I photographed perhaps the greatest historic symbol of Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, before heading to Sanjo-Ohashi, a bridge over the Kamo River, which is the terminus of the Tokaido and Nakasendo routes from Tokyo and the starting point for northeast-bound travelers. The exact date of the original bridge is lost to history, but the current concrete bridge was built in 1950.
In order to complete the Nakasendo within a 10-day time frame, our small group, with tour leader Yohei Totsuka at the helm, took trains and buses to points along the way to begin extended walks.
We set off by rail for Hikone, where we explored the castle town on foot, then continued by local trains to Sekigahara, which on Oct. 21, 1600, was the site of the most important single battle in Japanese history. The results ushered in the Edo Period and its two-and-a-half centuries of relative peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
After a great night's sleep at a local minshuku (a traditional, family-run inn, a simplified version of a ryokan) and a morning historical tour of Sekigahara, we traveled by train to Gifu, where we were greeted by a golden statue of Oda Nobunaga popping out of the skyline of this modern metropolis. Oda, who along with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu laid the groundwork for a unified Japan, was known to possess a short temper -- so much so that a saying has come down through the ages comparing his personality type with that of Toyotomi and Tokugawa when discussing how each would deal with a hototogisu (a species of cuckoo, though often translated into English as nightingale) that refused to sing for them:
If the nightingale won't sing, kill it
- Oda Nobunaga
If the nightingale won't sing, I'll make it sing
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi
If the nightingale won't sing, I'll wait till it sings
- Tokugawa Ieyasu
We continued by local train to Mitake for our first major walk along the Nakasendo, which took us to the former post town of Hosokute by day's end. Before we pulled out our walking sticks and donned our backpacks, we fueled up with some of the best okonomiyaki (a type of pancake) Japan has to offer at the homey Seiraku restaurant.
After an hour of walking through rolling countryside, we encountered an extended uphill hike past a shrine dedicated to the souls of packhorses who couldn't quite make it up this very same incline.
A rustic sign on the Nakasendo in English and Japanese points walkers toward Tsumago and Nagiso. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
Farther up the road, we stopped by a well where Princess Kazunomiya, sister of Emperor Komei, is said to have rested on her way to Edo. In 1862, her arranged marriage to the 14th Tokugawa shogun, Iemochi, was intended to bring the imperial court and the Tokugawa shogunate into harmony. It didn't work out as planned. Supporters of the imperial court and the Tokugawa shogunate fell into further disagreements, and when Iemochi died in 1866, the princess took the vows of a nun.
Near the remains of an ancient teahouse, we came across Le Province, a world-class cafe with superb desserts and coffee drinks. It was surreal to find an oasis like this in the middle of the inaka (countryside).
After putting our feet through a good 6.8-mile warmup for the days ahead, we arrived at the entrance to our ryokan, the 17th century Daikokuya Inn in Hosokute.
Dawn comes early on the Nakasendo. After an early breakfast, we began a 13.6-mile walk to Ena along a ridge-top route dating from the eighth century. A gradual ascent through forest included what is said to be the longest continuous stretch of original ishidatami (rock-paved trail) in Japan. After a morning of wandering through hills, dales and forest, we descended into the well-preserved post town of Okute, where we found a giant, 1,200-year-old cedar that is venerated as a Shinto god. We stopped in at a local store to buy goods for an on-the-road picnic, much as travelers of yesteryear must have done.
Sweets for sale on the Nakasendo in the city of Nakatsugawa. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
The long walk after lunch was magnificent, but descending out of the trees into Ena, the modern freeway we encountered, came as a bit of a shock -- and an inspiration for another haiku:
Oto ni kisetsu ha
No one asks the season
When it comes to the sound of highway
- Mark Edward Harris
After grappling for a moment with the reality that we were back in the 21st century, we navigated the narrow streets of Ena to the Hiroshige Print Museum to see how the master interpreted what we had recently witnessed, as well as what we would encounter in the days ahead. The museum had inks and paper laid out for us to try our hand at creating ukiyo-es (woodblock prints) out of pre-existing plastic molds of Hiroshige's famous views.
A soak in our business hotel's ofuro (Japanese bath tub) and a good rest prepared us for the following day's 10.6-mile walk.