Walking Japan

The Road: Temples, traditional inns—and the occasional vending machine—greet walkers on an ancient Japanese highway connecting Kyoto and Tokyo.
A group of hikers on Japan’s Nakasendo Way pass one of the many wooden signs designating the route of the ancient and largely forgotten highway from Kyoto to Tokyo. Photo by Peter Mandel

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he moon in Japan is not like our moon.  There is no man in there, for one thing.  No man, no horn, no cow.

It is night time in Kyoto and Shima Enomoto, one of my guides, is pointing up.  “Can you see it?” she asks.  “Rabbit making a rice cake.”  She laughs.  “Almost a cartoon.”

“Maybe it will take some time,” I say, looking above rows of buildings, trees with buds about to unwrap, and signs that flash their avenue colors into fire.  “Tomorrow we will be on the road,” I say.  “I’ll look again.”

It is only day one of my trip, and already life feels strange.  It could be jet lag, but the idea of walking fields and mountains and ending up in Tokyo, doesn’t strike me as realistic.  But this is the plan.

Walk Japan’s 11-day Nakasendo Way tour will guide my group along the route of an ancient and largely forgotten highway.  Dating back to the 7th century, Japan’s Nakasendo was a path for shoguns, pilgrims, and samurai—not to mention average travellers like we are—who wore out pair after pair of straw sandals on the rolling terrain.

Studded with Shinto shrines, and statues of deities charged with watching over those on the road, the Nakasendo reached the peak of its usefulness and romance during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) before steam trains and paved roads changed the pace of travel.  This was a stable time for Japan, under Tokugawa rule.  Arts like Haiku, woodblock printing, bonsai, and Kabuki theatre flourished in the larger cities.  Since the Nakasendo linked two of the biggest, speeding commerce and messages, it was at the heart of this Japanese golden age.

One of the most exciting parts of the walk for me is the chance to spend some nights at wayside inns known as ryokan or, when simpler, as minshuku.  I once helped to compile a book about the world’s oldest family firms and these traditional hostels popped up in the research again and again.

Sure enough, after trudging through bamboo forests during our first day on the road, we turn in at Masuya Inn in the village of Sekigahara—a minshuku which, we’re told, has been in business for more than eight centuries.  Guest rooms at the inn are carved out by sliding panels made of wood and rice paper, and under our not-very-cushiony futons are floors that have been spread with tatami matting.  No shoes are allowed inside and there are special plastic slippers for use only in the bathrooms.

Staying here helps us to immerse ourselves in being part of a group.  As will be the case on other nights, we dine at the inn, slipping on robes called yukata and curling up tired legs under the knee-high communal table.  One by one, we take turns in the Japanese-style bath, lowering ourselves into a cedar-edged tureen of steaming water and wallowing there until road-tight muscles uncoil.

There are nine of us in the tour group, including Naomi Addyman, a British guide who grew up in Japan; Enomoto, a guide-in-training; and Logan Wong, one of four walkers from Singapore, who informs us that he owns the Yankee Candle distributorship there.

“Yankee Candles?” I ask.  “In Singapore?”

“Yes, of course,” says Wong, who is dressed for hanging out in a food court, not for hiking.  “Extremely popular there.  Especially the Lemon Verbena.”

We’re off on the road right after breakfast the next day, taking advantage of a hazy early spring sun.  Plum blossoms are just starting to come out (no cherry yet) and there are puffs of mistletoe in some of the trees.  The path is grassy and mostly level this close to Kyoto, winding through rice paddies and around modest farms.

Carol Behm, a professor from Canberra, Australia, points out a patch of violets and yellow kumquat flowers, and someone thinks they see a snake.  “It’s a stick,” I say.  “No, it’s not,” says Addyman.  “It’s a snake.  But it’s not a dangerous one.”

Every now and then the road leads us into tunnels of shade created by cedar and cypress, and at one point, we stop at a sign with a picture of an angry-looking predator.  Next to it is a small steel cup.  “Ring Bell Against Bear,” translates Enomoto with a nervous laugh.

Logan Wong gives it a pull and the sound reverberates around—bouncing back from hills up ahead.  “Not to worry,” says Addyman.  “These are Japanese bears.  They’re very shy.”  According to Addyman, the sign makers should be more worried about the wild boar out here.

