There were a few things I was worried about after booking a self-guided walking tour along Japan’s Nakasendo Way.
Getting rained out, comfort (or rather, discomfort) levels at the traditional accommodation along the way, but mostly the prospect of Miserable Children and manifestations thereof – whinging, scowling, bickering etc.
Four days of rain would be disappointing, four days of complaining would surely break me.
I needn’t have worried. The rain waited until after we were well-fed and tucked up in our cosy futons each night and disgruntlement stayed away completely.
The trail was just such a delight, we were all excited to see what was around the next corner: an old water wheel, a bell to scare bears (there were many bells and warnings, but family opinion was split over whether we wanted to actually see a bear or not), a family shrine, a cobbled pathway disappearing into a bamboo forest, a crystal clear stream of mountain water, a gorgeous cherry blossom or camellia or magnolia – or a whole grove of them, a place to drink green tea or a vending machine with hot sweet coffee, a snake!*
The Nakasendo Way is an old trade route between Kyoto and Tokyo (or Edo as it was known), the sections we visited run through Nagano Prefecture’s Kiso Valley.
The series of so-called ‘post towns’, where travellers overnighted along the way, are characterised by dark wooden buildings fronting onto narrow streets, straight out of a samurai movie.
There were 69 post towns on the route but only a few have been restored – Magome, Tsumago and Narai are extraordinary, with centuries’ old inns and shrines and shops. While they’re quaint and quiet tourist destinations now (quiet mid-week at least), it’s easy to imagine them buzzing with the activity of tired travellers, traders, messengers and noblemen.
The towns are special but the best part is walking between them. Following the Nakasendo takes you over cobbled pathways, dirt tracks and wooden stairs; through fields and between houses and into dark forests.
It’s not all traditional and picture bookish. Sometimes the trail runs parallel to a highway or joins the road for a while, it runs past construction and logging and railways. The area punches above its weight in power lines suggesting hydro-power generation nearby – there’s certainly a large volume of water running down the mountains. But these are interesting and legitimate parts of the landscape too and there’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere about traditional and modern life co-existing here.
The walking’s steep and strenuous in parts – we were all knocked out after a day of steep ascents and descents on the stretch between Tsumago and Nojiri. Remarkably, for April in Japan, there were very few other hikers around beyond the Magome to Tsumago leg which is the most popular.
So many highlights in just a few days: the statues at the top of the steep Torii pass, curiously expressive faces telling the stories of those walking the trail hundreds of years ago; blankets of daffodils bursting out of fields and rocky gardens; tall, straight trees that seemed to reach the sky; soaking in a hot onsen after a satisfying day’s walk.
But my greatest pleasure was seeing the kids take off ahead, energetic and wide-eyed, striding along this centuries old trail and laying memories to take into the future.
*The snake was photographed for instagramming purposes before evasive action was taken, shaking my confidence in how we’d deal with a bear situation. Thankfully a conundrum for another day.