|Start at Thajimaya Ryokan, Magome|
Midway along Nakasendo, we sat to enjoy our bread and apple under a covered wayside. A Japanese family of three sat at the one table outside in the sun. We exchanged our “Konichiwas” as we walked past.
|click to enlarge photos|
We could hear the sound of their cooking on the tiny, table-top device, no bigger than 5 inches’ diameter. Soon, the woman walked 15 yards to hand us a small paper plate of six items: two cooked broccoli sprigs, two pieces of ham and two potato slices stuck with a toothpick.
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At the Fujimoto Ryokan (Inn) in Tsumago, our dinner hostess spoke English well. With the perfect balance of respectful warmth, openness, and care, she explained the foods laid before us: the whole-cooked trout pulled from the water today; the vegetables her family pickled last year for this meal; what to dip in sauce and that we should wrap the last piece of raw fish in the shiso leaf and eat the leaf too. She twice had to demonstrate how to pull the spinal column of bones out of the whole trout, and we overheard her giving the same attention to the other guests scattered around the big room.
She and her father visited our table several times demonstrating concern for our happiness, as if we were the food critics that could make or break their enterprise.
The family has operated this ryokan for 100 years. We are one-night visitors, and the father even apologized for our room’s tiny size.
Making us feel like honored guests earns them honor and my respect for achieving excellence in their profession. We started thinking, “What a bargain this place is.” Then, I remembered we share bathrooms and sleep on a futon on the floor.
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With extremely full bellies and dressed in yukatas, we were about to settle in when the hostess knocked on the door to tell us that people would play traditional Japanese instruments just up the road. So, we changed clothing, stepped into the cold mountain air, and walked up to see.
The unheated public house consists of one large room with two big platforms. On one were two men, two different drums, two kotos and two shamisens and several flutes. On the other side, two 8 x 10 rugs accommodated one couple each. After we sat on the edge, the couple closest to us motioned us join them on their rug, which we discovered was on a heated pad.
The guys took turns playing. Then, a Japanese woman, middle aged, at the far end came up to play her koto. One of the men and the woman made obvious mistakes. The woman even paused to say “sorry,” a couple of times. The other man, who acted as lead host, played all instruments well. So, we wondered, teacher and students? Local enthusiasts trying to keep traditional music alive in this historical town?
What struck me most was how hard they tried to please: the heated rugs, asking people where they were from; trying to break the language barrier. Portland Oregon, Boulder Colorado, Holland, Germany, Israel. He tried to repeat the names. Had a bit of trouble with Israel, one iteration sounded a lot like “Islam.” Yet, he earnestly engaged in that modest, eager-to-please Japanese way we are experiencing.
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We came to the old “Post Towns,” to enjoy the 18th century buildings and a beautiful hike in the woods. In fact, the hike was beautiful – rivers, waterfalls, an old shrine . . . . The atmospheric towns exceeded our expectations. I learned about their purpose (to provide horses and laborers for traveling government officials.) Yet, what I will remember are examples of modern-day Japanese displaying behaviors that would make proud their ancestors.