But as we begin to climb, no one seems concerned about becoming a snack for animals.  Our focus is on learning to pick out the three Japanese characters carved into stone and wooden road signs that designate our route.  The first symbol looks like a bird built out of bamboo; the second like the prongs of a pitchfork; and the third like Noah’s Ark.  Or more like half an ark.

“Middle. Mountain. Way,” deciphers Addyman.  “That’s the Nakasendo—literally translated.”

Each day of the walk the road seems slightly steeper and mountains wearing caps of white step up to dominate the view.  It may be because we’re working harder, but eating is on everyone’s mind.  Meals at our inns have been like edible galleries, with a main exhibit (usually a hot pot) and interesting mini-plates presenting forest mushrooms, squares of tofu, or sashimi, on the side.

“Wish there was a convenience store near here,” someone complains as we are picking our way around paving stones that were laid to make the path more predictable for tired feet and hooves.

“No hope, no hope,” says Wong.  “But Naomi says there’s a Boss Coffee machine in the next village.  Or it might be the one after.”

“Only in Japan,” adds Tracey Yeh, a banker from Singapore.  “It’s vending and more vending.  You don’t want to run out of change even deep in the woods.”  Yeh pulls out a bag of Calbee potato chips: ‘Soy Sauce and Mayo’ flavor.  “Want some?” she asks.  We pool what we’ve got.

Wong breaks open a box of Pocky-brand snack sticks.  “Rum and Raisin,” he grins.  No one has any rice cakes but one of the guides offers around some deep fried eel bones in a cellophane pack.  To clean our palates there are Kit-Kats.  Kit-Kats laced with Wasabi.  We march on.

We reach the top of a pass where everyone takes a break and where our guides point out a poem, a sad one, that’s been inscribed in stone.  The author was a princess, we’re told.  Princess Kazunomiya, who traveled the Nakasendo in the mid-1800s when she was forced to leave Kyoto for Edo to become the Shogun’s wife.

“Why compose it here?” asks Wong.  “Well,” says Enomoto, “this is about the point where views back to Kyoto are lost.”

From now on, travelers would have turned their thoughts to Edo (now Tokyo).   I try this, too.  It works until we make it to a town called Okute.

Here, there is a kind of shrine.  It’s not like those we’ve passed so far:  Most have been small and tidy, with well-made torii gates and statues, sometimes, of Jizo Bodhisattva, guardian of travelers.  This one is massive.  Most have had a sacred rope, a shimenawa, strung across the entrance.  This one is hung with twisted branches and with leaves.

It is a tree:  a giant cedar.  So old, at 1,300 years, that it is thought of as a Shinto deity.

The tree is watching, we are sure, as daypacks slide back on shoulders and we return to the path.  Other roadside gods observe our progress in the days to follow.  They inspect us as we trudge up even steeper slopes.  They know what will happen: Since it is only April, we will walk in snow.

Those that care to, regard us from their pedestals and temples—maybe approving, maybe grieving just a bit—as we begin to descend.  Our tour, and the Nakasendo itself, end in Tokyo.

From the outskirts, we board a train and tick off some miles sitting down.  There is a sense of throwing off a load.  And, maybe a little, of guilt.  Once in the glass-box city center, we exchange our path for crosswalks.  We trace the last few miles on foot.

Our goal, as modern pilgrims, is Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Bridge.  And almost without realizing it, we are there.

It doesn’t look like a woodblock print.  It looks like a bridge.   Above it is a highway humming with cars.  But the cherries are out here.  Blossoms spin and fly like confetti when the wind kicks up.  Sidewalks, even gutters, look celebratory.  Corners of buildings collect drifts of petals.  Cars are dusted white, or pink.

Outcome cameras and, from the bottom of someone’s pack, a single package of Pocky that we somehow missed.

“Have we done it?” asks Tracey Yeh.

“We have,” confirms Addyman.

*          *          *

Later that evening, to try and remember it, I make it back to the bridge.  I find myself standing underneath a cherry that’s only footsteps from where the Nakasendo ends.  Its canopy is not like the cedars.  Much more delicate.  More frail.  Like straw for sandals.

Through branches, I see a streetlight.  No, it’s rounder, whiter than that:  It is the moon.

I think of Shima Enomoto.  But she has gone.

“Can you see it?” she would ask.  I would not want to tell her.  Eleven days from Kyoto, I have looked again.  And what I find in the downtown Tokyo moon is not a rabbit.  It is not a rice cake.

It is a line through lunar plains and mountains.  A path that may have snow, or paving stones, or shrines, for all I know.

The moon of Japan shows a road.

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