Land of the rising climb

Three writers explore Japan along different walking routes from Tokyo, Kyoto and Kyushu, each gathering a glimpse of Japan's traditional rural lifestyle.

Walk 1

The Nakasendo Way

Difficulty: Level 3 (moderate)

5-22 kilometres per day

by Joe Baur 

The nakasendo way was one of the five pedestrian highways of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868) that connected Kyoto to present-day Tokyo. Stone paving (ishidatami) paths stretch for 534 kilometres, scoring the cinematic Japanese countryside through mountains and rolling hills. Over time, it became popular among Japanese celebrities of the era, such as 17th-century haiku master, Matsuo Basho.

Today, only a modest number of the original ishidatami paths remain along the Nakasendo, replaced predominantly by marked hiking trails. Though modernisation is prevalent in the region, with vending machines serving hot coffee, it still escapes the organised chaos of Tokyo. Craving a taste of historic Japan, I signed up for a hike along the Nakasendo with Walk Japan to experience a comfortable jaunt in the countryside.

The Nakasendo is one of 21 routes offered by Walk Japan (four of which incorporate the Nakasendo). The tour runs for 11 days and 10 nights, fully guided with a maximum group of 12. Ten breakfasts and 10 dinners are included in the tour, with prices varying slightly depending on room preference and whether you plan to join a Kyoto or Tokyo city tour at either end of the trip. The tour begins and ends with hotel stays but includes a number of charming, traditional Japanese inns that dot the rural landscape. These inns gave me a taste of what Japan may have been like centuries ago with our group converging in the evenings to share a dinner, seated on traditional tatami mats, and dressed in comfortable yukatas – a more casual take on kimonos, made of cotton or synthetic fabric.

Overall this itinerary earns a Level 3 rating (Level 6 is the highest), demanding reasonable health capable of four to six hours of hiking at a moderate pace. At the end of each day, after hiking anywhere between an easy five kilometres on relaxed days to a maximum of 22 kilometres, we were treated to the finest in Japanese home-cooking. Wild boar hunted by the owner of the Shinchaya Inn in Yamaguchi-mura almost always makes it to the menu alongside mamushi sake. (Mamushi is the most poisonous snake in Japan.) River trout raised in local ponds is the highlight of breakfast and dinner menus in Maruya. More adventurous eaters can look forward to deep fried and candied grasshoppers, considered a crunchy delicacy in the mountain post towns, or even horse sashimi. Everyone in our group chomped away at the grasshoppers without flinching, but nobody could go for the horse sashimi after seeing the indigenous variety along the Kaida Plateau.

Visiting in late November, the leaves changed colours throughout our hike. Various hues of orange, brown, red, and yellow painted the Japanese vistas until dipping beneath the horizon. We deviated from the Nakasendo Way at times, but only to see other natural beauties, such as the 100-metre-tall Karasawa Falls in Kiso. Toward the end, we were rewarded more often than not with a soak in the onsen, a bathing facility inspired by the thousands of natural hot springs scattered around the volcanic country.

It all ended after a 10-mile hike to Yokokawa Station where we took the first in a series of trains (including the sleek Shinkansen bullet train) to Tokyo. Our final walk consisted of a short, urban jaunt to the Nihonbashi Bridge where the Nakasendo Way officially terminates. The colourful leaves, rigid mountains, and hills had been replaced by the seemingly endless barrage of concrete towers, video screens, and cacophonic chatter of millions of businessmen and women chirping into their mobile phones.

Then, with Tokyo Tower glistening in the window, we enjoyed one last dinner together. With no hikes planned for the next morning, there was no presiding guilt to stop after just one sake.

 

Walk 2

On the Kunisaki trek

Difficulty: Level 5 (challenging)

8-11 kilometres per day

by Suzanne Morphet  

As I entered my room in a traditional Japanese inn for the first time, I was surprised by its spartan simplicity. The floor was covered in tatami mats and the only furniture was a small table low to the ground with a tea service and a couple cushions on either side. There wasn’t even a bed. 

Yet this inn, and others I stayed in during my 10-day tour with Walk Japan, was wonderfully authentic, a highlight of my trip. Inside my closet was a carefully folded yukata, a garment made from unlined cotton, fastened with a belt, and worn by both men and women. We wore our yukata to the inn’s onsen – the thermal hot springs that are common in this volcanically active country, and wonderfully welcome after a long day’s walk – as well as to the dining room where we enjoyed local cuisine, often fresh fish.  At first, it seemed strange to wear what felt like a robe outside the privacy of my room, but soon it became familiar. Dressing for dinner had never been so easy! 

