The 16-kilometre stretch of the first day’s hike from Tenri brings us comfortably in the late afternoon to the city of Sakurai. The concreted river is reminiscent of Kyoto’s Kamogawa in the pink hues of the setting sun.
The walk towards the station is an uninspiring main road, though a quick stop-off at the local liquor store sets us up with enough cans of Ebisu to last an evening’s pleasant disport in a local inn. The Kaikaro Ryokan (階花楼旅館 (0744-42-2016), a very reasonable 7,350 yen a night including Japanese-style dinner and breakfast) is nestled in a quiet side-street just two minutes’ walk from the bustling station.
It is over 100 years old, and has seen better days, but this is part of its charm. In our spacious room, the fusuma panels are faded, and yellowing calligraphy lines the walls. We hear about a Western expert in wolves, one Anderson, who visited the inn in 1905 – when the last wolves in Japan still existed in Nara. The dining room looks out on a slightly overgrown central garden, and the men’s bath is only barely big enough for two people – only to be attempted by the well-acclimatised!
Someone adds their sake to my beer, and as a bonus I produce the grapes and nashi pears that I have picked up for a song at one of the roadside stalls. We are set for an evening recounting our various experiences on the trail that day, passing on tales of friends who couldn’t make it, and discussing tomorrow’s schedule.
The night passes quickly, and after perusing maps on the handy round table in the dining room, we set off on the six-kilometre hike to Asuka. It takes us the best part of an hour to get out of the city, and the route this time is almost entirely on the road, but soon we are passing through rice fields again, and the autumn sun is warm on our backs. From the sacred hill Amagashioka (天樫丘) near Asuka you can get a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire area.
Next we meet up with friends at the Hyohyo Wholefood Restaurant and enjoy a wonderful set vegetarian lunch of seasonal vegetables for 1000 yen. The day is rounded off with a quick visit to the oldest giant Buddha in Japan at the nearby Asuka temple (飛鳥寺).
A 20-minute walk to the train station takes us past weird stone structures with colourful names such as the Devil’s Toilet. Semi-express trains are a convenient way to return to Kyoto or Osaka. I find myself nodding off on the return journey, comfortably exhausted and satiated with the sights, sounds and gastronomic experiences of the Yamanobe no Michi.
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Monday, October 30, 2006
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