Self Guided Walking on the Nakasendo Trail with Oku Japan

We headed out at a pretty fast clip, not knowing yet how to judge the posted times on our itinerary (three hours, 5.2 miles)  from Magome to Tsumago. Starting off on a very steep flagstone road, complete with cheerful primroses,  through the historic little village, we hoped we hadn’t overestimated our hiking ability, but the terrain proved to be varied and anyone who is in relatively good condition and takes a good walk every day should be fine on this trail. Also as an odd side note, along the way there were fully functioning toilet facilities complete with heated bidet. Oh Japan.

 

Japan Day 3-6

For this part of our Journey we used the tour company, Oku Japan. We have done self guided walking tours with other companies in France and Italy and had wonderful trips each time. This was no exception. They company plans your hiking route, makes all the lodging reservations, provides most of your train tickets and arranges to have your luggage sent from point to point. We have not had one luggage glitch so far. It has just sailed smoothly along from place to place, it’s wonderful! You are often able to customize your lodging.  They also provide an itinerary with detailed directions and sometimes GPS files. You are walking alone, but you also have a contact person in country so they can help with emergencies. It’s maybe a little bit cheating, but it sure has worked out well for us. The best of both worlds.

We have a pair of collapsible lekki trekking poles that we use quite a bit during our hikes. Even my husband who is a minimalist is a fan. We have one pair and we each use one. I wear soft Anhu hiking boots while my husband prefers sneakers. My favorite rain gear is Patagonia’s Torrenshell poncho. I carry a small Topo Designs day pack and he carries a pack with a hydro insert so we can have water breaks easily.

We had reserved a taxi the night before to take us to the train station with plenty of time to navigate the train station in the morning. We had already received our ticket packet from Oku Japan upon our arrival at the hotel. I had double checked the time on a very useful site called Hyperdia. It has all the updated schedules to get you from point to point in Japan. We went through the ticket gate that was manned by an actual english speaking person and had him check our tickets. We were able to do this on every transfer during our two-week journey. I was pretty nervous even though I had done tons of research on the Japanese train system in advance. By the end of the trip we opted to take a local subway to our final destination in Osaka instead of a taxi and we only had one scheduling mishap the whole time. Luckily the announcements and departure/ arrival boards are in Japanese and English. My best advice is to keep your eye on the board. Also the trains play really fun arrival music.

Our first train was from Tokyo to Nagoya. We had plenty of time on the platform to browse the bento box shop on the platform. Then we boarded the shinkansen, Nozomi 103 bound for Hiroshima. We were happy that we were able to see Mount Fuji. I was amazed at the amount of time we were able to see it for. It’s pretty huge I guess. My husband and I are decidedly different on our approach to departing the train. I like to be waiting at the door well in advance with my luggage while he waits until we actually arrive. As you can tell by now I’m fairly OCD and his approach sets my teeth on edge. Anyhow our first Shinkansen ride was under our belts and we felt pretty good. It didn’t seem as fast as we had anticipated though. Then we took a smaller JR train, Wide view Shinano number 9, from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa bound for Nagano. The small train stations are super navigable and we felt ever more confident. From the train station we found our way over to the bus lanes and talked with an American woman traveling on her own. There was a busload of many nationalities all ready to hike the Nakasendo Trail. The bus ride took us up and up stopping at many different villages along the way to our destination in Magome, the 43d post town on the trail. We were happy to see there were still cherry trees blossoming as they were pretty much finished in Tokyo.Waiting for us in Magome was the driver who would bring our bags to the inn while we hiked. We stopped at a local soba place, Juri, where no English was spoken. The soba was great but the local roasted rice balls were the star of the show. I used some of my limited Japanese ” Mizu , Kudasi..”  along with some improvised sign language and scored a glass of water.

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We headed out at a pretty fast clip, not knowing yet how to judge the posted times on our itinerary (three hours, 5.2 miles)  from Magome to Tsumago. Starting off on a very steep flagstone road, complete with cheerful primroses,  through the historic little village, we hoped we hadn’t overestimated our hiking ability, but the terrain proved to be varied and anyone who is in relatively good condition and takes a good walk every day should be fine on this trail. Also as an odd side note, along the way there were fully functioning toilet facilities complete with heated bidet. Oh Japan.

It began to rain lightly and we put our rain gear to use. Gently up and down we went ringing the bells along the trail to scare the bears away. We never saw any bears but there were many warning signs posted along the trail. We met a few other hikers on this portion of the trail. We entered a woodsy section of the trail and saw our first Jizo statues. It felt good to be back in the woods and out of the busy city. Walking peacefully all day through new and beautiful territory and ending up at a nice inn with a tasty dinner. Our idea of  a  perfect vacation.

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A special spot along the way is a barn like teahouse which is run by a couple of old men who volunteer their services to their community by keeping up the teahouse tradition in a most jovial manner. I actually saw them on YouTube before the hike and they did not disappoint. These friendly characters served up tea, sweets, pickles and humor. We passed a fish farm, an impressive Tanuki statue, and a life-sized straw horse. Johnny- Jump ups were in bloom. In a little under three hours the post town of Tsumago appeared. We walked down a street with traditional buildings on either side. Our Minshuku Daikichi (traditional style inn) took a wee bit of searching to find but we were soon through its tiny door enjoying a hot family bath in a real cypress tub. Of course, we had exchanged our slightly soggy shoes for Japanese slippers at the front door.

