Tuesday, July 31, 2018


The Nakasendo is one of the old highways of Japan, passing through the Kiso River valley between Kyoto and Edo. When railways and highways came, many parts of it became train tracks and paved roads, but parts of the Nakasendo remain as trails that can be hiked by those who want to visualize the past, experience the woods, and, here and there, touch history.

The restored and preserved post towns of Magome and Tsumago link a walk of about 5 miles (variously reported as 8 or 9 kilometers).  There are some hilly places, but mostly it's a rolling trail.  Since it was a highway when built, original and restored stones still pave much of it.  Sometimes it crosses or even follows the modern road.  There are often bus stops in those places, in case it starts pouring or riding sounds like a better plan.

Bear bells, like farmhouse dinner bells, dot the trail.  There are about a dozen of them.  Yes, there are bears, and one sounds the bells in passing to alert the bears to one's passing.  There are so many humans using this trail, the bears are probably happy to stay away.  Yet, the human population seems huge only because the towns are tiny, the lodging limited and the trail narrow.  You pass people on the trail, but not that many of them.  It's about a three hour walk, depending on how often one stops to take pictures, or a rest, or stays at the halfway point tea house, where local volunteers continue to maintain fires and serve tea and conversation while hikers take a break.

In fact, that's one of the most Japanese things about this trek: that so much of the preservation and maintenance is done by volunteers who are proud of their area and their history.  The charming volunteer we met moved to Tsumago after retiring and hikes up when it's his turn to enjoy the woods and the passers-by.  Like everything else in this stretch, the building is either historic, carefully restored, or meticulously crafted to  preserve the history and the culture of this amazing place.

Of late years, injuries have kept me from doing a lot of walking, much less hiking.  I've managed to ride horses because I was, well, riding; sail because I can do that mostly sitting; and ski, because I could manage without any pressure on my bad hip.  Not great form, but you try skiing even a single diamond on one foot!  Being in Japan has been good for me in this sense.  You will walk.  Lots.  There are many stairs.  You will carry things to and from stations and up and down stairs, always.  The best available help isn't much unless you stay in a 4+ star hotel and what's the fun in that?

Intrepid fellow author Susan Spann twisted my arm, and since I'm always game for adventure, I journeyed from Nagano to meet her in Nakatsugawa, where we ended up on the same bus for Magome, with a plan to walk the trail from Magome to Tsumago.

Susan's done this before, so she was able to recommend an inn -- Magomechaya -- where the owner speaks English and foreign guests are welcome.  Susan can't eat fish and I don't eat meat, fish or fowl, so we can't speak to the quality of the meals, but they are reportedly delicious.  Get meals if you can because the town operates on the bus schedules:  things start to open early, when the first buses of day trippers come, and close between 4 and 5, when the last bus leaves.  Local grilled rice dumplings (gomei mochi) with a savory (and vegetarian) sauce are delicious, and good thing, too.  We ate a lot of them.  Magomechaya is a fairly classic minshuku, with tatami rooms, common living areas, toilets and sinks down the hall, and 3 person baths with good deep tubs. The tubs are available during evening hours only.  The futons are lovely, the comforters soft, the pillows rice bran.  The community announcement speakers will wake you at 6:30 am, and that's good because you want to get on the trail early when it's hot out.

The trail itself is beautiful.  It's either groomed or paved, often with original stones.  It's not too steep, except right in Magome.  The forest surrounds you in peace broken by rushing water, buzzing insects and your own conversation.  Ancient monuments periodically mark the trail, honoring Jizo, the Bodhisattva who protects travelers (among other things), or the horses and also the oxen who died on the journey.  Kiso horses are honored, and straw figures are available everywhere.  Souvenirs tend to be traditional local products, mostly of wood.  We mostly took turns ringing the official bear bells.  Susan has a couple on her pack, and I now have one on mine -- best souvenir I could have.  There is more walking, and maybe even some hiking, in my future. Maps, history and more: Nakasendo

Snow Monkey Park -- live cam link!

