A Walk Down an Ancient Japanese Highway

D-travel Agency Autumn Tour 2016 to Japan walked down the Nakasendo highway, Japan’s thousand- year-old highway through the Kiso Valley that is located along the side of the Japan Central Alps. Nakasendo literally means “the road through mountains”.  The highway connects Tokyo with Kyoto and is one of Japan’s five ancient roads of Japanese history. One can find many old maps, paintings, and poetry about the Nakasendo way.

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Scenic  Tsumago our final destination 

Along, this old roadway, there are 69 post towns.  They provided lodging and dining to travelers in Japan’s old days. Most post towns are gone and only a very few remain. The towns with the strongest infrastructure have been preserved. Even still today some of these post towns continue to serve travelers who come to explore the Nakasendo and stay overnight at one of the inns.

The old highway we walked on runs between Magome and Tsumago post town. The two post towns are Japan’s best-preserved. The highway is made up of dirt and flat rock called ishidatami. The route is scenic. Our plan was to walk the trail, starting from Magome and stopping near Tsumago for an overnight at a minshuku, a Japanese countryside inn.

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As soon we arrived at Magome we took out all needed from our day bags, our cameras, hats, walking stick, water bottle, and sunglasses and then we had our bags delivered to our minshuku, several miles away from where we stood.  It felt like there was not any option to change route but rather to aim straight to the inn.

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Peggy leads group through Magome

We embarked on our walk passing through Magome post town.  The town was beautifully restructured rather than preserved like what we saw in Tsumago. The trail from Magome leads through the town into the woods with lots of cypress and hinoki trees and passes a picturesque Japanese countryside with old houses and cultivated farmland by local residents. Occasionally we could see the Central Alps with snow top peaks.  And along the way, we saw the start of autumn.  The trees were turning colors.  We passed old notice boards with information that is carved onto wooden planks, lone wooden homes, garden patches, stone lanterns, and some large stones engraved with Japanese quotes, poetry or were marked with information, like the name of the village or how many kilometers was left to Tsumago, the next post town.  And there were some Jizo statues dressed in red knit hat and bib.  We also came across asphalt roads that intersect with the trail but connect us back onto the old highway.  The asphalt road was the new Nakasendo road.  It was less a highway  and more of a two-way country road.  We continued our walk  we went up some hills, descended wooden stairs and passed old homes and ryokans, the fancier inns that were reserved for the daimyo (feudal lords).  There were a tea-house and  old barrier stations where travelers from the past were checked by authorities and searched for firearms. It was fun to imagine the Japanese from the medieval times who had walked on this highway.  After an hour or so we came across a water mill and a roofed shelter next to it.  There was also a bathroom we could use.  There we stopped for a break.

Indeed to tell there was a bit of excitement every time we saw a warning sign for bears.  We would sign out big, “Another One!”  There was a bell next to the sign that advised us to ring it a few times to keep the bears away.  Surely, we stopped and rang all the bells we found all the way down to Tsumago where our dinner and futon beds were waiting.

We arrived a bit late to our inn because we took our time, taking pictures of our surrounding, looking for the two waterfalls and exploring the old homes, gardens, and other structures we found along the way.  Then, Pah, after we successfully found the waterfall we took some pictures.  We were supposed to turn back to the trail but it was turning dark to walk through the woods again, instead, we followed a trail with directions to the asphalt road and walked to our minshuku.  We arrived there in no long time. We were hungry and ready to eat dinner.

Dinner was totally exotic.  Some members eyebrows raised as they looked at the food. We had aya sweetfish, mountain vegetables, locally made tofu, miso soup and other foods that are never seen at the dinner table in the USA.  We had some local beer and sake. Surprisingly we ate most of everything.  After dinner, we went for our hot bath.  We soaked together in the wooden tub of hot-spring water. The tub was kinda small but we all fit in it perfectly.  And in the tub naked with our eyes closed we talked about what we did and saw on the trail. The bath was good for our sore muscles in our legs.  We felt good after we got out.  Later we gathered in the lounge of the inn for some hot tea. There we took pictures of ourselves in the yutaka provided by the inn.  We had fun posing for the camera.

The next morning we finished a Japanese breakfast and went back on the Nakasendo highway to Tsumago.  We were so close and we finished the whole trail in less than an hour.  Entrance to the Tsumago post town was picturesque.  The old houses were preserved, not restructured or renovated with improvement.  It continued in its original built.

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Good Morning!  We’re heading back on the Nakasendo to Tsumago post town.

We stopped by the tourist office that was once an old city hall.  We got our certificate made of hinoki wood that attests our completion of the Nakasendo trail between Magome and Tsumago. It was an exciting moment, knowing we had completed the 8km trail at our ages between 53 ~ 79 years old.  We pat each other backs and went for coffee.  We found a shop that served coffee and tea but on the tatami floor.  I think some of us started to miss table and chairs for we sort of frowned at low tables with pillow mats for sitting.  Our legs were too sore to bend down but we sat down.  The shop offered some delicious sweet made of chestnuts that were in season.  It had a peanut butter like texture but with chestnut taste.  It tasted good with the coffee.

We spent our morning in the most beautiful post town of Japan, Tsumago.  The town is actually the best-preserved old town in Japan. It prohibits cars and phone lines and cables are concealed. This allows us to imagine old Japan where samurai, merchants, and monk-pilgrims mingled in the streets. We took pictures of the lovely town, went in and out of interesting buildings such as the old post office, city hall and shops selling various crafts. We explored back roads, too. By noon we had lunch of delicious soba made from local indigents. After lunch, we hopped on a local bus to a train station for our next destination, Matsumoto.