Into the Mountains: Komagane, Nagano (Day 1)

I feel like this hostel hasn’t really optimized the space of its common area that well. It’s a pretty massive room, at the far right corner a little kitchen space with sink, counter, and such essentials. At the back right (where I’m sitting) is a little gray love seat tucked away in a poorly lit corner of the room. To my left and before the entrance is a massive thick wooden table that looks like it belongs in a hunting lodge, with the kind of pale grooved wood that actually looks like the tree it was cut from. And then in the sizable remaining space are  4 four-top tables with those metal-and-fabric chairs you find in hotel conference rooms. Overall it feels kind of like a museum cafeteria.

I left Tokyo this morning around 9am and took a series of local trains for 5-hours to Komagane, Nagano, where I am now. I guess I chose Komagane somewhat randomly. I mean I literally pulled up a map of Japan on Google (I felt rather stupid typing “Japan” into the Google search bar), and scrolled to the left of Tokyo towards Nagano and then looked around for cities decently far away from Matsumoto and Hakuba (where I’ve been before), and seemingly remote and in the mountains. And that plus my Nagano hostels search cross-sectionaled me in Komagane.

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En route to Komagane, Nagano

I feel somehow guilty staying in Tokyo when I have a string of days off from the school. There’s just so much of Japan I still want to explore that passing up a single opportunity for travel seems like a terrible waste. My kids are in exams right now, so I have off from today (Thursday) until Monday and I’ll be spending 3 of those days here in Nagano.

This is my second trip to Nagano, and now that I’ve returned I feel more confident of an opinion that I was cautiously forming on my first trip, and that is that Nagano is one of the most naturally beautiful places in all of Japan. Somehow, though, I don’t think it has this reputation. If you were to ask for the most scenic areas of Japan to visit, you would likely be directed to Hokkaido or Kyoto, or, if you had plentiful time and resources, maybe to one of the exotic distant islands. Of course, none of these places would disappoint you, but to me Nagano is the most perfect expression of Japan’s raw beauty. It’s not littered with temples that were rebuilt less than a decade ago, or cut up with perfectly manicured parks and gardens. It’s just…mountains. Massive, towering mountains standing before you so bright and green and lush that it feels like you could reach out and touch them from the train window.

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View from the train

This really struck me as I was riding through the tiny country train stations, so small that they don’t even have ticket gates (really— you have to pay one of the train attendants on the platform, who will leap off the train after you for this purpose). As I stared out the train window I kept unconsciously searching over the landscape for some kind of obstruction of its beauty—an ugly concrete apartment building, a highway cutting in front of the mountains, a construction vehicle, anything really—as though to confirm that what I was seeing was real. But there was nothing. My eyes swept back and forth through the corners and I couldn’t find a single thing. It was almost unsettling. Like when you’re looking for the “You are here” sign on a huge map and your eyes roll over it countless times without seeing it.

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Aw my sweet hostel host just came in for the umpteenth time to check on me. Well okay this time it was to tell me he was going to bed and was there anything I needed? And also to tell me that I can use a different wifi signal in my room if I care to. We haven’t really had any trouble understanding one another so far, over a pretty decent range of conversations. But I don’t know I still feel frustrated when my words come out all parched and disjointed instead of soft and fluid. On the other hand, I was able to read all of the kanji on the arrival form I had to fill out, thanks in large part to my good friend Murakami, whose short story “Silence” (沈黙 chinmoku— my favorite of his) I’ve been painstakingly working through.

My kind host picked me up from Komagane train station in the afternoon and drove me 10-15 minutes into the mountains where the hostel is. The hostel is a simple, flat, range-style building and sits on a hill overlooking a massive lake. There’s a little noodle shop just across the road, and a small, pretty (expensive-looking) hotel next door, but otherwise somewhat sparse of buildings in this area.

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Hostel porch
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Lake in front of the hostel

After I dropped my bags off in my empty dorm room I wandered around the property and found a beautiful Yamaha guitar put away in a glass case in the common area. I very hesitantly asked my host and his wife if it was alright if I play it and they kindly replied “by all means” and seemed glad that I’d be able to tune it for them. Actually it’s sitting next to me right now, once again tucked away in its little case. But now it’s nearly 10pm so I don’t think my hosts would be quite as welcoming towards my playing it at the moment… But all in all it was the loveliest arrival, the greenery pouring in on all sides. And it’s strange to say but there’s something so decidedly unassuming about the beauty of this area. It’s quiet and simple, but then as I walked down the sloping mountain paths in the evening in search of dinner, I literally froze in place several times as the intoxicating power of my surroundings engulfed me.

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Tomorrow I’ll have to rise somewhat early for the simple hostel breakfast of coffee and toast, and then I’ll head into the “town” to see if I can find some kind of bread or sandwiches to take with me for lunch before I embark on a 4 or 5 hour hike that my hosts directed me towards. And between those two events I’ll probably waste a very content hour or so playing on their Yamaha again.

 

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