Strolling into Japan’s past along the Nakasendo Way
For two centuries the Nakasendo Way was a major pedestrian route that connected a string of villages that provided lodging and sustenance for the shoguns, retainers and daimyo, or feudal lords, traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto.
The trail and its villages were largely abandoned in the late 1800s as the power of the shoguns faded and as travelers between the two capitals began making the trek by train or automobile.
But Tsugamo and several other villages along the route in the late 1960s began campaigns for rediscovery. Modern buildings were removed, and those left from the Edo period (1600-1868) were restored or reconstructed. Streets were repaved with period stone and closed to automobile traffic.
The Nakasendo (“central mountain route”) once again began offering period-correct food and shelter for long-distance walkers, who can now hike multiple sections of what remains of the original 332-mile footpath.
My wife, Julie, and I had heard about the Nakasendo when we lived in Hiroshima for several years in the 1980s. Last summer, more than three decades after we left Japan, we returned to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and to explore some places we had missed.
We spent three weeks wandering around Japan’s main island of Honshu, including a few days along the Nakasendo, where we hoped to savor the old Japan.
Step back two centuries
To begin our walk, we took a 40-minute train ride from Nagoya to the Kiso Valley town of Nagiso, then a short taxi ride to the historically preserved Edo period village of Tsumago.
We stepped out of the taxi and back two centuries.
Tsumago’s cobblestoned main street is lined with wooden buildings, none more than two stories tall. Though the village is wired for electricity and internet, the wires were hidden. The stores, offering hot tea, hot meals, lodging and souvenirs, featured sliding wooden doors and colorful paper lanterns instead of neon signs.
It was warm and muggy, so we were glad to sit down for a cold drink and a midday meal.
Most menus offered a version of gohei mochi, a regional dish in which leftover rice is pounded into a paste, formed into cakes, toasted over an open flame and doused with a sauce of soy, sugar, salt and maple or chestnut syrup.
We also sampled the local ki-ri so-fu-to, the common name for soft-serve ice cream flavored with chestnut.
Later that afternoon we were welcomed at Fujioto, a 16th century-style ryokan, or country inn, complete with tatami mat rooms and wooden onsen, the public bath that was the inn’s only bathing facility.
We swapped our sweaty hiking clothes for the traditional cotton yukata (a bathrobe-like garment typically worn by guests staying at a ryokan), washed and had a soak in the onsen, made from fragrant local cypress, and rested up for dinner.
We needed our strength. The evening meal, served in a tatami dining room furnished with Western-style tables and chairs, was a massive affair with two dozen dishes.
First came grilled trout and sautéed chicken with steamed rice, pickled wasabi stems and edamame. A tempura course followed, with shiitake and maitake mushrooms, shishito leaf and local yam and pumpkin, and a sashimi course that featured fresh-water salmon.
Still to come were a hot pot of beef and local vegetables served atop a magnolia leaf, as well as an unusual sweet-and-sour dish we couldn’t identify.
“In Japanese, we call it ‘baby wasps,’” the English-speaking waitress said, then added helpfully, “It’s made of baby wasps.”
Dessert was gohei mochi and green tea pound cake.
We walked the broad paving stones of the silent, empty village — which appeared to be inhabited almost exclusively by the innkeepers, shopkeepers and their families — taking our evening stroll still dressed in our yukatas, as travelers customarily do in Japan. Our host led us to a field where fireflies were playing, then back to the inn, where we retreated to the welcome cool of our air-conditioned room.
A breakfast of steamed rice, broiled salmon, chilled omelet, and tofu with marinated spinach and green beans prepared us for the day’s walk. We took our bags a block to the tourist office, which for about $4.50 would ferry our suitcases to our next stop.
The day was again hot and humid. We walked very slowly, happy to stretch the 5 miles between Tsugamo and Magome into a long, slow stroll.
We passed low, wooden buildings and were soon in farmland, where terraced rice fields were bordered by bamboo groves and stands of cypress, cedar and chestnut trees.
We stayed mostly in shade as the paved trail rose gently into the mountains. As we gained elevation, we came upon “bear bells.” Plaques printed in Japanese and English urged us to ring them to warn the local black bears that we were headed into their woods. (We rang loudly and often, but we saw no bears.) We found public toilets at regular intervals too.
After 90 minutes or so we stopped for snacks and snapshots at the twin Otaki and Metaki “male and female” waterfalls, where we soaked our kerchiefs in the cold mountain water.
Half an hour later, we slid into the welcome shade of an ancient way station, where a silent man tending a smoky fire poured us tea, invited us to use his Wi-Fi and asked us to sign his visitors log.
We encountered walkers coming from the other direction, but we usually had the trail to ourselves. The temperature rose. At the crest of Magome Pass, we were happy to find a roadside store offering cold drinks, hot coffee and a lovely chestnut ice cream.
From there it was an easy downhill for the last mile or so into picturesque Magome, a popular jumping-off point for Nakasendo walkers.
It seemed livelier, with more shops selling crafts made from carved cedar and more restaurants serving everything from sushi to sashimi to udon and ramen — and, of course, more of the delicious gohei mochi.
After a late lunch, we checked into the Tajimaya and again enjoyed the comforts of modern air conditioning and the amenities of an ancient ryokan: the yukata, the onsen and another marvelous, multiple-course Japanese meal.
It was served in a tatami room with chairs — essential for me who, despite spending three years in Japan, cannot sit on the mat floor for an entire evening. The dinner consisted of more freshwater salmon served as sushi, grilled trout and chicken, and artful preparations of tempura, age dashi dofu and a different spin on gohei mochi.
The tourists and day trippers had fled. Dressed in the Tajimaya’s cotton robes and slippers, we walked the empty town to its limits and watched dusk fall and a rainstorm approach beside a rice paddy.
We knew we could get a bus the following morning from Magome to the railroad town of Nakatsugawa, and from there a quick train ride back to Nagoya. But we were tempted to stretch the trip by an extra day and walk back to Tsumago. Alas, the Fujioto had no rooms for the night.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO TOKYO
From LAX, JAL, American, All Nippon, United and Singapore offer nonstop service to Tokyo, and JAL, United, Asiana, Korean, Hawaiian, American, EVA and Cathay Pacific offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $733.
We used a Japan Rail Pass for our three weeks of travel around Honshu. It must be purchased outside Japan and validated upon arrival. An individual ticket from Nagoya to Nagiso, round trip, would cost about $56.
WHERE TO STAY
We spent a night at Fujioto in Tsumago and a night at Tajimaya in Magome. At Fujioto, we paid about $190 for our room plus dinner and breakfast. At Tajimaya, we paid about $167 for our room and meals.
WHERE TO EAT
The narrow lanes of Tsumago and Magome are lined with Edo-era dining establishments. We did almost all our eating at the inns, but we also enjoyed lunch in Tsumago at Tawaraya, where we paid about $19.50 for a light meal of cold soba noodles and gohei mochi. Coffee and a ki-ri so-fu-to totaled $6.30.
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