The Nakasendo trail – Japan’s bygone byway

The Nakasendo trail – Japan’s bygone byway

Robert Schrader

“Ring loudly”, read the signs above bells you see every so often along the ancient trail that runs through the Japanese Alps of Central Honshu Island. “To keep bears away”. It’s a scary possibility to ponder, particularly if you’re at the beginning of a long walk, but don’t be afraid—just do as the signs say.

After all, the lack of development in this part of Japan (whose thick forests are indeed home, for better or worse, to a population of Asiatic black bears) is part of its charm. Many expanses of the Nakasendō (Japanese: 中山道, or “central mountain route”), which connected Tokyo and Kyoto during Japan’s Edo period, are remote and quiet enough that you might actually feel as if you’re back in the early 7th century, even if the bears who threatened the medieval traders who passed through here leave you alone.

Days of future past

Ironically, your journey to what is perhaps Japan’s oldest surviving infrastructure requires you to travel on its most modern: A Shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya, either from Tokyo or Osaka, where the country’s main international airports are located. From there you’ll board a local train bound for Nakatsugawa, a jarring and rickety number and the beginning of a long vortex that slowly transports you back into the past.

To be sure, it will take you more than twice as long to get from Nagoya to Magome, where the most picturesque stretch of the Nakasendo begins, as it took to get from either of Japan’s largest cities to Nagoya. If you think that’s crazy, just wait and see what happens once you start walking upward. (Hint: It involves forest creatures.)

Matsumoto | Photo: Robert Schrader

Matsumoto | Photo: Robert Schrader

Stroll like a samurai

Neither the simple wooden construction of the buildings in Magome nor their façades have changed much since the days when samurai strolled through these parts. In truth, you’d be hard-pressed to find your own knight in shining armour (or any Japanese person of an alternative persuasion) here, although the presence of modern kitsch such as vending machines and everything-under-the-sun-sold-here convenience stores presents a contrast nearly as satisfying as the touch of a man.

The real contrast, of course, doesn’t occur until you’ve crested the hill over the town and wandered into the dense forest that begins almost immediately thereafter. Ring the bell you see under the gingko tree ahead of you, but try not to take the warning too seriously: Your chances of actually seeing a bear are even less than getting reliable cell service here.

Hornets and Hoshigaki

This is not to say there’s nothing terrifying along the Nakasendo, particularly if you visit during summer or early autumn, when the arbours that rise around you blaze orange, yellow and a red that seems taken from the Japanese flag itself. The buzzing you hear periodically comes from the Asian giant hornet (yes, that one), although the sound should serve more to put pep in your step than to put the fear of God in you.

A more welcome sight along the Nakasendo is the dried persimmons or hoshigaki, you see hanging from the awnings of most every house you pass. You can sample these, along with other regional snacks like gohei mochi rice dumplings and sugary chestnut- and sweet potato-fashioned kurikinton, at the conclusion of the eight-kilometres that lead you to Tsumago, where the most beautiful part of the Nakasendo ends. Or, if you encounter just the right villager among the way, you might be able to taste some or his or her own hoshigaki.

Nakasendo | Photo: Robert Schrader

Nakasendo | Photo: Robert Schrader

Expand your Central Honshu horizons

Theoretically, you could continue walking past Tsumago, either with or without stopping to sleep, trekking by foot toward the city of Kiso-Fukushima, the lacquerware town of Narai, the Torii Pass overlook or any of the other dozens of attractions in this part of Japan. In practice, however, peripheral portions of the Nakasendo (which are periodically interrupted by modern highways, both back toward Kyoto and onward to Tokyo, the closer to those cities you get) lack the atmosphere of Magome, Tsumago and the space between them.

Instead, take a bus to Kiso-Fukushima and a train to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is not only one of the larger cities in central Honshu and home to one of Japan’s best-preserve castles, but is within easy day-trip distance of Jigokudani, where red-faced macaques bathe in a mountain onsen, and the tranquil Kamikochi nature resort. Or, continue westward toward Takayama, whose town centre features colourful bridges and sprawling cemeteries, and which serves as a gateway to even more scenic spots, such as the Shirakawa-go UNESCO World Heritage site.

Where to stay, along the Nakasendo and beyond

True 21st-century luxury can be difficult to find along the remote reaches of the Nakasendo, although the simple ryokans and homestays where you rest your head are nothing short of opulent, at least by samurai standards. These properties are traditional in terms of comfort and hospitality, and also technology: You’ll need to call them to verify availability and make your booking, using this convenient list.

On the other hand, the cities of central Honshu offer decidedly high-end lodging experiences. Oyado Koto No Yume in Takayama, for example, which sits just minutes by foot from both Takayama Station and the city’s iconic Nakabashi Bridge, has earned a spot in Michelin’s Japan Green Guide for its impeccable facilities, dining and service. While Matsumoto’s Oiwakeya Ryokan sits just 10 minutes by taxi from the city’s modern centre, regal amenities like an imperial-style garden and a serene outdoor hot spring might fool you into thinking you’ve scored a room inside the castle.

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