In the steps of feudal travellers
Tracing their footsteps during the Edo period, walks 8km along the Nakasendo
THE throng of visitors thins as I tread up the stone path that tore through the heart of Magome. The sun is bright, the skies clear but the air is a bit chilly as the town is at an elevation. Yet, that doesn’t deter visitors from flocking to traditional wooden shop houses preserved in their original forms from the 17th century, marvelling at the simple, yet carefully constructed architecture that have withstood the test of time.
I arrive at Magome, located deep in the mountains of Gifu in central Japan, two hours from the city of Nagoya. This idyllic little town, surrounded by terraced paddy fields and dots of houses, is fairly well-connected to the network of public transportation despite being the gateway to the Nakasendo.
Nakasendo, as aptly described by its three-character kanji, is literally “central/ inner mountain road”.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), it was a high-traffic “highway” frequented by travellers making trips between Edo (now Tokyo), where the Tokugawa shogunate resided, and Kyoto, the seat of the emperor. Most of them were bands of samurai, loyal to the shogun but subjected to the unmatched prowess of the emperor.
These ancient travellers went on foot and on animals, needing shelter along the way. This gave rise to “juku” or post towns, where travellers were assured of replenishment for their weary selves at no-frills traditional inns called minshuku.
Magome in the Gifu Prefecture is one of the 69 post towns along the Nakasendo. Today, I’m not here just to have a glimpse of the memory lane. Instead, I am going to walk all the way to the next post town 8km away in neighbouring Nagano Prefecture on a section of the highway known as the Kiso Valley.
Therefore, after a leisurely walk to savour the ambience of the town, I break away from the crowd to follow the wellmarked trail pointing towards Tsumago, which I hope to arrive at in two hours or so.
The serene quietness past the kotsuba — an old wooden noticeboard on which laws and edicts were etched — at the start of the trail comes as a shock, but thankfully, I meet an American couple arriving from Tsumago. They assure me that I am on the right track, thus with a newfound confidence, I cross the road that takes me into the forest.
A copper bell greets my entrance into the wilderness, a timely reminder that while the trail is well trodden by humans, it is still home to others. Travellers are advised to ring the bells placed along the route to “announce” your presence to the bears. It is also recommended that a small bell is carried along, but this morning, I just give the metal chain attached to the bell a strong shake.
It is just after winter, so the trees are barren still. Yet the ruggedness of Japanese mountains offers a different kind of scenery. Before long, I come across a stretch lined by pebble towers. The pebbles are irregular yet when rightly placed on top of the other, they form a perfectly balanced stack.
There is a calming, meditative benefit to this art related to Zen, which can be reflected as finding balance in life. Unfortunately, I don’t have the chance to dwell more on
Stone steps leading to the gate (torii) of a Shinto shrine en route to Tsumao; An old teahouse where travellers are welcome to stop by for tea and snacks by its generous keeper. A very clear creek welcomes travellers approaching the centre of Tsumagojuku. From Nagoya, take the Japan Railway Chuo Line to Nakatsugawa (fare: 1,320 yen, around RM50; duration: one hour 15 minutes). Then transfer to Kitaena Bus to Magome (fare: 560 yen, duration: 30 minutes)
From Tsumago, take the bus to Nagiso station (fare: 300 yen, duration: 15 minutes). Then transfer to Japan Railway Shinano Line to Nagoya (fare: 3,160 yen, duration: 65 minutes) 1. Pick up a map of the trail from Magome Tourist Information Centre before starting your walk.
2. A small bell can be rented at the centre if you’re worried about bears. However, be assured that no recent sightings have been reported. The bell can be returned at the tourist information centre in Tsumago.
3. Get local specialties such as chestnut daifuku (a type of Japanese sweet) as provision for your walk.
4. Wear a pair of proper walking shoes, or even better, hiking boots.
5. Allow two to three hours to
complete the walk.