TOKYO

NAR­RATES HIS EX­PE­RI­ENCE ABOUT RE­TURN­ING TO JA­PAN CHARLES FLEM­ING AFTER AL­MOST THREE DECADES TO EX­PLORE NAKASENDO, AN AN­CIENT ROAD THAT CON­NECTED KY­OTO AND EDO, IN MOD­ERN DAY TOKYO

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For two cen­turies the Nakasendo Way was a ma­jor pedes­trian route that con­nected a string of vil­lages pro­vid­ing lodg­ing and sus­te­nance for the shoguns, re­tain­ers and daimyo, or feu­dal lords, trav­el­ling 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 of 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 trafic.

The Nakasendo, or 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 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 savour 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. Although 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 lame 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-served ice cream, lavoured 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 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 Western­style ta­bles and chairs, was a mas­sive af­fair with two dozen dishes.

First came grilled trout and sauteed 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 English­s­peak­ing wait­ress said, then added help­fully, “It’s made of baby wasps.”

For dessert it was go­hei mochi and green tea pound cake.

We walked the broad paving stones of the silent, empty vil­lage, tak­ing our evening stroll dressed in our yukatas, as trav­el­ers cus­tom­ar­ily do in Ja­pan. Our host led us to a ield where ire­lies 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 ofice, 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 ields were bor­dered by bam­boo groves and stands of cy­press, cedar and chest­nut trees.

We stayed mostly in the shade as the paved trail rose gen­tly into the moun­tains. As we gained el­e­va­tion, we came upon “bear bells.” Plaques 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 ire 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 ind 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 shops sell­ing crafts made from carved cedar and 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.

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 led. Dressed in the Ta­ji­maya’s 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.

For two cen­turies the Nakasendo Way was a ma­jor pedes­trian route.

Magome as night falls.

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