Walking through Japanese History

The Nakasendo Way explores one of Japan’s ancient highways. Photo by Victor Block
The Nakasendo Way explores one of Japan’s ancient highways. Photo by Victor Block

Hiking in Japan was a rewarding endeavor. Our daily eight to 10-mile hikes with Walk Japan followed deep valley floors, passed rushing waterfalls and wound through dense forests. We crossed over sweat-inducing mountain passes, and while switchbacks in the trail eased the way up, there were other incentives to keep going.

Our band of hardy trekkers came upon ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Here and there, an unadorned rock structure paid homage to emperors and other human deities, as well as spiritual beings.

We passed by lonely farmhouses adjacent to centuries-old mills and wooden waterwheels powered by the rushing streams that cascade down many hillsides. Some houses in tiny farm villages are surrounded by rice paddies, and an occasional grove of bamboo reaches toward the sky.

Along the trail of Nakasendo Way while hiking in Japan. Photo by Victor Block
Along the trail of Nakasendo Way in Japan. Photo by Victor Block

These are among visual rewards that await travelers who follow an ancient path that shoguns (military dictators), samurai (military officers) and other nobles trod centuries ago when traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. They were accompanied by an entourage of underlings who tended to the horses, prepared meals and took care of the other chores that provided the comforts to which those who occupied the upper levels of society were accustomed.

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The roots of Japan were planted during the Edo period, which began in 1603 when Tokugawa Leyasu became the shogun and ruled from his palace in Edo (present-day Tokyo). While the emperor lived in Kyoto, the shoguns of the Tokugawa clan actually controlled the country. Their rule ended in 1868, with the opening of Japan to the outside world.

The Nakasendo Way passes along a home with rice paddies. Photo by Victor BlockThe Nakasendo Way passes along a home with rice paddies. Photo by Victor Block
The Nakasendo Way passes along a home with rice paddies. Photo by Victor Block

Walk Japan

My trip with the Walk Japan tour company traversed the Kiso Road section of the historic route. The sojourn began by following a short stretch of the original flat paving rocks that were laid down hundreds of years ago, and passed by one of the earliest stone mile markers which still stand.

Along the way, we came face-to-face with intriguing tangible remnants of the country’s past, and with stories and memories of its history.

Stopping for dinner during our Walk in Japan hiking tour. Photo by Victor Block
Stopping for dinner during our Walk Japan hiking tour. Photo by Victor Block

Come nightfall, we tired hikers followed in the footsteps — literally — of the feudal lords and others who proceeded us along the route centuries ago. “Post towns” were spaced a day’s travel apart to provide food, rest and overnight accommodations to those travelers. The traditional wooden buildings in some of the historic villages have been lovingly restored and continue to offer the same services they did hundreds of years in the past.

Three of the best-preserved post towns – Magome, Tsumago and Narai – are strung out along the Kiso Valley section of the route, and offer an in-depth look and feel for what those early travelers experienced. The family-run guesthouses where we stayed introduced us to customs and cultural touches of Japan both past and present.

Hiking in Japan includes a stay at a Japanese guest house.
A comfortable stay at a Japanese guest house. Photo by Victor Block

It doesn’t take long to learn the house rules: Upon entering the modest structure, remove your shoes and replace them with the ubiquitous slippers that are neatly lined up on shelves near the front entrance. Be prepared to sleep on a fluffy and surprisingly comfortable futon laid out on the floor.

Don’t expect to order dinner from a menu, but do know that among the numerous dishes that will be placed before you are at least several that will be as pleasing to your taste buds as they are to the eye.

One of our more memorable experiences was enjoying a customary Japanese communal bath. Like other traditions that are part of the culture, this comes with strict protocols. The goal is to both cleanse and relax the body.

The ritual — and it is that! — began by removing our clothes in the changing room, then sitting on stools and washing off with a hose and shower head. Then we headed for a series of outdoor pools of hot spring water, men here, women there.

While the small towel we each were handed was hardly adequate to protect our modesty, the fact that everyone was in the same state of undress provided some degree of comfort. Continuing to follow instructions after the bath, we did not rinse off so as not to wash away minerals in the water which, we were told, have beneficial properties.

Our multi-day trek and stays in well-preserved ancient towns were very different in atmosphere and settings from the architectural treasures of Kyoto and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, which we experienced during stays in those teeming cities. The combination of these three experiences introduces visitors to the very essence of Japan in a way that leaves a lasting impression.

Scenery on Nadasendo Way while hiking with Walk in Japan. Photo by Victor Block
Scenery on the Nakasendo Way while hiking with Walk Japan. Photo by Victor Block

Each of our three Walk Japan guides — in Tokyo and Kyoto, and on the Nakasendo Way — was knowledgeable not just about pertinent facts and figures, but also with fascinating stories about the history and other facets of the place and its people. Stops we made during the hiking part of the itinerary gave our guide an opportunity to share interesting historical tidbits, and provided me with a welcome chance to catch my breath.

If You Go to Japan

For more information about the itinerary of my trip, and the variety of others offered by the tour company, visit walkjapan.com.

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Author Bio: After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn.  He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.