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In the footsteps of warlords
My shoes kept slipping on the crooked paving stones. The route was poorly marked, and the sun beat down on our backs as we trudged uphill. It hardly seemed possible that not long ago this road was well traveled by Japanese. The steep, narrow footpath my husband and I were following was once a main highway between Kyoto and Edo, now called Tokyo. The path, the Nakasendo, is the central mountain road and passes 310 miles through Japan's main island, Honshu.
We climbed past old stone pillars and a ceremonial torii gate. Shady waysides still bore the names of the teahouses that had once stood there. Later, eating a trailside lunch of cold chicken and sipping from our water bottles, Kevin and I looked out over dense, unbroken forest. We were visiting the region last fall in search of a bygone day, and it took no time at all to find.
Japan's Edo period (1603-1867) was the age of the samurai, when the country was ruled with an iron fist by the shogun's military dictatorship. From his capital in Edo, the shogun governed through a network of provincial warlords called daimyo, each with his own army and castle.
The shogun lived in perpetual fear of a revolt by the daimyo and devised a clever scheme to hamstring their power. Every two years, the daimyo were required to travel on foot to Edo with a huge retinue to pay their respects to the shogun. The trip with all its accompanying ceremonies took months, a highly effective drain on the warlords' time and energy.
The Nakasendo, our hiking trail, was one of the main routes the daimyo used for their journeys to Edo. Many preferred it to the shorter coastal route, which had dangerous river crossings. The Nakasendo ran through a narrow, forested break in Japan's rugged central mountain range, the Kiso Valley. The construction of a rail line and then a modern highway covered many stretches of the old footpath; there wasn't enough flat land to build them elsewhere. But in some areas, the modern routes have bypassed the old Nakasendo, and the path and towns have retained their timeless air.
The Nakasendo is a favorite with Japanese vacationers, who may spend a week hiking from town to town, overnighting in historic inns. With our limited time (and negligible Japanese language skills), Kevin and I planned instead to spend three days seeing the highlights of the shogun's road. Beginning in the north, we would hike scenic stretches, taking trains to cover longer distances in between.
As we walked south from our starting point in Narai toward Torii Pass, groups of hikers, mostly elderly, greeted us in cheery chorus. When Kevin took a break from hauling his heavy camera gear and I forged ahead alone, two grandmotherly women I met pointed at me worriedly and asked, "Hitori?" ("One person?") I held up two fingers, then mimed Kevin behind me walking tiredly. They giggled.
After lunch, we backtracked down to Narai. The Nakasendo once had 69 "post towns" like this one, where travelers could change horses, buy provisions and stay in inns of varying degrees of luxury, assigned by rank. Stretched along a narrow valley, Narai's dark wooden houses seem to lean down over the road. The town was famed for its five springs, which still flow in wooden fountains along the main street, and are still much used and appreciated; we saw a dusty construction worker stop to wash his hands and face at one.
Small, quiet towns
HOW quiet are the Nakasendo towns? Narai doesn't even have a tourist office. The train station has a single employee, no ticket machine and no souvenir stand. We boarded a rattling, two-car train and reached Kiso-Fukushima, the next town, just before dark. The youth hostel there was an unexpected treat — a maze-like old farmhouse with tree-trunk ceiling beams, steep wooden staircases, and lacquer doors that seemed to go nowhere. The manager explained apologetically that it was only 135 years old. For dinner, he cooked us a rich stew thick with pork, chicken and three kinds of mushrooms, then regaled us with tales of encounters with black bear, deer and wild boar in the nearby mountains.
The next morning, we visited the Kiso-Fukushima Sekisho, or barrier post, the only one remaining on the Nakasendo. These heavily guarded checkpoints controlled traffic, and their massive wooden gates were bolted shut from dusk to dawn.
From Kiso-Fukushima, we boarded the train again for the short hop to Nagiso. Here, the valley broadens, and the Nakasendo parts ways with the modern thoroughfare. Reaching Tsumago, the next post town, took a 10-minute bus ride up a steep forest road.
It was like stepping into a woodblock print. The town is a long parade of wooden shop houses, their dark flanks burnished by wind and rain to a dozen shades of brown. The only sounds were voices, footsteps and the constant rush of clear water down the stone channels lining the road. We wandered through the Honjin, an enormous inn used by daimyo and the highest nobility. One room was completely surrounded by a 6-foot-wide hallway so that assassins couldn't stab guests with even the longest spear. From Tsumago, we walked north along the Nakasendo, here a country road. Five minutes out, we passed through dense groves of cedar and bamboo. We climbed a steep path to the site where Tsumago Castle had once stood guarding the route. Below us, the dark wooden roofs of the town stretched along the narrow road, with bright gold rice fields behind.
Many Japanese visit Tsumago as a day trip, but an overnight stay is a highlight of a Nakasendo tour. A dozen family-run guesthouses called minshuku offer accommodation in historic inns. A helpful tourist-office clerk had phoned ahead and made reservations for us at Sakamotoya, a sprawling old wooden house right on the Nakasendo.
