Well, that notion sounded great in theory, but it wasn't long before we felt we were wasting a prime opportunity. At least
we should do a daytrip somewhere, no? After a little hemming and hawing, we decided on a trip up to the Kiso Valley, northeast of Nagoya.
Japan is often criticized (along with other countries in Asia) for having bulldozed most of its architectural heritage. There are, actually, a few exceptions, but the complaint isn't exactly unwarranted. One of the finer exceptions lies in the immediate area of the Gifu-Nagano prefectural border, on what was formally known as the Nakasendō - one of the main roads from Kyōto to Edo. With the modernization of Japan, this area was largely forgotten and left to rot, until people started realizing its rural potential in the 1960s. As a result, two time-warped villages managed to keep almost all of their old architectural stock without the usual intrusion of concrete excess and electrical wire spaghetti. The buildings were, of course, in pretty abysmal condition by the time modern tourism figured in, but after some detailed restoration work, they were back in shape.
One of the nicest things about this area is its proximity to Nagoya. From our apartment, it's only an hour's train ride to Nakatsugawa, the main access city, from where you can take a bus onwards. After thirty minutes ride, you arrive at Magome, the first of the two main villages.
We got there nice and early, bearing in mind the time of year and likelihood of crowds. We picked May 1st specifically because it wasn't an official holiday though, and it turned out to be a good decision. Magome was refreshingly empty, and the weather was glorious. The village is built on an almost continuous incline, so you end up walking a fair slope the whole way through. Along the way are row upon row of beautifully-restored machiya, many of which serve as either souvenir shops, restaurants or museums. The local specialty (always a big part of any tour around Japan) is gohei-mochi - rice cakes covered in sweet miso and grilled - so we had to make a stop for one each.
From Magome you can continue on up the mountain, over the pass and then down to Tsumago in Nagano prefecture, a hike of about two and a half hours. With the day as fine as it was, we had no excuse not to do it, so off we went. Really, it's a fairly easy hike, but perhaps less so from the opposite direction (as it's mostly uphill that way). When you live in a city as short on trees as Nagoya, it's certainly nice to get out in nature. Mayu was a bit freaked by some of the wildlife though - namely a snake next to the path and a lizard later on (probably thought it was another snake). Ah, the great outdoors!
Tsumago is like an architectural preserve. There are no visible telephone poles and the mess of overhead wires characteristic of pretty much anywhere else in Japan is conspicuously absent. By the time we arrived there, the tourist numbers had picked up, but they were nowhere near the amount during my first visit a couple years ago. There definitely weren't so many daytrippers as to dampen the experience. Having worked up an appetite on the hike, we settled in for a relaxing lunch of soba (buckwheat noodles), mine prepared with sansai, or mountain vegetables.
The last leg involved another hour's hike over the hills to the train station in Nagiso. After all that, Mayu was ready to cash in for the day, so it was with great relief that we found plenty of empty seats on the train back to Nagoya and napped away the return trip.
It's now Golden Week in Japan - the time when practically the whole of the country gets up and touring around. Anyone that's traveled in Japan during this time knows how crazy these times can be. A ticket out of the country costs an arm and a leg and pretty much anyplace you go - no matter how seemingly insignificant - is guaranteed to be swamped. Since my girlfriend and I have dedicated this year to saving money as much as possible, a foreign excursion was out of the question. In any case, the fact that Golden Week begins on a Saturday this year meant that the already astronomically high airfares would be simply unfathomable. So, our solution? Just plain don't go anywhere.