Walk the Nakasendo Way: Poetry in motion on Japan's princess path

‘Walking the mountain road / somehow it moves my heart / this wild violet.’

Within the five-seven-five syllabic cadence of three lines, Matsuo Basho, the celebrated master of haiku poetry, captures the elemental essence of the Nakasendo Way.

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Basho travelled the ‘mountain road’ at least twice in the late 17th Century, following in the footsteps of samurai, pilgrims, feudal lords (daimyo) and princesses. In early September, I joined the ghosts of these travellers to walk the ancient highway that connects Kyoto with Edo, modern-day Tokyo.

We – a band of six, with Walk Japan’s Giorgio Riccio as our genial guide – kick off in Kyoto, at Sanjo bridge, the start point of the ‘mountain road’ that is the 339-mile Nakasendo Way, one of five highways that facilitated the movement of officials, armies, and post. During the Edo period of 1603 to 1868, Japan’s military government, the shogunate, implemented sankin kotai, a strategic method of ruling that obliged feudal lords to split the year between their rural fiefdoms and their Edo residence. Their wives and families were compelled to live year-round in Edo, hostages of the shogunate. This system resulted in constant movement of daimyo and their often-vast retinues along the Nakasendo, and as a consequence, 69 post-towns sprung up along the route, providing food, lodging and transport for the passing travellers.

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We sped deep into the heart of rural Japan on a shiny loco, bypassing the Nakasendo sections swallowed by modern roads, to reach Hikone, a castle town on Lake Biwa.

Hikone castle, considered a national treasure, was home to the important and fearsome Ii samurai family. The castle’s museum holds a wealth of artefacts and fascinating trivia: the red lacquered armour of the Ii ‘red devils’ is instantly familiar; it inspired the garb of Star Wars villain Darth Vader and his stormtroopers. To counterbalance their fierce nature, samurai practised tea ceremony and ikebana, the art of flower arranging that was solely a male preserve until the 1860s. Hikone castle, our guide Giorgio mentions, was the filming location for 1980s miniseries Shogun, and is one of 100 protected soundscapes of Japan. As if on cue, the time-keeping bell’s chime provides verse to the cicadas’ and crickets’ chorus.

We train it to the dead centre of Japan, to tour the battle site of Sekigahara. On October 21, 1600, the epoch-defining conflict between the armies of the East and West (the East won) ushered in an era of peace and the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the Edo period. Giorgio brings the battle to life as we walk the emerald fields, once red with the blood of 30,000 vanquished samurai.

Here, where a thousand captains swore grand conquest… Tall grass their monument.

The heavens open as we skirt the paddy-fields to arrive at our ryokan, the Masuya Inn, run by the same family for 16 generations. Removing our sodden footwear, we follow the tatami-lined hallway of the traditional-style inn to our rooms, which are divided by sliding paper-lined screens. I take my turn soaking in the cedar-lined tub, the water of which is shared by all, and dress in the provided yukata for dinner, wrapping my obi left over right; the reverse is for corpses. The menu at Masuya never changes: it’s shabu shabu: hotpot of cabbage and pork. We cook it in pots atop gas burners provided by our elderly hostess, who also supplies us with saki, and sides of daikon, soy-marinated whitebait and cress. I spend a restless night on the unfamiliar contours of futon and buckwheat pillow, thankful, at least that I do not have to suffer Basho’s trail viccissitudes. Fleas and lice biting; awake all night/a horse pissing close to my ear.

The next day dawns hot and dry and after breakfasting on miso, cabbage, ham, cucumber, rice and fried egg, we boot up, and head for the station, and Mitake, where the walking begins in earnest.

“Now we go up,” says Giorgio, as we face what is to be the first of many steep ascents, some on road, some on grassy paths and some on ishidatami, ‘stone tatami’ laid to facilitate pack horses’ passage over steep mountain passes. Unsurprisingly, many horses did not survive the rocky mountain road, and we pass a trailside shrine honouring the equines that didn’t make it.

As we walk deeper into the countryside, Giorgio tells us of Saicho and Kukai, monks who brought Buddhism to Japan (Saicho is also credited with introducing tea). The trail is grassy and steep; the day swelteringly hot. I am soaked with sweat and grateful for the bladder nestling inside my backpack, despite the water within now being warm. We pass a Shinto shrine to the fox, its red torii gate vivid against the green bamboo lining our path. Up, up, up we go. A big butterfly skitters past, stopping to suck nectar from a trailside bloom. We are wilting in the unforgiving heat, and pause momentarily at a now-stagnant well where Princess Kazunomiya, noted for her poetry and calligraphy, is said to have rested on her way to Edo to marry the shogun; their union was brief, and after his death she became a Buddhist nun.

She is legendary on this road – nicknamed the princess path – not least because of her enormous entourage, which took three days to pass any single point. We walk on, and a mirage materialises in the heat haze: a cafe serving French patisserie. Giorgio has heard of this place; it is not a hallucination. Red-faced and sweaty, we pile into the cool interior, to eat tiny cakes and sip iced tea. Our unexpected feast peps us up no end and we still have a spring in our step when we reach Hosokute, and our lodgings for the night, the Daikokuya Inn, where we are welcomed by the owner proffering shiso juice. He is a celebrated chef; foodies come to this off the beaten track location from all over Japan to eat his carp, which, as we discover, is worthy of its reputation.

