An ancient journey: along Japan's historic Nakasendo Way
Gary Allen gives up two wheels for his own two feet to explore the rich traditions and natural splendour of old Japan.
By Gary Allen | Published #68, Summer 2017
To experience a traditional Japanese culture, you might consider venturing into the country and away from the vortex of big-city life. Here, amongst the trees, parks and small villages where the local people have lived for generations, you’re away from the global shopping brands and crowded tourist hubs.
I’d never been on a guided walk before, having always opted for cycling; a faster, more intensive way of exploring the countryside. I was looking forward to experiencing Japan at a more leisurely pace. It was to be a time for slowing down; an opportunity to observe an unfamiliar way of life, to interact with people going about their daily routines, and to sample the foods that have been eaten locally for centuries.
The Nakasendo Way walk brings to life the majesty and tradition of ancient Japan. It is a journey rich in history. Dating back to 1600, samurai and their subordinates travelled this route making their way to Edo (modern day Tokyo) to pay homage to the Shogun, the supreme military commander and overlord, answerable only to the Emperor. There were 12 of us on this walk along with our guide Shima, Tokyo-born but now living in America. She had led this walk 16 times before and knows the trail inside and out (including every bathroom, café and grocery store along the way!).
The Nakasendo Way starts in Kyoto and, after 10 nights of travel through cities and towns including Hikone, Sekigahara, Magome, Tsumago and Narai, ends in Tokyo. Along the way we stayed in ryokans (inns) catering to distinguished travellers that have been run by the same families for generations. Traditional customs are still very much a part of the hospitality offering in Japan’s ryokans: from eating your meals sitting cross legged on the floor; washing in a Japanese onsen before dinner; sleeping on futons laid out on the straw tatami mats on the floor; and definitely no shoes allowed (all guests receive slippers upon entry).
At one of the nightly meals I had wild boar that was shot by the innkeeper only the day before as well as freshly caught trout from a nearby stream and sweet crispy grasshoppers. All of it was amazingly delicious. Have no fear though; the hosts do happily accommodate Western preferences where they can, such as having small stools or backrests at meals. The futons take some getting used to but after a day of walking, you might be so tired you won’t notice the difference. I did bring a pillow with me, and I was glad I did, as the local pillows are very small and sometimes made of buckwheat. Ryokans also feature the traditional Japanese rice-paper walls, which as you would imagine, are very thin. A tip for light sleepers, you may want to bring ear-plugs and an eye mask.
The walks were beautiful. Distances varied from 10km to 25km in a day and incorporated differing and often undulating terrain. I recommend doing some training before you go. It will make for a more comfortable experience, as there were some challenging ascents over compact earthen trails, pavement, stone paths and dirt roads.
After each day of walking, and that relaxing onsen, you’ll change into your yukata; a cotton kimono provided at every ryokan. This multipurpose piece is what you wear to dinner – a great way to keep packing to a minimum as you never have to worry about dressing up. Dinner and breakfast are served at a long, low table and everyone is seated on the tatami mats, which takes some time getting to get used to for most Westerners (unless you practice yoga).
One day we happened to walk through a village that was having its annual harvest festival. Dressed in traditional costumes, drummers played and chanted as the crowd watched, then the town elders threw dozens of small packets of rice cakes to the amassed people. There was a frenzy of both young and old clamouring to catch these prizes – a few of our group managed to catch some which we enjoyed grilled at dinner, to bring us health and happiness in the coming year.
I enjoyed this tour so much that, if I’d had the time, I would have continued with Walk Japan’s add-on tour of Tokyo. If you are interested in history and want to enjoy an authentic cultural experience in Japan – one that includes exercise, traditional food and the great outdoors with a knowledgeable guide – then this is your trip.
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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.
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