Way of the shogun

The small village of Magome as night falls. PHOTOS: TNS
The small village of Magome as night falls. PHOTOS: TNS
Charles Fleming steps back in time to experience rural Japan as it was two centuries ago, with the exception of air-conditioning.

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 travellers between the two capitals began making the trek by train or automobile.

But in the 1960s Tsugamo and several other villages along the route began campaigns of rediscovery. Modern buildings were removed, and those remaining from the Edo period (1600-1868) were restored or reconstructed. Streets were repaved with period stone and closed to automobile traffic.

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 534km path.

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.

Dinner at Tajimaya.
Dinner at Tajimaya.
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 colourful 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 icecream flavoured 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 before dinner.

Meiji Mura in Inuyama preserves historic buildings from Japan’s history including the main lobby...
Meiji Mura in Inuyama preserves historic buildings from Japan’s history including the main lobby of the Imperial Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
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 field where fireflies 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 office, which for about $10 would ferry our suitcases to our next stop.

The day was again hot and humid. We walked very slowly, happy to stretch the 8km between Tsugamo and Magome into a long, slow stroll.

For two centuries the Nakasendo Way was a major pedestrian route.
For two centuries the Nakasendo Way was a major pedestrian route.
We passed low, wooden buildings and were soon in farmland, where terraced rice fields 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 fire 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 find a roadside store offering cold drinks, hot coffee and a lovely chestnut icecream.

From there it was an easy downhill for the last couple of kilometres 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 marvellous, multiple-course Japanese meal.

Check list

Where to stay

We spent a night at Fujioto (tsumago-fujioto.jp) in Tsumago and a night at Tajimaya (kiso- tajimaya.com) in Magome. At Fujioto, we paid about $275 for our room plus meals. At Tajimaya, we paid about $240 for our room and meals.

Where to eat
We did almost all our eating at the inns, but we did enjoy lunch in Tsumago at Tawaraya, where we paid about $28  for a light meal of cold soba noodles.

To learn more
Nakasendo Way, nakasendoway.com

  • Charles Fleming is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

 

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