There is a thud followed by a whispered profanity. Someone has used their head to find one of the low beams of the inn that was opened to cater to travellers on Japan’s Nakasendo Way more than three centuries ago. Clearly no one foresaw the height of 21st-century hikers. The only positive that can be taken from an early-morning bang on the head is that it does serve to get rid of any lingering sleepiness.
The hamlet of O-Tsumago is set in a spectacular backdrop of mountains and rivers, far from the bustle of the cities.
Surrounded by my fellow hikers – strangers less than 24 hours ago, but firm trail-mates now – I shrug on my day pack and ease on the boots that were left in the earthen-floor entrance to the inn the night before. Ducking my head to get through the entranceway, I emerge into the main street of the mountain hamlet of O-Tsumago.
Still in the shade of the ridge lines that rise sharply on both sides of a river swollen by meltwater, the main street is no more than 3m wide and is lined by wooden buildings with overhanging eaves. The presence of snow shovels indicates that winter has not long left the valley; chopped firewood is still stacked within easy reach.
A little farther up are the man-made ponds with the ‘ayu’ mountain trout sampled last night at supper. Nearby is a scarlet torii gate that marks the entrance to a simple Shinto shrine.
In truth, little has changed in O-Tsumago in hundreds of years. And that makes this backwater of Japan such a refreshing change to the neon-charged bustle of cities such as Nagoya, where the trek began.
Journeys organised by Walk Japan attract a diverse group of people, from hardened hikers taking on strenuous snowshoe-shod expeditions through the mountains of the far north to urban ramblers. For anyone looking for something between those extremes, the four-day Kiso Road tour is a slice of the more demanding 11-day Nakasendo Way and an ideal introduction to off-the-beaten-path Japan.
After meeting up in Nagoya Station and being shepherded aboard a local train by our tour leader, the group turns out to be a broad international mix: lawyers from California, a diplomat and an engineer from Australia, a doctor and her sister from Singapore, a teacher at an international school in Kobe. And a slightly overweight journalist who worries he’s going to get left behind.
A stay at the many beautiful inns here are an experience in itself, filled with exquisite meals and soaks in onsens.
On the outskirts of the old post town of Nakatsugawa, the start of the journey is marked by a standing stone that records the passage of Matsuo Basho, Japan’s most famous poet, with one of his haikus. As the road begins its gradual ascent, we are quickly surrounded by paddy fields. Stands of tall bamboo clack together in the breeze.
We are advised, in keeping with tradition, to approach a shrine concealed well back in a pine forest to the left of the path. The remains of the New Year’s bonfire are still evident in front of the steps leading up to it.
The winding road reaches Magome, a picturesque, but somewhat crowded, post town, and the cobbled path climbs past wooden shops selling ‘sembe’ rice crackers and trinkets. Emerging at the northern end of the town, the path continues to climb through the wooded Kiso Valley until cresting the Magome Pass and starting the descent into O-Tsumago, the occasional stretch of well-worn stones harking back to a time when this route was one of the most important highways in feudal Japan.
The nation’s network of roads can be traced back to the Taiho Reforms of AD702 and were designed to help tax collectors go about their business from the capital Nara, to enable troops to move faster and to improve communications.
Originally known as the Tosando – the highway through the eastern mountains – the route was given a new lease of life when Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu issued edicts in 1602 to re-establish the national highway system. Now known as the Nakasendo, the 530km route traditionally linked Nara and Kyoto in central Japan with the new capital of Edo, modern-day Tokyo. There were 69 stations on the road, which was second in importance to the Tokaido route on the coast, but preferred by some because it didn’t require travellers to ford any major rivers.
With the arrival of railways and modern roads, the old routes and post towns slipped into obscurity, but their relative remoteness also helped to preserve sections in a nation that all too often prefers to knock down its heritage and coat everything in concrete.
The Maruya – the inn of low beams – is only one institution on the Nakasendo Way that is grateful for the returning visitors. Another beneficiary is the nearby onsen hot springs complex, where bathers can enjoy the beautiful sunset from a communal tub while simultaneously getting the first-day kinks out of weary leg muscles.
With wooden shops selling pretty little trinkets, grilled mackerel at izakayas and brilliant views, this will be a walk to remember.
Setting out the next morning, the layers that felt necessary at first are shed as the sun emerges above the ridge line. We follow streams that rush into each other and barely marked paths. Bamboo towers overhead and snow covers high peaks in the far distance, a hint of what is to come. From the town of Nagiso, a train journey and a bus ride make the climb to the Kaida Plateau less arduous. Deep snow still covers much of the farming district, which has a distinctly alpine feel.
Lunch is served at a café run by the Ando family, who have retired from urban life and now admire the majestic profile of 3,007m Mount Ontake from their home. To work off the lunch of home-made pizza, pasta, oven-warm bread and chocolate cake, we return to a stretch of trail where the snow is knee deep and catches those who do not cross its thin crust swiftly enough.
The futon on the tatami-mat floor of the venerable Iwaya Ryokan brings welcome relief after a soak in the inn’s onsen.
The final day starts with a brief train journey to Yabuhara, from where the climb is steeper. Soon, we are amid the snow again as we switch back up the side of the Kiso Valley to Torii Pass and cross into the Narai Valley.
The paths are narrow in places, and snowfalls and broken branches have made some crossings tricky, but not impassable. From the top, the trail descends across wooden bridges and snowy patches before emerging in the picturesque town of Narai, famous for lacquerware and traditional wood products. A junk shop has old tea cups. An open-fronted store is selling mountain vegetables and rice crackers in a remarkable array of flavours.
I slip my boots off for the 90-minute train journey back into Nagoya and the group’s final evening together, celebrated in a raucous ‘izakaya’ restaurant.
Outside, the neon is dazzling, the women are in high heels and the din is constant. We have come a long way from the calm of the Kiso Valley.