Travel Japan

Japan

Travel Japan

 Come September, Japan will reverberate to the roar of crowds  and the shrill of referees’ whistles. In the run up to the Rugby World Cup, we visited the island nation to hike its back roads. Once an ancient highway through the Japanese Alps from Kyoto to Tokyo, the Nakasendo Way is today a forgotten byway  made for slackpacking holidays.
  Had always wanted to visit pan in cherry  blossom season. the chance eventually came when I was put in touch with  walk Japan, a company that offers  tours ranging from easy city walks to tough alpine treks. I chose their  Nakasendo Way, a route that follows a  feudal highway through Honshu Island. After 27 hours of flying and transit via  Joburg and Hong Kong, I arrived in KyotoJapan’s ancient capital. shattered and  jetlagged, but still determined to see the city’s essential sights.    Fortunately, there was a day to spare before the hike. Armed with a map, rudimentary instructions and  Google Translate, I climbed on a bus and  set off.
  First up was the Zen Buddhist temple of Kinkaku ji, an ethereal pavilion seemingly suspended above a pond. The building functions as a shariden, supposedly housing the Buddha’s ashes, and its top two storeys are coated with gold leaf creating a surreal effect.
  Next was the temple of Tenryū ji. Founded in 1339, this complex has a gorgeous bamboo forest, a place of clacking stems and luminous green light. By now, the jetlag was catching up with me, but I wanted to visit one last spot and made my way across town to Fushimi Inari Taisha. This Shinto shrine has hundreds of torii (gates) that thread their way up Inari Mountain. Set against dark forest and grey sky, the bright orange torii and hordes of young worshippers in colourful kimonos had the photographer in me hopping around in delight.
  I returned to the hotel just in time for the 6pm meeting with my 10 hiking companions (Australian, American and Taiwanese) and our Japanese guide. Shima Enomoto made the introductions and gave  us the lowdown on the trek ahead. She also told us how she’d left her highpowered banking job in the USA to follow her passion for walking and Japanese history. She’s done the Nakasendo more than 20 times and proved a wealth of insider knowledge.
  Briefing us on etiquette, Shima explained that we’d be staying in country inns where the customs around food, dress, bathing and sleeping (never lay your futon down facing north, as it implies death) would be quite different to what we were used to. Dinner that night was a 12 course affair that gave us ample chance to practise our  chopstick technique and sample local dishes.The coming days were a culinary eye opener with everything from horse carpaccio and blowfish to eel and caramelised crickets. Fortunately there was rich plum wine and sake to ease some of these foreign bodies down my conservative gullet.
  Strolling back after dinner, we stopped beside Sanjo ohashi Bridge at a sculpture of two baggage toting men.That would soon be us. ‘These are typical Edo period travellers and this spot marks the end of the Nakasendo Way,’ said Shima. ‘From here, we’ll be heading east for the next nine days, bound for the corresponding bridge  in Tokyo.’
  The Nakasendo dates back to the seventh century and was a well maintained route with carefully spaced post towns offering shops, inns, stables and porter services. The tree lined highway featured distance markers, stone lanterns to light the way at night, barrier stations (checkpoints) to prevent unauthorised transit and teahouses for refreshment.There were also shrines, temples and statues of deities for the protection of travellers.
  The Nakasendo found its greatest importance during the Edo period (1603  1868) when shoguns of the Tokugawa family ruled Japan. Regional daimyo (feudal  lords) and their vast entourages had to report to the shogun in Edo (Tokyo) every second year. As a consequence, Japan’s five main highways boomed. They also became important pilgrimage and trade routes. Control of these arteries gave the shogun effective control of the nation.
  Long since bypassed by motorways, trains and political change, the Nakasendo fell into disuse at the end of the 19th century. But  thanks to a revival of interest and tourism, many sections have been restored and offer tantalising glimpses of old-world Japan. The next afternoon found us walking through open fields north east of Kyoto.  ‘This is Sekigahara, the setting of perhaps the greatest battle in our history,’ said  Shima. ‘The forces of eastern and western Japan clashed here in the autumn of 1600. Shogun Tokugawa’s victory bringing to an end centuries of conflict helped usher in the Edo period, two and a half centuries of peace.’
  We crisscrossed the battlefield, visiting the sites of the generals’ camps, their hillside positions marked by flags bearing family crests, and the valley floor where more than 150 000 soldiers fought.    I tried to picture the scene on that fateful morning when the mist lifted to reveal the armies in place, banners fluttering, cavalry preparing to attack. Great samurai in their colourful armour, bowmen  ready to unleash their rain of arrows. A battle to change the course of history.
  That evening, we arrived at our first ryokan.These traditional inns typically feature tatami matted floors, sliding doors, paper walls and futons.The interiors are sparsely furnished and elegant.The gardens  feature moss, topiary and stone bridges.
  Our hostess, Mrs Hibi, told us that Masuya Inn had been in her family for more than 800 years, and she had the certificate to prove it. Under her breath, Shima gently reminded us of our etiquette. There were, for instance, three different sets of slippers for various parts of the house. I took careful note the catastrophic mistake of arriving  at dinner in my toilet slippers was a thought too ghastly to contemplate.
