Nakasendo Way hikers can enjoy rural Japan as it was centuries ago — but air-conditioned. Charles Fleming has the details
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 periodcorrect 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.
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 flame 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-serve 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 Western-style 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 English-speaking waitress said, then added helpfully, “It’s made of baby wasps.”
Dessert 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 travellers 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.