Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, August 08, 2005

Hiking an Ancient Trail

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March 20, 2005
In Japan, Hiking an Ancient Trail to See Rural Life

THE Nakasendo highway in Japan, a 310-mile post road connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, was constructed during the eighth century, when the term highway was applied not to six lanes of asphalt, but to wide walking paths.

Beginning in the 1630's, feudal lords used these official highways on journeys mandated by the shogun to and from his castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The route was also used by messengers, pilgrims, porters,merchants and, once, by Princess Kazunomiya, whose 10,000-member entourage was so long that it took three days to pass through a town.

For hundreds of years, the post towns along the highway buzzed with activity. But traffic on the route dwindled after the construction of railroads at the end of the 19th century, and the once-prosperous towns slipped into economic doldrums for decades. Now,hiking along that highway is an enjoyable way to spend a weekend escaping from the frenetic pace of Tokyo.

In the 1960's the post towns, whose traditional wooden buildings were dilapidated but basically unchanged, were recognized as significant historical artifacts. Since then, several have been restored to look more or less as they did 200 years ago, when pilgrims and samurais were passing through (give or take a vending machine or two). Three of the best-restored towns - Magome, Tsumago and Narai - are in the Nagano prefecture's verdant Kiso Valley.

While a one-day visit is possible, one of the most memorable ways to experience the post towns is to spend a couple of days in the Kiso Valley hiking between them during the day, and dining and sleeping in family-run guesthouses at night. Magome, connected to Tsumago by a well-marked five-mile stretch of the Nakasendo, makes an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the area. Narai, which is at the far northern end of the Kiso Valley, is a multiday walk from Magome, but is easily accessible by train.

Fittingly, the journey from Tokyo to Magome require sriding on a series of successively slower modes of transportation, starting with a bullet train (two hours), then transferring to a limited express(about an hour) and finally catching a bus, which takes about 30 minutes and drops its passengers off on the edge of town.

At this point, initial impressions may be a little disheartening. You don't have to be a scholar of Japanese history to surmise that neither the convenience store nor the gas station is authentic Edo period establishments. But signs point visitors, now on foot, to the town proper,where it is an entirely different scene.

Instead of a road (no cars are allowed), there is a wide stone-paved path, flanked by rows of two-story wooden buildings. In spring, flowers bloom in pots and planters, swallows dip among the bushes and trees, and gushing water pours down the hill in stone aqueducts that run along either side of the road. Here and there, the water is diverted to create carp ponds, and halfway up the hill, a wooden waterwheel spins slowly. The scene is enchanting, although it can get quite crowded. These atmospheric towns are quite popular with Japanese visitors,but foreign tourists are more rare. Busloads of schoolchildren and retirees on weekends can make the towns feel a bit like the Japanese equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

The good news, however, is that most visitors are day-trippers. By early evening, people who are staying overnight have the towns almost to themselves. A night in Magome is peaceful once the crowds disappear and the souvenir shops close for the night, and it affords the opportunity to stay in a minshuku, a family-run guesthouse.

Minshukus offer a fairly traditional lodging experience, which is both fun and potentially nerve-racking, because foreigners can unwittingly demonstrate poor etiquette. Travelers should be sure to remove their shoes when entering the guesthouse,and not express alarm when walking into the room and seeing a space that is almost completely devoid offurniture. The bedding - thick futons, comforters and pillows filled with buckwheat husks - is folded in the closet.

In Magome's minshukus, breakfast and dinner are included in the price of a room, about $75 a night.Both meals are served at a fixed time, 6 p.m. and 7:30a.m., and instead of ordering from a menu, guests enter the tatami-floored dining room to see about a dozen small dishes laid out at each place. A typical dinner might consist of miso soup, tempura, sobanoodles, chawan mushi (savory steamed egg custard),wild mountain vegetables, mirin teriyaki river trout,pickled daikon and cabbage, wild boar and perhaps a few thin slices of horsemeat sashimi.

The only suitable end to such an immoderate meal is a postprandial constitutional. For the full effect, borrow a pair of traditional wooden sandals (geta) from the guesthouse before you head out to enjoy the mild mountain air. Strolling among the darkened buildings, listening to the clackof wooden shoes on stone and the chorus of frogs croaking in nearby ricepaddies, you might feel as though you've accidentally discovered the secret to time travel.

