Along Japan's ancient Nakasendo Way

PETER MANDEL
Last updated 05:15 24/06/2014

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The moon in Japan is not like our moon. There is no man in there, for one thing. No man, no horn, no cow.

It's night-time in Kyoto, and Shima Enomoto, one of my guides, is pointing up at the sky. "Can you see it?" she asks.

"Rabbit making a rice cake." She laughs. "Almost a cartoon."

"Maybe it will take some time," I say, looking above rows of buildings, trees with buds about to unwrap, and signs that flash their avenue colours into fire. "Tomorrow we'll be on the road," I say. "I'll look again."

It's only day one of my trip, and already life feels strange. It could be jet lag, but the idea of walking through fields and over mountains and ending up in Tokyo doesn't strike me as realistic. But this is the plan.

Walk Japan, the tour company I'm here with, specialises in ambitious treks, and I've signed up for one of its longer routes: the 11-day Nakasendo Way tour.

My group will follow the path of an ancient and largely forgotten highway known as the Nakasendo. Starting in Kyoto, we'll walk the more scenic, better-preserved parts of the trail through Hikone, Sekigahara, Magome, Tsumago and Narai before ending up in downtown Tokyo.

We've been told to be ready to hike from 9 to  to 25 kilometres each day along a mix of lanes, gravel tracks, forest paths and cobblestoned roadway.

Dating back to the 7th century, Japan's Nakasendo was once a path for shoguns, pilgrims and samurai - not to mention average travellers like us - who, according to my pre-hike brochure, wore out pair after pair of straw sandals on the rolling terrain.

Studded with Shinto shrines and statues of deities charged with watching over those on the road, the Nakasendo reached the peak of its usefulness and romance during Japan's Edo Period (1603-1868), before steam trains and paved roads changed the pace of travel.

This was a stable time for Japan, under Tokugawa rule. Arts like haiku, woodblock printing, bonsai and kabuki theatre flourished in the larger cities. Since the Nakasendo linked two of the biggest cities, speeding commerce and messages, it was at the heart of this Japanese golden age.

One of the most exciting parts of the walk for me is the chance to spend some nights at wayside inns known as ryokan or, when simpler, as minshuku. I once helped compile a book about the world's oldest family firms, and these traditional hostels popped up in the research again and again.

Sure enough, after trudging through bamboo forests during our first day on the road, we turn in at Masuya Inn in the village of Sekigahara - a minshuku that, we're told, has been in business for more than eight centuries. Guest rooms at the inn are carved out by sliding panels made of wood and rice paper, and beneath our not-very-cushiony futons are floors that have been spread with tatami matting. No shoes are allowed indoors, and there are special plastic slippers for use only in the bathrooms.

Staying here helps us immerse ourselves in being part of a group. As will be the case on other nights, we dine at the inn, slipping on robes called yukata and curling up our tired legs beneath the knee-high communal table. One by one, we take turns in the Japanese-style bath, lowering ourselves into a cedar-edged tureen of steaming water and wallowing there until our road-tight muscles uncoil.

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There are nine of us in the tour group, including Naomi Addyman, a British guide who grew up in Japan; Enomoto, a guide-in-training; and Logan Wong, one of four walkers from Singapore, who informs us that he owns the Yankee Candle distributorship there.

"Yankee Candles?" I ask. "In Singapore?"

"Yes, of course," says Wong, who is dressed for hanging out in a food court, not for hiking. "Extremely popular there. Especially the lemon verbena."

We're on the road right after breakfast the next day, taking advantage of a hazy early spring sun. Plum blossoms are just starting to come out (no cherry yet), and there are puffs of mistletoe in some trees. The path is grassy and mostly level this close to Kyoto, winding through rice paddies and around modest farms.

Carol Behm, a professor from Canberra, Australia, points out a patch of violets and yellow kumquat flowers, and someone thinks they see a snake.

"It's a stick," I say.

"No, it's not," Addyman says. "It's a snake. But it's not a dangerous one."

Every now and then, the road leads us into tunnels of shade created by cedar and cypress, and at one point, we stop at a sign with a picture of an angry-looking predator. Next to it is a small steel cup. "Ring bell against bear," translates Enomoto with a nervous laugh.

Wong gives it a pull, and the sound reverberates around, bouncing back from hills up ahead. "Not to worry," Addyman says. "These are Japanese bears. They're very shy." According to Addyman, the signmakers should be more worried about the wild boar out here.

But as we begin to climb, no one seems concerned about becoming a snack for animals. Our focus is on learning to pick out the three Japanese characters carved into stone and wooden road signs that designate our route. The first symbol looks like a bird built out of bamboo; the second like the prongs of a pitchfork; and the third like Noah's ark. Or more like half an ark.

"Meadow. Mountain. Way," deciphers Addyman. "That's the Nakasendo - literally translated."

Each day of the walk, the road seems slightly steeper and mountains wearing caps of white step up to dominate the view. It may be because we're working harder, but eating is on everyone's mind. Meals at our inns have been like edible galleries, with a main exhibit (usually a hot pot) and interesting mini-plates presenting forest mushrooms, squares of tofu, or sashimi, on the side.

