One of Japan's most sacred sites and the home of Shingon Buddhism.
I was intrigued, but cautious. The challenge of spending 11 days hiking through Japan’s rustic Alpine back roads was appealing, but the deal-clincher was that I could “bookend” the trek with high-end accommodations in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo.
Linking these cities is the historic Nakasendo Way, one of a half-dozen long-distance pedestrian highways that flourished in the years before Japan truly opened to the West. Other government-controlled trails made famous in ukyo-e woodblock prints were gradually erased by high-speed rail lines or buried below tarmac and concrete, but much of the original Nakasendo still remains in nearly pristine condition, beyond the range of cellphones and Internet. Better still, this hilly journey is graced by a handful of venerable inns, stately and enduring remnants of hundreds of such ryokan (high-class inns) and minshuku (“common people’s” inns) that once proliferated along this popular route.
The key to accessing this illustrious 330-mile experience without stumbling through the woods like a lost puppy triggering search and rescue patrols is to contact a team of geographically gifted guides called “Walk Japan Ltd.” Founded two decades ago by a pair of expat Hong Kong University professors, Dick Irving and Tom Stanley have gradually expanded their company to a staff of 22 fluent Japanese speakers, offering 18 cultural immersion tours meandering the hinterlands of Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido in every season.
It is the Nakasendo Way, however, that gives Westerners their best shot at experiencing 17th-century Japan. The hike begins at Sanjo Bridge in the geisha-rich Gion district of the old imperial capital, Kyoto. Before taking a single step onto this route (sections of which we would traverse by public transportation, walking only the choicest segments), I tacked on a few days in Osaka and Kyoto to acclimatize, or rather, luxuriate. I wasn’t sure the Nakasendo route offered five-star service, so I wanted to get my fill.
Flying into Kansai Airport, the entry port for Japan’s second largest city, Osaka, was a kind of homecoming for me. I’d lived in this region of Japan teaching at universities for 18 years before moving to Eugene in 1999. Much has changed, but it’s still nearly an hour train ride from the ultra-modern airport to Osaka.
The towering centerpiece of the city, Osaka Castle, is the single most visited tourist site in the entire country, outdoing even Mount Fuji. It’s located inside the city’s largest park, but elsewhere to avoid traffic, crowds can descend to a maze of trendy and brightly lit underground shopping malls that extend for kilometers. A more restful alternative is to follow the riverbanks either on foot or via Parisian-style sightseeing cruise boats.
An economic dynamo by day, Osaka wears a different face when the neon shines and the ravenous dine. Each unique district’s lively atmosphere adds to Osaka’s strong character and somewhat mischievous reputation. To fully appreciate its charms, you need only mix an adventurous spirit with sufficient stamina to last out a few nights on the town. The reward is to be embraced by a city electric with excitement.
Osaka has some sensational accommodations with accompanying gourmet dining, but don’t look for ordinary sushi or ramen here. You’re among urban Japan’s upper strata now, and they want exotic Western haute cuisine!
Example: In central Osaka’s business district, the St. Regis hotel’s La Veduta restaurant serves its acclaimed Italian fare from a Japanese rooftop garden with a panoramic view. Two of its most attractive dishes are stewed beef cheek in Barolo wine, and snow crab with salt cod baccala on avocado salad. The St. Regis Rue d’Or French restaurant also presents beautifully composed lunch sets, such as steamed sea bream in saffron sauce, and stylish sashimi salad.
Further north near the largest train stations, the InterContinental Osaka hotel is designed to impress. At Pierre, the hotel’s contemporary Japanese-French restaurant, expect plated works of art as delectable as they are visually stunning. My tasting menu included monkfish liver with root vegetables, poularde hen in amber wine emulsion and abalone with bamboo shoot in garlic fragrance. But its most amazing dish was tender skin-on amadai fish roasted so that its scales “pop up” crispy-crunchy and edible.
Olive beef, Pierre’s signature dish, is an exclusive brand of meat developed by raising black Sanuki cattle on feed mixed with olive mash, enhancing the melt-in-your-mouth texture of this lean tenderloin, served in a sauce of fragrant morel mushrooms and red wine. Leave it to the Japanese to improve European fare.
Kyoto cherry blossoms,
and the journey beyond
and the journey beyond
In Kyoto, an hour from Osaka, my first stop was the Hotel Okura near city hall and the Kamogawa River. It’s convenient to subway lines, the 10-block Nishiki covered shopping lane with all manner of food and merchandise, and the cobblestoned Pontocho geisha district, arguably the single most atmospheric alley in the entire city.
Next I moved south to the swank Kyoto Hyatt Regency, neighboring a 900-year-old temple famed for its 1001 wooden statues of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. I used one of the Hyatt’s bicycles to circle out each day exploring river paths, shrines, parks and markets, returning every evening to dine at their Touzan Japanese restaurant and enjoy their spa. Chef Arikazu Fujiguchi put together a gorgeous tasting menu of colorful seasonal variations that included springtime delicacies like peas in fragrant leaf soup, cherry blossoms, and lotus root with quail egg.
Nakasendo trek begins
Once I began the Nakasendo trek, I realized I needn’t have fretted about comfort. Although some of the earlier minshuku lodging that Walk Japan arranged were a few notches short of deluxe (shared bathrooms, limited towels), as the trip progressed, our hotels and ryokan seemed to get increasingly upmarket.