The Kunisaki Trek takes place on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu. Walk Japan rates it as a Level 5 tour. You are only required to carry a daypack as your luggage is transferred by taxi each morning to that night’s accommodation.

We walked for five or six hours a day, which at times was physically challenging. The trek follows in the footsteps of a religious ascetic named Ninmon, who is thought to have introduced Buddhism to this region in the 8th century.  According to our guides, who both live in Japan and know it well, Ninmon’s followers created roughly 150 kilometres of trails. Most monks drive now, but every 10 years they walk these trails on a pilgrimage.

Ours wasn’t that, but it was definitely an adventure. Our route took us through evergreen forests, over spectacular ridges and bridges, and alongside rice paddies so old they’ve been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In places, the ascents were tortuous and we pulled ourselves hand over hand onto the craggy, windswept ridges. The number and variety of religious sites was astounding; from simple wooden shrines to ornate temples, to sprawling complexes with stone pagodas, bamboo gardens, koi ponds and orange torri gates. Combined with the colourful fall foliage in late November, the effect was often otherworldly.

We also get glimpses of rural life – the woman pulling Daikon radish from her garden, the group of elderly Japanese playing croquet. It’s a peaceful part of Japan that leaves me longing for more.

 

Walk 3

Basho tour: Narrow road to the North

Difficulty: Level 2-3 (easy to moderate)

8-11 kilometres per day

by Ruksana Hussain

A group of eight, including the tour guide and myself, were a part of this walking journey tracing the steps of famed 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho. Our guide was fluent in English and Japanese, knowledgeable and well-trained, happy to assist with decoding local culture or any questions about the history and other aspects related to the area. Encounters with locals were encouraged and our guide did his best to facilitate conversations, translating for the group and passing on our questions. I was pleased to receive reading material pertaining to our specific tour, as well as local etiquette and norms, before our trip to help understand the new culture. The entire trip was a seamless process – well planned and detailed. 

It started in Tokyo with an introductory dinner feast and ended in Kyoto with a farewell izakaya (gastropub) dinner. Accommodation in both cities was at the luxury Royal Park Hotel. Accommodations for the rest of the trip were in authentic ryokan (traditional inns), most of them featuring onsens, which were a welcome treat at the end of a day’s hike. 

Rooms were well-appointed tatami floor-style lodgings, featuring ground level desks on arrival, but staff laid out a floor mattress and buckwheat pillows in the evening while I enjoyed decadent dinners. 

I was surprised by the variety of preparations that greeted us at every stop on our journey. From a vegetarian meal at a monastery to a seafood-heavy dinner in a coastal area, to the local delicacy of raw horsemeat served at the Akakura onsen and colourful shabu shabu pots in another location, each meal was a new experience and expanded my limited vocabulary of Japanese food, which until that point consisted of the words sushi, sashimi and ramen. 

This is a Level 2 walk – mostly on level ground or gravel roads. There are some slopes and upward hikes but the tour is paced out to ensure no one is left behind. On day one, I braved a 200-stair climb to a shrine, but nothing compared to the 2,467-stair trek to a Buddhist temple sitting atop a hill – a challenge accompanied by a certificate to help make it all worthwhile. We carried our own backpacks but larger suitcases are transported by car daily to the next location. Car transfer is also an option available for anyone who chooses not to hike.  

 

Basho tour | Narrow road to the North

 

The number and variety of religious sites was astounding; from simple wooden shrines to ornate temples, to sprawling complexes with stone pagodas, bamboo gardens, koi ponds and orange torri gates.

The walks

The Nakasendo Way starts in Kyoto and ends in Tokyo. Price: 11-day/10-night tours start from JPY472,000 (about A$5,863). 

The fully guided Kunisaki Trek tour starts in Fukuoka and ends in Yufuin. Price: 10-day/9-night tour start from JPY428,000 (about A$5,357) per person.

The Narrow Road to the North itinerary starts in Tokyo and finishes in Kyoto. Price: 10-day/9-night tour start from JPY484,000 (about A$6,061) per person.

walkjapan.com

 

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Weather to go

From March to May and September to November, Japan experiences little rainfall, clear weather and mild temperatures. These spring and autumn periods are also known for their blooming cherry blossoms and autumn leaves respectively. Summer is to be avoided in big cities, especially Tokyo, as the weather is hot and humid. Winter provides Japan’s famous powder skiing, at its peak between December and February.

 

Best places to stay

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