I wanted to go to a ski resort to check out the terrain and a "modern" hot spring that sounded like fun.  However, I couldn't find the bus.  The information desk people didn't know.  The people who sold bus tickets didn't know.  The Internet swore there was a bus, a nice long ride through interesting farm land, but the Internet was wrong.  Ultimately, a bus did come, but it was going to Snow Monkey Park. It announced that in a very professional voice, in English, quite often.

At Nikko, almost by accident, I saw Snow Monkeys bathing in a hot spring in actual snow, as it was snowing because it was late November!  This wasn't on the schedule, but it was a great bonus!  I like monkeys, and it did seem there were hot springs humans could use, so I decided to go to Snow Monkey Park.

The bus was a comfortable highway bus, and it wasn't full on this cloudy and showery Saturday morning, so it was a pleasant ride through orchard country.  It deposited us in the middle of nowhere, seemingly, though there was a Roman Museum (closed).  Monkey Park was a mile or two  away.  Uphill.  Still, having got there, I set off up a winding road that passed through a village of ryokans, a couple of restaurants, and a hotel before arriving at the actual trailhead you climb to the park itself.  There is an admission fee, but you don't pay it until you get to the top, so if you don't make it, there's no charge.  The fact that nobody warns you about the hike is one of those things you can expect in Japan and would happen nowhere else.

I loved the monkeys!  Apparently, they will grab and run with any food items (or plastic bags, which often contain food) they see, and there are signs everywhere in multiple languages reminding you that monkeys can get aggressive around food, and not to feed them or show them food -- or plastic bags.

Troupes are mostly females with their young.  They have babies every two years, and mothers with juveniles and infants were everywhere.  Juveniles and infants ran all over, playing and climbing.  Lots of grooming and napping going on, too.  Nobody was in the hot spring but a couple of adults sprawled on the edge of the pool.  This natural hot spring is tended for monkey enjoyment, with rock-lined pools and ledges, nicely arranged riverfront basking areas, and a small shelter where Healthy Monkey Snacks are placed periodically, so the monkeys will come down despite the human presence.  Many come down in the morning, spend the day at what should be called Monkey Spa, and retreat up the hills into the woods at night.  They are free to do as they please, so they do.

Sometimes an infant gets separated from its mother, and will cry, sounding much like a bird, until its mother reappears.  There was a set of twins -- rare -- and sometimes juveniles and adults would get into discussions about I'm not sure what.  They communicate very well.

The best part came when I was walking down.  A juvenile was sitting in the middle of the path.  I spoke to it, and it came up to me.  It sat down again, reached out and gently touched my leg!  I was a little concerned it was going to try to climb me, so I stepped around it and headed on, talking softly all the while.  It followed, and I stopped.  It touched me again!  Humans are not supposed to touch the monkeys, but apparently the monkeys don't read the signs!

I stopped at one of the restaurants for a vegetarian sandwich (hey, eat when you can, if you're a veg in Japan) and then went in search of a hot spring for humans.  No luck.  They were all attached to ryokans (inns) and were for guests only.  Too bad for me.  I was able to catch a local bus to a train station and see some new towns.  It was a great day!

You can go, too, via the magic of the Internet:  Click here to see the Snow Monkey Park LIVE STREAMING camera!

Here are some of my pictures.  I didn't get one of my little friend because I didn't want to scare her, or have her decide my i-phone looked edible!

Travel -- days 1 & 2: Manga and Ninja

As I hope you know by now, Noriko's Journey goes to places where she spent her childhood.  I've been there, as far as I could identify them, but recently I found another place of interest.  Of course I had to go.

I found a museum connected to the remaining known school of Nimpo, or Ninjustsu, which is no longer there, but left behind a wonderfully rich history.  So I planned a trip to Nagano, the closest large base of operations.

Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi Mystery series, which takes place 200 years before the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series and features Iga shinobi Hattori Hiro, is presently writing a book on the 100 Sacred Mountains of Japan.  This means she has to climb as many as she can (a few are are closed, there are others to add.  Read her book when it comes out.  It's going to be great.)  Susan and I bonded over moving to Japan to write our books, getting our visas in a troublesome new category, and generally finding ways to live in this quirky country we both love.  I'm a couple of months ahead of Susan on the curve, so she's been able to slipstream behind me on lawyers, and now, real estate agents. (Yay!  She and husband Michael plus cat Oobie have just found a place -- yesterday!)

Susan asked me join her on a hike covering a beautifully preserved portion of the old Nakasendo, the original highway through the mountains of central Japan.  Hiking hasn't been my strong suit of recent years due to injuries, but she said it was mostly down hill and only 8 kilometers, and, besides, it sounded like great fun!

I didn't realize that Magome, where we went, was darned near in Nagoya, and much farther from Nagano and Tokyo than my phone intimated.  But that's another tale.  This is about Nagano.

In Chasing Dreams, book 2, many of the illustrations came from a sketchbook by the famed artist Hokusai in the collection of the US Library of Congress!  Hokusai spent a number of years in Obuse, a town near Nagano, under the patronage of a local lord, painting.  And not only is the area known for   chestnuts, it's known for Hokusai's history, paintings, and wonderful sketchbooks preserved in a local museum dedicated to his art and legacy as an artist.  They don't allow photography, but the museum is well worth the trip, and their website has better pictures than I can take.  There are painting in festival floats.  There are paintings on Temple ceilings.  There are many wonderful sketchbooks as Hokusai's growth as a freeform artist is reflected in his work.  The current exhibit was on his Manga (sketches).  Here's the link.  Hokusai Museum, Obuse

The next day, I went to Togakushi, where there is a mountain (for Susan) and folk/Ninpo museums for both of us, and a popular shrine not quite at the top of the sacred mountain. This involves a bus ride into the resort area, and a pretty fair hike.  I do have photos from the hike, including a famous and ancient alley of trees planted to line the path.  Their pictures are, of course, much better than mine.  Here's the link:  Togakushi Shrine  This is the best link I have to the Ninpo and Folk Museums, which are the best on the subject that I have found.  Naturally, they don't allow photography, but theirs are better than mine, anyway.  Togakure Nimpo and Folk Museums 

There are bears!  It is recommended that you carry a bell so that the nice, polite Japanese bears will hear it and stay out of your way.  I nearly missed the downhill bus, so I didn't get a bell there.  But I have one now!  Pictures!

Internet Hell -- Part Two (Final -- I hope.)

I got the router from the US quickly because I paid for Apparition Service (apparently -- it was very fast and quite expensive) and discovered it worked!  Everything had the right lights on, all checks seems wonderful.  This happened before I was even allowed to call SoftBank and order their modem through them.  How cool is this?

Not very.  I can't get to the site I need to actually TURN ON the internet service, which is supposed to be working now, if I can only log in to it.  I can't do it from either of my tablets, I can't do it from my phone, and I certainly can't do it from my computer.

I have to call the Tech Support Number that has English service, something for which I had to fight and will hoard jealously.  I find that when I call the regular numbers, I can hear them just fine.  I even understand what they're saying, but, again, it just doesn't make sense in the World As I Know It.  So, after much difficulty, I had actually obtained the Eigo Tech Support Phone Number.

Although they beat around the bush a lot, it quickly becomes apparent that the ONLY way I can get Internet Service is to rent their modem.  (They talk a lot about calling other support options for my computer, the Other Modem, and so on, but they all ONLY have on-line support.  I tried that already.  And we ALL know the problem is that I CANNOT GET ON LINE.)

So round and round and round we go.  I obtain some major billing concessions because I don't like this paying for something that DOES NOT WORK thing.  Nor do I like surprise charges.  And different numbers for the bill for the same services.  However, they clearly felt badly about it because they managed to get THEIR modem to me in two days (rather than two weeks).