 

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We donned our provided yukatas and headed for the dining room where we sampled a kaiseki meal with roasted grasshoppers, green tea salt and delicious whole roasted river fish while conversing with an Australian family and an Irish couple. The Australian family was multi generational and the youngest boy had had about enough of the Japanese food. His mum was coaching him to say politely that ” It wasn’t to his liking”.

We rolled out our futon, put our heads on our traditional buckwheat pillows and soon fell asleep listening to the pouring rain.

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The second day we got up early and had a Japanese breakfast of fish, rice , seaweed and Miso, and yogurt. We had an eight mile walk from Tsumago To Kiso Fukushima ahead of us. It was a pleasant journey through a couple of small villages, stands of bamboo and cedar forests. There was lots of water running alongside and some Hydroelectric Dams. We saw Primroses again and cherry blossoms, hooray! About an hour along the way  we stopped at a supermarket Norjiri and picked up some picnic supplies. My love affair with Japanese white bread sandos began here. They make such a comforting egg salad one. They also have tempting variety pack sandwich stacks. They are available everywhere and a nice foil to the food experimenting we were doing.

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The hike was well-marked and there were rest stops along the way. We met up with a young British couple now and then and we picnicked together. we were all going at a steady clip in order to make a 14:56 train to our final destination at the end of the hike. There was a later train available, just in case but we were really hoping for the earlier option. the last bit of the hike was downhill and we could spot the younger couple striding down the hill in front of us. There was a wonderful scent of cypress sawdust along the way at a sawmill. Lots of cypress items are made in the area. We all got to the station in plenty of time. We had hoped that there was a snack shop around but there was only a small train station, no snacks. After a short JR train ride we arrived in Kiso Fukushima. We had instructions to call that night’s inn, Komanoyu Ryokan and say very slowly OKU JAPAN and our name and the inn’s van would come and pick us up, which it did.

Exchanging our shoes for slippers at the door we were shown to our very large room and served green tea. There were tea making supplies included in almost every room we stayed in during our trip. We were given yukatas and found our way to the baths. This time we they were again separated by sex and each side had an indoor and outdoor bath. Hike , bathe, eat, sleep. I could get  used to this. The dinner here was delicious and bounteous. We were given many more courses than we were able to eat. The Ryokan offered a stargazing program but we opted for bed. I stopped in the lobby gift shop and purchased a few items and I also visited a small reading nook which had a large collection of graphic novels. When we returned to our room our futon were beautifully spread out for us and we slept well.

In the morning the van took us back to Kiso Fukushima. We stopped at the tourist office for information. My husband decided to take a morning hike to Gongen Waterfall . I was happy to go on just one hike that day and to explore the town instead. I found a small general store which had yarn and sewing items. I had a good time trying to communicate with the ladies there about the wool content in the yarn and we all ended up laughing a lot. I came away having learned the words Hit su JI for sheep and URU, wool and with 2 balls of Japanese yarn. I checked out a funny little museum and tried to figure out how to get to Kozenji Temple. I am terribly challenged by maps and when I see that “you are here” I think it’s great but I just don’t see how to get from “here” to “there”. I stopped into a store that sold mostly what looked like beans and the woman there got her dad who spoke English and he very kindly drove me to the temple in his car. The whole time we were in Japan I felt completely safe so I never thought twice about it. Truthfully, I think you could leave your pack in the middle of the street in Tokyo and it would likely be there waiting when you returned.The only thing I was worried about was finding my way back to the main street so I watched carefully on the very short drive. Kozenji has some beautiful gardens and is worth a trip.

My husband texted that he was back from the hike, which he enjoyed, and took a taxi to the temple. We walked back to the town together and picked up lunch at the convenience store, combini as the Japanese call it. We enjoyed our egg sandwiches, wasabi crisps and cake rolls, fizzy fruit soda and hot latte in a can at the train station and  boarded the JR Chuo line train for a brief ride to Yabuhara , starting point for the our 3 hour hike to Narai, the final post town of our journey.

In this spirit of safety and sharing we would often see umbrellas for borrowing along the way…..

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After passing through the small village of Yabuhara with its famous comb shops,this hike was a contrast to the day before being mainly through forested trails. The highlight is a small shrine at the tori pass with some lovely old stone statues. It’s just a bit steep but not strenuous. There are also several bear warning signs. I did quite a bit of loud singing and we never saw a bear, though I’m not sure my traveling companion appreciated the entertainment.

The order in which we planned our city walks and hiking routes worked out well because the hikes were progressively harder as we went along with lots of city walking in between. We slowly built up to our most challenging  hike on the last day of the Kumano Kodo .

The hike ends at the shrine in the beautiful old post town of Narai. There were many shops along the main road of the old town, including some shops selling cypress wood products along the way to our inn .  I stocked up on animal shaped baby spoons.

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I really enjoyed the Iseya Inn, est. 1818. The owner was so friendly and helpful. There was an umbrella pine family bath and the rooms were homey and cozy. The food was delicious, Crispy fried rainbow trout and chicken, shiso leave and a bowl of fresh mixed vegetables including bamboo. We shared the inn with a guided tour group ( also Oku Japan) and it was fun to eavesdrop on their group. In the morning we had a short walk to the station, where we ran into a couple my husband had met at the waterfall, and made our way to Kyoto.
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Reading list: Walking the Kiso Road

 

 

 

 

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