The next morning, after yet another large repast that is nearly identical to the previous evening's meal but for the addition of a fried egg, the road to Tsumagobeckons. For a route that is just five miles long, the trail from Magome to Tsumago offers a remarkable assortment of scenery.

Just outside Magome's town limits, the first portion of the trail is paved and winds past rice paddies,bamboo groves and farming villages where small fields are planted with green tea, lettuce and leeks. The path, while not horribly taxing, does include a fair number of sweat-inducing hills.

The buildings along the way don't adhere to the standards of historical accuracy that are enforced in some of the post towns. A house might have a roof made of corrugated tin, for instance, which provides a less picturesque but also less contrived look at life in rural Japan. In the warmer months, old women in wide-brimmed straw hats and white work gloves farm their small patches of land. Scruffy-looking dogs nap in the sun, and clothes are hung out to dry.

After a couple of miles, the road turns from asphalt to dirt, wending beneath a canopy of slender pine and cedar trees. The way is punctuated by numerous picturesque excuses to stop and rest: an abandoned teahouse, trailside shrines and a pair of waterfalls near which, according to legend, the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi made great advances in his understanding of the Way of the Sword.

In the morning, the trail will most likely be nearly empty. The absence of other people leaves room for the perception of subtler sensations: the fertile smell of the forest, the sound of a river rushing over boulders or maybe the discomfort of developing blisters.

Hikers who plan to spend the night in Tsumago would be well advised to pack light: in July and August, the tourist offices in Magome and Tsumago offer a luggage-forwarding service,but at all other times of year, visitors need to tote their own belongings.Magome may look like an authentic Edo period post town, but these days,there aren't any porters for hire.

After three serene hours of walking, you'll arrive in Tsumago. It is larger than Magome but still offers the same enticing, back-in-time quality. If the streets are crowded, you may want to continue walking, up to the former site of the Tsumago castle. From there, you can look down on the roofs of the post town and outover the Kiso Valley. But first, rest your weary legs the way travelers have been doing for centuries: by ducking into a little restaurant for cold soba noodles and green tea.

If You Go, Getting There

To get to Magome from Tokyo, take a bullet train to Nagoya ($105, at 107 Japanese yen to the U.S. dollar),then catch the Shinano limited express on the JR Chuoline to Nakatsugawa ($29).

From there, the bus to Magome takes about 30 minutes and costs $5.25.Transfers may not line up like clockwork, though, so leave about five or six hours to make the trip.

To go to Tsumago, take the Shinano limited express from Nagoya to Nagiso ($32) and take a bus to town($2.65).

Visitors who plan to do a fair amount of train travel can save money by buying a Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel on most JR trains for the duration of the pass. The two types of passes(ordinary and superior class) are available for 7, 14or 21 days. An ordinary, seven-day adult pass costs $277.60. The superior version is $370.80. Note that you need to buy a rail pass voucher from an authorized sales agent before you go to Japan. After arriving in Japan, exchange the voucher for the actual pass anytime within 90 days of the date the voucher was issued. For more information, go to

Where to Stay

At most of the inns in the Kiso Valley, owners and staff won't speak English, so it helps to know some Japanese or have a Japanese speaker help arrange your reservations in advance. The tourist offices in Magome, (81-264) 59-2336, and Tsumago,(81-264) 57-3123, can help you make reservations at a local inn, though the staff member on duty won't necessarily speak English.

All prices are per person and include dinner and breakfast.

Magome. The Tajimaya Minshuku, (81-264) 59-2048, fax(81-264) 59-2466, is an attractive family-run guesthouse that's about a third of the way up Magome's main street on the left-hand side. Look for wooden wheels and a stuffed raccoon-dog called Tanuki outside the front door. Rates: $75 a person.

Another option is the Minshuku Magomechaya, (81-264)59-2131, which costs $70 a person and has an English version of its Web site,

For beverages and snacks (including an incredible icecream sundae topped with fruit), try a cafe called Kissa Yukata, (81-264) 59-2537, near the top ofMagome's main drag.

Tsumago. Next to the tourist office, the MinshukuSakamoto-ya, (81-264) 57-3111, has rooms for $73 a person.

Two slightly more upscale places to stay are Ryokan Matsushiro-ya, (81-264)57-3022, and Ryokan Fujioto,(81-264) 57-3009, both of which cost around $100 a person per night.

1 comment:

ms_lili said...

all i can say about this is wow. would love to add this to the list of must-sees when the time is right