On the Nakasendo Road – Lifestyle & Travel for Physicians

Central Tsumago

It was just after dawn on the Nakasendo Road, deep in the mountains of central Japan. Clouds, left over from the night’s rain, filled the surrounding passes, and there was a quiet such as one rarely finds these days, even in a country  known for its silences. I had stepped outside with one of my six American traveling companions, a consultant from New Jersey, for an early morning stroll and photo shoot of the low-slung row of buildings of aged cypress, and we agreed that it’d been a long time since we’d felt such peace. The stillness was broken ever so politely by the clip-clop of” wooden geta sandals worn by an elderly woman in thick blue cotton. The sight of a Westerner still raises eyebrows in remote Japan, but she nodded, cast her eyes slightly downward, and greeted us with a sotto “Chiwahhhhh.” a refrain we’d hear over and over in our week-and-a-half hiking trip of the country’s back roads. We nodded back, and she smiled.

The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but in Japan that’s true only in geometry. The language is full of twists, turns, and detours; music dances around a point; true emotions are guarded with fervor; and a logical, direct approach is often the quickest way to douse a business deal. Japan has straightaways, of course, but on them one could be forgiven for feeling no sense of place. Modern Japan is full of boxy architecture along wide avenues, so that Tokyo looks like Osaka which looks like Fukuoka. To see the soul of Japan, it’s best to step around, as I do when I lead groups of Americans for hikes along the back roads, this time a group of a half-dozen: a retired husband and wife, a university librarian, a human relations Consultant and a silicon pirate.

The Nakasendo is perhaps Japan’s ultimate bypass, wayward, gnarled, and idiosyncratic. Some- 1,200 years old, it was a post road through the mountains of central Japan, connecting; Kyoto, the former imperial capital, with Edo (now Tokyo), seat of the shogun, the nation’s feudal ruler. Samurai and their families, on their way to pilgrimages or official business in the capitals, would have spent the night in one of dozens of towns, such as the hamlet of Tsumago, praying at the same Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and staying in much the same inns as exist today. The Nakasendo serves no imperative nowadays, but its paths and way stations are popular among Japanese leisure hikers seeking nature and history. Few foreigners know of the Nakasendo, and fewer actually visit, so we were treated to a side of Japan that once was privy only to samurai and their retinues.

They would have slept, as we did, on futons on tatami mats, covered with soft cotton blankets and duvets, their heads resting on buckwheat pillows. They would have bathed, as we did, in wooden tubs (clean yourself before getting in, using spigots and buckets to the side) and stepped out of the bath into cotton yukata bathrobe which doubled as pajamas. The inn would have prepared, as we received, a dinner of sashimi, clear soup with kinoko (tiny button mushrooms), trout grilled with salt, assorted pickles and mountain vegetables, and shoestringed gobo, a nutty, flavorful root, long as a witch’s finger and scary to toddlers. And, of course, rice and copious amounts of sake. The most noticeable difference between then and now may be that we carried our baggage on our backs, while the samurai and their baggage would have been carried on the backs of servants, in palanquins called mikoshi.

Nakasendo Road Marker between Magome and Tsumago

There were other trunk roads in Japan, the most famous of which was the Tokaido, paralleling the Pacific Coast near the present-day bullet train route through the country’s industrial heartland. Its way stations were immortalized  in the woodblock prints of Hiroshige, but the Nakasendo knew no such glory. The Nakasendo was always more workmanlike and rustic, not to mention steep and difficult to negotiate. So when the shogunate ended in 1868 with the restoration of the imperial system under the emperor Meiji, industrialization, migration, and train lines brought people to the big cities, and Tsumago and other towns deep in the mountains began to wither.

Paradoxically, this desolation helped to save Tsumago—from western bombings and now it appears essentially as it was in the mid-1800s, It would have been easy to make the town a museum, sort of a Japanese Colonial Williamsburg, but thanks to a 1976 preservation law, it’s an actual working town, maintained by its residents. From the road you can’t see the electric lines or plumbing. The only unmistakable sign of the modern world is that the narrow Nakasendo has been paved here, but even it is closed to vehicular traffic during the daytime. Another difference between then and now is that physical activity in Japan used to mean labor, while now it means fun, a way of socializing with a group of friends. It’s not uncommon to see eight people on a single tennis court, letting everyone have a chance to practice volleying before they all go out for a beer.

Similarly, everywhere they hike, the Japanese seem to do it in groups. On our hilly, seven-kilometer trek along the Nakasendo to Magome, another historic post town, we passed descendants of laborers, and maybe those of samurai, going the other way, not so much hiking as socializing in motion. There was a group of high school girls in the latest fashions; there were ladies in high heels that sank in the moist dirt: and there was an entire busload of men and women in sky-blue polo shirts who turned out to be Japanese physical education teachers. It was thrilling to see the Japanese acting loose and having fun, so unlike the reserved nature of the city-dwellers. I was proud that my group of Americans, most of them first-timers in Japan and none of them Japanese speakers, had mastered the art of the “chiwahhhhh,” a contraction of kon-nichi wa (hello) that always seems to be- delivered in E-flat and under the breath.