Our innkeeper waves us off the next morning, and is still waving as we disappear into the lush forest. It is again scorching, and I am glad of the dappled shade of the trees as I negotiate the mossy ishidatami, the longest continuous original stretch on the Nakasendo. We pass a sign warning of nowhere to buy food or drink for the next 30kms. I take a reassuring sip of my water. It’s a tease, as presently we arrive into the post-town of Okute for lunch. It’s notable for its 1,300 year-old cedar, and as we ooh and ahh, we realise a giant orange hornet is scoping us out. Just two stings can be fatal. It seems like an eternity before he decides he’s not in killing mood, and flies off.

“Now we go up,” says Giorgio for the umpteenth time, back on the trail. I sigh. Feudal-era Japanese believed the best route was not the easiest but the most direct, and my thighs are paying the price. Another sign: Be Bear Aware. Giorgio unpacks his bear bell, which jingle-jangles its warning as he resumes the ascent. The trail, he says, is also home to wild boar and poisonous snakes. We pass a headless Buddha. Several hours later, we reach the Bridge of Confusion, once a lair for toll-demanding bandits, and, with some delight, spot a roadside marker telling us we have come to the end of the 13 passes. We enter Ena weary, but happy, enchanted by the landscape of rolling green hills fading into far-away mountains. None is travelling/Here along this way but I, This autumn evening.

The next day is blazing hot, and we are all glad to break for lunch in Nakatsugawa at a favourite restaurant of Giorgio’s, Yamashina. It serves eel every which way, intestines included. The mercury rises higher as we traverse the rural landscape, passing rice hanging to dry in the lime-green fields. Soon we are back in the forest, on ishidatami, going up, up, up. Our inn, Shinchaya (new tea house) has many delights to reward our efforts, among them home-made plum wine and glazed crickets. The wine is heavenly.

Wake! The sky is light! Let us to the road again/ companion butterfly! We reach the pretty post-town of Magome after less than an hour’s walk, and linger to admire its shops lined with sake barrels, wooden crafts and floral displays. Our onward trek is through stunning countryside, and we pause at the ‘male’ and ‘female’ waterfalls of Odaki and Medaki, immortalised in Japanese literature. The next post-town is Tsumago, a protected townscape, which has no power lines or vending machines. It’s an idyllic tourist trap, and we eat tubs of chestnut ice-cream, konnichiwa-ing fellow tourists as we stroll along. That evening brings a treat: an onsen. Etiquette is king at these public thermal hot springs, and once washed, one must hide one’s modesty with the provided tiny towel, then place it atop one’s head while soaking in the waters. Perfect for aching limbs.

From Tsumago, we walk to Kiso-Fukashima, a barrier town (essentially passport control) during the Edo period. Our inn has its own onsen, while in the lift, a poster proclaims pride in Mitakeumi, a local high-ranking sumo wrestler. We visit the barrier station, where under sankin kotai, officials checked for weapons or wives being smuggled from Edo.

The morning takes us on a long trail through the forest, sacred Mount Ontake ever-present through the trees. That night, we are fed shiso leaf with crickets, white miso, wagu, mushrooms and onions. Everywhere, a feast awaits. There will be no weight lost on this trip.

The next day, we climb the mountain pass of Torii Toge, studded with shinto shrines, to reach the preserved post-town of Narai, 34th of the 69 stations of the Nakasendo, from where we ‘shink it’ – catch the bullet train – to Karuizawa, the Hamptons of Japan, where John Lennon summered with Yoko. They ate pastries from the French Bakery; at our inn, we try fugu fish and horse sashimi. Fugu’s reputation preceeds it; it can be lethal if not correctly prepared.

We survive, and travel by bullet train, next day, to Tokyo, and the bittersweet end of the Nakasendo. From the station, we walk to Nihonbashi; at the middle of the bridge is the Zero Milestone of Japan – the point from which all highways were once measured. Our epic adventure is over. I didn’t die!/ The end of of a journey/is autumn nightfall.

Take Two: Top attractions

Hiroshige Museum of Art

The Hiroshige Museum of Art in Ena is home to the gorgeous woodblock prints of Utagawa Hiroshige, who through them, documented the 69 post-towns of the Kisokaido (the old name for the Nakasendo). The stunningly vivid prints influenced European artists as diverse as Van Gogh, Klimt and Gauguin. Pictured is number 42, Tsumago. Upstairs, you can try your hand at making your own woodblock print, and there’s an excellent shop on the ground floor.

Cafe Poppoya

A mile from the Jizo Pass, deep in the countryside, you’ll find Cafe Poppoya, an Italian restaurant with awesone views of Mount Ontake. It’s owned by model-railway enthusiast Mr Ando and his harmonica playing wife, who treated us to a soul-stirring rendition of Danny Boy.

Getting there

Nakasendo Way

See walkjapan.com/tour/nakasendo-way

* Prices start from £3,483.10 (€4,033) fully guided including Walk Japan tour leader, 10 nights’ accommodation, most meals, luggage transfers and entrance fees. Flight excluded.

* Dates: Nakasendo Way routes run throughout November 2019, March, April, May, June, September, October and November 2020.

* Walk Japan offers an array of tours spread across Japan, ranging from gentle walking to mountain walking. The tours focus on the country’s little-known and less-visited regions, allowing travellers to discover more about the culture of Japan.

NB: This article originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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