Making Our Way Through Lower Honshu, Part I: Nikko to Narai

It’s become apparent that although I kept a decent record of my time in Japan, I certainly did not record enough. Names escape me, and many of the days have begun to melt into one another in my memory. For this reason, the next few segments regarding my world tour will be shorter on text, and present more emphasis on photography.

After returning to Japan and subsequently visiting historic Nikko, we drove south. This choice was largely influenced by the lack of chains we had for our tires, which rendered most of the north inaccessible to us during this time of year. Japanese roads are typically well-maintained, but many require by law that drivers carry chains in winter, so, south it was.

Getting ready for a day of driving

Our first destination was the city of Ome; west and slightly to the north of Tokyo, where we would be able to visit the mountaintop Mitake Shrine. We arrived well after dark, only to find that the inn our GPS was directing us towards was nowhere to be seen. To further our troubles, the other hotels stored in our GPS were far above and beyond our price range. After about an hour of aimless driving, and with the help of a generous local who jumped in our car to direct us, we located a business hotel where we would ultimately spend the night. In hindsight, I doubt we would have found a place to stay at all if it had not been for our mysterious stranger, who, despite having little practical knowledge of English, saved the day with a lively and accurate pointing finger.

The following morning we rose early and drove to the funicular which would take us up to the Mitake Shrine. As it turned out, this was the exact location to which we had been sent by our GPS the night before. Once we exited the funicular, our suspicions were confirmed: the inn was on top of the mountain. This was somewhat relieving, as the prior night’s conundrum had led us to lose faith in the ability of our car’s navigational system; a faith which was now partially restored.

The shrine itself was surreal. Wrapped in morning fog, the empty streets of the sleepy town made for an eerie setting. Certainly a far cry from the bustling Japan we had come to know, a sense of anxious stillness leeched from Mitake’s old buildings and vacant roadways. Apart from the shrine and village, we went for a small hike through the timber, ultimately wrapping back around to the town before descending to our car via a steep and narrow road.


The following day we found ourselves in Matsumoto, some 200 kilometres to the northwest (so much for going south). Much to our good fortune the roads were devoid of snow, allowing for our safe (and chain-less) passage. Looking northwest from Matsumoto, however, the white crags of the Japanese alps may as well have been a giant “keep out” sign, reminding us not to proceed further on our current trajectory. Since I will go into greater detail about this city in a Spotlight entry (available here, eventually), for now I will limit my depiction of Matsumoto solely to my own experiences. The city itself is lovely, and likely my favourite of all Japan (Tokyo and Nikko aside). The city’s main tourist attraction is its photogenic castle Matsumoto-jō, which is as impressive in its construction as it is in its beauty. We snagged some decent photos here before looking for food.


As a change of pace, we decided to cast aside our usual grocery-store fare in favour of a genuine meal in a restaurant. As is our custom when looking for an eatery, we kept our eyes open for any place brimming with locals, regardless of whether or not we could read the menu. Once inside, we sat down and looked around at the neighbouring tables. Plenty of variety was to be found on the dishes, with patrons cheerily consuming noodles, meats, vegetables and stir-fries. After some discussion, we concluded that whatever was on the table to our left was good enough for us, and relayed our request to the waiter. Unsurprisingly, the staff did not speak English and so while my parents were happily granted their request for the house beer, my request for water was met with confusion. This prompted my mother to enter a game of charades which ultimately ended when her skillful imitation of a spigot resulted in me receiving whatever beer it was they had on tap.


Another highlight of the Mastumoto area was our stop at a wasabi farm. This short detour proved very interesting as I had no idea that the spicy root grew in such unique conditions.



On our last few days before heading to Nara, we spent some time exploring the Nakasendo Trail, one of feudal Japan’s main highways. This particular trail connected the centres of Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) and wound through a few hundred kilometres of Japan’s pristine alps. We visited several of the route’s outposts which are still, for the most part, very much alive. The towns themselves have healthy populations and most of the buildings are original. Even the trail itself has been maintained through the ages, allowing us to spend a day hiking between villages.



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