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Nakasendo

Historic trail through the mountains from Kyoto to Tokyo

Hardened walkers can set off from Sanjo Ohashi bridge in Kyoto, the official start of the old Nakasendo trail, and walk the 535 kilometres all the way to Nihombashi bridge in Tokyo. But for those of us who want to experience the best sections of the trail in a week’s visit to Japan, 6 days of  mostly village to village walking between Nakatsugawa and Sakamoto is enough to slow down and channel Edo era travellers without the fleas and ronin ambushes.

The Nakasendo, also known as the Kiso-ji, was once one of the land access routes between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo), traversed by feudal lords and their retinues, samurai, Buddhist priests, merchants, ordinary people and the occasional princess in a palanquin. There remain 69 ‘post-towns’ along the route, where accommodation and fresh horses could once be procured.

This trail has been largely restored in recent years and as a walker staying in traditional ryokan overnight, you get to enjoy the film-set-pretty villages after the daytripper buses have left. Magome, Tsumago and Narai are the crowd-pleasers here – well-preserved and restored villages with rows of atmospheric black timber houses and shops lining a central stone-paved street.

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The Nakasendo originally sparked my interest in the historic trails of Japan, as I lived in an old merchant house fronting this ancient route in the post-town of Fukaya as an exchange student many years ago. In the progressive 1980’s of headlong modernization in Japan, this old trail was largely forgotten and built over in urban areas. But in the heart of  Gifu prefecture, the trail winds up mountain paths through forests, along quiet rural backroads in the valleys, through the backyards of  thatch-roofed farmhouses, and past bear warning signs to the next pretty town. Wayfinding markers are frequent now, and back-tracking to find the path is only occasional. The often octagenarian locals are always keen to point you in the right direction, or invite you in for tea!

Spring and autumn have a special photogenic charm, but winter is a wonderful time to walk the trail through snowy landscapes. My tip is to avoid summer as it is sooo hot in Japan, even in the Gifu mountains. There are some sections which require train travel on the charming ‘wan-man-densha’ literally one-man train – 2 carriages, and a driver who doubles up as conductor, with automatic tickets.

Summary of 6-day Nakasendo Trail:

Day 1 – Train from Tokyo to Nakatsugawa, walk Nakatsugawa to Magome – approx 9km

Day 2 – walk Magome to Tsumago – approx 10km

Day 3 – walk Tsumago to Nojiri – approx 24km (train on to Kiso-Fukushima)

Day 4 – train to Yabuhara; walk Yabuhara to Narai over Torii Toge Pass – approx 8km

Day 5 – train to Matsumoto – visit castle and old town; train on to Karuizawa

Day 6 – Karuizawa to Sakamoto down Usui Toge Pass – approx 17km; train on to Tokyo

All images are by Relle Mott and subject to copyright

Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage Trail

Shikoku Henro-michi Pilgrimage Trail:  1200 years old and 1200 kilometres long

 

Following on from the Tohoku Basho walk, we headed south to Shikoku island to walk selected highlight sections of the famous Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage trail, which circumnavigates Shikoku, least visited and smallest of Japan’s four main islands.

Henro pilgrim

Starting in Tokushima, with some trepidation due to the trail’s reputation, we set off. We loved it! The long trail covers many different landscapes in Shikoku, from flat valley road walking through rice paddies and villages, to mountain forests. It was varied, interesting, beautiful  and best of all, a true pilgrimage. The atmosphere of the ancient temples on top of sacred mountains was unmistakeably spiritual – we felt the serenity!

The Japanese Henro pilgrims wear white robes which will become blessed once they complete the 88 temple circuit – and they will use these as their funeral robes.

Trail-markers come in different forms on Shikoku:

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wet walk up to Temple 21

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Tohoku Basho Trail

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Dewa Kaido trail from Naruko

Matsuo Basho was a wandering poet in Japan in the early Edo period who, together with his poetry apprentice Sora, set off in 1689 on a 2,400 km journey by foot to Tohoku, the northern part of the main island of Japan. This journey is described in his masterwork Oku no Hosomichi or in English The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho’s poems are exquisite, succinct thoughts evoking time and place, written about the people, landscape and experiences of his travels.

After admiring Basho’s succinct and elegant poetry for several decades, in May 2018 three friends embarked on a journey attempting to follow the old trails Basho’s feet had walked in 1689.

Trains, buses, boats and taxis filled in the gaps as we made our way on mountain trails, rural backroads, the Mogami River and sometimes busy highways. Our souls were eased with temple stays and our aching feet soothed with hot springs, and the kindness and hospitality of local people made our trip a wonderful experience, unlike Basho’s description of staying in Hojin-no-ie:

Bitten by fleas and lice, I slept in a bed,

A horse urinating all night close to my pillow

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Hojin-no-ie, border guard’s house in Sakaida

 

Following Basho’s footsteps as a cohesive walking route, it’s best to start at Naruko Onsen in Miyagi prefecture, and then focus on Yamagata prefecture. Trails to walk are the Dewa Kaido road, the Natagiri Pass, and the three sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains, including the 2446 steps leading up to the mysterious Mt Haguro temple complex. Close the loop by visiting beautiful Yamadera temple where Basho wrote this poem:

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Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks

 

The Tohoku Basho walk requires quite a lot of planning and a guide is recommended, as the trails are not connected and not well-marked. This region receives heavy snow from as early as November until May, so choose to walk in the warmer months. Mt Gassan alpine walking trail is only open from July 1 to September 15. Autumn colours are spectacular up here in the north. Taking the touristy boat ride down the Mogami River just as Basho did, reveals spectacular, steep, forested mountains from the fast-flowing river, relatively unchanged since Basho’s time:

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The River Mogami rushes down

In one violent stream

 

Accommodation in pre-booked ryokan (traditional inns) allows soaking trail-weary bodies in natural hot springs baths and enjoying delicious seasonal meals. Transport between walk locations is by train and taxi – visit the local tourist information centres for maps and advice.

 

 

Useful websites:

http://www.yamagatakanko.com

https://hagurokanko.jp/en/history/haguro-brochure.html