On a walking tour of an ancient highway between Kyoto and Tokyo, the rhythms of rural Japan mingle with echoes of the country’s feudal past.
By Barry Stone
It was a routine I never intended to establish, a ritual I never imagined I’d have. On a 10-day walk through the Japan Alps I was always the last of our group of 13 to appear at dinner, a fact that had nothing to do with the food (mostly fabulous multicourse kaiseki meals) or the company. Night after night I made sheepish apologies, and my tardiness became a talking point. But what could I do? Turns out I had a hitherto undiagnosed weakness for ofuro, traditional Japanese soaking tubs—a weakness that manifested itself on the second evening of our tour with my first submersion into one of these cedar-lined delights. Enveloped by its smooth, tactile wood and steaming spring water, I found the experience utterly addictive, and as I contemplated my miso soup, boiled king crabs, and goodness knows what else getting ever colder on the dinner table, I knew I would never be content with the cold, impersonal touch of a porcelain bath again.
I was walking the Nakasendo Way, an eighth-century footpath between Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo) that later became one of the five official post roads of the Tokugawa era (1603–1867). Feudal lords and their samurai retainers once made their way along this 500-kilometer route through the valleys and over the innumerable passes of Honshu’s central mountains, as did pilgrims, traders, and other travelers of Japan’s pre-railway age. Today, only a few sections are left, some original, others restored. One can tackle these individually as day walks or altogether as part of a week-plus guided excursion with Walk Japan, a tour company that grew out of study trips run by two Hong Kong University academics, Tom Stanley and Richard Irving, in the early 1990s. The idea was to lift tourists out of big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto and introduce them to the delights of an “older” Japan, accommodating them primarily at traditional ryokan inns along the way.
Walk Japan’s tour offerings have since expanded to include Okinawa, the Kii Peninsula’s Kumano Kodo pilgrimage circuit, and seasonal snowshoeing in the Nagano area. But its Nakasendo itineraries remain the most popular options. It’s not all walking: actual trail time on the old post road totals 135 kilometers over nine nights, with bus and train transfers (including a Shinkansen bullet-train ride from Narai to Karuizawa on day nine) connecting walkers with the fragmented sections of the Nakasendo. That averages about five hours of walking per day. Yet there are times when you will be tested, such as on the optional ascent to the hilltop ruins of Tsumago Castle, where, in 1583, 300 men of the Kiso clan held off a 7,000-strong invading army in one of history’s great against-the-odds confrontations. By the time I reached the modest summit on what was an unseasonably warm late-autumn day, I was fairly dripping with sweat.
But while it pays to be fit, this is most definitely a walk, not a huff-and-puff trek. Our baggage was taken ahead by taxi to the night’s lodging each morning. There were wayside shrines at which to rest weary feet and original milestones to help gauge how much trudging we had left until the next stop. Losing one’s way, even without a guide, was near impossible, thanks to a profusion of trail markers etched with the soon-familiar Japanese characters for Nakasendo—中山道, literally “Central Mountain Road.” And while traversing one of the route’s 20-odd mountain passes could be hard work on a warm day, gradients were for the most part gentle, taking us along forest roads through tracts of pine and bamboo, past fields of buckwheat and soybeans, trout farms, villagers’ backyards, and along the doglegged approaches to centuries-old post towns, so designed to slow the advance of attacking armies. On the Nakasendo, history is always just around the corner. Like the Battle of Sekigahara.