On the second day, we had two options: hike one hour from Tsumago to the small town of Nagiso, then take a train from Nagiso to Kiso-Fukishima, where we’d be staying the night, OR hike to Nagiso, stock up on food, and hike 5 hours from Nagiso to Nojiri, where we’d need to arrive in time to catch the 2:52pm train to Kiso-Fukishima.
Obviously we chose the longer walk. This would be our highest elevation gain and longest day, with the guidebook suggesting we’d need 6 hours to make it the 18 kilometers from Tsumago to Nojiri.
When we woke at 6:30am, it was raining. We packed our things, did some stretches, and headed down to a breakfast of cold vegetables, scrambled eggs, miso soup, and tea. Our pals from dinner chatted with us about our plans for the day. The two older women said they’d be taking the short walk to Nagiso and catching the train since the trail would be slippery. The Kiwis, on the other hand, were gearing up for 6 hours of rainy trekking.
The pressure was on to catch that 2:52pm train, so we headed out around 8:15am. The rain was persistent and the weather was cool, which meant for misty mountains and gloomy roads. I love a good creeping mist through mountain peaks.
We reached Nagiso by 9am and stopped at the grocery store. Our guidebook said there would be no cafes to stop at for lunch along the way; the trail would take us through the mountains and off the roads, so we’d need to stock up. We bought bananas, bento boxes, onigiri, doughnuts, chips, chocolate, and, of course, 3 Asahis. (In retrospect, we should’ve reached out to Asahi to see if they’d sponsor our hike.)
We grabbed some disappointing cold coffees and some plastic bags for our backpacks as they’d already gotten soaked. As we stuffed the food into our bags, the Kiwis entered the store.
“There’s a place down the road you can get ponchos,” said Murray Mexted.
“How’s that coffee? There’s an actual cafe down the street,” said Murray’s friend.
This was the thing about the Kiwis: they always started off after us and somehow arrived before us. (They were the ones who’d missed the cramped Magome bus the previous day but had somehow made it to the lunch restaurant before us.)
We took their advice and ducked into the cafe, which was warm and dry and offered hot coffee and tea. It was all we needed to warm us up before heading back into the mist and up the mountain.
Some people might find the idea of walking 18km up and down mountains in chilly, persistent rain to be miserable. I love it. I love every single bit of it. I love feeling the rain in my hair, breathing in damp air and the smell of moss and leaf litter. I love how the mud squelches under my shoes and fills all the little tracks in the rubber soles. I love how the raindrops sound on wide maple leaves and how water drips down through the pines and plops on my nose. I love how when I exhale, a little cloud forms, like proof of life. And I love, love knowing that when I’m soaked to the bone by the end of the day, finding dryness and warmth will feel miraculous.
Kat and Andrea felt the same. The rainfall was offset by laughter. Andrea taught us about the law of averages and Kat told us about rock formations and I openly wished to see a friendly bear from a safe distance. We walked across slick foliage and wooden bridges, down metal ladders, through gardens and fields. The forest was thick with cedar and bamboo and pine, and every few kilometers we’d find a bear bell.
The deeper we walked into the woods, the more creative the bear drawings became. Each sign warned to ring a bear bell or to “have a thing out of the sound.” Of course, we didn’t see a single bear.
The trail was so well-marked that we didn’t need our maps. Wooden signs pointed toward Nojiri Station with estimates of how long it would take us to get there. I will say, we kept up the pace; knowing that you need to catch a train kind of turns your stroll in the woods into more of an Amazing Race type deal.
After spotting a sign saying we were 2 hours from the train station, we decided to stop for lunch in a wooden lean-to type thing. It was the only cover we’d seen along the trail, and despite my love for the rain, it doesn’t belong in a cold beer.
We were already invigorated from the cold, but sushi, rice balls, doughnuts, and the crisp joy of beer rekindled our energy.
It took us less than two hours to make it out of the mountains, where we emerged on the outskirts of Nojiri. A large, dilapidated estate marked our entrance into town. The roof was crawling with curious monkeys, so we picked up the pace. I could see them eyeing our backpacks and I didn’t want to get rabies fending them off.
It was 2pm when we arrived at the train station, so I set off up the road to locate a cafe. I’m proud to say that I asked a woman in Japanese where the cafe was, and she pointed me in the right direction. The three of us stomped our wet boots on a mat and entered, dripping, before finding a warm table near a fire.
The owner was a small woman who was busy serving other hikers who looked less muddy and haggard than we did. Eventually, we were able to order hot chocolates from her, finishing them just in time to catch the train. Before we left, she came over with her phone and showed us the screen. She’d typed something into Google Translate: “Have long journey, take good care.”
With ten minutes to spare, we reached the train station again. I have to add that I used the bathroom outside the station, because in Japan, the toilet seats are heated. I like being cold, but sitting on a freezing toilet seat is not fun. I couldn’t imagine that the tiny bathroom outside the train station would have a heated toilet, but to my absolute joy, it did! Have I mentioned how much I love Japan?
Back in the train station, I walked into a conversation between Kat and a new quartet of Kiwis: parents, their daughter, and the daughter’s husband.
“We’re thinking of selling our tickets to the final,” the daughter was saying. “Someone offered me $5,000.”
The train rumbled in on time. We looked around for the older crew of Kiwis we’d set off with that morning, but they were nowhere to be found. (We met them the next day and they told us they’d gotten lost and walked 30km instead of 18. Yikes.)
The train conveyed us to a station where a van awaited to take us up to an absolutely gorgeous inn, a Japanese-style Ryokan called Komanoyu Ryokan. We were too freezing and wet to appreciate exactly how nice it was at first, shuffling out of our muddy, stinking shoes and into the geta sandals they gave us. It was by far the best place we stayed on our hike.
All we wanted was to get into the onsen, but we were shown the dining hall first and then our room, a spacious tatami-filled paradise with a window overlooking some trees and lots of hangers for us to dry our things. We hung our wet socks on drying racks near a warm radiator and sprinted out of our wet clothes and into our yukatas.
The onsen was divine. We had hot showers first before stepping into the steamy communal indoor onsen – though no one else was in it. It was too hot for me after a while, so I went to the outdoor section of the onsen, which was more lovely with stones and great cedars overhead. I must’ve overdone it, though, because as I headed back to the room I got so dizzy I had to sit down in the hallway before basically crawling through our door and lying on the floor until Kat and Andrea came back.
That night, we wore our yukatas to dinner, encouraging the couple at the table next to us to go change as well. There were three tables of new people in the restaurant. Guess what we all talked about?
Dinner was a 47-course meal. I kid. I lost track. Every time they brought something out, I thought it would be the last thing, and then a waiter would set down another crockpot full of food. There was yakiniku, Japanese BBQ that was cooking at the table while we ate everything else: pickled vegetables, veggie tempura, rice, and so many soups and fish and salmon sashimi, all topped off with – you guessed it – Asahi and sake.
After dessert, we journeyed back to the onsen beneath the stars. There is nothing quite like soaking your tired muscles in hot water beneath a crisp night sky.