This is the first in what we assume will be many episodes of us making poor choices. Today started out pretty ordinary, waking up at 4 am and planning a trip to Bali before a quick breakfast of grapes and tomatoes left over from last night. Today we were going to hike around the mountains of Togakushi, so we headed down to the train station to catch a bus. Today is also Malaria Monday, when we take our weekly malaria pill, and already our first poor decision of the day. Malaria pills are meant to be taken with food and today Doug found out why, when about half way down to the train station he started not feeling so great. A slow rest of the walk, a hot dog wrapped in croissant dough, and a 15 minute sit put the problem to rest – but lesson learned, they were serious when they told us to take the pills with food.
Feeling better, we hopped on a bus towards Togakushi. On the hour bus ride up the mountain we planned how we would take part in all Togakushi is known for: soba noodles, shrines, and ninjas.
We started by hiking through a cedar forest in what can only be described as Japan’s answer to the redwoods. They were massive and certainly set the mood for a visit to a shrine on the side of a mountain. After making our way up some very wet and treacherous steps we payed our respects to the two shrines found there before heading back down for lunch.
Not being terribly excited about the local delicacy, soba noodles served cold and bland, we elected for hot soups of soba, Doug’s with tempura prawns, and Lynn’s with duck. While we ate, we perused through our hiking guides and saw that there was a Ninja house nearby and that there was a “Pilgrim’s trail” that lead all the way back down to the shrine near our hotel, 19.6 km later. Both of these sounded like great ways to spend the afternoon.
Full on soba, we first stopped at the Ninja house, where Doug threw “ninja stars” (I use quotes because they were so blunt they just bounced off the targets), we navigated an obstacle course, and made our way through a puzzle house full of trap doors and mazes. All in all, A+ would recommend, especially for the $5 it cost. There was also a folk museum there, but it seemed to really just be someone’s old farming tools and clothes in a display case.
Satisfied that we had done all there was to do in Togakushi, we were intrigued by the Pilgrim’s trail recommended by the brochure we had picked up from the tourist center at the train station. It lead all the way back down the mountain, virtually to our hotel – and made its way past a few more shrines and a national park along the way. It was almost 20 km but we’re good walkers and it was downhill the whole way so what the heck…oh we were so wrong…
Our first sign that this was a bad idea, was the trail immediately went uphill, and pretty steeply. Not to be deterred, we figured it would drop back downhill again soon and it did, just as the fog rolled in and it started raining…again. The trail was basically made up of mud and decomposing leaves so that with every step you would either slide or sink 2 inches in – provided the trail itself wasn’t a creek, which it sometimes was. We did make our way to the first major shrine without too much issue but from there the trail disappeared into a myriad of back alleys through a small town. The Nagano tourist board we learned, is either not very keen on marking their trails, or they are desperately in need of a larger budget because it took us about an hour to pick our way through the town to find the trail on the other side using a Japanese map, a picture of the trail from the trailhead marker, and Google maps.
This is one of the more detailed maps we had.
From this point on it was pretty touch and go as to whether we were on the right path through the woods, or at some points if we were even on a path at all. Every once in a while we would see a brown trail marker and our spirits would lift again, at least until we saw another unmarked fork in the path. Then it was another deciphering of the three maps we had at our disposal, none of which seem really meant to be used as an actual trail guide.
At the worst point we were walking on an old utility service road, so thick with decomposing leaves, bushes were growing out of it. All of these also had burrs on them, which Doug’s legs picked up like magnets. We made our way through this for about half a mile before the whole thing turned into a creek we were walking through.
This is supposedly a paved road and marked trail.
Eventually this did give way to a real road and we had a very pleasant walk through apple orchards and buckwheat fields for a about an hour before our path turned onto a much busier road- with no sidewalk or even a shoulder to really speak of. With the sun beginning to set and left with no choice but to continue following the brown trail markers, which mercifully had become quite frequent, our pace quickened as we tried to get off the road as quickly as possible. Just as the sun fell behind the mountain and it was getting a bit too dark for comfort on a road where you are reliant on drivers seeing you and moving out of the way so they don’t hit you or drive you over a ledge, we made our way to a road with a real sidewalk. From there it was another 45 minutes back to the temple where we took off our shoes and rested after a very long and exhausting walk, both physically and emotionally.
Knowing that if we went back to the hotel we would immediately fall asleep, we went for dinner first. We had seen a shabu shabu restaurant earlier on the way to the train station and thought we would try that. For those who have never had shabu shabu, they bring a boiling pot of well seasoned broth to your table with various vegetables and sliced beef that you cook yourself in the broth. We ordered and waited a while, enjoying the green tea until our broth and fixings came. As the waiter set it all down Lynn and I both immediately had very dissapointed looks shoot across our face. The “broth” was water with a single piece of seaweed added for flavor and there was no beef, despite the picture we pointed to for ordering being basically all beef. The waiter smiled and left. Lynn and I sat staring at each other, very confused, thinking there had to be more coming. Eventually he did come back with the beef, but we were still left to make our boiling water into something a little more edible so we weren’t just eating boiled beef and cabbage for diner.
Full up on mediocre food, we returned to the Ryokan for showers and bed. Tomorrow’s train to Kyoto awaits – hopefully it’s less rainy there and they mark their trails a little bit better.
Daily Mileage Count : 18 miles
Fun Daily Facts:
- The Nagano tourist board should not in good conscience be recommending the hike we took.
- The buckwheat fields have automatic gun blasts every so often to scare off birds…it also works on Lynn and Doug
- There are bears in Japan, who knew? The guides we have recommended hiking with cowbells to keep the bears aware. We thought this was a bit overkill until we saw some trail maintenance guys with cowbells on, then we were a bit concerned.