It is hard to get lost on this trail as wooden markers are embedded into the ground intermittently along the trail. It indicated direction and distance. We walked through a picturesque village set in a valley with a few homes but seemed devoid of people. No sound of chatting or music. Only birds’ chirping and rustling of leaves. Perhaps they are out working in the nearby fields. Corn and other tubers on bamboo trays were left to dry in the sun. Wooden horse cart wheels lay leaned against rustic brick walls. Near a water trough, a few stem of an orange inflorescences was left to dry in the sun. I had seen these several times along this trek – sometimes hung on windows. This place seemed distant to the neon lit cites not too far away. A single female Japanese trekker walked past us with a lovely smile. We basically walked alone on this trek today. Signs of life, a fruit orchard emerged. The trek continued and sometimes along little streams. This made the walk pleasant although humid. It was great and a relief not lugging our luggage on our backs. Kudos to the luggage transfer service.
“Hi my name is Suzuki. I drive a Suzuki car”, said this small elderly but affirmable man dressed in a Jinbei and straw hat.
“He was very kind and friendly……..Then, he wished us luck and we once again plunged into the forest” – Navindd
Just below the pass, we were greeted by Mr Suzuki, whom was the care taker of an old inn. He invited us for some tea, fresh fruits and sweets. The wooden house was spacious and had an old fire place, “iorii” with a rusted pot hung above it. Typically it had a fish symbol on it. We bid farewell and descended further into a densely forested area. Thoughts of bears had vanished. Some of the trees seemed old with impressive buttress roots spreading out.
The flora became more diverse with broadleaf plants. A roar drowned the sounds of rustling leaves. The path led to two waterfalls, O-dake and Me-dake. The coolness of the forest here was like an elixir. Ferns covered parts of the ground. Shafts of light filtered through the forest canopy heightened the natural beauty of the forest. Eventually, after about four hours of trekking, the forest cleared and we entered Tsumago, another prosperous and preserved post town. It was a nostalgic walk, at places the original path, on a piece of Japan’s historic highways of a bygone era.
“Sitting at the base of a huge waterfall felt refreshing and very cooling……the cool water droplets dabbling our faces made us feel fresh……” – Navindd
The first thing we did this morning was to haul our luggage up on the steep path to the Tourist Office. They, for a small fee, would transfer our luggage to Tsumago as we embarked on our 8km walk on the old Nakasendo Highway. That done, we headed to a small noodle shop for breakfast. The smells of miso and soba noodles were enough to get us excited. To complement the noodles, I tried the sweet potato porridge with red beans.
After that sugar fix, I was ready for the hike. During the Shogunate period, all were required to walk on the designated paths to control movements. Other that walking by foot, horses and palanquins or sedan carts were used. We climbed to the top of the town and began our 8km walk. Eventually we entered a densely forested area. We passed young trees on the mountain slope wrapped in silver tape. I wondered why? During the early days, felling of trees meant severe punishment. A dirt path wound round the mountain slope. The walk itself was not demanding. At certain stretches of the walk, the stone pathway gave way to asphalt roads only to be re – connected. Therefore, it was still very pleasant to walk.
Cedar and Japanese Cypress, like sentinels, stood tall and the dense canopy restricted light from penetrating to the ground. One of the unique signage here was about the bears. “Ring bell hard against bears”. Shiny brass bells had been installed intermittently along the way to scare bears that might be wandering nearby. A shopkeeper in Magome did mention an incident not too long ago. No bears were sighted. Nevertheless we rang the bell hard! In Magome, I had obtained a small bell from the Tourist Office, tied onto my daypack, for the same reason.
A shopkeeper mentioned that there was an incursion in town not too long ago. Finally, we reached the top of Magome- tōge [pass] at an elevation of 800m. From here, the trail was downhill.
“I wondered how on earth people could take this entire pathway from Kyoto all the way to Edo (Tokyo) just on a horse. It would take weeks!” – Navindd
“The forest was dense but the pathway carved through it easily” – Navindd
We were earlier advised by our host that dinner is big. We limited our snacking habits. As dusk approached, visitor numbers’ thinned. It also became cooler. It was much more pleasant to walk. However, the shopkeepers were also closing down their shops to head home. I thought it was still early. This is typical. Dinner arrangements are best made with the inn for the night. We were already discussing what was in store at our place. Tour bus queued on the main trunk roads as visitors were ushered in. As the sun set over bamboo grooves, the surroundings became quiet. Then nearby mountains were now hazy. Sounds of gushing water and rustling leaves merged with bird songs and clacking of shopkeepers shutting the doors resonated in this old town. Roadside lanterns were lit. The sight was ambient.