Some say that hiking is culturally ingrained in Japan, thanks to Shinto, the native Japanese religion. “Gods are contained in anything natural: trees, rocks, the sky, water,” explains Nancy Craft, a student of Japanese culture for some two decades and now a hiking guide there. Even animals like foxes, bean, and beetles are considered friendly, not threatening, In essence, Craft explains, one becomes holy by communing with nature, and all throughout the countryside you’ll see rocks or tree decorated with strands of white origami to signify purity, equating to holiness. “There were oftentimes shrines that you could only get to by hiking,” and many of those still exist. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the mid-sixth century. Craft continues, it adopted some trappings of Shinto. “In many Japanese forms of Buddhism, temples are located very near mountains, and the forest around them is often an extension of the temple,” a place to commune and meditate. “In the Tendai sect, part of the ritual is hiking around mountains and doing pilgrimages.”

You might call Kobo Daishi the patron saint of hiking in Japan. This eighth-century priest devised a circuit linking 88 temples on the island of Shikoku, a hike that enthusiasts still practice. “Then there are the yamabushi,”  Craft says, “mountain monks whose whole practice involves hiking from temple to temple in the  mountains around Nara. They’re popular figures in Noh and kabuki, often portrayed in deerskin leggings, sort of mountain shamans and sorcerers.”

Hiking as sport in Japan did not really begin until Walter Weston, an English missionary, came to the nation’s center in 1891, christened the mountains there the “Japan Alps” and wrote the first guide to them to be published in the West.

There is a shrine to Weston in Kamikochi National park, in the Alps’ northern reaches, two hours from any big city, and a taxi, train, and bus ride away from the Nakasendo. Weston had pronounced the park “the roof of Japan,” a name I’d always taken for hyperbole—until I visited. Many visitors liken Kamikochi to the Grand Tetons, and given the Japanese spiritual attachment to nature, “mountains’ majesty” takes on new meaning. Passing through the park’s Myoshin pond, just beginning to show its fall colors, our group fell silent all at once, taking a moment, and then several more, to meditate on the simple holiness of the rushing stream, the perfectly clear water in the pond, and the mountain behind it, covered with ever green and maple. The landscape, it occurred to us, was the natural equivalent of the idealized gardens the Japanese have been creating nationwide for centuries.

Our modern-day Weston took the form of Yumiko Imai, a park ranger and reformed Tokyo-ite, wearing a Tyrolean that with a feather that made her look like a petite William Tell. She led us through the forest, pointing out special trees and rocks, the sawgrass known as sasa, erosion and fallen limbs. Annette, a curious Californian, asked the significance of the small stones piled upon boulders and fallen trees. “Is the tree holy?” she wanted to know. “Is there a spirit inside?”

“No.” Imai-san replied. “Japanese people put rocks on anything.”

We spent that night in a modern but rustic inn deep in the woods, the only for­eigners in a lodge busy with Japanese. “Attention, the group from Nagoya: Your dinner is prepared. Please come to the dining hall” a high-pitched voice announced over the P.A. to another group. Dinner was sumptuous ;and varied: potato soup, stewed vegetables, tempura. a thin strip steak, salad, and, once again, rice and sake. We had booked double rooms and were glad of it: Many of the Japanese groups slept side by side in rooms tor 16. By 9, we felt we had earned our rest, and it’s a good thing, too— the inn is SO remote that it operates off a generator, which shuts down around 9.30.

The next morning, with mist sleeping in the valley but the sun wide awake above, the younger members of the group set off for a trip to the top of the park, a tremendously steep climb that took longer than expected and yielded more than a little grumbling. But “awestruck” does not begin to describe our delight over the incomparable views of the surrounding peaks.

There was also something we had not expected, a view of the perfect cone of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s tallest peak and national symbol, some 90 miles away. Weston had not exaggerated.T his really was the roof of Japan. Tired and wobbly-kneed but intensely satisfied, we added our own rocks to a pile.

After I left off my group I returned to Tokyo, where I used to live. My Tokyo had been a place of French, Thai, and Indian restaurants, nightclubs and karaoke bars, stores selling English-language books, and skyscrapers on wheels for earthquake protection. It was one of the noisiest, most crowded, least contemplative places I’d ever been, where the best way to reach your destination was not through a stroll but via a cramped train in a tunnel. You couldn’t find the Nakasendo now in Tokyo even if you wanted to, but the Sugamo district, in the north of town, is where it ended.

It’s a district that modem Tokyo-itcs liken to the sticks and consider themselves too sophisticated to visit.There.at Koganji Temple, resides a statue of Jizo, the Buddhist deity of travelers and the weak who was said to have removed thorns from the feet of weary walkers in the Nakasendo days. Skyscrapers may encircle the neighborhood now, but the area around the temple remains as intimate as a country town, with markets selling spicy cod eggs, sandals, and everyday clothing.

I arrived during a rainstorm, but Jizo was still plenty busy. The temple overflowed with elderly Japanese seeking relief from thorns that can be healed only with medicine or. in some cases, faith. The temple sells talismam of thin paper to be placed over the pain, or even eaten, for relief.

Watching these old folks. I was reminded of the Japanese proverb, “the ground hardens after the rains end,” which the Japanese interpret as “adversity brings strength “These folks may have seen their share of adversity in their early years, but they could still walk, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was no coincidence that they sought strength as their forebears did, here at the end ot the great road.