, introducing me to my first ryokan (traditional inn) stay on this walk. She is elderly by western measures, but by the longevity standards of Japan, more like a spry 74. I imagine she has worked here for a very long time.
There is no denying that this place is run down, but I have no real complaints. As with walkers who’ve come before me, this inn is a sanctuary rather than a novelty; after a day spent climbing over mountain passes with one’s pack, the need to eat, wash, and rest becomes most apparent. They’ve welcomed me in with warm hearts, my dusty clothes are tucked away until the morning, and I have arrived just in time for dinner.
The food is incredible, a marathon of little dishes, and the variety is astounding: concoctions of “mountain vegetable” from the green hillside out back, fresh sashimi from the Sea of Japan somewhere to our north, unidentifiable pickled things, thin slices of pork served on a personal grill, and more. At around dish 8 (or is it 9?), I start to feel some tension in my belt. Uh oh - my hollow legs are full. The dishes keep coming and I continue to stuff each delight into my mouth, filling up all the way to my neck just to be polite.
“I shoulda waxed my toolkit,” an Australian fellow anxiously jokes as we drop our clothes in the change room. Hesitant at first, his questions pick up in pace after he gets a few answers out of me about the detailed (and very naked) onsen bathing process.
It’s only uncomfortable the first time, I joke back with a wink. And this quiet ryokan is as good a place as any for figuring it out.
It was true - with just the two of us in the men’s onsen, there wouldn’t be any naked businessmen scurrying over to correct his technique…which may or may not have happened to someone who shall remain unnamed.
The soak in the hot springs is lovely for my weary legs, and I think even my new Australian friend relaxed a little bit.
There is a sparkle in the eyes of the caretakers here; eyes that remember the glory days of their establishment. They continue their daily work with an unwavering earnestness, despite more than a few changes around them.
As I lie in my futon staring up at the brown stains encircling the ceiling fan, I wonder about these sorts of places. The ryokan is run down from years of good use, but with fewer people visiting these days it is fading, fading, fading.
A place like this is emblematic of how things are always coming and going. My bag is already packed for leaving in the morning. Breakfast time is early, with check-out shortly thereafter. Tomorrow, I walk on.
The wind rustles leaves
Hanging on a thread of time
Subtle sudden shifts