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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Afterward, we walked toward our shoes through a thick cloud of smoke. “You know what the priest said to me?” he asked when we were outside. “ ‘Now don’t catch a cold.’ ”

The next morning we set out in a light drizzle. The mountains in front of us, wreathed in wisps of cloud, mimicked the painted panels we sometimes found in our rooms.

Despite a dramatic gorge on its outskirts, Agematsu turned out to be an unremarkable town. Our innkeeper, Mrs. Hotta, told us over dinner that men in the area live quite long because they keep in shape by walking in the mountains. She poured us sake and sang a Japanese folk song, followed by “Oh! Susanna.” In the morning, she stood outside with only a sweater for warmth (we were wrapped in scarves and jackets) and bowed until we passed out of sight.

After a fairly level hike of about three and a half hours, we reached the town of Suhara around noon. An instrumental version of “Love Is Blue” floated from outdoor speakers. I looked back toward where we had started and saw folds of mountains that looked impenetrable.

Downtown consisted of gas stations and strip malls (Route 19 was still dogging us), and, as it was Sunday, restaurants were closed. We found our minshuku across the river and spent the afternoon in our room (now I was catching a cold), watching sumo wrestling on a flat-screen TV. Bill explained the proceedings—he was familiar with most of the wrestlers, a fair number of whom were from Mongolia and Eastern Europe—but it struck me as one sport I did not really need to see in high definition.

In the morning, outside of town, a woman sweeping leaves said, “Gamban bei” (“Carry on”) in a country accent that made Bill laugh. The only other time he’d heard the phrase was in a cartoon of Japanese folk tales. Strings of persimmons, and sometimes rows of daikon, hung from balconies. An engraved stone, placed upright atop a plain one, noted that “Emperor Meiji stopped and rested here.” At a small post office I mailed some postcards and was given a blue plastic basket of hard candies in return. The transaction seemed worthy of its own small monument.

We found myokakuji temple on a hill overlooking the town of Nojiri. The former priest’s widow gave us a tour of the interior: the statue of Daikoku (god of wealth), the rows of ihai (tablets commemorating the dead) and photographs of the 59 men from the village who had died in World War II. Before we left she produced two enormous apples as gifts and a few words of English for us. “May you be happy,” she said, with an astonishingly girlish smile. “See you again.” Then she stood and bowed till we turned the corner.

The next day’s walk to Tsumago—at ten miles, our longest leg—began in a cold rain. There was a final trudge along Route 19, followed by a climb of about a mile that almost made me long for the highway.

Descending into Midono, we splashed into a coffee shop with a dank feeling of defeat. But a plate of zaru soba, and a change of undershirts in a frigid men’s room, worked their magic. We hoisted our backpacks and walked out of town.

The rain, which we had cursed all morning, now washed everything in a crystalline light. We looped past a waterwheel and a shed whose roof was held down with stones, then dropped dreamily into a town of street-hugging houses with overhanging eaves and dark slatted facades. The ancient, unspoiled air reminded us of Narai (as did the busloads of Japanese tourists), but there was something about the contours—the undulating main street, the cradling mountains—that made Tsumago feel even more prized.


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