Time had come to leave Tokyo. We grabbed an Ekiben (litterally “station lunch box”) and hopped onto the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, greeting the majestic Mt. Fuji on the way.
Nagoya was our short little stop on the way to the beautiful Kiso Valley where we had planned to do some hiking far off from neon lights and gaming arcades. It was also our meeting point with our friends Birgit and Julian who had gone to Kyoto for a few days while we enjoyed Tokyo a bit longer.
Nagoya itself is not on the mainstream tourist map of Japan, as it does not have many attractions. However, it has several special local dishes that we absolutely wanted to try (unfortunately 24 h were not enough to taste them all). For lunch, we went to Yabaton, a place famous for its Misokatsu, which is a fried pork cutlet (basically the cousin of a Schnitzel but somewhat less oily and with a much crispier breading) with a thick Japanese style BBQ miso sauce. Absolutely divine. Quentin asked if he could work there but they weren’t interested.
Later that day we were in for a special treat: Hitsumabushi, Nagoya’s signature dish. We thus went to a restaurant that is known for having served this one dish for the past 140 years. They are very proud of their family’s secret sauce recipe. Trust us on this, it was absolutely worth it. Try to imagine a big, long, fatty eel dipped in a sweet soy marinade and grilled on selected charcoal until crispy while retaining all of its juices (yes, Quentin wanted to highlight the whole sentence). The eel then comes served on top of rice in a large wooden bowl with an extra dash of secret sauce. As is the tradition, you then eat it in “three different ways” (rather slight variations but it’s so tasty you don’t need to do much more). You portion your eel in four quarters. The first quarter is eaten without any additional toppings. The second quarter is topped with chives, wasabi and nori (seaweed), and the third quarter is eaten in “ochazuke” style (usually with tea), meaning you pour a light broth on top so that it becomes a bit of a soup. For the last quarter you can choose whichever way you enjoyed the most.
As we still wanted to see a bit of Nagoya, we visited its famous Nagoya Castle, formerly the fortress of Nobunaga Oda, one of the great unifiers of Japan. Although the structure is impressive from the outside, it is actually an empty shell with a lift and a museum inside, as it was rebuilt from scratch after US incendiary bombs burnt it to the ground at the end of WWII.
Finally, time for us to head towards the mountains and take the historical Nakasendo, the road that connected Edo (Tokyo) to the west of Japan during the 300 years of the Edo era. It once was a busy path with several postal towns on the way. Only few of those were maintained, and our goal for the next days was to hit a few of them and walk a bit on the Nakasendo trail.
We visited three towns in total: Magome, Tsumago and Narai. There is a beautiful portion of the Nakasendo that is kept well-maintained between Magome and Tsumago and we enjoyed the walk a lot.
The postal towns are usually rows of old houses that side the main road and either kept their old use as guesthouses or transformed into snacks/souvenirs shops. The towns have managed to retain authenticity and charm.
We spent two nights in different Onsen Ryokans – Japanese-style guesthouses with hot springs. This meant wearing Yukatas (a Japanese…pyjama), sleeping on futons and tatamis, relaxing in the hot water and eating the delicious Kaiseki food that comes with the half-pension. Kaiseki could be described as “tons of tiny little dishes with 80% being unidentifiable to Western eyes”. Everybody loved it, even if some flavours or textures were sometimes “unsuspected” or “surprising” to some of us. 😀
After exiting the Kiso Valley, we arrived in Matsumoto, a city on the middle of the Japanese central mountain range. We were there only for a night but did not loose time and explored its tiny shopping streets and its famous castle. The Matsumoto Castle is not huge but is still very impressive: one of the most beautiful in Quentin’s opinion, because it has retained its original interior. We walked through the hidden floors on squeaky wooden parquets and climbed steep stairs to reach the top.
That evening, we treated ourselves to a little izakaya, first time for Julian and Birgit that enjoyed it a lot! Yakitori (chicken skewers), karaage (fried chicken), etc. on the menu, without forgetting the local specialty: raw horse sashimi (easy after raw chicken)!