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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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Also, it was our last overnight stop before Magome, and the hometown of Shimazaki’s mother (and, in Before the Dawn, of Hanzo’s wife). The honjin—the house and inn of her family—was now a museum. You could also visit, down the street, old lodgings for commoners. With their dirt floors extending beyond the entryway, and bare platforms, they made our inns seem regal.

Our ryokan, the Matsushiro-ya, sat on a lane that descended from the main street like an exit ramp into a fairyland. The interior was a taut, austere puzzle of short stairs and thin panels, low ceilings and half-light that befit an inn that has been in the same family for 19 generations. Stretched out on the tatami, I could not have been anywhere but Japan, though in just what century was unclear.

In the morning, along with the usual fish, greens and miso soup, we each got a fried egg in the shape of a heart.

Just off the main street we found a coffee shop, Ko Sabo Garo, which doubled as a gallery selling paintings and jewelry. When I asked what was upstairs, Yasuko—who ran the café with her husband—climbed the steps and, hidden from view, sang a haunting song about spring rain while accompanying herself on the koto, a traditional stringed instrument. “That was so Japanese,” Bill said of her unseen performance. “Everything indirect, through shades, through suggestion.”

After dinner I took a walk. (It was becoming a habit.) Like many small tourist towns, Tsumago emptied by late afternoon, and in the darkness I had the place to myself. Hanging lanterns lent a soft yellow glow to dark shuttered shops. The only sound was the trickle of water.

For our walk to magome, Bill tied a small bell to his backpack—the tourist office sells bells to hikers for warding off bears. Past a pair of waterfalls, we began our final ascent on a path free of predators but thick with the spirit of Hanzo. Of course, this last test for us would have been a stroll for him. And there would have been no restorative tea near the top, served by a man in a conical hat.

“He says we have another 15 minutes of climbing,” Bill said, tempering my joy.

And we did. But then we started down, emerging from the forest as well as the mountains; a scenic overlook appeared, from which we could see the Gifu plain far below.

Magome was more open than I had pictured it, its houses and shops tumbling down a main pedestrian street and looking out toward a snow-patched Mount Ena. Because it had been rebuilt after a disastrous fire, the town had the feel of a historical re-creation. A museum to Shimazaki, on the grounds of the old family honjin, offered a library and a film on the writer’s life, but less of a feeling of connection than our walk in the woods.

At the Eishoji Temple, on a hill at the edge of town, the priest had added a small inn. We were shown the Shimazaki family ihai, and our room, whose walls were literally rice-paper thin.

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