A Walk Through Old Japan

An autumn trek along the Kiso Road wends through mist-covered mountains and rustic villages graced by timeless hospitality

Travelers walked the Kiso Road as early as A.D. 703. Old stones still identify it as part of the Nakasendo, the inland highway connecting Kyoto and Tokyo. (Chiara Goia)
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“It is so quiet on the Kiso that it gives you a strange feeling,” Bill read, translating from a roadside sign in Japanese. Just then a truck roared past.

My friend Bill Wilson and I were standing at the northern end of the old Kiso Road, which here has been replaced by modern Route 19. It was a sunny fall morning, and we had taken the train from Shiojiri, passing schoolgirls wearing blue uniforms and carrying black satchels, to Hideshio, a kind of way station between plains and mountains. With backpacks buckled, we had headed off into the hills.

Now we were walking south along the highway, separated by a guardrail from the speeding traffic. For centuries, the 51-mile Kiso Road was the central part of the ancient 339-mile Nakasendo, which connected Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto and provided an inland alternative to the coastal Tokaido road. For centuries, merchants, performers, pilgrims, imperial emissaries, feudal lords, princesses and commoners traveled it. “Murders, robberies, elopements, love suicides, rumors of corruption among the officials,” Shimazaki Toson wrote in his epic novel, Before the Dawn, “these had all become commonplace along this highway.”

Shimazaki’s 750-page work, published serially beginning in 1929, depicts the great political and social upheavals of mid-19th-century Japan: a period when foreign ships began appearing off its shores and its people made the difficult transition from a decentralized, feudal society ruled by shoguns to a modernizing state ruled by the central authority of the Meiji emperor. Shimazaki set his story in his hometown of Magome, one of the Kiso Road’s 11 post towns (precursors of rest stops). Hanzo, the novel’s protagonist, is based on Shimazaki’s father, who provided lodging for traveling officials. In capturing the every­day workings and the rich culture of the inland highway, Shimazaki exalted the Kiso in much the way that the artist Hiroshige immortalized the Tokaido in his woodcuts.

Hiroshige painted the Kiso also (though not as famously), and even from the highway we could see why. Turning our eyes from the cars, we gazed at hillsides of green and muted orange. A lone Japanese maple would flash flaming red, while russet leaves signaled a cherry tree’s last autumnal act. Other branches stripped of foliage bore yellow persimmons that hung like ornaments. After an hour and a half of walking, we came to a stand of vending machines outside a train station. The one dispensing beverages (cold and hot) came with a voice that thanked us for our business.

Bill, a translator of Japanese and Chinese literature, had been telling me about the Kiso Road for a long time. A resident of Miami, he had lived in Japan from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s and had already walked the Kiso twice. The road was officially established in 1601, but carried travelers as early as 703, according to ancient records. Bill loved the fact that, unlike the industrialized Tokaido, the Kiso Road remains very well preserved in places. Walking it, he had assured me, you could still get a feeling of long ago.

I had visited Japan once, taking trains from city to city. The idea of traveling on foot with a knowledgeable friend through a rustic landscape in a high-tech country was greatly appealing. The summer before our trip, Bill gave me the itinerary: we’d walk from Hideshio to Magome—about 55 miles—stopping in post towns along the way. We would act as if the automobile had never been invented. Then he suggested I read Before the Dawn.

“I hope there’s a professional masseuse in Narai,” Bill said, once we were walking again. “Or even an unprofessional one.”

Twenty minutes later, we got off the highway at the town of Niekawa and then dipped down into Hirasawa, passing lacquerware shops. When residents appeared, we double-teamed them with greetings of “Ohayo gozaimasu!” (“Good morning!”) Bill had taught me a few words.

A little before noon, Narai appeared in the distance as a thin town stretched along railroad tracks. We found its main street tight with dark wooden houses and day-tripping tourists. The sloping roofs, small shops, cloth banners and unmistakable air of cultural import were like a reward for having arrived on foot. But I doubted that Bill would find a masseuse.


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