Travels along the JR Iida line - Part One

by Stefan Chiarantano, Jul 2, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Nagano prefecture

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I visit Matsumoto to see the castle. It's less than a 2-hour train ride, which includes a half hour stop over in Okaya. I visit the Tourist Information desk at Matsumoto JR Train Station. A lovely young woman who speaks excellent English hands me a map but not before she highlights things to see in the city. She tells me to follow the signs to Matsumoto Castle.

Along the way, I strike up a conversation with a Ghanaian, now a Japanese resident, who runs a casual wear store in Matsumoto. He tells me about life in Matsumoto and recommends the Old Rock, a local watering hole, to grab something to eat and drink. I thank him and make my way to the castle. It's hot and sweat begins to trickle down my forehead. I plod on. The castle comes into view and I take in its majestic beauty. Now, a national treasure, it wasn't considered so under the Meiji period, when it was slatted for demolition with an eye to salvaging its iron fittings. Luckily, it was saved and has become a national treasure. It has been lovingly restored.

I pay the admission fee and cue in line to enter the castle. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering and are handed a plastic bag to put them in. Luckily, I'm wearing clogs, which I can easily slip off but I'm wearing nylon socks and find myself slipping on the steep steps. I grip the railing for support. The castle is full of visitors. I thought it would be hot and stuffy inside but find it cool. Ten minutes later I come out and breathe a sign of relief. Castles, I find, aren't my thing but nevertheless I found it interesting.

I head over to Nakamachi and Nawate Streets, which boast houses dating from the Edo period. Both streets are quite picturesque and many of the houses have been converted into shops, boutiques, restaurants, and studios. I also visit the neighbourhood Shinto Shrine, Yohashira Jinja, too. I check out the Old Rock but its closed. I roam about taking in the city while looking for a place to lunch. I come across a Balinese restaurant and go in thanks to the friendly persuading of the manager. He recommends the luncheon special, which I order. The service and food are both excellent.

I check out the bookstore in Parco located on the basement level and come away with a purchase, something to read on the train home. I look forward to the ride home and getting a good night's sleep.

Monday, June 19, 2006

I take the train to Ina to meet a friend for lunch. It's a short train ride away. Passengers are few and far between. The 2-car train arrives and I wait for a few passengers to disembark before boarding. The train carriage is practically empty and I have a choice of seats. Fifteen minutes later I arrive in Ina. It's a beautiful sunny day. My friend is waiting and we dash off for lunch. We head to Sato's, a famous local restaurant, specializing in dishes made with a special savory sauce, which takes a week to prepare. We order the pork chop plate. It arrives and we eat away. The meat is tender and the sauce divine. Before my friend dashes off, he tells me that there isn't much to do in Ina.

But I'm here and what the heck I might as well find out for myself. I roam Ina's main strip. It's hot and sweat begins to trickle down my forehead. There's a small museum located in the Town's Cultural Hall but it's closed. Too bad! There's a window exhibit of kimono attesting to the city's past history as a silk producer. But all is not lost. I find a Vodaphone shop and buy a pre-paid card. I'm all set for the next time I run out of pre-paid phone minutes. The shop attendant is kind and very friendly. She recommends I walk back to the center of town to catch the train. She says, "Shimojima is 30 minutes away on foot. Inashi is 15 minutes." So, I trek back and wait for the train to take me home.


I go to Tatsuno to visit the Tatsuno Museum of Art to see the works of Kigen Nakagawa who introduced fauvism to Japan in the 1920s. It was a bit of a hike getting to the museum, which I found is located on the outskirts of the city. Map in hand courtesy of the friendly Tatsuno JR staff I make my way to the museum. The JR attendant tells me it's a 30-minute walk. It's early afternoon and Tatsuno is very quiet. There's little traffic and very few people are out and about. I follow my Japanese map and make my way stopping here and there to check with anyone I run across whether I'm heading in the right direction. I am it seems. The sun is beating down on me and I feel the sweat dripping from my forehead. I've been walking now for 30 minutes. I think I'm nearly there. But all I see ahead is a grouping of antennae and woods on a hill.

I come across an elderly Japanese man gardening in his yard and I kindly ask him if the museum is ahead. "Yes" he says in Japanese. He tells me to follow the middle road. I can now see that the road forks ahead. I thank him and push on. I take a slight detour and check out the arena and ballpark at the top of the hill. I cut through the park and end up back on the middle road. I know it's ahead and just keep walking when suddenly the elderly gentleman appears in his car. He tells me to hop in and drives me to the museum. I thank him profusely. As he leaves, I bow to show my respect and wait until he drives off before heading inside. There are several tour buses parked in the lot. The museum is bustling with elderly Japanese tourists. They have just finished their tour and have collected in the foyer ready to depart. I buy my ticket. It's nice and cool inside. The elderly Japanese tourists leave and find that I'm the only visitor about. I have the place to myself. I long to see Nakagawa's paintings of the Ina Valley but alas only one is on view. The gallery is devoted mainly to the paintings he did in France. They are charming and remind me of Japan's interest in things Western. A highlight of the visit is the observation deck on the top floor of the museum that overlooks the flat, fertile Ina valley lying between the Central and Southern Alps. I sit and take in the panoramic views. The valley is laid out, as far I can see, in tidy verdant green rice fields.