Dinners and breakfasts were never a disappointment and always were quite varied in a healthy Japanese way. Toward the end, the meals touched upon magnificent, and the accommodations were outstanding. There were small trout-like fish, banquets of pickled mountain vegetables, tofu and tempura, rice grown by our hosts, forest mushrooms and bamboo shoots, buckwheat noodles, king crab, a variety of meats including locally hunted wild boar, and specialties like horse sashimi and crunchy deep-fried grasshoppers for those willing to try such exotics. Sake and beer were available, at an extra charge.
Most hikers, however, are a hearty breed, and lavish living is hardly their objective. My dozen fellow travelers were an international lot, mostly women and couples, comprising New Zealanders, Singaporeans, Americans and two Irish cousins, led by Tom Stanley himself and a trainee guide.
Once we’d left Kyoto behind, we picnicked in the fortified castle town of Hikone, ascending its towering “keep” and crossing its flowering, pond-filled gardens. A shinto ceremony we chanced upon at a peace shrine delighted those who were first-time visitors to Japan.
From there we marched through the ancient battlefields of Sekigahara, where the nation’s fate was decisively settled in a fierce clash of samurai clans more than 400 years ago. Although a few banners and memorials mark some important corners of conflict, the present peacefulness of this valley makes it hard to imagine the violent deaths of 40,000 warriors here as the armies of Tokugawa Ieyasu duked it out with Ishida Mitsunari’s followers. Ultimately, Ishida had a really bad day, and the Tokugawas got 265 years of shogunate rule.
Bear with me
In the days that followed, we traversed antiquated post towns, rice fields and farming communities before reaching the kind of topography that truly deserves the name Nakasendo — Central Mountain Road. Often, our roadside companions were Jizo statues, small stone guardian deities draped in faded red aprons, reputed to protect children and travelers. At the entrance to several post towns, reconstructed wooden noticeboards, called kosatsuba, proclaimed shogunate edicts regarding things like standard porterage fees, curfews and criminal offenses punishable by beheadings.
The only protection we considered necessary was inspired by occasional bells lining the side of the path with placards reading: “Ring to keep bears away.” Only once did we hear a distant growl, but that could have been someone’s stomach looking forward to the next meal.
The food was memorable, but it’s the small and poetic haiku moments of daily events that stay with you the longest — the gentle keeper of a roadside teahouse filling our cups from a cast-iron kettle heated on a long hook over a sunken ash hearth; traversing wild rivers on wooden suspension bridges up to the sparkling twin waterfalls of Magome Pass; bending low to enter the tiny front door of a historic inn; wandering the narrow streets of Tsumago, a village that resembles a samurai movie set with rows of two-story wooden structures; hiking over steep mountain passes touched with remnants of snow and forested by dense hinoki-cedar and cypress; sitting in traditional cotton yukata robes at a low table set for dinner as evening closed in, bodies still warmed by a steaming onsen bath.
The companionship of walking the Nakasendo in a group was enhanced by the guide’s frequent commentary on the flora, fauna, culture and history of the route.
We paused at the top of one pass to see the marking stone and hear the tale of 16-year-old Kyoto princess Kazunomiya, who was forced into an arranged marriage with the Tokugawa shogun and reluctantly traveled the Nakasendo on a palanquin accompanied by 25,000 porters and samurai that required three days to file through each village en route. Although she didn’t exactly travel light, the stone memorialized a poem Kazunomiya wrote on this ridge when she turned back one last time to mourn the life and home she was leaving behind.
A delicious ending
By the time we reached Tokyo’s Ginza ward, we felt renewed and refreshed, but the best was yet to come. Tokyo’s top-line hotels have been building opulence into the highest floors of stunning new earthquake-proof skyscrapers. The sumptuous Conrad Tokyo, for example, is located on floors 28 through 37 in a high-rise built in 2005 not far from the Ginza’s exclusive shopping and entertainment. All windows face breathtaking views of either the dramatic Tokyo skyline or vibrant Tokyo Bay, fronted by historic gardens just below.
Similarly, the lobby of the magnificent, triple-towered Park Hyatt Tokyo is on the 41st floor, topping at level 52. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji, about 60 miles from the hotel’s Shinjuku business district location. Only 22 years old, Park Hyatt starred in the film “Lost in Translation,” which featured its guest and function rooms, spa and fitness facilities, and its famed New York Grill & Bar.
That restaurant, overseen by Argentine chef Federico Heinzmann (maker of impossibly scrumptious sirloin steak with crispy duck-fat potato fries), along with the Park Hyatt’s Kozue Japanese restaurant, have made healthy contributions to the upswing in quality that Tokyo diners have been experiencing. That magic is performed not only with style, but with heart — since that giant earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan several years ago, Kozue’s chef de cuisine Kenichiro Ooe has several times sponsored a “Tohoku Heroes” menu, featuring immaculate tastes of that region. One highly recommended dish is Sendai beef in hoba leaf on a hot charcoal pot.
Not to be outdone, Conrad Tokyo offers three ethnicities of exceptional cuisine in its China Blue, Kazahana and Collage restaurants, the latter inspired by Michelin-starred chef Shinya Maeda’s novel interpretations of classical French dining. My Collage favorites were lamb with artichoke and heirloom romanesco, and salmon with broad beans and red caviar, but quail and highly prized turbot fish also were on the menu.
Thinking back on the journey between bites, I realized we’d somehow been touched indirectly by the lives of thousands of tradesmen, pilgrims, lords and ladies of the shogunate who had traversed those exact same paths before us. In 11 days we had crossed centuries, secured new friendships, enjoyed stimulating conversation, and feasted on fresh, traditional dishes. Not bad for one brief taste of feudal Japan.
Eugene resident Joseph Lieberman has visited 55 countries, written eight books, and published more than 700 articles. He can be reached at email@example.com.