When I think back, it was madness. Starting out on an 8 kilometre slice of Japan’s famous Nakasendo Trail in the beautiful Kiso Valley with a crook knee! But it was a hike I’d wanted to do for a long time, and my determined spirit kicked in. If I could manage just one kilometre, it would be worth the effort.
The Nakasendo Trail is a 534 kilometre route that once was a major ‘highway’ link between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto, used by Samurai, their entourages, Royal messengers and even Princesses on their way to marry in Edo. One Princess, en route to Edo to marry a Shogun, is said to have travelled on the Nakasendo with an entourage of 10,000 people!
Along the old route were 69 places called post towns where travellers would rest. Today, the route is popular with hikers, particularly the well maintained sections through the picturesque Kiso Valley in Nagano prefecture where the ancient trail is also known as the Kisokaidō. Younger, fitter people than me no doubt walk the entire trail. You can do it independently, or there are companies to guide you and organise your luggage transport from town to town.
I decided back in early 2020 that I could successfully complete the well known 8 k stretch of the trail between the post towns of Magome and Tsugumo on a proposed May trip to Japan. I knew this was not going to be a easy flat terrain walk – there would be lots of walking uphill and down, plenty of challenges. I was in my late sixties, still fairly fit for an old bird, and believed it was achievable. Eight kilometres isn’t really that far! So I booked a ryokan accommodation in Tsumago for my husband, MJ and myself, and all was set until Covid poked its ugly nose into our plans, closing borders and seeing our trip cancelled at the last minute.
Late in 2022, Japan reopened its borders, and by early November we were back in Tokyo, with our Tsumago ryokan rebooked. I was, however, not as fit as I was in 2020, with my left knee becoming a problem – a ‘good one week, not so good the next week’ stage of deterioration.
As our Japan trip progressed, my knee pain became worse and I reluctantly accepted it would be foolish to tackle the Nakasendo walk. But Tsumago, a beautifully preserved ancient town, was still worthwhile to visit, so we kept our booking. Note: See my earlier post about Tsumago and our beautiful little ryokan – https://travellingtherese.com/2023/01/06/living-in-ancient-tsumago/
On arrival in Tsumago, we told the ryokan owner that we were only there to see the town, not to do the walk. He looked more disappointed than I felt! He knew that we had been intending to do the hike. Now, having given up on the hike, it felt like arriving in Paris, and saying you weren’t going to see not the Eiffel Tower and the Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral. Tsumago was delightful, but I felt very down.
The next morning, the autumn weather was perfect for a hike and my knee miraculously was feeling good. We had our day packs, water bottles and hiking shoes with us. Even a bear bell! Back in Tokyo, we had visited the wonderful Japanese outdoors/hiking shop Montbell to buy the bell – an essential item to ward off bears on the Nakasendo trail. So, optimistically, I decided that I could perhaps manage a little of the walk if it wasn’t too steep.
“Let’s bus it over to Magome and just start the walk. We won’t do the whole section, but it will be nice to say we have at least been on the Nakesendo track,” I said to MJ. The Magome to Tsumago is said to be easier than walking from Tsumago to Magome.
The first 400 metres uphill from Magome had me regretting my words. You know those moments when you start telling yourself off for doing something you shouldn’t do! What was I thinking! This was no nice amble out of town! A very steep challenging path took us slowly – painfully slowly – up from the main street. The path was lined with shops – I was so puffed and out of condition that I couldn’t even look at them! That’s saying something for a shopaholic like me! Shops gave way to houses. I thought “This is ridiculous. We are still in Magome, and I’m stuffed! I’ve climbed high mountains! This shouldn’t be a challenge!” I chastised myself with a reminder – “those mountains were a long time ago!” Still – old bushwalking tactics work. Head down, focus, keep ploughing up – one step at a time – keep going.
The steep climb out of Magome was unrelenting, and still in the small town’s suburbia! The only reason I didn’t immediately abandon the hike idea was that we came across a film crew higher up on the path, shooting a scene with artificial snow strewn along the way. I was transformed to a glorious winter scheme, and slightly diverted from my uphill agony by what was going on around me.
Ahead, MJ was walking in front of an actress – their coats matching colours. She was wearing a traditional ancient trail hat. I was infused with the Samurai spirit – forge on, reach the top of the incline! I promised myself I would then take pleasure in that achievement, enjoy the view over Magome and walk back down again! It was a long, tough 400 metres – how on earth could I have contemplated 8 kilometres?
The view over the Kiso Valley above Magome was indeed glorious and worth the effort, and after a rest there, I changed my mind, telling MJ that I could go on a little further. The knee was holding up fine, it was just me out of uphill trekking condition. We had been told there were places ahead where we could easily abandon the hike, walk out to a nearby road and catch a bus back to Tsumago. So that was the new plan.
We walked on into the countryside – more uphills – some downhills – challenging steps. Remembering that wild bears are a problem in this area, we furiously rang bear bells along the track!
We moved through more small villages and farmlands, finally reaching another rest spot about one and a half kilometres uphill from Magome. Again, I felt done as I approached, and my heart sank when I spotted a sign saying we had only walked 1.5 kilometres. It seemed absurd. Surely we had walked further than that! There were roadways here, and it was an opportunity to abandon the hike. We sat for a while, drank some water, and refreshed. The old bushwalker in me thought it was absurd to give up so early in the walk! Ok, got a bit of energy back – let’s keep going and do another bit of this walk!
And that’s how it went. I’d have thoughts of giving up, but after taking rests I’d get a second wind, and keep going. The scenery as we progressed became more interesting as we passed through more little villages – but I was still missing waterfalls, big forests, Japanese wilderness and a famous 300 year old tea house on the trail that I’d heard about.
We came to the highest point of the walk and there was a tea house. I quickly looked inside. Wrong one! We also realised that the highest point was not the half way point. We had only done 2.2 kilometres – what! Impossible! Signs said there was another 5.5k to go to reach Tsumago. Well, that doesn’t add up to 8! Various signs along the way had questionable distances displayed. However, having come so far, I wanted to at least reach halfway, and I really wanted to see the ancient tea house where they reward hikers with free tea. I became desperate for a cuppa – the thought enticing me to continue on.
I’d seen the old tea house on an episode of the 2016 British TV series ‘Joanna Lumley’s Japan’. It may have actually been when I first heard of the Nakasendo Trail, which the famous British actress and intrepid traveller trekked between Tsumago and Magome. Whether Dame Lumley actually did the whole 8 k with her crew, I don’t know. She might have opted in at one of those ‘bail out’ areas I mentioned earlier. I hope she did the 8 k, because she was roughly the same age as my current age when she was there, so she was an inspiration for me.
As we rested at the highest point, an english trekker coming the other way assured me I’d done the hardest bit and it was pretty much downhill the rest of the way. I think he was the devil in disguise because the way ahead still had loads of challenges. No more uphills or steps, he promised! Where had he come from? Not Tsumago surely. Or did he simply lie to encourage me to continue on?
Anyway, I fell for his advice, and feeling that I had conquered the worst of it, I trekked on with MJ, only to discover plenty of more uphills, slippery downhills and many ‘stair masters’ ahead! There was still a long way to go – but the best was yet to come!
PART 2 coming up soon – “The home run and an encounter with JOANNA LUMLEY”