Footsteps in the Night

A couple of weeks ago, I took a break from my busy printmaking work and made a trip to the Hakone area. We've been up there any number of times before, as it doesn't take too long to get there from where I live on the western outskirts of Tokyo. It's even possible - if you start early - to do a quick tour of the area on a day trip. But we were in no particular hurry this time, so we booked a room and made it an overnight trip.

Last time we were in this area, we stayed in a privately-run pension, but this time we booked at one of the older resort hotels in the area, one that was offering reasonable rates through their website. That can sometimes be a recipe for disaster, because some of the older hotels in onsen resorts can be very run down these days, but we were willing to take our chances.

As it turned out, we made an excellent choice. When we arrived at the hotel after the day's walk, we found that although it was indeed quite old, it had been kept in good order, and was very comfortable. We had the kind of room that we would never have been able to afford back in the 'glory days' of the place; it was a kind of suite, actually, with a main room for sleeping and relaxing, a second smaller room, and beyond that, a tea ceremony room! We had no intention of making 'tea' of course, but I did enjoy very much the whole ambiance of the place, especially the views into the small private garden space that adjoined the suite.

But it was what I found when I stepped out into this garden that gave me the most pleasure. A small stream ran through it, and as I stepped over this using the stepping stones, I came to a very weather-worn wooden gate. It was marked with a sign: "Exit leading to the historic Tokaido route." Just outside the gate, a small creek tumbled over boulders on its way down the mountainside, and on the other side of this was a quite wide path winding along the stream. This was surfaced with stones set into the soil, and yes, as the sign described, it turned out to be a well-preserved section of the actual Tokaido, Japan's number one highway of old, running from Edo to the capital at Kyoto.

The annex of the hotel, where we took our meals, was on the opposite side of the stream from our room, and to get to it, we used an enclosed walkway that crossed high in the air between the two buildings. The walkway had many windows, and at the point where it passed directly over the old road, I stood for some time looking down.

What an incredible thing to do! Here I was, many metres in the air, suspended directly over the old Tokaido, looking down on the old stones. Of course you know exactly what was in my mind ... Think of the people who came this way, who must have walked along this exact stretch of path! People like Ieyasu and Hiroshige (although not at the same time, of course!), and the countless other thousands who travelled this route. Can't you just imagine standing up here on this walkway and watching them walk by on their way up to Edo ... "Shhh ... keep quiet or they'll hear us and look up ..."

That evening, we relaxed in our room with a couple of small flasks of o-sake, listening to the sound of the water flowing just outside. But the warm glow I felt wasn't created simply by the hot wine, but also came from a sense of being part of a wonderful stream of history ... of having a pleasant day's walk, ending with a warm bed right at the side of that old road, where the ghosts passed by all night, I'm sure!


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