I first travelled to Japan in 1983. Over the next 35 years I’ve returned more than 80 times, but amazingly I’d never set foot on the Nakasendo Way until a recent cultural pilgrimage with tour operator Walk Japan.
Spanning some 530 kilometres from Tokyo to Kyoto, the Nakasendo was an important ancient thoroughfare. In the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), a nationwide road system was established, with the Nakasendo being one of the major arteries of trade, frequented by merchants and travellers. If you walked 18 kilometres a day, it would take a month to go between Tokyo (known then as Edo) and Kyoto, passing through Gunma, Nagano and Shiga prefectures.
Today, touring the Nakasendo way on foot is a sweaty but pleasant walk through rolling hills and valleys. It’s also a journey through time, as each path presents a different facet of Japan’s history – with shrines, torii gates, Buddhist sculptures and battle sites along the way. The company of waterfalls and 1,000-year-old fir trees is also very welcome.
Traditionally, the route was laced with ancient ‘post towns’ known as shukuba, where travellers could spend the night. Today, thanks to popular and government commitment to preserving elements of local history and culture, much of the architecture and heritage prevails in these towns. Some of the best-preserved examples include Narai-juku, Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku, along the Kisoji part of the Nakasendo, where we sampled traditional food and a slice of everyday life that hasn’t changed much since the Edo period.
Walter Kei is a chef, food writer and TV host