On Saturday May 5th, it was time for Rio and I to head out to Nagano. He had invited me to come along on his trip to the mountainous prefecture and see his hometown. As gigantic and interesting as Tokyo is, I was probably more excited to see a new part of Japan, especially my friend’s childhood home. The day began with morning coffee with Adam at his local Starbucks, where we chatted about life, Japan, life in Japan, and I think I brought up video games at some point. Adam was even kind enough to ride the trains with me most of the way to Tokyo Station just to make sure that I didn’t get lost.
Back at the massive Tokyo Station, I met up with Rio and we purchased tickets for the Shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train). Nagano isn’t particularly close to Tokyo, but thanks to Japan’s superbly efficient mass transit systems, we could get there quickly and conveniently via high speed rail.
Even through you are traveling over land, the Shinkansen experience struck me as being very much like riding an airplane. First of all, the tickets aren’t cheap. Buying a ticket for the bullet train is reminiscent of purchasing a plane ticket just for the expense alone. Then there’s the diligence and efficiency which with the Shinkansen is operated. Everyone involved is extremely serious about providing rapid transportation in the safest way possible. But the greatest similarity between the bullet train and commercial aircraft is in the physical design of the vehicle itself.
The body of the Shinkansen looks like an airplane without wings. The sleek aerodynamic look of the bullet train, from the rounded nosecone to the streamlined cars, is reminiscent of commercial airliner. If a regional JR train and a Boeing 737 mated, the bullet train would be its offspring. Even the interior of the train reminded me of a plane; although it was more spacious and comfortable than any aircraft I’ve ever ridden on. And the view of the landscape whipping by my window seat was captivating. I’ve always enjoyed watching the world below from an airplane, but in the bullet train, you’re seeing everything from ground level. The unique perspective you get on the train is worth the price of your ticket. For the train enthusiasts out there, it doesn’t get much cooler than the Shinkasen.
After a 90 minute train ride, we arrived at Saku-shi (佐久市), Nagano. Since it was Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日 – Children’s Day), the colorful koi-shaped flags, known as koinobori (鯉のぼり), were out in full force, livening up neighborhood. Rio pointed out to me that Nagano is one of the few places in Japan where people actually eat koi. In fact, we were going to be having koi sashimi, called koi no aria (鯉のあらい) for dinner. We found Rio’s BMW parked at the train station and set out for his hometown of Komoro (小諸).
On the way, we stopped for a bite to eat at a local taiyaki (鯛焼き) place. Rio had been surprised to hear that I liked anko (餡子 – red bean paste) and I had specifically mentioned my love of taiyaki, a fish-shaped red bean paste-filled fried treat. So he brought me to his favorite taiyaki shop, the place he used to go back in his high school days. It was some excellent fish-shaped deliciousness.
We also stopped to see a cute, cartoonish figure, a statue called pin-koro (ぴんころ). Rio introduced it as the “live long and die quickly” statue, which is essentially what pin-koro means. The name comes from pin pin (ぴんぴん), a colloquialism meaning “healthy, lively”, and korori (ころり), meaning “easily, effortlessly, suddenly”. [It’s worth noting that korori is the adverbial form of “korokoro” (ころころ), the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a round object rolling. Koro, koro, koro…] As Rio explained, the men in this area of Nagano generally live to ripe old age, with an average lifespan that surpasses even the rest of Japan. This friendly marketable image was apparently made to promote and capitalize on the local population’s longevity.
Next we drove further into the mountains, following the ridge of a beautiful forested river valley. The natural splendor of rural Nagano was rather breathtaking, and I felt a strange twinge of jealousy, like I should have asked my company to place me there. We drove past Rio’s elementary school and a huge dam that that neighbors it. As Rio explained, going to college in Iowa was exciting for him, because he had never seen a place that was so amazingly flat. Clearly his home’s geography was far more varied.
Arriving at Rio’s family’s house in the afternoon, we found that no one was home. The house was very old, about 80 years old or so, and huge! Constructed in the traditional Japanese style by Rio’s grandfather—or was it great grandfather?—it was made of great beams of wood, and had all the Japanese features one would expect; sliding doors, Tanami floors, tiled roof, etc. Before even entering the house, I was immediately impressed by the old-style gate, and the tall wall that runs the border of the property. The gates massive wooden doors were so authentically old-fashioned, to point of being historical artifacts, and to me they felt epic, otherworldly. With no one at the house, we dropped off our bags and set out to see the town.
We ate lunch at a popular soba place called Kusabue (草笛 – grass whistle) that featured a sweet chestnut dipping sauce for their noodles. Chestnuts, called kuri (栗) in Japanese, are a local specialty there. Then we drove into central Komoro to see some of the historical sites in the heart of the town.
