Mountains and valleys, final part

Day 6, 5th November 2003

Up at a reasonable time for breakfast, then shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, and a change to a ‘limited express’ to Takayama. A stunningly beautiful journey through the mountains. The autumn colours are at their magnificent best, and the trees a multicoloured mixture of broadleaves and conifers, a russet and green mosaic. Near the top of the hills the leaves have already fallen, and the forest dissolves into transparency, the soft fuzzy look of bare twigs on the high ridges. Near the road we see the spindly maple shrubs, with starry scarlet leaves. Occasionally there’s the piercing yellow of ginkgo trees. The single-track line crosses and re-crosses narrow gorges, with fast green rivers far below. We pass through a metamorphic belt, and into granite country, the high hard core of Japan.

hilltop trees are leafless,
a russet haze on mountain ridges
where it’s already winter –
here in the valleys
a warm autumn dithers

Takayama is a nice little town with gridded streets and a lot of character. It’s touristy – but mainly for Japanese tourists – but it’s also a town where people live and work. We have a walking tour first, visiting the Jinya building, where the administrator lived during the Shogunate period. It has a number of large, high-ceilinged unheated rooms which must be freezing in winter, even with the open hearths. Then on to a sake brewery for a tasting, then another tasting in a miso soup emporium, among the big barrels of fermenting bean paste.

outside the office
taxi-drivers wait –
samurai rickshaw-pullers

Day 7, 6th November

Up for morning market in Takayama – colourful and interesting. We bought some ginkgo nuts, persimmons, lacquer bowls, a wee taiko hand-drum for our grandson, and some other nick-nacks. Leave at 9 for a visit to an Edo period merchant’s house and a Buddhist temple, which we can’t enter because a funeral service is going on. Then on the bus to the Shokawa Valley, and the Shirakawa-go hamlets. Terrific drive up into the mountains, with hairpins, narrow tunnels, dams, lakes and hydro schemes. In places the scenery is like the Scottish Highlands, in other places completely different. We make one stop beside a large lake behind a massive gravity dam. The ‘rest stop’ toilet is closed, sadly, but in the car park there is a giant cherry tree, a favourite of the locals, which was transplanted when the valley was drowned. Amazingly, after a few years, it began to send out leaves and flowers once again. There’s a statute to the man who moved it, and quite right too – I’ve never seen a tree as big as this being transplanted.

venerable cherry
leaves its drowning village
puts down new roots

The village in Shirakawa-go (Ogimachi) is very picturesque, with thatched cottages where large extended families live on the ground floor, raising silkworms in the upper stories. The houses are called gassho-zukuri, which refers to the hands raised in prayer because the roof pitch is very steep. The thatch is made from Miscanthus grass – we saw fields of it growing. It’s a World Heritage site, because there isn’t anything like these houses elsewhere, and to have 150 of them in the one spot is unique. Eventually we manage to find a place for lunch – soba noodles in vegetable soup for me – quite tasty – but Jane had chosen cold soba noodles – a summer speciality. It isn’t as nice. We buy candied apples and cucumber, not knowing what they are, but they are good, especially the apples. Back down to Takayama, where we have a tonkatsu meal at the restaurant Bandai Kadomise – a country style restaurant where we have to sit on the floor. Very uncomfortable, but the food is good.

candied cucumber
a bitter-sweet snack
after cold noodles




At last! A good use
for Pampas Grass –
thatch for silk-worm
hatcheries far better
than suburban lawns.

Day 8, 7th November

We drive down the mountain roads from Takayama to Matsumoto. Visit the castle of the local daimyo – feudal overlord – which is more impressive from the outside than inside. Similar sort of road to yesterday’s, with many narrow lakes, each with its dam and hydro scheme. On to a lunch stop at Lake Suwa in spectacular mountain scenery. The whole valley is taken up with hydroelectric schemes, dam after dam until we reached the huge one at Suwa. We get our first glimpse of Mt Fuji from the motorway – we are told this is most unusual, as it’s only visible on average 28 days each year. We’re also told that today in Matsumoto it was the warmest November day for 38 years, 24C (75F). We then drive up through the clouds to the 5th Station on Mt Fuji, the start of the climbing route (only open July and August). The lower slopes are densely forested, with road signs warning of bears. This is a place where some sad people come to die, walking off into the woods and deliberately losing themselves. As to the mountain itself, words are inadequate. We have a clear view of the snow-dusted summit, and the fresh clinker-like reddish-purple scoria from the last eruption in 1707 is obvious. We are above a sea of clouds, stretching all the way to a chain of distant mountains. It is a magical experience. The trees here are Japanese White Pine – Pinus parviflora – with pale silvery bark and very contorted trunks and branches, due to the altitude. There’s a collection of shops at this point – mostly gimmicky souvenirs – we didn’t buy the canned Fuji air. Back down in the gathering darkness to our hotel at Hakone.


