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It’s been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Before taking my first steps on Japan’s Nakasendo trail, I was certain to be prepared.
To take on the ancient inland route, I purchased proper gear — sturdy boots and trekking poles included — and joined a small group organized by Walk Japan, a Kyushu-based tour operator that focuses on exploring the land of the rising sun by foot. The company’s Nakasendo Way tour explores one of the two main routes that connected Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) for hundreds of years until trains and cars made the walking and horse trail obsolete.
The Nakasendo, which translates to “The Way Through the Mountains” connected Japan’s two great cities by a 332-mile inland trail, which consisted of 69 official government-established stations known as post-towns, while the shorter Tokaido road followed the coast and required travelers to forge several rivers. Merchants and messengers traveling on the Nakasendo found accommodations and meals in such towns along the way.
The 332-mile Nakasendo road connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto, where travelers can still visit this popular Japan sight — Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
Between the towns of Hosokute and Okute, Walk Japan tour leader Yohei Totsuka crosses a small bridge to visit a shrine to Benzaiten, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune in Japanese mythology. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
A woman in a traditional yukata walks the hallway outside a shoji-screened room in Hosokute’s Daikokuya ryokan. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
The haiku-inspiring view of the moon setting behind the mountains in Kiso-Fukushima, as seen from the nearby Iwaya ryokan. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
The town of Magome is located along a well-preserved section of the Nakasendo in Gifu Prefecture. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
A man in traditional clothing at a tea house in Minami-Kiso-Cho serves weary travelers on the Nakasendo trail, between the post towns of Magome and Tsumago. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
A display of sake barrels outside the showroom of the Hazama-syuzo Brewery in the town of Nakatsugawa // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
A monk makes his way down the street on a rainy day in Narai, located halfway between Kyoto and Edo on the Nakasendo. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
A member of the Walk Japan Nakasendo Way tour walks up a stone path toward the historic postal town of Shinchaya. // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
A view of the inner courtyard of Okuya, an inn-turned-museum in the center of Tsumago that once served government officials on their way to and from Edo // © 2014 Mark Edward Harris
Over the course of our 11-day Nakasendo tour, our group explored the Japan of old, including the ancient post-towns of Magome, Tsumago and Narai, which were once popular stops along the route that Matsuo Basho extolled in haiku poems and Ando Hiroshige illustrated in woodblock prints.
While tour buses can access a number of the Nakasendo’s post-towns today, there is a special sense of achievement for those who ascend or descend into these hamlets in the same way it was done for more than a millennium. This is truly walking in the footsteps of history.
Walk Japan’s Nakasendo Way tour costs approximately $4,075 per person. Travelers may pay an additional $215 for a single room.
Japan National Tourism Organizationwww.japantravelinfo.com