And it WORKS.  The bill will be higher, but it better be the amount last quoted, and it WILL have concession on it.  But, cutting to the chase, it WORKS.  That was the goal all along.

Wonder of wonders, I was able to send the other modem back to Amazon (by repacking it and dropping it off at my friendly 7-11, good for almost everything), and this whole escapade is only costing me an extra $15.  Which is something.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Disconnected: Life on the Floor

Since I last posted here, I've moved.  This has taken a while and is still very complicated.  I swear this is a True Story.

My Internet comes and goes as I'm using my phone where I can grab free wi-fi.  It usually takes so long to log in on these "free spots" that all the time I had has gone just trying to log in.  What they will allow you to do is also severely limited.  I've also paid enormous sums to get internet on my phone, also extremely limited.  Let's start there:

My phone is a pre-paid that I have had, not entirely properly, for many years.  This gives me a consistent number, one of the great virtues of having your own phone rather than renting (formerly) a phone or (more recently) a SIM card.  I don't want to change that number, and you can't port a number from pre-paid service to regular.  I don't call out much, but I want people to be able to call me, so I will fight to keep my number.

To obtain Internet service on my phone, I have to "apply" for it from the phone, which basically means selecting it from a menu at absurdly high prices and only for short times.  I have to make sure the phone is loaded with adequate funds to pay for this before I call.  Since I will have real Internet soon, I hope, I won't have to continue to do this.

My new building is wired. This is supposed to give me faster speeds, greater reliability and cheaper rates. First thing, you have to call the wiring provider.  I have to WAIT for them to call me back because they are absurdly proud of having a few people who sort of speak English available and I simply MUST talk to one of them.  That takes a while, as in a couple of weeks.  They're sending something.  I can't tell if a router is required or not.  My web searches indicate not.  This is good because I have yet to see one for sale.

There is also a SERVICE provider.  This is the company through which you actually get your internet.  Again, not understanding this dual system, I have to wade through ultra-polite Japanese on the phone and then locate a person who speaks English because what they're telling me makes no sense in the World As I Know It.  A wireless receiver/router thing arrives, to cover the waiting period at no cost to me, they say.  I think I am finally in decent shape because I hook it up and it works.  Hurray!

But no!  I get a letter informing me that I'll be charged an absurd amount for this wireless device if I don't send it back. I would LOVE to send it back if I only had another source of Internet.  A device from the wiring people arrives.  I hook it up.  It appears to WORK!  Yay!

Yesterday was supposed to be The Day.  The day when my building's wired Internet will finally WORK.  But I do everything the directions say to do and it doesn't.

Recall, if you will, that all the correspondence and almost all the conversation is in Japanese.  My reading skills improve by leaps and bounds, but my facility in keigo (ultra-polite) with new technical vocabulary leaves quite a lot to be desired.

I decide I need an English speaker of some sort.  I get on the Internet to find SOME number I can actually call as my phone won't call toll-free numbers.  First try:  Endless hold music only to discover I am talking to the wrong, but very nice, company.  Second try:  MORE endless hold.  They're very nice and very apologetic but tell me that not only do I require a router (which they can rent me for only @1600 yen a month, and another two weeks worth of waiting, while paying for service I can't get.)  They also say the wireless device will to turn off any second now.  I must also remember that my birthdate is entered incorrectly in the system.  Admittedly, "kyu" and "ju" sound very much alike, but now I must remember my Faux Internet Birthday for use with them alone.

I hadn't seen any routers for sale anywhere, I'd looked many places, and I did not feel like spending days and days wandering around Tokyo in 90 degree heat searching further, so I wended my way to US Amazon -- a feat here, since Japanese Internet takes me to Japanese sites whether I want to go there or not -- and ordered a router, paying an unconscionable amount to get it here by Friday.  We hope.

So much is good and convenient about Japan, this sounds entirely unlikely even given my lack of fluency.  I assure you, though, that every single word of this is true.  If I vanish again, I am simply lost in Internet Hell.