The Nakasendo Trail has a history stretching back to medieval times as a postal route which ranged from the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto to the modern capital of Tokyo. According to Wikipedia the trail is 534 km long but these days it is disjointed with significant parts of the trail obliterated by urban development, roads and railways. Only broken sections of the trail retain their ancient allure. Therefore, negotiating the trail these days involves hoofing it along walking paths and riding rail lines. This is not anything I am complaining about because those are my two favourite modes of transport.
Our self-guided walking tour of the Nakasendo Trail allowed us to stop and admire the surrounds as we wished; while riding the rails gave us the chance to experience Japan’s super fast and super comfortable bullet trains. Even watching from the station platform as express trains whooshed by at high speed was an impressive experience.
Our walking was largely done on cool, sometimes cloudy days, which is to be expected in early spring. But the quid pro quo was the sight of blooming cherry blossoms.
I imagine that summer and autumn hikes would also have their appealing aspects. Summer has the warmth, thick foliage and long days. Autumn has kaleidoscopic colours with the changing of the leaves. As for winter, that would only be for those who love tramping through snow.
As you’d expect from any long distance hike the Nakasendo had flat sections…
Hard uphill slogs….
Sitdowns while waiting for the crew to regroup after a rather arduous stretch ….
waterfalls, of course,
and wide open vistas.
The villages we passed through were a mix of the modern and historic. The modern villages were of marginal interest as they were largely of the homogenised urban type: four lane throughways, petrol stations and fast food outlets.
It was the historic villages that held our interest. We began the walk at the trail’s southern terminus: the village of Magomemjuku whose preserved wooden structures immediately conjured images of a world long past.
But there were a number of additional villages through which we passed which were of equal interest.
Our village accommodations were traditional riyokans replete with futons, robes and communal (same sex) baths – but still with the fancy electronic toilets.
Evening after-dinner walks through these villages re-created a mood of a time long past as there were only dim and sporadic lights illuminating the paths and buildings.
I wish I could similarly exalt over the authentic Japanese meals we were served at the riyokans but no. No fault of the management but rather the fault of my extremely selective palate. I knew I was going to have problems with meals throughout the hike right from our first dinner.
Firstly, sea food is right off my menu. Particularly offensive to me is the sight of a fish on a plate which has not had the benefit of filleting. That fish was never going to have a chance to be eaten by me.
And the horrors didn’t stop there. Horse meat! That, I probably would have eaten – as I would have mistaken it for some kind of Japanese coloured beef. But seeing as our hostess made the mistake of correcting my misconception it became “no thanks”.
Then there was the fried grasshopper. This was getting embarrassing. I didn’t want to insult our hostess so I forced down the grasshopper. In one whole gulp, past the teeth and right down the gullet; followed by a generous swill of beer.
After I had survived that first dinner I began looking forward to the next morning’s simple breakfast of coffee and cereal. Unfortunately, the Japanese don’t do breakfast simply. My tray was again filled with such a questionable (to my palate) variety of food that I had trouble distinguishing it from the previous night’s dinner
Soup for breakfast? Nope, not for me. An egg? Ok, that I will have. An egg floating in soup? Uh, no. And on it went.
I am grateful for the convenience stores we would pass by for giving me the opportunity to fill up on western junk food.
A cup of green tea was always welcome with my meals (sometimes to help me wash down something disagreeable). I knew that the Japanese considered green tea to be a staple but I wasn’t aware until our hike at how much green tea is also used as an ingredient in other food stuffs – especially pastries.
Especially surprising was green tea flavoured ice cream. It was too cold for me to sample the ice cream but Agnes assured me a Green Tea Ice Cream Cone was quite agreeable.
There was also Green Tea Kit Kat but that shouldn’t be surprising as I have it from a reliable source (ok, the internet) that Japan has more than 200 types of Kit Kat flavours.
But back to the trail.
Apart from the food the riyokans were wonderful places to stay. After I got over my inhibitions about nakedly soaping myself down in front of other guys I developed a love for the communal Japanese baths. Easing myself into a hot soaking tub after a good soaping felt like my due reward after a day’s walk.
By the time we began our hike I was used to the excellent standard of Japanese service but the service at our riyokans took this standard to an even higher level. Most touching was that each day’s journey began on a pleasant footing with an appreciative and heartfelt send off from the receptionists.
At this riyokan the receptionists even came out to bow and wave us goodbye as our bus was leaving to take us to the train station.
On our final day of walking the receptionist escorted us outside and was only too happy to snap pictures of us. It’s one of the few non-selfie pictures of the four of us together that I have.
But back to the trail…
The Nakasendo Trail is festooned with shrines. Most were Shinto shrines such as these….
Shrines, like those below, that were located in relatively remote areas of the trail were all the more fascinating for their isolation.
As Shintoism has incorporated Buddhism, there are also Buddhist shrines along the way.
It wasn’t until we embarked on the walk that we came to realise the trail has wildlife hazards. Specifically, there were bilingual signs warning us of the possibility that there may be bears in the vicinity. Sometimes the english translations were not grammatically correct but the point was understood.
I wasn’t even aware that Japan had bears and I would have loved to have seen one on the trail. But we judged it more prudent to ring the bells and stay safe.
We also experienced brushes with fame on our trek.
On our first day we crossed paths with Joanna Lumley who was in the midst of filming her Japan documentary in the village of Tsumago. I didn’t trust my eyes when I first walked past her. I stared and stared, wondering is that really her??? Really???” Then it got embarrasing as she also kept looking back at me as I stared at her. So finally I said “hello” and was mightily relieved when she cheerily replied in response. I am very happy to report that she was absolutely fabulous: wonderfully personable and generous in posing for photos. She made fans of the four of us just for being so nice.
That night we told another group of fellow hikers of our meeting earlier in the day. They went off in a vain search for Joanna but probably by then she was already holed up in a 5 star hotel in Kyoto.
Some six months later we watched Joanna’s Japan documentary on the TV. Shortly after her spiel on the Nakasendo Trail (episode 2) I got a text from Alan expressing a hankering to go back to Japan – something that Agnes and I had just been discussing.
But Joanna Lumley wasn’t our only brush with fame as we also stopped in for tea at a restaurant near Karuizawa where John Lennon had popped in with his young son Sean in 1979. I was aware of the restaurant’s claim to fame prior to our arrival so it was a must-see for a Beatle maniac like me.
We saw the Lennon photo on our last day of hiking. That day was foggy, drizzly and quite atmospheric. It felt like we were tramping through the set of a B-grade Japanese Shogun movie. I half-expected to see a cinematic samurai soldier come zipping overhead on not-too-well-hidden wires.
It was the perfect way to end our walk.
But all too soon the forest gave way to bitumen and we trudged along a disused railway track to a station where we waited for the train to take us to the modernity of Tokyo.