Matsumoto Castle

A park insulates
the medieval castle –
a wooden pyramid –
from the modern city.

In the grounds
a tented history show –
dummies posed as actors
tell the story
of Hare Meat Soup.

The Chrysanthemum Society
shows its best creations –
giant pom-poms, white spiders
and the subtler specialisms
of shaped displays
and bonsai blooms.


Lake Suwa snap stop
for fast noodles, green tea,
a quick panorama




In the Sea of Trees
‘BEAR’ signs don’t deter
the despairing. Lost already,
they’ve come too far
to find the way back.


Steady climb, hairpin
after hairpin – we can’t
see the view
for the trees.
Near the end of the road
fresh scoria – only
three centuries old –
purple, clinkery –
then the sight
of the icing-sugar summit.


A cold wind here
smells of home. We’re above
the wind-sculpted clouds,
one like Hokusai’s big wave,
but insubstantial as fog.


Closed to climbers
the big walk starts
at the last twisted pine.
Eyes detect a route
that feet can’t follow.


Day 9, 8th November

We wake early this morning, and on the way down to breakfast we see a veranda door open. We step out for a view of the most beautiful mountain in the world. It’s a perfect cone, Fuji-san, and it changes with the light, the time of day, the altitude of the viewer, and the amount of haze in the atmosphere. On the other side we have a view of Lake Ashi. After breakfast we are off to the Owakudane valley, for a view of fumaroles, boiling springs, cable car, and a geothermal energy plant being constructed. They boil eggs in the springs – it’s a speciality – their shells turn black due to the sulphur. Back to the lake for a mini-cruise on a very nice boat – it is great to be back on the water. Before embarking we visit a really nice little souvenir shop, specialising in yosegi-zaiku woodwork – a kind of mosaic technique. As we get off the boat we notice a bright orange torii gate by the lakeside – obviously another very large Shinto shrine for those who can walk on the water or have other transportation. We buy our lunch in a little supermarket, and drive on alongside the ancient route – the Tokaido Road between Edo and Kyoto – lined by magnificent tall Cryptomeria trees.

Valley of Great Boiling

Nauseous smell of sulphur
hangs over the hillside.
Stunted shrubs and dead grasses
line the banks of hot milky streams.
Steam jets from unseen pipes
under the yellow-stained boulders.


paddle steamer
whips the water, delivering
more splash than speed

Then a long drive to Kamakura through some pretty uninspiring industrial towns like Odawarra along the Pacific coast. Surf is not up – little waves run ashore as if they can’t be bothered. Kamakura itself is cramped, bustling and noisy, but the massive bronze statue of the Buddha Amida is hugely impressive. He sits in the open air, the temple having been destroyed by a tsunami in the 18th century. Here again I am able to pay my respects. The weather iss still very warm and sunny. We drive on through Yokohama to our hotel in Tokyo. This time we’re on the 17th floor. We go out to the Wing deli, where I persuade Jane not to buy rice, pickles and seaweed – our suitcases are already over-full. We buy some sushi, and take it back to the hotel, where we dress up in our yukata and dine, watching a kendo match on the TV.

serene, with earthquake-proof head,
the Kamakura Buddha
ignores the black kite screams


Tokyo looks familiar –
we know these streets,
these shops, that station.
I drop coins in the bowl
of a begging monk
and pray to return.


Day 10, 9th November

The flight home iss long and tedious, chasing the terminator all the way across the top of the world. A boring wait at London, then the short flight to Edinburgh, where our friends are waiting for us. We will go back to Japan some day.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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1 Response to Mountains and valleys, final part

  1. Reblogged this on Frank J. Tassone and commented:
    #Haiku Happenings #15: Colin Will’s latest travelogue #haibun!

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