A monk makes his way along the Nakasendo. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

A walk throughJapan

July 06, 2015

Every step the 17th century haiku poet and traveler Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) took in his native Japan seemed to inspire another short poem. It's not surprising in a country with so much natural beauty.

While modern transportation has overtaken the master poet's usual mode of conveyance, a number of tour operators focus on exploring Japan a pied. The country is perfectly suited for on-foot exploration, with an artery of well-defined and maintained walking and hiking trails.

Historically, the two most important routes connecting the ancient capital of Kyoto with Edo (now Tokyo) were the Tokaido (East Sea Road) and the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Road). While the coastal route has largely given way to modern highways, many sections of the inland route, the 332-mile Nakasendo, remains much as it has been for centuries.

Several tour companies offer extensive explorations of the Nakasendo throughout much of the year as well as walking tours to other parts of the country.

Walking tours explore the 332-mile Nakasendo Way, historically one of the two most important routes connecting the ancient capital of Kyoto with Tokyo.
Walking tours explore the 332-mile Nakasendo Way, historically one of the two most important routes connecting the ancient capital of Kyoto with Tokyo.


I joined the appropriately named Walk Japan, a pioneering operator of walking tours in the country since 1992, to follow in the footsteps of Basho and the countless others who have traversed the Nakasendo. I became aware of this ancient route through Utagawa Hiroshige's (1797-1858) "The Sixty-nine Stations (shukuba) of the Kiso Kaido (Kiso Road)" ukiyo-e woodblock print series (Nakasendo is the common name for the Kiso Kaido). These post stations were strategically positioned to house and feed weary travelers.

While I'm more than 300 years too late to physically travel with Basho, thanks to his haikus (called hokku at the time), and other forms of writing he left behind, I was traveling with him in spirit. Basho infused his 5-7-5 syllable format haikus with a Zen desire to reconnect with the purity of nature and the simplicity of the countryside. Evidently, even two centuries before the Industrial Revolution, people could get stressed out by city life.

Haru no mizu
Basho no ashiato
Tadori tsutsu

Spring water
Following Basho's footprints

- Mark Edward Harris

In 1687, Basho traveled west along the Tokaido, then returned to Edo along parts of the Nakasendo, immortalizing his journey in "Knapsack Notebook (Oi no kobumi)." "Sarashina Journal (Sarashina Kiko)" followed in 1688.


Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.
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.  

Day 4

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.
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:

Kosoku no
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.

Day 5

Our morning walk took us to Nakatsugawa, an old post town that does a particularly good job of preserving its Nakasendo history despite having evolved into a 21st century city. Yellow stones have been added to the pavement to help modern-day travelers stay on course along the ancient Nakasendo route.

Children on the Nakasendo on the outskirts of Nakatsugawa.
Children on the Nakasendo on the outskirts of Nakatsugawa. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

We passed an old structure with a pair of waraji (straw shoes) hanging as a decoration on its exterior, a reminder of how tough this same journey must have been for ancient travelers. I almost felt guilty in my North Face Ultra Fastpack Mid GTX hiking boots and sporting Black Diamond Distance FL trekking poles. Almost.

After a lunch of fresh water eel and a sake tasting at the elegant Hazama-syuzo showroom, we made our way up and down undulating hills, then over Magome Pass, which leads to the Kiso Valley, the heart of the Nakasendo. A light rain began to fall on the stone path, one of the best-preserved parts of the old highway, inspiring another haiku:

Haru no ame
Ki ya koke kaoru

Spring rain
fragrance of trees and moss
on stone pavements

- Mark Edward Harris

As day began to give way to night, we came upon a stone Basho inscription opposite Shinchaya, our inn for the night:

okuritsu hateha
Kiso no aki

Seeing friends off
being seen off, and now--
autumn in Kiso

- Matsuo Basho

I contemplated the words and reflected upon the day's hike during a sublime soak in an ofuro made out of hinoki (Japanese cypress).

Day 6

A beautiful spring day greeted us for a walk to the post town of Magome, the birthplace of Shimazaki Toson, Japan's first modern novelist and author of "Before the Dawn." Toson's grave is on a hillside above the town he helped put on the tourist map. Historic buildings, souvenir shops, food stalls and restaurants lined the reconstructed pedestrian walkway that led us through Magome. Local specialties, including a soy sauce and walnut-coated gohei-mochi, made the promenade a high-calorie experience.  

Refueled, we continued to the next post town, Tsumago, with stops at a well-preserved historic teahouse, Ichikokutochi-tateba-chaya, and a pair of waterfalls. By midafternoon, Tsumago revealed itself through the trees in the valley below. There was a great feeling of achievement knowing we had arrived at our destination by our own foot power.

We toured Okuya, a waki-honjin (lodgings for government officials and those of status and money)-turned-museum in the center of Tsumago. Accepting our commoners' status, our group spent the night at the more rustic Maruya Inn.

Day 7

We followed the old highway to Nagiso, where Momotsuke-bashi, an impressive wooden footbridge, is suspended across the Kiso River. We continued on by foot and by train to Kiso-Fukushima, where the manager of the Nanawarai Sake Brewery gave us a private tour, a lesson on how sake is made and a tasting. Two hours later, we emerged a bit wobbly but with a much deeper understanding of how Japan's famous beverage is crafted. Fortunately, our ryokan, the Iwaya Inn, was a short distance away.

