Walk the Nakasendo WayMar 02, 2020 12:22PM ● By Fyllis Hockman
Exploring the head, heart and soul of Japan.
While Japan’s cities contain many unique traditional customs, it’s the countryside of the Nakasendo Way that holds the key to the island’s tranquility.
Intentional Japanese customs
A stop at a tea house illustrated a pervasive element of Japanese custom: the precision with which they do everything. Just the preparation of a simple cup of tea can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive, rule-bound ritualized ceremony. The same is true of a cocktail at a bar. Whether you prefer your drink shaken or stirred, an air of pomp and circumstance surrounds its presentation.
Surprisingly, the toilet also falls into the realm of delightful personal discoveries—albeit all of them in the hotel bathroom of the Royal Park Hotel in Kyoto.
First, a warm toilet seat with a variety of buttons cleaned more areas with water spray than I have nether region parts. Next, a portion of the large bathroom mirror remained perfectly clear even after an exceptionally steamy shower which coincidentally was the most invigorating I’ve ever had. All of these were a testament to Japanese ingenuity. Apparently, they don’t only make better cars.
Rural extravagance on the Nakasendo Way
These amenities weren’t always available on our hikes through the countryside. My husband and I left Kyoto and headed into the country to follow the paths forged by feudal lords, daimyos and samurais of the 17th-19th centuries.
We traversed the Kiso Road section of the Nakasendo Way—the ancient highway that connected Kyoto with Edo (present-day Tokyo) —walking about 8-10 miles a day. Post towns along the way afforded pilgrims refreshments and accommodations that felt and looked as old as they did in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We spent the evenings at small travelers’ inns, with fluffy futons serving as our beds. The inns may have been small and simple, but the dinners were not. Most consisted of banquet-style meals featuring multiple courses ranging from traditional to more recognizable offerings such as cooked fish. Despite not being a fan of Japanese food in general, I never left the table hungry.
Having luxuriated in the bathrooms in Kyoto, ablutions took on a slightly different tenor in the countryside. I don’t usually shower and wash my hair before getting into a bath, but at the traveler’s inn in the rural town of O’Tsumago, this was the custom. And, as I’d learned, customs are one of the primary characteristics of Japanese society. Shower is somewhat of a misnomer—really, you’re sitting on a low stool next to a series of other low stools and rinsing yourself off with a showerhead.
Maybe “bath” is misleading as well. It was actually an assortment of hot pools in a tranquil outdoor setting.
Although to me this seemed like a very unusual experience, our guide assured us it was an everyday occurrence. Bathing was a communal activity. That sense of community carried over to meals in which the inn occupants tended to wear their yukatas—dressing robes provided by the inns—while sitting cross-legged on tatami mats. No dressing up for dinner. Conveniently, it saves a lot of space when packing.
Our walk along Nakasendo Way was a measured pace with lots of stops for historic perspective, including a few steep but worthwhile uphill climbs.
We meandered over trails through mountain passes and alongside Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. These religious sites were often surrounded by lush forests and the ever-present rumblings of brooks, rivers and waterfalls that provided an equal but different kind of tranquility to the many temples en route. I could sense the samurais traversing the same stone steps, stopping for tea at the same wooden tea houses and sitting on the same tatami mats.
Every day was a new adventure. We passed sacred stone markings, old rice mills and monumental rock structures representing a variety of gods or demons, or homages to emperors and other human or spiritual deities.
As we hiked there was a lot of taking off of shoes and putting on slippers...and then taking off those slippers and slipping into other slippers. It adds a whole new dimension to the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes.
Big city beginnings
Eventually, it was time to return to the big city. Culture shock ensued going from the tranquility of the countryside to the sensory overload of Tokyo. The city center, however, does a very convincing impression of New York’s Times Square.
Despite Tokyo’s high-rise modernity, the Edo Period (1602-1868) is still alive and well just below the surface. Our guide delighted in explaining this, using a collection of woodcuts and old photographs dating from the 1800s that he’d amassed in a mammoth book. He illustrated how every street corner, bridge, hidden side streets and major boulevards all had their beginning from the time Tokugawa arrived in 1590.
The city’s rich history is not present in the buildings but in the layout of the city. I could see all the far-reaching accomplishments of the Tokugawa family shogunate, the daimyos and samurais who served them, the merchants and the horse traders who lived there.
“See this,” he pointed to a historical illustration time and time again, “This is where we are now!”
Although the two major cities, Tokyo and Kyoto, added breadth and scope to the experience, it was the richness and depth of culture of the Nakasendo Way that made the journey so meaningful.
As I was going through security at Narita Airport, having to remove my shoes did not feel as oppressive an activity as it usually does. I felt right at home...until I asked a surprised TSA agent for a pair of slippers.