Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Unbearable Beauty of The Nakasendo

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last autumn, I walked a 7.5 kilometer stretch of the old Nakasendo - a 17th century travel road that once served as the primary northern travel route between Kyoto and Edo (now called Tokyo).

The Kiso Valley, as seen from the Nakasendo

Although my books are set in the 16th century, the section I walked is actually far older. Known as the Kisoji, this ancient travel road connected the mountain towns of Nagano and Gifu prefectures. (And thus, makes a perfect setting for one of my upcoming historical mysteries.)

Almost 8km, start to finish.

When the Tokugawa shoguns established designated travel roads (for monitoring and controlling commerce as they unified Japan), the Kisoji was absorbed into the Nakasendo (which follows its route exactly).

Before walking the road, I spent the night at Magomechaya, a minshuku (traditional guest house) in the preserved post town of Magome--once, the southernmost terminus of the Kisoji.

Magome in twilight.

After the day-trippers leave, the shopkeepers set lanterns along the street, turning the village into a magical place as the sun goes down.

Magomechaya, the minshuku where I stayed.

The following morning, I woke at dawn and followed the steep, winding road out of town and past the ancient notice board where Tokugawa shoguns posted edicts for travelers and townspeople along the Nakasendo:

You didn't want to see your name on this notice board.

Shortly after I set out, the sun appeared above the mountains, illuminating a lotus field:

Parts of the Nakasendo haven't changed much in 1000 years.

The road remains uneven, cobblestoned in places:

17th century cobblestones.

packed earth in others:

Silent, untouched, and breathtakingly beautiful.

It winds through mountains covered in towering pines and glorious maples:

More metaphors than you can shake a stick at.

And it hides a hidden danger ... bears.

Please have a thing out of the sound. Not a clue what that means,  but fortunately I survived.

Since medieval times, travelers on the Nakasendo have had to watch out for the bears that inhabit the mountains. Brass "bear bells" hang on stands at intervals along the road, with signs warning travelers to ring them hard "against bears."

"Ring the bell hard against bears."

I saw no bears to ring the bells against, which was probably good. The signs did not include instructions on how to make the bears stand still long enough for me to ring a bell against them, anyway.

About two-thirds of the way to Tsumago - the next town north of Magome, and my initial destination -- a road branches off, with a sign that reads "Otaki-Metaki Waterfalls." Never one to bypass an opportunity for adventure, I took the proverbial road less traveled by...

Not sure which one is Otaki & which is Metaki

The falls sit about 100 meters apart, and each is about 40' high.

It did, indeed, make all the difference.

Afterward, I retraced my steps to the Nakasendo and continued my journey, arriving in the preserved post town of Tsumago in time for lunch and a visit to the fantastic museums there.

Tsumago, Japan Alps.
But that's a story for another day.

Preserved inn and teahouse, Tsumago.

Although it's not as well-known as many historical sites in Japan, the Nakasendo is one of my favorite places in Japan. I loved every minute of my walk, even if its beauty was ...

... unbearable.

(Sorry, Jeff, I had to beat you to it.)


  1. Unbearable? That's a bear-faced lie. It seems VERY bearable to me. Lovely, and thanks for sharing, Susan.

    1. Thanks Everett :) And yes, I did manage to bear it - for the team, of course.

  2. Can we put this on our itinerary? PLEASE.

    1. Absolutely! It's one of my favorite places in Japan, and I think you will love it too.

  3. Susan, I didn't hesitate on commenting on your wonderful report out of any envy on my part at your first class pun, but because I was way too distracted by the bares on Mykonos. See, we grizzled veterans can take it. :)