Sunday, 9.23am: it’s a bright, unseasonably warm morning in late November and Andre Loy, an accountant from Singapore, wants to buy me an ice cream, chestnut flavour.
“Come on – it’s on me, we’re on holiday,” he says.
Even so, it feels impudent to accept; after all, we’ve only just met. Still, missing the point of my resistance, he insists: this isn’t the disappointing, too-sweet soft-serve he’d found yesterday, he reckons. Oh no, this is the good stuff: proper churn, real fruit. So, here we are, Andre and I, relative strangers, gently pecking at our brilliant coned treasure, side-by-side on a street bench in the petite, oddly perfect postal town of Tsumago, central Japan. Too early for tour groups, there’s no-one around; along the street, dawn sunlight casts a row of wooden, Edo-era shopfronts into one long, shadowed monochrome, the only movement the flapping noren banner over each doorway. Above slate roofs, tree-covered mountains have the randomised colour patches of camo pants: yellow-ochre gingko, vermillion-red maple, burnt-orange beech; autumn’s bonfire, fully lit.
It’s the second full day of a walking tour along the Kiso Road, the most accessible and, supposedly, the best-looking bit of the Nakasendo (literally, “the road through mountains”), an ancient, 480km highway that connected Kyoto to what’s now Tokyo during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868).
My first guided trip, I’d come sceptical, nervous even, of how things would play out. Surely, it’s a bit of gamble, I ask Andre, coming on a trip with perfect – or, quite possibly, not-so-perfect – strangers?
But not for him and his wife, Lily. Warm and funny, they are a glass-half-full kind of couple. Nearing retirement, with two grown-up children, clearly, they’ve entered that sweet spot in life where the hard, go-getterness of mid-adulthood tails off to a simple, unassuming curiosity for new things. I like them immediately.
“We came for the access,” says Andre. “We’ve been here a few times, cities mostly. But, you know, it can be a bit…”
He doesn’t need to finish the sentence; anyone who’s been to Japan, I suspect, would know what’s coming: even for savvy travellers, it can be disorientating, much of your first trip spent just working things out. That’s part of the fun, of course. Still, for anyone on a time budget, a five-day tour like this makes good sense.
“Plus, we usually end up at similar kinds of places. So, this time, the idea was to try to find…” He pauses to find the right definition. “I guess… real Japan.”
I’d tried to suppress it, but I was sceptical of that, too. I’d read enough to know that some of the towns on our route were paying a price for their prettiness – crowds were all but guaranteed. Just how rural or away from it all we’d be, I was unsure.
Still, my doubts would ebb more or less on day one. After a meet-up in Nagoya, our group of 10 – including, it turns out, not one but six accountants from Singapore – travel by train to a town called Ena. It’s dark by the time we arrive and there’s the pine-rich smell of countryside in the air. We check in to the Ichikawa Inn and follow the same routine we embrace for the whole trip: a hot bath, or onsen, followed by dinner dressed in traditional yukata. This would be our best meal, or close to it: a beautifully presented kaiseki set that, among other things, includes fresh Wagyu beef that we cook over a flame in our own mini hot-pot.
Our tour leader, Kristina Watanabe, a Swede who’s lived in Japan for almost 30 years, begins a briefing. Nothing really to worry about, she says, but, well, there have been bears spotted in the woods. And, um, they’re dangerous. So we need to stick together. I carefully fold a piece of sashimi with my chopstick and think, guiltily, I want to see a bear.
But the meal would be more memorable for what turns out to be one of the most arresting experiences of the trip, for me. Standing side by side, our hosts for the evening are three generations of the same family who’ve been running the ryokan since 1624 (yes, you read that right; 150 years before the founding of the USA). From right to left, stand 93-year-old Chiyoko, 71-year-old Reiko and, finally, Sachiko – at 44, the 16th generation of the Ichikawa family to take the official title of “innkeeper”.
And, so, the obvious question: is there an heir? I’d read about Japan’s shrinking population: only recently, its health ministry had announced that, in 2017, only 946,060 babies had been born, the lowest number since official statistics began in 1899. By 2050, Japan’s population will fall to around 100 million, down from 127 million today. And nowhere is this shortage more sorely felt that in Japan’s emptying countryside; it is, simply, running out of kids.
The next morning, I meet Sachiko, who tells me she has one daughter, who’s studying. Hospitality? No, IT. I try to imagine how it must feel to bear the weight of 395 years of family history. But Sachiko seems at ease about the whole thing and, switching from English to Japanese, explains. Kristina translates: “She says she’ll let her daughter do what she wants. Maybe she’ll take over the ryokan, maybe she won’t. It’s not up to her. It’s up to the gods; fate will decide.”
