NAKASENDO 中山道 – Part 2

PART 1 published January

Nakasendo hikers are offered free tea and a warm welcome at the Ichiokutochi tateba-chaya tea house en route

I’ve been bushwalking (trekking) since my teens, and I’ve concluded that mental toughness is as important as the physical challenge. Sometimes, even more so. People far fitter and stronger than I have abandoned walks I have struggled on to complete. My stubborn nature.

I needed that mental toughness in the autumn of 2022 when I embarked on the 8 kilometre stretch of the NAKASENDO trail between the small villages of Magome and Tsumago in Japan’s picturesque, rugged Kiso Valley. Because I began the walk with a very negative attitude.

I climb steps en route on the Nakasendo trail

As outlined in part 1 of this story (published in my blog Jan 22 ) – age and a troublesome knee impacted on my hiking ability, but it was my mental attitude that was really the mountain I needed to overcome.

The crook knee held up – but until I reached the highest level of the walk, I didn’t believe I could reach Tsumago on my own two feet. Until that point, I walked in the embrace of failure – ready to head out to the nearest road and catch the bus back to our accommodation.

In the months leading up to the walk, my fitness waned because of the deteriorating knee. And at 70 years of age, fitness is not easily regained, even for what is a relatively short and easy trek for many. A few days before leaving for Japan, I had a steroid injection into the knee in the hope it would improve. But by the time we reached Tsumago, I had given up on the idea of walking the Nakasendo. My husband, MJ and I had a two night booking at a small Tsumago Inn for two nights. Instead of the Nakasendo walk, we decided we’d simply rest and explore Tsumago. Then, at the last minute, I persuaded myself to at least attempt a short stroll on the Nakasendo trail from Magome, a short bus ride away. Even a few hundred metres would do!

And so, as you will read in part 1, I found myself climbing up the steep incline leading out from Magome on the Nakasendo, with hubby MJ leading the way. The knee was feeling good. The autumn weather was fabulous. But my mind was a whirlwind of indecision about tackling the walk, even for a short distance. Note that there was the possibility of an encounter with a wild roaming bear to worry about, and the danger of falling boulders! Not to mention poisonous snakes. Ok, I’m an Aussie, so snakes didn’t concern me that much!

With every step, I debated with myself why I needed to do this. But something basic in me wanted to keep going – just get up this hill, down this slope, past this sign – ring the bear bell! I’m coming through.

The highest point of the walk is still more than five kilometres from Tsumago – not even half way. But on reaching it I felt exhilarated with a certainty that I had conquered the worst of it and was on the home run. The crook knee was holding up, and my mind set had changed. There was no way now that I was going to turn back or give in.

MJ led the way down a trail into a forested valley, ablaze with autumn colour. We were moving into some very attractive woodlands scenery, with towering trees, and beautiful little running streams. In Samurai times, five cherished varieties of trees flourished here – native evergreens of sawara, asuhi, koya maki, nezuko and hinoki (Japanese cypress). The forest also had some cherry (sakura), pine (matsu) and zelkova (keyaki, a relative of the elm but native to Japan).

The Samurai ruling class in Edo times ensured the government only would benefit from the felling of trees in the Kiso valley, making it a crime for the common people to harvest the trees. But when enforced restrictions were lifted early in the Meiji period, the valley became seriously over cut and depleted. Today, the forest thrives again through replanting, and though it is planned and managed, it retains the feel of a lovely wilderness.

The Ichiokutochi tateba-chaya tea house

MJ and I both cheered when we saw Nakasendo trail’s famous centuries old tea house come into sight. Originally, it was a farm house, and then preserved as a free resting place for hikers. And a very welcome place it is too when you are on the trek!

We cheered when we sighted the ancient tea house

We were welcomed in by the staff including Manager Akihito Matsubara, who speaks English, and engaged in chats with other trekkers.

Joanna Lumley has walked this way!

Surprisingly, we were shown a photograph of Britain’s famous actress and former super model Dame Joanna Lumley – taken when she visited with her BBC television film crew in 2016, and now holding pride of place on the tea house walls.

I’m shown a photograph of Dame Joanna Lumley from her 2016 visit – the photo has pride of place on the walls of the tea house

“Is she really famous,” staff asked. “Yes, very famous throughout the world,” we assured them, without detailing her extensive achievements including her international modelling career, her movie and television successes. I wondered what they would have thought if she’d arrived as Patsy, one of her most famous characters from the hit TV series Absolutely Fabulous. “Darling, free green tea? But is there any champers, darling? I’ve been walking in these boots for ages!” I also wondered if they would have understood if I’d told them in her younger days she was famously a Bond girl (On her Majesty’s Secret Service). And her famous ’70’s TV role as the International spy Purdey in the New Avengers. Her character’s hairstyle was copied by young women around the world, including me!

I suspect many other famous people have been to the tea house, but it’s Dame Joanna’s photos that remain in pride on the tea house walls.

We sat and lingered for a while, soaking in the hospitality, enjoying the free green tea and the wonderful ambience of this traditional old teahouse – chatting with the staff and other trekkers. A kettle of water simmering over an open fire in the Inn’s sunken hearth.

Free green tea – donations accepted

The tea house visit was very special and we reluctantly moved on – not before MJ touched the ground that Dame Joanna had trekked on. Most males who know of her would understand!

Dame Joanna Lumley walked here!

More delights were still ahead. We still had nearly five kilometres to reach Tsumago, but it seemed to pass quickly as we emerged into the best scenery of the trek – beautiful waterfalls, fern lined paths, ambling streams – simply gorgeous. And definitely worth the effort!

I trek on, taking in the beautiful scenery
I photograph my shadow in a passing stream
All these steps did nothing good for my knee!

Finally, we sighted Tsumago. We’d made it. A euphoric moment! If you complete the walk, you can receive a certificate for the achievement. But you have to register before the walk, and because we had not intended to finish it, we hadn’t registered. Luckily, we took lots of photos that we love to look at to remind ourselves of that great walk.

Mike signals back to me .. we have made it to Tsumago!

As for that troublesome knee – it deteriorated further in the following weeks and I’m now booked in for a knee replacement. So with a new knee in action – who knows what trek adventure we might embark on next time we are in Japan!

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