Wednesday, June 20, 2006

I visit Iida by car with a Japanese mate. The drive through Nakagawa village perched on a hill is spectacular. We stop off for coffee at a famous coffee house in Iida, the Celebre Cafe. We have the special, which is a deal, and is something similar to the eggs and bacon breakfast back home except in Japan portion sizes are smaller. The ambience is of a bygone era. We take a table by the window on the ground floor near the counter. It's a converted house filled with artwork, bric-a-brac, and odds and ends. It's nevertheless charming and the service and food both excellent.

Our first stop is the Iida zoo to see the tanuki (raccoon dog). I've read about them and Japanese folklore is filled with stories about their mischievous deeds. They are cute. There are even a few albino tanuki and a North American raccoon on display. They do like alike but the tanuki is much smaller in size and I think cuter. It's a tiny zoo. Another feature is the pen of wild Japanese monkeys.

The next stop is Motosenkoji, a Buddhist temple, older than Kozenji and dates back to the early part of the 6th century. For the moment, we are the only visitors in attendance. I have learned the routine and begin the cleansing ritual before entering the temple. The temple exudes peace and calmness. We visit the museum, a part of the temple, which is filled with Buddhist treasures and artifacts. The Japanese thangkas depicting scenes of hell and heaven are fascinating. I ask if the black and white poster of Motosenkoji is for sale. It isn't but I'm gifted one by a kind, elderly Japanese monk who also presents me with an omikuji (a sacred lottery). I thank the monk and his colleagues. The fortune happens to be an excellent one and I tie it to the gate so it can be remembered.

We stop off and grab some lunch before heading back. On the way home, we stop off in Oshika. Oshika is sandwiched in between the southern Japanese Alps. It's a breathtaking place. Everyone should visit. Its majestic beauty overwhelms me that I find I am at a loss for words. I contemplate the beauty that is before me. Driving is my friend's hobby. He also drives a motorcycle. He handles the treacherous road, the only one going into and out of Oshika, with confidence and skill. The ride slightly reminded me of my trip to Delphi, Greece on a Chat bus tour years ago. The road winding along the mountains, going in and out of mountain tunnels, and looking out to incredible vistas. Oshika is reputed to be of the few authenticated places where the Heike fled following their defeat at the hands of the Genji nearly 800 hundred years ago. The small villages are carved out of the mountain slopes. We go to the top of the mountain to visit an ancient Jinja shrine and Kabuki theatre. I savour the quiet and the solitude. My visit to Oshika is definitely a highlight of my day trips. My friend calls it the end of the world and perhaps, 800 hundreds ago, it was. We leave Oshika and take another route to get back home and on the way out see a wild Japanese monkey, which surprises my friend and me.


I rest and get caught up with chores and correspondence.

Friday, June 23, 2006

I visit Okaya on the Iida line. My visit to Okaya includes a visit to Okaya Silk Museum and Art and Archaeological Museum and the Irufu Doga Museum. The Art and Archaeological Museum has on display clay and stone pottery dating from the Jomon Period (circa 10,000 B.C. - C 300 B.C.) through the Kotun Period (circa 300-600 A.D.) found in the Okaya area. By the way, The Tatsuno Museum of Art also displays artifacts dating from the Jomon period. I found myself the only visitor and have the two museums to myself. They are located within the same building but on different floors. Although the Silk Museum isn't elaborate as the Silk Museum in Komagane, it houses a treasure trove of machinery and literature relating to the Okaya silk industry. The Black and White photographs bring alive the labour intensive practice that silk producing is. One photograph in particular intrigued me. It was a black and white photograph taken in 19th century France showing a Japanese merchant amidst a large French family, French silk manufacturers.

Between my visits, I popped into the Nakamuraya Cafe and Patisserie and enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee and a slice of gateaux. The works of Takeo Takei, a local resident of Okaya, are on display at the Irufu Doga Museum. His brightly coloured drawings are amazing and a delight. I find myself enjoying them tremendously. I particularly love his stain glass panels on display on the third floor featuring Japanese motifs. There is also a gallery on the second floor dedicated to the works of American illustrator Maurice Sendak.

I roam about in Okaya and also visit a lovely Shinto Shrine near the train station. It was quiet and there was hardly anyone about. A friend tells me that the towns and cities are empty of the young who have all fled to the big cities seeking work, education, and opportunity. Perhaps, he's right. Following lunch in one of the department store restaurants, I head home. I've enjoyed Okay.

I have come away with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of Japanese people, culture and religion and look forward to my next outings along the Iida JR line.

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