Nakasendo Walking Trail


The history

If the Kumano Kodo trail was all about creating a spiritual route through the mountains, this Nakasendo Trail was more about creating a feudal one. At over 500km long, it was established in the 17th century to give feudal lords, samurai and merchants access between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) as the powers were being transferred from one to the other. The name refers to the topography of route, and translates literally as ‘central mountain route’. There are 69 ‘post towns’ or resting places en route, where you can stay in traditional ryokan inns, bathe in hot springs, and bask in mountain magnificence. Most vacations here cover small, easy sections, linking them with train journeys rather than taking on the whole thing.

The hike

Although most walkers cover the traditional route between Tokyo and Kyoto, or vice versa, they use Japan’s efficient public transport system to join up some of the dots, and then just hike the most stunning sections, staying in post towns along the way. These highlights include the Kiso Valley, the starting point for those beginning their journey in Tokyo, and where the post towns of Magome, Tsumago and Narai are well known, ancient spots to spend a night in traditional inns. This mountainous terrain is enveloped by the Japanese Alps, and in Magome, for example, you have great views out to Mount Ena.
There are some long days on this walking vacation, but usually well balanced out with shorter ones the next day. Such as the 18km from the post town of Tsumago to Nojiri, where you meet a train to take you to your bed for the night at nearby Kiso-Fukushima, complete with hot springs. Then the next day is only a 7km hike over the Torii Pass to Narai. This was traditionally the halfway point along the trail and the place where travelers’ documents were inspected and security measures put in place, to ensure that there were no revolts or insurrections planned against the feudal regime. Narai, the post town known as the ‘town of a thousand houses’ is a wonderful place to spend a day delving into the Nakasendo Trail’s history.

The vacation

Walking vacations that take in the Nakasendo Trail include time in both Tokyo and Kyoto, and often facilitate walking tours around both. In Kyoto, for example, you will visit the Sanjo-ohashi Bridge, which is at the western end of the Nakasendo Trail, and the Golden Pavilion. You may also take in a trip to the ancient city of Nara, which has the highest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan. One of the most stunning walks here is through its central park, home to Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan, located in one of the largest wooden buildings in the world too.
You can hike along the Nakasendo Trail throughout the year, although one of the most underrated times to do so is in winter when the trails are quiet, the air is crisp and skies are blue, and the traditional villages are beyond picture postcard pretty, dusted in snow. With expert local guides you can go winter walking or snowshoeing along the marked ways, and end your day simmering in a steaming thermal bath, with snowflakes falling all around.
Photo credits: [Top box: OKU Japan] [The hike: yue] [The vacation - snow: OKU Japan]
Written by Catherine Mack
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