"Wish there was a convenience store near here," someone complains as we're picking our way around paving stones that were laid to make the path more predictable for tired feet and hooves.

"No hope, no hope," Wong says. "But Naomi says there's a Boss Coffee machine in the next village. Or it might be the one after."

"Only in Japan," adds Tracey Yeh, a banker from Singapore. "It's vending and more vending. You don't want to run out of change even deep in the woods." Yeh pulls out a bag of Calbee potato chips: soy sauce and mayo flavour. "Want some?" she asks. We pool what we've got.

Wong breaks open a box of Pocky-brand snack sticks. "Rum and raisin," he grins. No one has any rice cakes, but one of the guides offers around some deep-fried eel bones in a cellophane pack. To cleanse our palates, there are Kit Kats. Kit Kats laced with wasabi. We march on.

We reach the top of a pass, where everyone takes a break and where our guides point out a poem, a sad one, that's been inscribed in stone. The author was a princess, we're told. Princess Kazunomiya, who travelled the Nakasendo in the mid-1800s, when she was forced to leave Kyoto for Edo to become the shogun's wife.

"Why compose it here?" Wong asks. "Well," Enomoto says, "this is about the point where views back to Kyoto are lost."

From this point on, travellers would have turned their thoughts to Edo (now Tokyo). I try this, too. It works until we make it to a town called Okute.

Here, there is a kind of shrine. It's not like those we've passed so far: Most have been small and tidy, with well-made torii gates and statues, sometimes, of Jizo Bodhisattva, guardian of travellers. This one is massive. Most have had a sacred rope, a shimenawa, strung across the entrance. This one is hung with twisted branches and leaves.

It's a tree: a giant cedar. So old, at 1,300 years, that it is thought of as a Shinto deity. The tree is watching, we are sure, as we slide our daypacks back onto our shoulders and return to the path. Other roadside gods observe our progress in the days to follow. They inspect us as we trudge up ever steeper slopes. They know what will happen: Since it is only April, we will walk in snow.

In a couple of the higher passes, we do. Everyone in the tour group seems delighted. Australians and Singaporeans scoop snowballs and study the structure of a half-melted patch that decorates the trail.

"It's like Christmas Day," someone says. "Christmas in Japan."

As for me, I'm grouchy the second I see white. As a New Englander, I'm in search of spring.

When others are using walking sticks like ski poles, I'm chopping at the snow. Chopping and stomping. Trying to make it go away.

As we begin to descend, roadside deities regard us from their pedestals and temples - maybe approving, maybe grieving just a bit. Our tour, and the Nakasendo itself, ends in Tokyo.

From the outskirts of the city, we board a train and tick off some miles sitting down. There's a sense of throwing off a load. And, maybe a little, of guilt. Once in the glass-box city centre, we exchange our path for crosswalks. We trace the last few miles on foot.

Our goal, as modern pilgrims, is Tokyo's Nihonbashi bridge. And almost without realizing it, we are there.

Once called Edo Bridge, the Nihonbashi was tapped as the eastern end of the Nakasendo during the 17th century. Nowadays, it is still a touchstone. Japanese road signs to Tokyo calculate their distance not from the city limits, but from the Nihonbashi.

The bridge doesn't look like a woodblock print. It looks like a contemporary span. Above it is a highway humming with cars. But the cherries are out here. Blossoms spin and fly like confetti when the wind kicks up. Sidewalks, even gutters, look celebratory. Corners of buildings collect drifts of petals. Cars are dusted white, or pink.

Out come cameras and, from the bottom of someone's pack, a single package of Pocky that we somehow missed.

"Have we done it?" asks Yeh.

"We have," Addyman confirms.

Later that evening, to try and remember it, I make it back to the bridge. I find myself standing underneath a cherry tree that's only steps from where the Nakasendo ends. Its canopy is not like the cedar's. Much more delicate. Frailer. Like straw for sandals.

Through the branches, I see a streetlight. No, it's rounder, whiter than that: It's the moon.

I think of Shima Enomoto. But she has gone.

"Can you see it?" she would ask. I wouldn't want to tell her. Eleven days from Kyoto, I have looked again. And what I find in the downtown Tokyo moon is not a rabbit. It is not a rice cake.

It's a line through lunar plains and mountains. A path that may have snow, or paving stones, or shrines, for all I know.

The moon of Japan shows a road.

Mandel is an author of books for kids, including "Jackhammer Sam" (Macmillan). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

WHAT TO DO walkjapan.com

Guided 11-day Nakasendo Way walking tour is about US$4,085 (NZ$4695) per person and includes accommodation for 10 nights, breakfasts and dinners, baggage transfers and entrance fees. Flights, lunches and alcoholic drinks are not included. Maximum group size is 12 to 13 people.

Pack some decent water-resistant trail shoes and plenty of cushiony socks. A daypack, a hat, a waterproof jacket or rain poncho and clothing that you can layer are also a good idea. Japanese law requires that you carry your passport with you at all times.

INFORMATION jnto.go.jp

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