Though little English was spoken, little was needed. Our apron-wrapped hostess showed us to our room, brought us a thermos of steaming green tea and pointed out the bath. Then she disappeared. The clatter of pots and dishes in the kitchen downstairs built in a long crescendo, finally peaking just before her husband slid our door open to present our dinner, two huge trays covered with beautiful little bowls.
We feasted on seasoned raw beef, pan-fried river trout, tempura shrimp, pork and potato soup, snow peas in miso, carrots with mashed tofu, grasshoppers cooked in soy sauce (Kevin assured me they were delicious), cabbage pickle, rice with chunks of chestnut, and tangerines and persimmon slices for dessert.
After a dreamy soak in the Japanese bath, we fell asleep on the thick futons to the sound of the rushing water in the creek and slept like babies until 5 a.m., when the family got up. Though historic, Kiso's minshuku are hardly museums. They're family homes, giving intimate glimpses of Japanese life, from the tidy row of slippers by the bathroom door to the interactions between parents and kids.
We had breakfast (only slightly less elaborate than dinner) in the family living room, watched over by the Buddha image in the black-lacquered home altar. Then we set off on the most enjoyable walk of our trip, south to Magome, following the longest remaining stretch of the original path.
Solitude amid the cedars
Heading uphill, we passed a series of small fish farms and rice fields so steep and isolated I couldn't imagine how farmers harvested their crop. Finally we entered a timeless forest. Every tree in the Kiso Valley was once the property of the shogun, and peasants were forbidden to cut them under penalty of death. Today the towering cedars are among the oldest in Japan.
The long, loud cascade of a waterfall raced blue over sand-colored boulders. We didn't see another soul until we reached Magome, a lazy 2 1/2 hours later.
Magome looks as though it's tumbling down the steep hillside, a long collection of old shop houses. The stone-paved street is filled with Japanese visitors munching on skewers of grilled rice dumplings. Unlike Tsumago, Magome has made some compromises with the modern world — a glass window here and there, a vending machine — and it's also livelier. But it's just as picturesque, with houses perched on stone platforms, and two furiously turning wooden waterwheels by the side of the road.
After picnicking on tuna-rice balls and fruit from the grocery store at the bottom of the street and lingering much too long, we finally started back uphill toward Tsumago. Our trip's imminent end had me engraving details in my memory: the exuberant burst of blue morning glories, orange marigolds and purple cosmos blossoms against somber brown farmhouse walls, an elderly woman in her traditional indigo-dyed smock keeping a watchful eye on the path.
When we reached Tsumago, the shutters were banging down, the paper doors sliding closed. The day-trippers had vanished. On the way to catch the bus, the first leg of the trip back to Nagoya, we returned to our minshuku to pick up our bags. Our hostess made a deep bow of farewell and then hurried off to the kitchen, preparing to welcome the next guests traveling along this timeless road.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is available on JAL, All Nippon, Northwest, Korean, Air Canada, Air China International, Asiana and China airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $538.
From Nagoya, the JR Chuo railroad line runs north through the Kiso Valley to Matsumoto. Local trains stop in Narai, Kiso-Fukushima, Nagiso (with a connecting bus to Tsumago) and Nakatsugawa (with a connecting bus to Magome.) Service is infrequent, so check the English timetables posted in all stations before setting out.
Walking the Nakasendo highway is not overly strenuous for anyone in reasonable physical shape. But be sure to change as much money as you'll need before heading to the Kiso Valley. (With normal precautions, carrying cash is safe in Japan.) Few businesses take credit cards, and there are no currency exchanges or ATMs that accept foreign cards in any of the towns along the Nakasendo.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodations in Narai, Magome and Tsumago are available in minshuku, guesthouses in family homes. Most are very small (only two or three guest rooms) so it's best to have a Japanese speaker call ahead to a town's tourist information office to make reservations for you. Prices run $64-$92 per person, including an elaborate dinner and breakfast.
Kiso Ryojoan Youth Hostel, between Narai and Nagiso, 20 minutes by bus from Kiso-Fukushima Station; 011-81-264-23-7716. The friendly manager speaks English and is an excellent cook. Overnight with dinner is $38 per person.
WHERE TO EAT:
Have breakfast and dinner in your minshuku, which will almost certainly offer a parade of Kiso specialties. For lunch, visit towns along the route, all of which have restaurants serving quick meals for visitors. Local dishes to look for include sansai soba (buckwheat noodles with wild mountain vegetables), ayu (river trout), and gohei-mochi (grilled rice cakes with nut sauce).
TO LEARN MORE:
Japan National Tourist Organization, (213) 623-1952, https://www.jnto.go.jp . A Kiso Valley guide is available at https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/RTG/PTG/pdf/pg-408.pdf .
Magome Tourist Information Office, 011-81-264-59-2336.
Tsumago Tourist Information Office, 011-81-264-57-3123, https://email@example.com .
— Kristin Johannsen