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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He did find our ryokan, or inn, the Echigo-ya. Thin sliding doors open to the street gave way to an entryway with a dirt floor rimming a tatami platform. The innkeeper appeared upon it shortly, a young man in a head scarf who dropped to his knees to tell us at eye level that we were too early to check in. Leaving one’s bags never felt so good.

Bill led me to his favorite coffee shop, Matsuya Sabo, a cramped establishment in an antique style. Toy poodles, named Chopin and Piano by the shop’s music-loving owners, were in attendance, and a nocturne played softly behind the bar, which was hung with delicate paper lanterns.

The café proprietor, Mr. Imai, told us that in the old days processions would come through town bearing green tea for the emperor. If the tea container shattered, whoever caused the accident would be beheaded. So when a tea procession arrived, everyone stayed indoors without making a sound. Once it passed, they ran into the street to celebrate.

We ate a late lunch of zaru soba—the cold buckwheat noodles for which the region is famous—dipping them into a sweetened soy sauce spiked with scallions and wasabi. Outside, standing in the street, Bill pointed to the mountain rising at the southern edge of town. “That’s the dreaded Torii Pass,” he said, referring to the path we were destined to take over the mountain and employing the adjective he never failed to use when mentioning it.

His idea was that we would climb the mountain the next day—without backpacks—to Yabuhara, where we could take a train back to Narai to spend a second night before catching a morning train to Yabuhara to resume our walk. It struck me as a fine idea, and a historically sound one as well, for in the old days, packhorses were employed to carry belongings.

Dinner was served in our room, on a table with greatly abbreviated legs. Our chairs were limbless, consisting of a back and pillowed seat. Sitting was going to be a bigger problem for me than walking.

In the numerous bowls and plates in front of me sat pink-and-white rectangles of carp sashimi, shredded mountain potato in raw egg and seaweed, three fishes slightly larger than matchsticks, one grilled freshwater fish, a watery egg custard with chicken and mushrooms, boiled daikon (radish) with miso, and vegetable tempura.

The richness of the meal contrasted with the sparseness of the room. Bedding would be laid down on the tatami after dinner. There was no TV, but a small black rock sat on an embroidered pillow atop a wooden stand for our contemplation. A framed poem, which Bill translated, hung on one wall:

The taste of water
The taste of soba
Everything in Kiso
The taste of autumn

At home I begin my day with a grapefruit; in Japan I exchanged the fruit for a faux pas. Occasionally I would shuffle back to my room still wearing the specially designated bathroom slippers, which, of course, are supposed to stay in the bathroom. And this morning, the innkeeper asked if we would like tea before breakfast; eager to tackle the dreaded Torii Pass, I declined.


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