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A very Japanese haven

It was the weekend and we needed a break. It had been a long work week and the city was wearing us down. We needed to find some peace and quiet, and it had to be away from Tokyo. So, we hopped on a train and headed west into the mountains. After only an hour or two on the train one feels like he/she is in another country. The hustle and bustle that is Tokyo is replaced by serene mountain views that dominate the skyline.

We had to transfer trains a couple of times and soon were on a train that matched the relaxed natural beauty. The express trains were replaced by old 1960’s train models. The windows could be opened allowing the fresh mountain air into the cars. There were no air conditioning units, only rotating fans attached to the ceilings. The train stations were two small concrete platforms, one on each side, and a simple awning to hide from the weather, as opposed to behemoth buildings that oozed with neon lights and had non-stop traffic.

As we continued, mountains packed with tall green trees soaring towards the sky could be seen all around us. We rode through the long skinny valleys that had been carved out by meandering rivers. Small towns that hugged the habitable space next to the river before the mountains shot up dotted the countryside. Raised highways and train tracks connected each little town. Before even arriving at our destination we already felt rejuvenated.

Part of our burn out was due to our current location. We are in a suburb of Tokyo surrounded by city without enough parks or green spaces to provide a reprieve from the concrete monotony. Living in the world’s largest metropolitan area doesn’t provide a lot of peace and quiet. Tokyo, and most of Japan, is constant action with the schedule never ending and punctuality vital. Trains and buses run on precise times seven days a week, 365 days a year from 5:00 AM to 1:00AM with the only exception being Mother Nature. With all of this action comes constant noise. There are cars, horns, bells, whistles, trains, and sirens heard around the clock. Even the stores provide a barrage of noises. Computerized greetings and techno mixes of 80’s songs are found virtually everywhere. The noise and activity seem impossible to escape. The never ending madness can become all consuming.

After living here for an extended time it is easy to feel like there is nothing new to see. We were beginning to think we had seen it all and done it all. It seemed like we had done everything Japan had to offer, like nothing was new and it all was old hat. Tall buildings and flashing lights can be found anywhere. Of course there is the Tokyo twist on the city here, but any big city is impersonal and distant. This coupled with the language and culture barrier can make Tokyo hard to feel a connection towards. Even the foreign population in this area is hesitant to break through the barriers of silence and minding one’s own business. With all of this it was no wonder we needed a break from everything. 

Getting away to the quaint Japanese country side provided the change of scenery that we needed. We were snapping pictures left and right of all the unique Japanese things, which in the city just seem like part of the jumbled chaos that can be found in any city throughout the world. Cities around the world all have a distinct and different feel, but the true differences in cultures and countries are found outside of the big cities.

When we arrived at our stop we bounded out of the train full of excitement and energy despite the three hour train journey (it can take a long time to escape the urban sprawl of Tokyo). The scene was amazing; instead of buildings and flashing lights surrounding us, soaring mountains and trees were everywhere. The station was a small wooden building with a smiling lady sitting behind the glass patiently waiting to take our tickets. We exited the station and found a map of the surrounding trails. We decided on our course and headed out for our hike. Along the way we found a park tucked away behind some buildings. For some reason the park had an old fire truck that had been parked for the kids to play on. Attached to the fire truck was a zip line. Even though the weight limit might have been exceeded we played on the zip line for a few minutes and then sat down in the park to eat our snack.

After our snack we got off the main road and started down the path. It wound along the river between the forest and a row of houses. The thick bamboo forest on one side was so dense there was no way to wiggle through the randomly spaced trees. All of the back yards of the houses were meticulously groomed gardens. A hard working couple was out tending to their vegetables. The ground was over flowing with fresh cabbage, green onions, radishes, carrots, and pumpkins. Each yard looked like a farmer’s market.

Along the way we passed a gushing waterfall. The stream appeared from out of the forest canopy and then suddenly dropped 20 feet to a small pool and then carved its way through the forest to join up with the river. It was beautiful, it carved out its own little cove. A lucky resident had built his/her home next to the waterfall. The porch of the house looked out onto the pristine cove the water had made. It was a scene most people pay to go to a bar and have a drink overlooking this gift of nature. Every evening this family is fortunate enough to do it for free.

After the waterfall we crossed a bridge and entered into a cedar forest. The long skinny trees towered above us. There were so many trees that only small patches of light seeped through the forest canopy. The path meandered through the forest going past waterfalls, over streams, and beside the river. Then it began to go up. The path led to the top of the mountain. From the summit we looked down into a small village that was hidden away in the river valley. Every direction there were mountains and trees as far as the eye could see. Tokyo felt like an entire world away. We were on top of the world and felt like our spirits had been restored.

After absorbing the scene for a few minutes we made our way back down the mountain. The path led into the village, across the river gorge that looked almost a mile below. Huge boulders and white water ran along the bottom of the valley. After crossing the bridge we found a small restaurant and had dinner before getting back on the train. Finally, as the sky was turning from blue to black we got onto the train. The entire ride home we smiled. We had fallen in love with Japan again. This outing reminded us so much of our previous stay in Japan. It looked and felt so much like Gifu. Gifu was where we fell in love with Japan, and where we fell in love with each other. The people were friendly, the pace of life was slower, and concrete finally yielded to trees. Mountains and rivers were everywhere. It was sublime.

After the long train ride we arrived in our small town of Katsutadai and felt refreshed. We came back feeling like Japan still had mysteries and secrets yet to be discovered. It was an exhilarating feeling, one that can help us in our times of culture shock and longing for home. It reignited that spark of magic that we hadn’t felt towards Japan for a while. 

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