The Kiso trail in Japan in autumn is one of the most scenic walks we have ever done. If it had not been for an Air New Zealand flight attendant we might never have heard of it. On a flight back to New Zealand two years ago she stopped by for a friendly chat. Having noticed that we were both wearing a pair of sturdy walking shoes she suggested we should make a trip to Japan and do it. “You would love it” she said.
The Kiso trail is about 8 km long and takes three hours to walk. It was part of the former Nakasendo route that connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period and connects two historical villages, Magome and Tsumago.
In the 18th century they were both ‘post’ towns where travellers could break their journey and stop off at inns and shops. But when rail transport spread during the Meiji era the number of visitors greatly declined. It was not until recent decades that their tourist potential was recognised, and the buildings were lovingly restored. Now tourists come here in droves.
We arrived at Magome at midday and took our time to ramble along the gently sloping street along with many other tourists who were admiring the black houses with thatched roofs, shopping for souvenirs or eating in small restaurants. At the top of the town we stopped off for a sustaining bowl of buckwheat noodles before starting our walk.
The trail started uphill on large and rather uneven cobblestones. Gingerly I took small steps wanting to retain my balance.
“At that rate it will be pitch-dark before we get there,” warned my partner. But the going soon became easier and I picked up my pace.
The way was clearly marked with signs in both Japanese and English. It must also surely hold the world record for the largest number of small restrooms on the way, over a dozen.
One thing we didn’t know beforehand was that we would be walking through bear country. Alongside each bear warning notice there was a bell to ring. But I couldn’t help wondering, would this noise scare a bear or signal that a human dinner was close at hand?!
We had the trail to ourselves most of the way. It was a peaceful, leisurely walk in the cool autumn weather, uphill for the first third and then gradually downwards. It led us past farmland and rice paddies, along streams and waterfalls and through forested areas with small shrines. The autumn colours were absolutely stunning. Partway through the journey we took a small break when an old man beckoned us to come inside his farmhouse to drink tea.
We made it to Tsumago in good time, by late afternoon. Tourists were shopping for sweets, lacquered goods and locally made wood ware. But we did not linger long as we wanted to find our guesthouse at the very end of the road before it got dark which it does by about 4.30 pm at that time of year. It was a restored old farmhouse (minshuku) belonging to a local family.
Our hostess, who spoke very little English, gave us a warm welcome. Then as you do in Japan we took off our shoes and got into slippers which you must take off again before entering your room. Covered in tatami matting, it was sparsely furnished with just a low table and a chest of drawers. The bedding was rolled up and hidden away in a cupboard. We sat down on the floor barefooted, sipped cups of green tea and checked our emails.
Dinner would be at 6 pm, enough time to have a Japanese bath. You have to soap and then rinse yourself before getting into the steaming hot tub to have a relaxing soak. When John, who is a large man, hopped into the bath with me there was a huge whoosh as water cascaded over the edge. We had a bit of a laugh about it with an English couple over dinner as they had had exactly the same experience.
At dinner time we sat on low stools, legs stretched under the table. Our food was very decoratively arranged in small pottery bowls on individual trays and was absolutely delicious. Alongside the rice, fish (a tiny 15 cm trout each), a variety of pickles, vegetables and miso soup there were two local delicacies: fried grasshoppers and horsemeat sashimi. The grasshoppers looked gruesome, but marinated and deep-fried they were quite tasty crunchy mouthfuls. But three were enough for me. I surreptitiously handed the rest over to John who was more appreciative.
The combination of a good long walk, a special dinner and some sake and beer soon made us feel snoozy. We unrolled our bedding and had a very good night’s sleep.
When I woke up the next morning and saw the quiet countryside and the mountains beyond through our window I felt utterly relaxed.
After breakfast it was time to leave this tranquil environment and to continue on our journey. Carrying our small backpacks we walked for another hour to a train station. It would be three trains before reaching our next destination, Osaka.
By Lyn Potter. Read more here.