It was October of 2018 when Kat and I wandered into Tap Station to catch a rugby match and our boss said, “So the Rugby World Cup is in Tokyo next year. And it falls on our October holiday.”
That was how, one month later, before I’d even decided whether I was staying another year in Manila, I found myself with a ticket to the Bronze Medal match. I’ll tell ya, this school really does well when it comes to incentives. ; )
The World Cup matches were spaced out: the semi-finals on our first weekend in Tokyo, then the Bronze and Finals on our last. This left the week wide open for adventure, so Kat, Andrea, and I embarked on a 4-day hike along the Nakasendo Trail.
We booked with Oku Japan, a not-inexpensive tour company that provides you with everything you need to hike the trail without lifting more than a hiking boot: train tickets, bus tickets, detailed walking guides, Japanese phrasebooks, etc.
After three days of rugby matches at smoky street-corner pubs and buzzy yakatori bars down the winding roads of Piss Alley, the three of us departed our hip little hotel at 7:15am to walk to Shinjuku Station, where we’d catch the JR Line to Tokyo Station to await our Shinkansen, or bullet train.
Scheduled to depart at 8:50am, the train departed at…8:50am. Japan’s efficiency makes me swoon.
After a two-hour journey at high speeds, we arrived in Nagoya and transferred to a regular-speed train that carried us another 45 minutes to Nakatsugawa, where we disembarked to catch the bus to Magome. It was not difficult to figure out which bus was ours: there was a line of brightly-clad hikers already waiting, their Oku Japan cloths flapping in the wind.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Dreams of unpeopled paths dissolved pretty quickly, but it turned out okay in the end; the trail was crowded with other folks who had traveled to Japan for the Rugby World Cup. Every person we met along the way was either a Kiwi trying to sell their tickets to the finals or a Brit trying to buy them.
When our bus arrived, we shuffled inside along with 40 other people. A few less lucky hikers were left to wait for the next bus. I watched them disappear through the slim gaps between sweaty necks pressing me in from all directions. Kat, Andrea, and I stood in the center aisle as the bus sped along hairpin turns up mountainsides, but not to worry; we were packed in so tight that there was no hope of us falling over.
The journey up the mountain was a long 30 minutes and 570 Yen. When the doors opened in Magome, we trickled off, a sludge of people pouring out into some charmless parking lot.
I’m happy to say that that was the worst of it.
Sure, Magome didn’t look exactly like the pictures. Where tourism posters depicted misty hillsides and Japanese-style rooftops looking romantically gloomy under overcast skies, the reality for us was bright sun and zigzagging streets dotted with people.
The hike began with a slow ascent of the mountain over exposed paths that shifted from gravel to paved and back again. After a brief dip into the woods, we came back out on a roadside next to a small restaurant called Juri. We’d barely been walking an hour, but already we’d lost most of the crowd and gained an appetite.
Our guidebook suggested we sample the soba noodles and a questionable horse meat sashimi that Kat bravely ordered. It tasted best when washed down with Asahi. I ordered zarusoba, cold buckwheat noodles dipped in soy sauce with onions and fermented plums. At the table next to us, a man from New Zealand told Kat that a British guy had offered $6,000 for his ticket to the rugby final. This was our hike, in a nutshell: nature saturated with rugby talk. So much rugby that upon returning to Tokyo, Andrea bought herself a ticket to the bronze medal match.
Lunch was a nice pause in our otherwise travel-hectic day, and it was afternoon, when the sun is soft and golden and makes everything feel warmer.
We had another few hours to go before reaching Tsumago, but the hike was more of a leisurely walk that took us through cedars and pine. At one point, we came across a bronze bell beside a sign that read, “Ring in case of bear.”
“Are there bears in these woods?” I wondered.
A man passing by laughed at us. “No bears!” he cried out. We rang the bell anyway.
5 miles later, we arrived in Tsumago under a dusky sky. Our host waited outside in the street and waved us down a small alley, where we arrived at our home for the night: an Edo period minshuku called Shimosagaya, which was a family-run bed and breakfast. We removed our shoes and followed a woman upstairs to a small room with tatami mat floors and an open window to the cool night, the sound of the nearby river and hydroelectric dam a soothing change from Manila’s horns.
Dinner was served at 6pm in a small dining room that sat 4 Kiwis in their late 50s, the 3 of us, and 2 older women who were speaking Thai. Immediately it was obvious that we’d missed the memo on wearing your yukata, or Japanese-style robe, to dinner. Everyone else had figured it out, though. Oops.
Dinner was a variety of local delicacies: pickled vegetables, soup, a fish, pork or chicken of some kind, veggie tempura, persimmons, and grapes with the bottoms cut off so they wouldn’t roll off your plate. Oh, and crickets.
I have never had crickets before, and I wouldn’t be sad if I never had them again. They weren’t terrible – crunchy and marinated in some kind of sweet sauce – but no matter how hard you try, you can’t unsee those long legs and antennae and wings even as they’re crunching under your teeth. (You’re welcome.)
Following the Kiwis’ lead, we ordered a large bottle of Asahi beer. The meal and conversation were so good that we ordered a second, and soon the two older women left. We chatted with the Kiwis about the World Cup – they had tickets to the final, but with New Zealand in the bronze they were debating whether or not to go.
“Did you play rugby?” Kat asked.
“He played for the All Blacks once,” said one man, pointing to his friend. Later, we Googled the man to find out he was Murray Mexted, a super-famous All Black from the 70s-mid 80s. (Andrea, I can hear you rolling your eyes.)
“He is not famous!” Andrea would say with exasperation throughout the rest of the hike when Kat and I brought him up. “He was famous before we were even born. That doesn’t count.”
Either way, there’s some humor in knowing that Kat and I went on about our rugby experiences and then asked a retired All Black nonchalantly whether he’d ever played before.