Hiking the Nakasendo Way, Japan (7.9km)
“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” Winnie-the-Pooh Bear
Big Boots? Check.
Pooh, Asiatic Black or any type of bear? Thankfully not this time.
The Nakasendo Way (meaning Central Mountain Route) is an ancient pathway which connected Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto in the West. It stretches a mighty 332 miles across Japan and, in its heyday, had 69 ‘post-towns’ scattered throughout. Magome and Tsumago make up two of these.
Both have been restored to their Edo era former glories and are breathtaking to look at. Water mills, sake vendors and traditional ryokan inns line both streets. At night, the dim lighting of the paper lanterns that hang in doorways sets itself against the dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. By this time the tourist buses have also departed back to their resorts and the handful of those staying in either town are left with the sound of trickling streams, the waft from bubbling stoves of soba noodles with crispy tempura and the occasional soft slam of a sliding door.
The walk itself is extremely well sign posted and, coming from Magome, starts with a steady climb for a good third of the way to reach the pass. It meanders lazily alongside brooks and waterfalls, through forests and past homesteads, some of which offer green tea or welcome rest spots. The route is littered with inviting off shoots advertising shrines, old cherry trees and vistas. A straight walk at a good pace should take no more than a couple of hours but it is easy to become distracted by the above or by green tea ice cream, which I would make a strong case for being of equal importance.
There is wildlife too (we spot a Japanese Varied Tit) but the magical bear bells that clang and echo around the Kiso Valley ward off anything too overstimulating.
Every house we pass is a joy to behold. There are porches lined with the abundant sun-orange persimmon fruit and endless thatched baskets of purple radishes. Each garden has a vegetable patch that would be the envy of many a village blue rosette winner back home. It feels otherworldly, and I suppose it is.
We emerge into Tsumago like stepping out of a trance and pleased not to have been a bear’s late afternoon snack. We do grab one of our own though, from a kind old man surrounded by steaming bamboo boxes of dumplings stuffed with smoked aubergine. As the temperature cools, it fills a hole and warms the cockles up a couple of degrees.
But returning them to full capacity is the reserve of our ryokan’s hot bath. It’s going to be hard to finish another walk again without knowing one of these is at the finish line.