After a fishy breakfast, the Ryokan van took us back to Kiso-Fukushima where Kat and I explored the town and found a roadside hot footbath, mentioned by a fellow hiker the previous night over dinner.
This is why I love places like Japan and Finland and Iceland: there’s no shortage of hot springs to dip in. This one was right on the river, so we watched the steam rise from the water around our knees with the sound of rushing rapids filling our ears. And it was sunny.
Kat’s guidebook claimed there was a sake brewery around here somewhere, so we roamed the riverside in search of a 10am sake tasting, but to no avail. We had a train to catch around 11am that would take us to Yabuhara, so we collected Andrea from a train station cafe and boarded the train.
On board, we met some Australians and “former South Africans” who we chatted rugby with.
“All the men we’re meeting are over 50 and super-friendly,” Kat remarked as we got off the train.
“Maybe we’ve been looking for the wrong men,” Andrea added. We waved goodbye to our new friends and set out to buy snacks. Our guidebook promised that Yabuhara would have places to buy food, and we were more than a little hungry. Fish doesn’t wake you up the way a skillet does. Even some miso soup would have helped.
As it turned out, Yabuhara was closed. Hungry and hopeless, we turned to Google and found an open restaurant just outside of town. It was situated off a major highway where semis roared by, but it was open and there were 3 Japanese folks inside, which was a good sign.
The owner was a friendly older woman who tallied up our bill on her abacus. You read that right. Andrea, a math teacher, was as tickled by this as Kat is when she sees a sedimentary rock.
With no English menu and serious language barriers, we asked for recommendations from the owner. This was my sole contribution to the entire trip. Kat was our expert navigator, guiding us using maps and some internal compass she seems to have. Andrea was our expert outdoors-person. Calm in the face of rain and wind, Andrea found ways to MacGuiver anything, whether it was finding extra space in our backpacks for things we couldn’t fit or setting up her cell phone to take pictures.
Frequently lost and confused and poorly prepared, I offered very little in the way of practical skills. In fact, on our last day, we stood at the train station helping our Aussie friends exchange their tickets. As Kat explained where they were headed and Andrea did the math, one man turned to me and said, “And what do you bring to the group, exactly?”
I brought the word for “recommendation”, which I learned from a random Trinidadian man named Olav who I met at the hotel bar on our first morning in Tokyo.
“If you want to have a good relationship with the locals, asking for a recommendation goes a long way,” he told me.
Phonetically, it sounds like this: ohsso-SUE-meh. I said this and the woman smiled, bringing back three steaming bowls of hot vegetable udon (and Asahi). We tried to order gyoza as well, but she managed to communicate to us that they were all out.
Halfway through our udon, a Japanese woman from the other table came over and gave us 3 of their gyoza. It was one of those great moments in life: people being unexpectedly kind is a wonderful thing.
The next best thing is autumn. And there it was. As we hiked up to Torii pass, we found ourselves wading through oceans of autumn leaves. I have missed autumn. Crisp leaves, mossy forests, inky trees swimming in ruby and ochre and brown. (Brown leaves get overlooked, but they do their part.)
At the top of the pass was a stunning shrine where we stopped to take pictures and take in the view. This hike was different from the rainy uphill trek of the day before. Slow and meandering, the trail led us down to our final town. We wandered in around 3pm to the sound of a bell announcing the hour.
We settled into a small coffee shop and joined an older man sitting by himself at a table in the corner. We’d seen him chatting to the Australians we’d met on the train earlier.
“You’re the rugby girls from Manila? I’ve heard about you!” he said. The four of us had an enjoyable chat over delicious coffees while the sun went down.
Outside, the town was small and quiet, and we found our home easily. We were led down an endless corridor to a large room at the very back of the house, overlooking the train station. Every so often, an alarm would sound and a train would come crashing through, rattling the windows. This happened all through the night. So much for a quiet town.
Our guidebook claimed that there was a communal bath, and since dinner wasn’t until 6pm, we checked it out. I’m not sure what they meant by communal. It was a large bathtub, really, and the water temperature was set to Hell. The water was so scalding I couldn’t risk a toe in it. Andrea managed to get in most of the way, which makes me think she is part dragon or something.
We were joined at dinner by the four Kiwis from the night before, the parents and the couple. Dinner was a spread of fish, BBQ, crickets, vegetables, some apple slices, and Asahi, and featured conversation about the history of rugby in New Zealand.
A highlight of the evening was when the father said, “You know the haka. But do you know the Australian haka?”
We shook our heads.
“Here, I’ll show you.” He stood up, patted himself frantically, then cried, “Oops! Lost my wallet!”
“Feel free to use that one,” his daughter said as he sat down chuckling. You’ve gotta love a good Dad joke.
Back in the room, with the train thundering by at all hours, Andrea finally felt inspired by three nights of rugby talk and bought herself a ticket to the Bronze. And Kat, having talked extensively with several Kiwis about the joys of England in the final, bought herself a ticket. I lay awake listening to the train alarms and, when it was silent, strange thumps coming from the ceiling.
In the morning, we woke to a breakfast of crickets, fish, pickled veg, and some honey yogurt before walking a breezy 2.5km to another train station where we caught the train to Shijiori to exchange our tickets for a direct train to Shinjuku.
The 4-day trek was so worth every penny, and I loved the authenticity of it all, but I am not ashamed to tell you that I was thrilled to be back in Tokyo. That night, I showered, did my hair, rode the elevator up to the sleek, stratospheric New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, and ordered myself a $20 Old Fashioned. Even without Bill Murray, it was worth it.