Hiking on the Nakasendo

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During the Edo Period, the Nakasendo (“the way through the mountains”) was one of the main roads connecting Tokyo – then known as Edo – with the provinces. Traders and craftsmen as well as local rulers had to travel along these mountain paths. Near Magome northeast of Nagoya, the mountains and forests are particularly dense, and civilisation seems to be particularly far away. Today tourists go hiking on the Nakasendo, the old way through the mountains.

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Time has stopped on the Nakasendo

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Here, time has stopped. Or else it has been turned back. The houses are built from wood, and no electric wires and satellite dishes are to be seen. A postman in indigo-dyed uniform and with a round straw hat, cloth shoes and a wooden box slung over his shoulder is delivering letters. The steep stone path continues up over the pass, but the locals don’t go there – nor do they know about bus timetables or accommodation beyond the mountain pass. It is the neighbouring prefecture and therefore very distant. In one of the small shops we talk to a wrinkled old woman who gives us a jar of Fuki-Miso as a present. Fuki, she explains, is a bitter spiky flower that grows in early spring in the deep forests. She has been out to collect it herself and mixed it with miso paste to sell to the tourists

“Hen hao!” “Zhege ma?” Suddenly a group of Taiwanese tour group is swarming the one narrow road leading through the village. They fill all the souvenir shops, eat Goheimochi, the flat rice cakes covered with a delicious sesame-walnut paste, and constantly bump into each other taking photos with their mobile phones.

Rice paddies and bamboo groves

Behind Magome the bus tourists peter out. The path now leads through freshly planted rice paddies and bamboo groves. Three day hikers from Nagoya point out a dôsôjin stone, a votive tablet dedicated to the god of journeys. Just before the post station of Ochiai the old stone pavement has been restored and the winding trail leads through a shady green forest that feels cool even on a sunny day like this one.

Soon we pass a traditional teahouse.  A man with long grey ponytail and several rounds of Buddhist prayer beads around his neck is adjusting something at the little Shinto shrine in the garden. “My, isn’t it getting hot,” he opens a conversation, only to state a few sentences later: “What I like about Japan is that the religions don’t fight here.” We agree and resume our path.

In the days when the Nakasendô was one of the major roads connecting the distant provinces with the capital, the teahouses and inns were divided by rank: Some would only serve the high-ranking Daimyo and other travelling dignitaries, while others catered for the common people.  Most of these establishments had to close in the 20th century when a railroad was built serving the area.

A touristic revival

“It is forbidden to sell drugs or counterfeit money,“ announces a wooden sign high above our heads, while another one explains the details of payment for the stable boys. The announcement boards, which were built to symbolize the government’s high authority, have been re-erected in recent years for the benefit of tourists eager to discover the Edo Period.

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“It is only in the past 10 or 15 years that people have started to hike the Nakasendô for entertainment,” explains Ogiso-san. He is 70 and has recently moved back to Ôkute. His family has owned the house in the small Nakasendô post station for over 300 years. Ogiso-san leads us to the village elder, as we are looking for a place to pitch our tent for the night. The local elementary school has been closed down 5 years ago, for lack of children, and we get the permission to stay on the disused athletic field. In the evening Ogiso-san shows up with beer and potato salad and it turns out he and Isa went to the same university in Tokyo.

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The next morning we take the school bus down into the valley to the train station, where we board a train for Nagoya and return to present-day Japan.

NB: Our hiking trip on the Nakasendo was part of our research work for a Japan guidebook. However we did not receive any sponsoring and paid all costs ourselves.

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