Part 1: Following the old Tokaido road through Shizuoka

Soak up the spirit of Edo, walking old trails through the landscape of the Mount Fuji area. Shizuoka Prefecture is easily accessed from Tokyo by train and is full of diverse attractions and great natural beauty.

Mount Fuji from Shizuoka tea fields, image courtesy of Shizuoka Tourism Japan

About the old Tokaido road

The busiest and most direct route between Tokyo and Kyoto from ancient times was the Tokaido – literally the Eastern Sea Road. It was 488 kilometers long and mostly traversed the coast along the Pacific on Honshu island.

Hokusai’s woodblock print ‘Hodogaya on the Tokaido’, 1832, wiki commons image

During the Edo period the ruling military dictator (Shogun) Tokugawa Ieyasu imposed a system called ‘sankin kotai’ requiring regional lords to reside at the Shogun’s court in Tokyo (Edo) for some months each year, and to leave their wives and families there when they returned to their fiefs, thus controlling their actions by a system of ‘hostages’. To travel from their regional castles, a network of roads developed, with government checkpoints to control the movement of the population. Wheeled vehicles were not permitted – another form of Tokugawa control to prevent fast mass movement of armies, and thus these were roads for pedestrians & packhorses, horses ridden by samurai, and palanquins carried by bearers for important people including noble women. Similarly bridges were also forbidden, so crossing several treacherous, wide rivers was done by boat or human ‘piggyback’. Vast armies of foot-soldiers and samurai also used these roads at times, and the steep mountain sections were paved.

Kago Bearers on the Tokaido, by Felice Beato, 1868, wiki commons image

Like the Nakasendo (the inland road), 53 villages called ‘juku’ or post stations were spaced a days’ walk apart along the route providing food, lodging and stables, and were rowdy places during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). The famous woodblock artist Hiroshige created a series entitled ‘The 53 Stations of the Tokaido’ after he travelled the route in 1832 and was impressed by the beautiful landscapes of rural Japan with Mount Fuji often dominating the background.

Hiroshige’s ‘Travellers on a mountain path along the coast’, 1832, wiki commons image

Today this same route is consumed by a national highway and the main arterial bullet train rail line, smothering most of the traces of the old pedestrian road. However, sections of the trail away from the larger towns still remain and are progressively being restored and the spirit of Edo can still be experienced.

Remnant 400 year-old Namiki cedars on the Tokaido in Moto Hakone

Happy 400th Birthdays Sugi

Here is a story about the old Hakone Hachiri section of the Tokaido Road in the Mount Fuji Area, where I am trialling a new multi-day hike, and more in this link:


Four centuries ago exactly, the second Edo Period Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, ordered the planting of sugi (Japanese Cedar, Cryptomeria japonica) along both sides of Tokaido to shade travellers as they made their way around the shoreline of Lake Ashinoko towards Hakone Checkpoint. 420 of these magnificant specimens remain, towering straight, fat, and proud into the Hakone sky along Cedar Avenue.

Sugi is integral to Japanese life. 70% of Japan’s land area is forested, an astounding proportion for any country, let alone a smallish, highly industrialised nation with a massive population. Most of these forests are plantations established shortly after World War II. Sugi and Hinoki are the two main species planted, as both have been Japan’s main timber species for centuries.

Ceder Avenue, Hakone Ceder Avenue, Hakone

Unfortunately these sugi plantations get a lot of bad press, as the copius pollen they produce in spring is the cause of hay-fever grief to…

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Kumano Kodo

Hongu Taisha torii landscape banner image

Nakahechi Trail

Deep in the verdant mountains of the Kii peninsular in Wakayama prefecture south of Nara is a network of ancient pilgrimage trails like spokes of a wheel  radiating into Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. Of these 6 trails the Nakahechi route from the town of Kii-Tanabe on the west coast through to Kumano Nachi Taisha in the south-east is the most well-known, well-maintained, well-signposted and thus well-walked. A more remote trail requiring full pack and tent is the Kohechi Trail starting at Mt Koya, the sublime Buddhist mountain-top town, centre of Shingon Buddhism introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, famous founder of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. Including a visit to Mt Koya before any of the Kumano Kodo walks is regarded as particularly devout.

Yatagarasu – the 3-legged crow of Shugendo

Both Koya-san and the Kumano Kodo trail are UNESCO World Heritage Listed, reflecting the ancient heritage and spiritual nature of this area of Japan. The trails were once walked by the Imperial family and though you seldom encounter royalty, Yamabushi monks still walk these trails in their distinctive white robes, straw sandals and conch shell trumpets. Yamabushi are followers of Shugendo, a derivative of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism which incorporates Shinto animist beliefs, mountain worship, purification training through physical endurance, and mysticism.

The Nakahechi route can be done over 5 days with village to village walking, averaging 14 km per day. The 71 km trail ascends pine-clad mountains and meanders through rural backwaters, providing immersion in a very Japanese landscape of misty valleys, rushing streams, bamboo groves, forests and the occasional monkey. Accommodation is simple farmstay ‘minshuku’ and ryokan, often with natural hot spring baths. The grade is on the difficult side of moderate – steep at times with some killer steps, and slippery after rain, and Wakayama is a very wet part of Japan. There are also many snakes in warmer months – mainly the harmless sort. The  hot springs village of Yunomine Onsen is worth the detour – remote, atmospheric and a great place for a rest day – hire bikes and swim in the river to find the hot spots!

Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine

Descending from the Kii mountain range to the magnificent red shrine buildings, pagoda and waterfall of Nachi Taisha is a grand reward for an amazing walk.

Moja – no – Deai valley (Abode of the Dead)


Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine 

Tips for walking the Kumano Kodo:

  •  excellent local tourism website with maps, guides, bus timetables
  •  online booking site for self-guided Kumano Kodo
  • use the luggage forwarding service on this walk and carry a daypack
  • avoid the typhoon months of August and September as this area can be just too wet
  • well-worn-in hiking boots required (I use gaiters and walking poles as well)
  • good quality wet  weather gear and a dry-sack for your tech inside your pack
  • stay overnight in Kii-Tanabe to make your first day an easy one, as you will need to take the bus up to Takijiri which has an information centre and the trailhead
  • plan your walk on the last day so that you arrive at Nachi Taisha in time for the local bus (last bus at 5.40pm) to Kii-Katsuura train station, and be aware that express trains back to Osaka are infrequent

The Kumano Kodo is a dual pilgrim trail with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela


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.


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