Since it was Kodomo no Hi, there were plenty of extra decorations around. There were lots of koi flags and even great big displays of elaborate dolls on display. We also noticed several posters advertising an anime series called “Ano Natsu de Matteru” (あの夏で待ってる – translated as “Waiting in the Summer”). From the posters we deduced that the show must be set in Komoro, as the posters featured identifiable landmarks from around town, like the dam near Rio’s elementary school. Although I couldn’t tell what the show was about—beyond high school kids with a video camera—I decided to check it out sometime to see what bits of town I could recognize.
Komoro’s main street looked surprisingly low key and underutilized, much like the barren main streets of Middle American towns that have been destroyed by Wal-Mart. Rio explained to me that the place once was a busying thoroughfare. Conveniently located right off the train line, it had received plenty of street traffic from visitors and nearby country folk alike. But then the bigger train station in Saku opened up, along with lots of big retailers to draw customers. With a giant Aeon store next to the high-traffic station in Saku, Komoro’s main street became all but deserted.
In the heart of Komoro, Rio led me to a massive, beautiful park called Kaikoen (懐古園). Built upon the ruins of Komoro Castle, Kaikoen retains the impressive castle gates and several stony fortress foundations. The tree lined paths and grassy picnic areas provide an incredibly peaceful, distinctly Japanese atmosphere for relaxing on a spring day. The park also contains a museum, and—although we didn’t check them out—a zoo and amusement park for the kids.
While wandering about the park, we discovered an archery range where a man was practicing Kyūdō (弓道 – “Way of the Bow”, traditional Japanese archery). Unlike normal recreational archery, Kyūdō is considered a martial art, much like Judo or Aikido, and participating in it is to follow “the way of the warrior”, or budō (武道). This means the purpose of Kyūdō is just as much about spiritual development and the perfection of character as it is about hitting the target with an arrow. Watching the man ritualistically draw back his longbow, take aim, and let arrow fly across the open shooting ground was intensely interesting, almost hypnotic. We lingered there to watch him for several minutes.
While the entrance of Kaikoen is normal ground level, the other side drops off like a cliff. This makes for some breathtaking views of Komoro’s gorgeous mountain-protected river valley. The way the deep canyon of the valley contrasted with the tree covered mountains was really spectacular. I got yet another great view of the dam, and one lookout point in particular seemed to have been used as a model for some of the Waiting in the Summer posters.
After the castle park, we stopped at some small rice fields on the way back to the house. Utilizing the limited space in the mountainous terrain, Komoro residents had created miniature rice fields on the uneven ground. The fields were asymmetrical and tiered, covering as much of the available land as possible. One man was tilling the soil with a diminutive but maneuverable gas-powered machine. This was Rio’s father.
Rio’s family had been growing rice in the mountains of Nagano for generations. For as long as Rio could remember, he father would tend to the field and produce all the rice the family needed. But this wasn’t his father’s profession, Rio’s dad was actually math teacher, this was more of a hobby, or a serious family garden. Rio’s father, Yoichi, took a break from the tilling work to greet us. He had already met my brother in the past and seemed particularly interested to meet me. His warm smile genuinely made me feel welcome. Father and son chatted a bit while I snapped some obligatory photos and then we were on our way.
Back at the homestead, Rio’s mother had prepared a traditional holiday treat for us, called kashiwa-mochi (柏餅). These mochi (餅 – glutinous rice cakes) were filled with anko (that delicious red bean paste again) and presented wrapped in oak leaves. (Kashiwa means “oak” in Japanese.) We sat down and enjoyed the delicious Children’s Day treat with green tea. It was excellent. After the mochi treats, there was some downtime to relax until dinner.
Dinner with Rio’s family was amazing. Not only was his mother’s cooking unbelievably good, but all of the ingredients used were ridiculously fresh. I had been excited to try the local specialty koi sashimi—koi no aria (鯉のあらい)—which was a big part of the meal, but I ended up being blown away by everything else instead. With the exception of the fish, everything we ate was produced by the family themselves. All the vegetables, even the rice we ate, they had grown in their own garden! And all of it was delicious. The rice in particular, was probably the greatest rice I have ever tasted. In terms of food quality, I could not imagine a more impressive meal.
Despite the language barrier, Yoichi and I were able to converse, discussing cultural and even philosophical differences between our respective countries. An ample supply of beer and sake made communication flow even more freely. Eventually Yoichi shared some of his photography with me, showing me some amazing nature shots that he had captured over the years. It made for a truly wonderful evening.
Most of Sunday had to be in transit by necessity, as I had to get all the way back to Sapporo, and then to Shakotan in time for Monday’s classes. But before we skipped town, Rio took me to his favorite coffee purveyor, and we enjoyed some truly excellent espresso drinks. Rio’s family were so kind and generous, and they encouraged me to return again in the future. We took a group photo to commemorate the occasion and then we drove to the train station. It was a truly Golden Week indeed.