  We took turns in the communal bath (first  a shower, then a 10 minute wallow for each hiker, followed by a bathe for the host  family) after which we donned a yukata (robe), sash and fur jacket, before enjoying a traditional hotpot served by the innkeepers.  
  It was a finger numbing, sub zero start the next morning for our first full day of walking. The route led through rice paddies and forests with soft leaves silencing our  footfall. The hills were covered in cypress, oak and cedar. Plum and cherry trees lined our path. Daffodils announced the spring in  splashes of audacious yellow.
  By the third day, our limbs were getting into the hiking groove.The route grew more mountainous as we entered the Kiso Range, also known as the Japanese Alps. When Shima said we’d be going ‘mostly downhill’ we now knew the opposite to be true. Forest signs warned of bear and wild boar. We carried bells to scare off the bears,  but I thought the tinkling sound might just as well attract them to our lunch packs.
  On lovely Biwa Pass, we encountered the  longest section of original, moss covered  pavestones. We hiked up the meandering path listening to the call of nightingales, gentle light filtering through the trees. At  the bottom of the pass stood a Buddhist temple and adjacent shrine where a 1300 year old cedar tree is worshipped as a kami or Shinto god.
  All along the route, we came upon reproductions of woodblock prints from the Edo period. These depict various Nakasendo scenes, often with Mount Fuji in the background, and feature all manner of  travellers.The most famous artist was Hiroshige, a master of the woodblock form during the 19th century.
  A print museum in Ena, a small town on the route that celebrates his work, had a practical section where we tried our hand at basic printmaking before visiting the main exhibit. One long wall depicted Hiroshige’s Nakasendo images: inns, pack animals, bridges, post towns and mountain roads. Here a pilgrim travelling on his own, there a daimyo with full entourage.
  Each night we stayed in a different ryokan. Our hosts were invariably kind, humble and generous to a fault. By now, we’d mastered the slippers bathing yukata drill. Some of the larger establishments had their own, single sex onsen (hot springs) where naked guests could wallow in steaming ponds and spa baths.
  Each meal comprised ingredients sourced  locally or foraged from surrounding forests. There was amago fish (eaten with head and  tail), sea urchins, wild boar (shot by the  innkeeper), bamboo shoots, daikon radish, rape flowers, lily bulbs, seaweed, somen noodles, dashi broth and so much more. Most of it was tasty, all of it unusual.
  Each town had a unique character. Postcard perfect Magome ticked all the boxes with it’s waterwheels, cobbled lanes, koi ponds and museums but was packed with tourists. Prettiest of all was Tsumago. This post town was the first to be restored back in the 1970s to revive a dying heritage in Japan’s headlong technological rush.
  Tsumago’s main street was lined with  dark wood and latticed facades (telephone  polls and electricity wires have been removed), the hills beyond dissolved in dreamy mist. There were bright flower pots, boughs laden with cherry blossoms and sliding doors that led to immaculate, minimalist interiors.
  Our days of walking unfolded in an easy refrain. The weather warmed and the landscape grew increasingly colourful as trees exploded into blossom. Peaks remained white capped, the streams and waterfalls boisterous with snowmelt. Occasionally we’d spot deer, macaque or  pheasant. We were distracted by shrines and manicured gardens; teahouses and bento box meals provided refreshment.    At one lunch stop high on a mountain pass, the owners served homemade pizza and entertained us with a harmonica and shamisen guitar before  cajoling us into a lively sing along.
  Some days were short and easy, an amble of 10 kilometres or less.  Others were of the harder core, 25 kilometre variety and involved stiff  mountain passes that included Jusan, Nenoue and Torii. ‘Mostly down’ became decidedly up.The path was icecovered in places, the wind freezing.Usui Pass was our last big hurdle and we topped out at an alpine lookout point that offered the serrated peaks of Mount Myogi to the east, Mount Asama’s snow dipped volcano to the west and, faraway to the south east, the grail of Tokyo.
  Our descent was long, slow and slippery. The wind roared through the maple trees and it began to snow. There were sore limbs, there was grumpiness,there were blisters. Epithets were muttered.At last, thankfully, we reached a tiny station surrounded by plum blossoms where a train waited to speed us to the capital.
  Our tired, happy band stepped from the train in downtown Tokyo during rush hour and was swept along in a tide of humanity. Wide eyed, we stared at the shining buildings. We felt like centuries old country yokels amid the city’s slickness and sophistication, the skyscrapers and suited throng.
  Shima drew us to a halt and pointed at Nihonbashi Bridge. ‘Finally, the end of our journey,’ she said. ‘This, then, is the eastern terminus of the Nakasendo. We call it “kilometre zero”, the point from which  all distances in Japan are measured.’ I thought of Sanjoohashi Bridge back in Kyoto and the 533 kilometres we had covered, 150 of them on foot. Our long walk had given us a window on rural Japan, thrusting us into a remarkably intimate engagement with  the land, people and culture.And it had opened our eyes to vastly different ways of  living, eating, thinking and being … which is what all the best journeys should do.

Other Travetou Articles :

Scroll to top