Day Twelve – Kanazawa to Matsumoto

February 1, 2007

Early start for Matsumoto. Trains as follows: Kanazawa to Naotse, then wait for Nagano train (much comical stepping off the train gingerly and then rushing to the vending machine to buy a drink, ready to leap back on the train at any moment; got the drinks, leapt back on the train relieved… and waited 45 minutes for it to leave), then caught a limited express train (with sexy orange stripes on the side) to Matsumoto.

The first leg of the journey, to Naotse, was along the northern coastline. The Japanese alps sat, multi-layered and blue, on our right hand side, keeping pace with us; the sea of Japan, calm as a pond, was on our left. At times the train hugged the shore and the water seemed close enough to dip your fingers in. Sometimes the rails went right out over the water.

The second leg of the journey turned us towards the mountains, taking us inland; the third leg took us up and up and up again, into the northern alps, the track tilting over steep gradient as we climbed and turned, the train leaning out towards orchards of apple trees, heavy with the soft pink globes of Matsumoto apples – thousands of them, so plump and ripe and healthy looking that they made our mouths water. We rushed through tunnels, and over plateaus, always towards another climb, until three times over we’d climbed up into the mountains.

MLW has been cold-ridden and sneezy, and has had to blow her nose surreptitiously, as if digging in her bag or something similar, as it is a cultural faux pas in Japan to blow your nose in public. People prefer to sniff and snuck and cough, which can be a bit nauseating, but I suppose it’s no more distressing to us, really, than it is to them when someone marches across the tatami in shoes. She’s been drinking a sort of isotonic bottled drink, supposedly for the cold, but really for the weirdness factor of drinking something called Pocari Sweat (that even looks like sweat in a bottle – yuk).

Arriving at Matsumoto train station, we were treated to the famous singing station announcements: Matsu-mohh-tohhhhhh! (the end note rising strongly). We then set about finding the bus to take us to our ryokan, outside the city.

We had booked a place at a bekkan – a ryokan with onsen (natural hot springs) – on the outskirts of Matsumoto. Enjyoh Bekkan, near Utsukushi-ga-hara Onsen, is the Japanese equivalent of the Umtali Motel in Aliwal North, in South Africa (for those of you that have been there): all avocado bathroom fittings, turquoise toilets, and fake wood moulded chairs with brown upholstery. But, clean and quiet and the public bath/onsen is nice and steamy with a view of the garden. We’d hoped for an outdoor onsen experience, but have hit things slightly off-season, and most of the bekkans are being renovated ahead of the skiing season. Nevermind – gives us one more reason to return to Japan.

Today, spent mostly on trains, has been about people watching. Some small dialogues, asking for directions, but until this evening’s dinner place, no real chatting. Tried a local place recommended by our urbane but smoky hotelier – very tasty food in a very non-tourist atmosphere, so that it took us a while to feel comfortable (the blaring TV didn’t help). We weathered the stares from the locals, and smiled at each other through the smoke from their cigarettes, seemingly pumped into the air as if from a bellows. Edamame, yakitori, prawn donburi – all were delicious. Donburi is a Kaga regional dish of rice in a bowl, over which an omelette mix with sake stewed onions and other bits is poured; a lid is then put on the bowl and the heat from the rice cooks the egg. Hot sake for me, cold for MLW, tasting of bananas at the front, and nuts and camphor at the back of my mouth.

The waiter was patient and friendly but quiet and no-one else talked to us until we got up to leave and pay the bill, at which point the proprietress emerged from the kitchen and engaged us in our most verbose Japanese yet. She had seemed quite dour until she started talking to us but, I think, once her formal role of cooking for us had been completed, she felt free to be friendly and jokey and engaging.

We crept back to the bekkan in the dark – no torch and little street lighting – and slid onto our separate futons (we didn’t encounter a double futon anywhere we stayed) and fell fast asleep. Tomorrow, we go to see Matsumoto Castle.

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Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>

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