“Ice cream in Japan was very standard….same price, same flavour…soft serve cones” – Navindd
After a long warm shower, we headed to our restaurant across the inn. Dinner was already in progress and the wonderful aroma of herbs and sauces filled the still cool air. There was a hive of activity. The table was filling up with all sorts of mouth- watering delicacies. Salted local trout, an array of pickles, assorted vegetable tempuras, sweet bubbling soup with local mushrooms, soft tofu, miso and sweet “gohei-mochi”. It was indeed a big dinner. Earlier, our host suggested that we only took two orders instead of three. Even this, we barely managed to finish. It was, however, a delicious meal. Horse meat is also on the menu if desired.
In the quiet of the night, we strolled on the street. A nostalgic feeling of was inevitable. The thought that, once, horses trotted heavily on the stone paved roads; samurais’ with ornate apparels striding along these same roads; and locals trying to attract travellers to buy their wares, flooded through. I felt privileged to have walked the same places samurais and feudal lords had done so centuries ago. Magome is indeed a wonderfully restored living museum piece. We retired early in our comfortable room in preparation for the long walk the next day.
“After the dinner, we were well and truly stuffed, even though we shared two meals between the three of us. At night, Magome was a ghost town with not a soul in sight….” – Navindd
From Takayama , we headed back to Nagoya and caught an onward train to Nakatsugawa. Train journeys here in Japan is a delight. Food parcels from the train stations, ample leg room and hardly any noise from people. The sound of the iron wheels rolling over the rusty track is very soothing. From Nakatsugawa, we caught a local bus to a sleepy town of Magome. We now entered Kiso Valley, located in Nagano Prefecture and runs along the Central Alps. This is one of the few preserved towns, of the 69 so called ‘post-towns’, along the historic Nakasendo Highway. Before this highway was established, a shorter route was called Kisoji. Later, this network extended and was one of the five links between Edo (political capital) and then imperial capital Kyōto and was called Nakasendo [means – path through mountains] during the Shogunate period. They were mainly used by Samurais, merchants and feudal officials. The bus passed through golden rice fields weaving its way through the lush green mountains.
When we arrived in the late afternoon, the small town was not sleepy at all. In contrast, it was packed with people and came with all the attributes of a tourist town. Past the pedestrian’s only cobblestone pathway, the beauty of this preserved township emerged. Rustic wooden houses set on stone foundations lined on either side of a steep winding road, lattice doors and windows and surrounded by great mountains views. The entrance to this old post town is marked by a big water wheel. On a steep uphill walk, shops displayed all kind of gift items, aromatic food, local wooden handicrafts and more. It was refreshing to hear sound of gushing water beneath the paved street as water flowed through the channels. Green foliage and flowering plants accentuated the road side appeal together with sculptured pines.
Our stay tonight was in a “Chaya”, teahouse or inn. Our host greeted us and led us to our abode. Futon bedding on tatami- mat floors had already been laid out. An elderly woman in kimono gingerly walked around the corridor tidying up the place. There were great views of the mountains including Mt Ena and had an ambient old world charm atmosphere. The owners had a restaurant across the street.
A large water wheel spun rapidly turned by the gushing water. It certainly looks like a by- gone era village though touristy.
“The highway was very old, forged out of cobblestone, used by Samurai on horses” – Navindd
We strolled on the streets with hundreds of people. Telephone and electrical wire were conspicuously missing. At food stalls, there always seem to be a queue. Ice cream stalls included. We wandered to the outskirt of town along rice fields and vegetable gardens. A lone farmer was tending to them meticulously. From a temple, we could see the blue green mountain ranges and the new town- ships surrounded by golden rice fields. The most famous son from Magome is Shimazaki Tōson, a highly regarded figure in Japanese literature. There are a few museums here. At one shed, near the tourist office, I found an old samurai hat and overalls. One of the highlights of travelling within Japan is the sample local delicacies. The dishes may be the same, but each locality had their own flavour. We sampled some grilled rice cakes, “gohei”, steaming sweet buns, pickled beans and nuts.
“The whole of the Kisoji lies in the mountains.” – Toson