I awoke for an early morning onsen dip and was rewarded with a magnificent moon setting behind a mountain ridge on the outskirts of Kiso-Fukushima.
The onsen (hot spring) at Takaragawa in Gunma Prefecture. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
After breakfast, we visited the former post town’s reconstructed barrier station, where a small museum educated us about what identity papers ancient travelers needed to carry as well as about the armaments once used to enforce the law. From there, the trail continued to Yabuhara, then over the Torii-toge Pass to Narai, a town that marks the halfway point between Kyoto and Edo on the Nakasendo.
This post town’s nickname, “Narai of a Thousand Houses,” is well deserved. The road through it passes many well-preserved historical structures, many open for tours. From Narai, it was time to take advantage of modern technology and head by train through Japan’s Central Alps to Karuizawa, the epitome of a chic mountain resort.
We settled in at the Tsuruya Inn, where many literary luminaries, including Tanizaki Junichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, laid their heads.
On a nearby stone we found a haiku by Basho, placed there in 1843 by one of his admirers, the poet Kobayashi Gyokuren:
Uma wo sae
nagamuru yuki no
In the morning, the snow lies thick on the ground.
Not only people,
But horses seem to be elegant
– Matsuo Basho
Departing Karuizawa, we soon encountered the last major mountain ascent on the Nakasendo for those bound for Japan’s capital, an 8.5-mile trek through maple forests to the Usui-toge Pass at 3,900 feet. Completing this stretch yielded a magnificent reward: a panoramic view across the Kanto Plain, which surrounds Tokyo. For the countless travelers who had gone before, this view undoubtedly had evoked a feeling that the end of the long journey was in sight. The next post town, Sakamoto, located far below, must have been quite a party town in its day. These days, Shinkansen bullet trains speed travelers to the capital in an hour.
After arriving at Tokyo Station, we strolled the last couple of miles through the megatropolis to Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge), where the Nakasendo terminates, a fitting finale to this grand journey. A bridge at this location has linked the two sides of the Nihonbashi River since 1603, the same year that the Edo Period officially began. The current stone bridge, which replaced its wooden predecessor in 1911, is still used as the measuring point for distances on highway signs that display the distance to Tokyo.
It was here that I had to part ways with my fellow walkers, with whom I had shared the road for 10 days on our journey back in time.
Walk Japan’s other tours on the country’s main island of Honshu range from a circumnavigation of Mount Fuji to the Basho-inspired, 10-day Narrow Road to the North tour, named for the poet’s most famous travelogue. The journey navigates its way through the pristine scenery of the Tohoku region, then down along the rugged Sea of Japan coast to the elegant city of Kanazawa before concluding in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Tours beyond Honshu range from treks through Hokkaido’s wilderness and Kyushu’s hot-spring-laden Kunisaki Peninsula to a walking, hiking and kayaking exploration of southern Okinawa’s Yaeyama region, which includes the ecological treasure of Iriomotejima.
Other domestic and international tour operators include walking tours as part of their offerings.
Oku Japan runs its own version of the Nakasendo tour, including a stay in a shukubo (temple lodging) on Mount Koya, on the Kii Peninsula. The temple complex was founded by the famous ninth century monk Kobo Daishi.
Mountain Travel Sobek offers an 11-day Kyoto-Tokyo tour through parts of the Nakasendo and also includes a temple stay.
Butterfield & Robinson operates a four-day tour focused on the mountainous Kii Peninsula. Their Ancient Kumano Pilgrimage Tour follows well-maintained sections of the Kumano Kodo.
Country Walkers offers a Kumano Kodo-focused tour. They rate this “Guided Walking Adventure” easy to moderate, with a range of two to eight miles per day on foot.
Quest Japan has a number of walking adventures taking place throughout the year, including explorations of the sacred Kumano mountains of the Kii Peninsula, the North Alps in Central Japan, the mountains of Hokkaido and the Sanin Kaigan National Park on the Japan Sea Coast.
Quest Japan’s accommodations focus on minshuku and ryokans and temple stays. They rate their hikes using a gentle-moderate-vigorous-strenuous scale, the last being for hearty souls who can handle six days or more of continuous walking for six to nine hours per day in mountain country with some ascents above 9,000 feet. Some of the ascents and descents have fixed ladders and chains and demand a good level of fitness.
All the operators with walking tours use similar rating systems, which they take very seriously when offering advice to potential clients. Like a good pair of hiking shoes, a good health fit is a must for walking tours. With up to 14 clients on any given group tour, stragglers can throw off the balance of what otherwise would be one of the most harmonious and reconnecting experiences a traveler can have, not only in Japan but anywhere on the planet.
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