That morning, we begin our walk into the forest at the south end of the Kiso Valley. Almost immediately, we stop to absorb a moment of intense beauty: to our left, a long-shuttered, wood-latticed teahouse, snubbed by fate but, even in death, bearing an unusually dignified aura. Up the path is a sight for which, I later learn, there is a word in Japanese that has no English equivalent: komorebi – literally, “light as it leaks through trees”. Before us, there is an epic and awesome, almost-supernatural glow of red and yellow leaves that we wouldn’t see again with quite the same intensity. The trees, some pencil straight, stand tall and indifferent, as we wander slowly through a balmy natural cathedral of light and magic. The Japanese believe that spirits live in the woods; I’m respectfully but instinctively dubious of that sort of thing but, that morning, I could’ve been convinced. I stay in a contemplative mood along the walk to Magome, wondering, on and off, who was last to turn out the light of that teahouse.
“It’s here our revelry is somewhat shattered as coach loads of tourists are encountered at the entrance of the post-town.” So say the notes in our printed tour commentary, anyway. Full marks for frankness but, really, despite the tourists, Magome has an endearing, precise skittishness, with an uphill street of well-preserved wooden houses where fresh, red-orange persimmons hang to dry and vendors tout street food (including the soft-serve that would be the only so-so precursor to Andre’s finest hour).
“Who, I wonder, was the last to turn out the light of that teahouse”
With Mount Ena behind us, we press along a narrow trail, up then down, then up again, to the Magome Pass, before descending through more woodland. Just before dusk, we reach our ryokan in O-tsumago, a small, sunken, uncorrected hamlet with working farms and the rushing sounds of a river that would probably come the closest to fulfilling Andre’s brief of “real Japan”. Unlike Tsumago, or Magome, it doesn’t feel like a film set. We check in to a minshuku (family inn) and prepare for the onsen, then dinner. I’d anticipated this part of the trip would be forced, awkward, but it isn’t. Bathing and eating with relative strangers is a great social leveller; over another kaiseki dinner, everyone has something to say. As the conversation turns to the merits, or not, of review sites like TripAdvisor, someone offers one of my favourite lines of the trip: fundamentally, bad people beget bad experiences.
“If you’re miserable, well, then everywhere’s rubbish, isn’t it?”
The next morning, I meet the inn’s current owner, 41-year-old Yoko Fujihara. The inn has been in the family for nine generations and, yes, she’s quietly sure that her daughter, who works in a nearby café, will eventually be happy to take on the title of innkeeper.
But others along the Nakasendo Way aren’t so lucky. After a day of walking from Tsumago to Nagiso, then past the Karassawa Waterfall off Hida Highway, we spend the night at Kiso-Fukushima. The next morning, our last full day, we take a train to Yabuhara, a neat town known for its orokugushi: small, handmade elder-tree combs. It’s here we meet Shinohara Hisako, the frail, 79-old-year wife of a master comb-maker, in her small shop, which opened in 1902. And it’s here we’re reminded of the fragility of life on the Nakasendo Way.
As we pile into the shop, mulling over souvenirs, a quiet, tender, melancholy slowly fills the room as Mrs Hisako explains that her husband is ill and likely won’t return to his workshop. Her only son is a car dealer in Yokohama and will not be taking over the family business. So, in the not so distant future, this store will close and with it, not just the knowledge of a master craftsman, but nine generations of family history. Who will be last to turn out the light, I wonder again. A Japanese term comes to mind: mono no aware – an untranslatable phrase that refers, roughly, to the impermanence of things, the passage of time. I look at Andre, but say nothing.
From here we hike up Torii-toge, the second highest peak of the Nakasendo Way, then down into Narai, the final post-town, followed by a train to the city of Matsumoto. The journey takes an hour; a chance to reflect. I realise, retrospectively, I’ve taken a big of dose of shinrin yuku – “forest therapy” – an initiative launched by the Japanese government in 1982. It’s all about getting the curative benefits of what Christopher Harding describes in his excellent Japan Story as one of stressed-out, urbanised, modern Japan’s “oldest and greatest consolations”: nature. I’d brought the book along as my if-all-else-fails go-to but, happily, it stayed in my bag, untouched, until then. Yes, the woods, in a slow sort of way, have had an effect; oddly enough, though, I feel more nourished by the company of strangers. The conversation flowed all week, never forced or phony.
That night, we have our last, loudest meal in an izakaya in the centre of town: shochu, beer, umeshu, whisky, beer again, the booze flows freely. I feel an immense English guilt at concluding the best thing I will eat on the trip has only a passing resemblance, if that, to anything properly Japanese: there on the table, chips with deep-fried chicken skin.
More beer arrives, and we ganbei (toast) again and again, and vow to keep in touch. In the evening fug, I disconnect from the chat for a moment and think back to that teahouse in the woods, to Mrs Hisako, to the small, hand-crafted combs. But I also remember a brief exchange in the forest with Dennis, another accountant from Singapore, when the group learned he and his wife were, that day, celebrating their wedding anniversary.
“Wow, 15 years,” someone says. “What’s your secret?” Dennis stops. “I don’t know, really…” he says, cocking his head to the side, mock thinking. “No kids?”
Founded in 1992, Walk Japan is the pioneering operator of walking tours of Japan. With fully-guided itineraries starting in March 2020, it offers a 10-night tour of the Nakasendo Way from Kyoto to Tokyo, and a four-night Kiso Road trip from Nagoya to Matsumato. Both include all meals, accommodation and luggage transfers.