Developed from the 7th century onwards, the Nakasendo was formalized at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) as one of the five official roads for the use of the shogun and government dignitaries in ruling their territory. The Nakasendo was one of two highways connecting Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto, and it runs through the forested heart of Japan across the mountains of Honshu and along its misty, green river valleys. There were 69 post towns and smaller stations established along its 534 km (332 mi) length – and long stretches, especially in the mountainous areas, remain now almost exactly as they were in the 17th century. Despite inevitable modernizing, it’s still possible to hike the entire Nakasendo – but most visitors choose to spend one to twelve days on its pristine central section from Ena to Narai.
Between these beautifully preserved Edo towns lies the fabulous Kiso Valley, a living vision of ancient, rural Japan. Huge stretches of the road are paved with their original ishidatami cobbles, curling through pedestrianized villages of traditional wooden houses, and stepped to follow the steep gradients of the forest hillsides. With volcanic Mount Ontake as a backdrop, the road reaches its zenith as custodian of Japanese rural cultural tradition between the villages of Tsumago and Magome. Achingly picturesque combinations of rocky hillsides, rivers, waterfalls and forests confound touristic cynicism with their enduring natural beauty. So much so that you appreciate the fact that even the postmen here wear full Edo-period costume. From Magome, some of the Nakasendo’s loveliest landscapes unfurl on the steep climb to the Torii Pass, and culminate in the 17th to 19th century treasures of Narai.
One terrific feature of the Nakasendo is the chance to stay in traditional minshuku – family-run inns where everyone eats and talks together. It’s a rare opportunity for visitors to meet local people – it illuminates the journey.
WHEN TO GO:
April to October. Each season creates a new version of the Nakasendo’s magic.
TIME IT TAKES:
1-12 days. The most popular stretch, Tsumago-Magome, is a 3-4 hour slow ramble, usually as part of a 1-day excursion. Ena-Narai is an easy to moderate 12-day hike of up to 20 km (12 mi) a day, with 2 rest days.
The hilarity of composing haiku, partly In sign language, for the Japanese families who run the minshuku, where all activities like eating and bathing are communal.
The historical integrity of the road – the restoration along the Ena-Narai section far transcends the usual ‘theme-park’ approach. This is all genuine and surprisingly moving.
The early morning mists, reinforcing the most powerful aesthetic in the predominant image of old Japan.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Among the minshuku along the Nakasendo’s central section are some of Japan’s oldest and most famous inns – astonishingly, unwilling to capitalize on their fame and therefore still
accessible to all travellers. That really is a cultural shock!