Day 8

I awoke for an early morning onsen dip and was rewarded with a magnificent moon setting behind a mountain ridge on the outskirts of Kiso-Fukushima.

The onsen (hot spring) at Takaragawa in Gunma Prefecture.
The onsen (hot spring) at Takaragawa in Gunma Prefecture. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

After breakfast, we visited the former post town's reconstructed barrier station, where a small museum educated us about what identity papers ancient travelers needed to carry as well as about the armaments once used to enforce the law. From there, the trail continued to Yabuhara, then over the Torii-toge Pass to Narai, a town that marks the halfway point between Kyoto and Edo on the Nakasendo.

This post town's nickname, "Narai of a Thousand Houses," is well deserved. The road through it passes many well-preserved historical structures, many open for tours. From Narai, it was time to take advantage of modern technology and head by train through Japan's Central Alps to Karuizawa, the epitome of a chic mountain resort.

We settled in at the Tsuruya Inn, where many literary luminaries, including Tanizaki Junichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, laid their heads.

On a nearby stone we found a haiku by Basho, placed there in 1843 by one of his admirers, the poet Kobayashi Gyokuren:

Uma wo sae
nagamuru yuki no
ashita kana

In the morning, the snow lies thick on the ground.
Not only people,
But horses seem to be elegant

- Matsuo Basho

Day 9

Departing Karuizawa, we soon encountered the last major mountain ascent on the Nakasendo for those bound for Japan's capital, an 8.5-mile trek through maple forests to the Usui-toge Pass at 3,900 feet. Completing this stretch yielded a magnificent reward: a panoramic view across the Kanto Plain, which surrounds Tokyo. For the countless travelers who had gone before, this view undoubtedly had evoked a feeling that the end of the long journey was in sight. The next post town, Sakamoto, located far below, must have been quite a party town in its day. These days, Shinkansen bullet trains speed travelers to the capital in an hour.  

After arriving at Tokyo Station, we strolled the last couple of miles through the megatropolis to Nihonbashi  (Japan Bridge), where the Nakasendo terminates, a fitting finale to this grand journey. A bridge at this location has linked the two sides of the Nihonbashi River since 1603, the same year that the Edo Period officially began. The current stone bridge, which replaced its wooden predecessor in 1911, is still used as the measuring point for distances on highway signs that display the distance to Tokyo. 

It was here that I had to part ways with my fellow walkers, with whom I had shared the road for 10 days on our journey back in time.


Walk Japan's other tours on the country's main island of Honshu range from a circumnavigation of Mount Fuji to the Basho-inspired, 10-day Narrow Road to the North tour, named for the poet's most famous travelogue. The journey navigates its way through the pristine scenery of the Tohoku region, then down along the rugged Sea of Japan coast to the elegant city of Kanazawa before concluding in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Tours beyond Honshu range from treks through Hokkaido's wilderness and Kyushu's hot-spring-laden Kunisaki Peninsula to a walking, hiking and kayaking exploration of southern Okinawa's Yaeyama region, which includes the ecological treasure of Iriomotejima.


Other domestic and international tour operators include walking tours as part of their offerings. 


• Walk Japan: www.walkjapan.com
• Oku Japan: www.okujapan.com
• Quest Japan: www.hikejapan.com
• Mountain Travel Sobek: www.mtsobek.com
• Butterfield & Robinson: www.butterfield.com
• Country Walkers: www.countrywalkers.com
• Japan National Tourism Organization: www.jnto.go.jp/eng

Oku Japan runs its own version of the Nakasendo tour, including a stay in a shukubo (temple lodging) on Mount Koya, on the Kii Peninsula. The temple complex was founded by the famous ninth century monk Kobo Daishi.

Mountain Travel Sobek offers an 11-day Kyoto-Tokyo tour through parts of the Nakasendo and also includes a temple stay.

Butterfield & Robinson operates a four-day tour focused on the mountainous Kii Peninsula. Their Ancient Kumano Pilgrimage Tour follows well-maintained sections of the Kumano Kodo.

Country Walkers offers a Kumano Kodo-focused tour. They rate this "Guided Walking Adventure" easy to moderate, with a range of two to eight miles per day on foot.

Quest Japan has a number of walking adventures taking place throughout the year, including explorations of the sacred Kumano mountains of the Kii Peninsula, the North Alps in Central Japan, the mountains of Hokkaido and the Sanin Kaigan National Park on the Japan Sea Coast.

Quest Japan's accommodations focus on minshuku and ryokans and temple stays. They rate their hikes using a gentle-moderate-vigorous-strenuous scale, the last being for hearty souls who can handle six days or more of continuous walking for six to nine hours per day in mountain country with some ascents above 9,000 feet. Some of the ascents and descents have fixed ladders and chains and demand a good level of fitness.

All the operators with walking tours use similar rating systems, which they take very seriously when offering advice to potential clients. Like a good pair of hiking shoes, a good health fit is a must for walking tours. With up to 14 clients on any given group tour, stragglers can throw off the balance of what otherwise would be one of the most harmonious and reconnecting experiences a traveler can have, not only in Japan but anywhere on the planet.