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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)

A Walk Through Old Japan

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

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Bill had a brief discussion with the young man and then said to me firmly: “It’s the custom of the house.” The tea was served with great deliberation. “If you put in super hot water,” Bill explained, “you ‘insult’ the tea.” (One insult before breakfast was enough.) And this was gyokuro, considered by some to be the finest green tea. Slowly, the innkeeper poured a little into one cup, and then the other, going back and forth in the interest of equality.

After breakfast (fish, rice, miso soup, seaweed), we walked out of town and headed up the mountain. Large flat stones appeared underfoot, part of the Kiso Road’s original ishidatami (literally “stone tatami”), which had been laid down long ago. I thought of Hanzo and his brother-in-law scampering over this pavement in straw sandals on their way to Edo.

The path narrowed, steepened and turned to dirt. We worked our way through windless woods. (Here—if you ignored my panting—was the quiet we’d been promised.) Switchbacks broke the monotony. Despite the cold air, my undershirt was soaked and my scarf damp.

An hour and a half of climbing brought us to level ground. Next to a wood shelter stood a stone fountain, a ceramic cup placed upside down on its wall. I filled it with water that was more delicious than tea. Bill couldn’t remember which path he had taken the last time he was here (there were several) and chose the one that went up. Unfortunately. I had assumed our exertions were over. Now I thought not of Hanzo and his brother-in-law, but rather of Kita and Yaji, the two heroes of Ikku Jippensha’s comic novel Shanks’ Mare, who walk the Tokaido with all the grace of the Three Stooges.

We shambled back down to the shelter and were pointed in the right direction by a Japanese guide leading a quartet of Cali­fornians. It took us about 45 minutes to descend into Yabuhara, where we were soon huddled next to a space heater in a restaurant that specialized in eel. A large group of Americans filed in, one of whom looked at us and said, “You’re the guys who got lost.” News always did travel fast along the Kiso Road.

After taking the train back to Narai, we moved to a minshuku, which is like a ryokan but with communal meals. In the morning, the innkeeper asked if she could take our picture for her Web site. We posed and bowed and then headed off in a light rain to the train station, turning around occasionally to find our hostess still standing in the raw air, bowing farewell.

Yabuhara was deserted and wet, our ryokan somber and cold. (Even in the mountains, we encountered no central heating.) We were served a delicious noodle soup in a dark, high-ceilinged restaurant, where we sat at a vast communal table. For dessert—a rare event in old Japan—the chef brought out a plum sorbet that provided each of us with precisely one and a half spoonfuls. Leaving, we found our damp shoes thoughtfully propped next to a space heater.

In the morning, I set off alone for the post town of Kiso-Fukushima. Bill had caught a cold, and the Chuo-sen (Central Line) train—fast, punctual, heated—was always temptingly close at hand. Today he would ride it and take my backpack with him.

At a little past 8 a.m. the air was crisp, the sky clear. I rejoined Route 19, where an electronic sign gave the temperature as 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). A gas station attendant, standing with his back to the pumps, bowed to me as I walked past.

It wasn’t exactly a straight shot to Kiso-Fukushima, but it was a relatively flat one, of about nine miles. The second person I asked for directions to the inn—“Sarashina-ya doko desu ka?”—was standing right in front of it. A familiar pair of hiking boots stood in the foyer, and a man in a brown cardigan led me along a series of corridors and stairs to a bright room where Bill sat on the floor, writing postcards. The window behind him framed a swiftly flowing Kiso River.

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