At the suggestion of my friend Ashley, I took a slight detour on the way to Kyoto in order to visit Tsumago, a quaint post town towards the end of an old trade route along the Kiso River Valley called the Nakasendo. The town, after its commercial heydays had passed, became a preserved historical site, with a deliberate eye towards maintaining the architecture, ambiance, and traditions of the long-ago Edo era.
After some anxious locomotive-hopping, I arrived in Tsumago from Tokyo, on an overcast late afternoon. I felt a bit lost after the relative noise and bustle of Tokyo, where even in the quieter backstreets of Ebisu, you were still surrounded by things that reminded you, yes, you were still in the city’s shadows.
In Tsumago, it was the complete opposite – all the details reminded you that you were in a place where life operated at a much, much slower speed, or sometimes at no discernable speed at all, that the squat wooden homes with white papered doors blossoming along the narrow street that silently swayed through the length of Tsumago were purposely frozen in time, the bus lot and some errant taxis being the only real reminder of larger things beyond the polite storefronts and hushed inns.
The eaves of some buildings danced with the busy shapes of swallows, bouncing from beam to beam.I stayed at a ryokan called Fujioto, whose entrance is pictured above. The establishment, neatly kept with tranquil gardens in front and back, and a Hinoki bath made of fragrant Kiso Valley cypress and filled with steaming hot water, is run by a gray-haired Japanese man named Franco (he had spent a long time in Italy before) who was tremendously friendly and welcoming. His staff (including his wife, who ran the kitchen) echoed his same bountiful hospitality. I had a smaller room for one with not much of a view since the inn was full that day, but since I was either strolling through Tsumago or downstairs having dinner, I didn’t mind much (plus, Franco-san apologized when he first saw me, otherwise I wouldn’t have known or noticed the size of my room).
For dinner, which started promptly at six and for which all the guests were excitedly loitering in the first-floor hallway, I sat down in front of a miraculous spread: a plate of small snacks (including marinated baby wasps, a bite of locally-raised chicken, a tofu-roll of green soba noodles, a cube of mountain potato mash), a grilled trout, and sashimi of a Shinshu salmon caught from the nearby river.
In between the sashimi and the beef (which was slowly cooked atop a large leaf with a flame underneath until it was a perfect bloody rare and buttery on the tongue, and accompanied by a clear chicken ball soup that sung with umami), Fujioto served three lighter courses of small dishes – pickled vegetables and squid(topped with a very interestingly delicate salted cherry blossom), boiled bamboo, snow peas, and mushroom with shrimp, and tempura of mountain vegetables (unnamed, but some earthy, some light, some herbal). Dessert was a sweet-savory gohei mochi snack, followed by a coffee jelly with green tea sponge cake and orange slices. Gohei mochi is a Tsumago specialty, coated with a mix of soy sauce, and peanut & sesame powder, and aromatically grilled. A few of them would be quite food-coma-inducing, but one was an excellent transition between the rich saltiness of the Shinshu beef and the airy sponge cake.
After dinner, I took a tranquil walk through Tsumago, after all the shops had been shuttered up for the night and the lanterns lit. A complete and enveloping peace, a hush thrown softly as if a blanket over a child fallen asleep, a darkness void of anything sinister, a darkness that cradles the town, nestles and soothes like a cat curled up at somebody’s feet. A place and time all to itself.