In a valley not far to the east of Kyoto, two rail lines (one of which is a high-speed track for the bullet train) and an expressway run past small towns equipped with all the conveniences of modern life. But four centuries ago the Nakasendo weaved its way unhindered through what was mostly empty countryside, and from my vantage point on a nearby hilltop I could see how the slaughter that occurred at Sekigahara on October 21, 1600, played out. By clever use of the terrain, the clans of eastern Japan under the command of Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the western clans led by Toyotomi Hideyori in a rout that ushered in the 286-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. Sekigahara was a complex battle of attrition involving alliances that were made and broken on the day, and its outcome determined the nation’s future. It was a lot to take in on the second day of our tour, but no one was complaining. We were enjoying treading water in the deep end of Japanese history.
Our long walk on the fourth day made us all as agile as Japanese mountain goats, and just as well, because we were now on the Kiso Road, the most popular section of the trail. Running for eight kilometers between the old post towns of Magome and Tsumago, it’s also one of the most slippery, as it retains a stretch of the Nakasendo’s original interlocking paving stones, or ishidatami, which can be as smooth as glass when it rains. Shima Enomoto, our petite guide, explained that these were the very stones over which Princess Kazuno-miya was carried in 1862 on her way to Edo to become, reluctantly, the 16-year-old bride of shogun Tokugawa Iemochi. Her imperial train reportedly included 10,000 retainers and 3,000 horses and was so long that it took three days to pass any point along the route.
Such processions earned the Nakasendo its nickname Hime no kaido, or the “Highway of Princesses.” But it wasn’t always so busy. The road attracted many of Japan’s seclusion-seeking hermit-poets too. Among them was Matsuo Basho, now considered the Edo period’s greatest composer of haiku, whose solitary walks through nature inspired
such poetry as “A cuckoo cries/And through a thicket of bamboo/The late moon shines.” For our part, we encountered only a handful of other walkers on the trail, including three excitable ladies from Yorkshire and a bawdy group of factory workers from Nagano who, if I understood them correctly, were on some kind of a “beer walk.”
Many of the surviving Edo-era post towns we passed through—Mitake and Hosokute, Tsumago and Narai—must have looked similar to how they did in Basho’s day, when they served as way stations for travelers. Renovation work in the 1970s has preserved their two-story wooden buildings and cobbled streets; electrical wires, telephone poles, and satellite dishes are all hidden from view, and strict building codes ensure the historical illusion is maintained. Sure, they’re touristy, with a profusion of chopstick-filled souvenir shops and the inevitable concessions to modernity (most inns, for example, have long since paved over their original dirt entrances, which once allowed travelers to enter and discuss rates without having to remove their shoes). But they are picturesque. And some, like tiny Okute, whose 1,300-year-old cedar tree is still venerated as a Shinto spirit, retain a genuine flavor. The day we strolled through town just happened to be the anniversary of Okute’s founding, and residents were celebrating with gusto. I was invited to attend a performance by a group of elderly men, all smartly dressed and singing songs of their home accompanied by a piano in the town hall, which children had decorated with paper bunting and balloons. There were barbecues and laughter and dancing, and not a souvenir store or other tour group in sight.
Other traditions persist in the countryside, where we spotted farmers cutting rice straw in dry paddy fields. But their future seemed tenuous. Many of the rural areas we walked through had a declining, ageing population, their youth having moved to the cities to seek employment. It wasn’t uncommon to see an abandoned house, an unkempt field, a shuttered storefront.