Hiking the Naksendo road
19.03.2018 - 20.03.2018
The Nakasendo road was one of five routes of the Edo period in Japan, connecting Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). The standard method of travel was by foot, as wheeled carts were almost nonexistent and heavy cargo was usually sent by boat. Along the Nakasendo, there were government-sanctioned post stations for travellers in which to rest. These stations consisted of porter stations and horse stables, as well as lodging, food and other places a traveller may visit (source: Wikipedia). Given our limited time and hiking experience, and not knowing how the kids would fair, we elected to walk the roughly 8 Km of the road between Magome and Tsumago, through the Kiso Valley. So,me intrepid explorers spend many days on this old road.
We crammed our big bags into coin lockers at Nakatsugawa station and hopped a local bus up the mountainside to Magome. This was the launching point for our trek. It was pouring rain and the forecast looked pretty bleak for the next few days, but we were not deterred. In fact, the rains had the opposite effect, as we ended up virtually on our own, seeing only a few people at the beginning of the trek. The rain also added to the mystical, historic atmosphere and vibe, and perhaps kept the bears at bay as well. Yes, there are bears. There are also bear bells every 500 metres or so (closer in some of the more wooded spots) that you are supposed to ring "vigorously" to startle them - perhaps it also functions as a dinner bell?
The road cuts through cedar and hardwood forest, dormant rice fields, small villages and across mountain streams. There are shrines along the way as well which served the more existential needs of historical travellers and, no doubt, present day ones as well.
At about the half-way point there was a rest stop where a kindly older gentleman offered up complimentary tea, candies and fermented plums (which taste better than they sound!). This old house served as a warm refuge from the rain and was a welcome respite indeed, as we were all soaked through to the skin. The proprietor also sang a traditional Japanese folk song for us and the two other hikers that shared the spot. We were all so mesmerized by the song and the warm tea that we forgot to take any pictures.
After a little rest we headed back out onto the soggy post road for the last section of our hike to Tsumago. This is where we would stay for the night, in a minshuku, or a modest Japanese Inn (Minshuku Koshinzuka), before continuing on to Nagiso station to hop a train back to get our bags. I say modest only in comparison to what you would experience in the more elaborate ryokans in Japan. Trust me, the experience in this minshuku would be unlike anything we had experienced before. We were a little early, so elected to head down into town to check it out. The main road is lined with shops selling food and other tourist wares, but there is a section of the road that had been preserved and still had buildings in their original state from some 300 years ago. There is also a really cool museum situated in one of the original residences full of tatami mats, sliding shoji screens and tranquil views of moss covered gardens. There was even a toilet built for a visiting emperor - sadly off limits...
Back at our minshuku, we doffed our soaking wet clothing and put on the supplied yakuta -a sort of more relaxed kimono or housecoat also used as sleeping attire. We had two fabulous tatami rooms, separated by shoji screens, and with a view of the small pond and garden with the mountain hillside as the backdrop. Dinner was served in the adjoining room around the fire. We had not seen so much food and variety yet during this visit to Japan. We shared our dinner with Yo, a fellow post road walker (albeit in the opposite direction to us) and child care worker on vacation from Tokyo. Our host plied us with sake (both warm and cold - I prefered the cold) and traditional folk songs from the area, typically sung at weddings. There was fish from the ponds behind the minshuku and local vegetables and mushrooms. It was quite wonderful. While we ate, our host's wife set up our sleeping mats in our room. This was done silently so as not to disturb our meal time conversation.
A similar breakfast awaited us the next morning - so much food!! After exchanging contact information with Yo, we hustled back through Tsumago and then down to Nagiso station so as to catch the infrequent train back to Nakatsugawa. From there we would make our way on to our next mountain valley stop - Takayama. Oh, and did I mention that it was still raining???