What you should know about our Nakasendo Tour
by Andrew Thompson
The Nakasendo Tour
This tour is developed with people in mind who wish to have an authentic Japanese cultural experience and who like walking - a lot! This tour would be a standout experience if you would value being entertained by geisha while enjoying a multi-course meal, delight lodging in traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) and relish the idea of authentic Japanese cuisine made with local mouth-watering produce, then this tour is for you!
This post provides you with an overview of what you will experience on the Nakasendo tour and provide some insight to what it is all about. Towards the end of this post is a brief look into the history of the Nakasendo to provide those who are interested with some contexts. Points covered off in this post include:
- The Tour;
- What is Special about our Nakasendo Tour;
- A night with geisha;
- Bessho Onsen;
- Mugen Style Restaurant;
- The accommodation – what is traditional Japanese accommodation like? What are business hotels?;
- What you will see on the Nakasendo – musueams, honjin & post towns; and
- Nakasendo - A more in-depth look at the history of the Nakasendo.
This tour uses a combination of trains and walking along the ancient Nakasendo highway between Kyoto and Tokyo crossing over the Central Japanese Alps. The purpose of this tour is to provide you with an authentic experience of Edo Period Japan (as much is possible) through staying in traditional accommodation, eating locally prepared ryokan cuisine, walking through the mountains and valleys of central Japan, interacting with local Japanese people, and learning about Edo Period history by visiting a selection of museums, galleries, honjin (establishments specially constructed for travelling daimyo lords) and exploring the shops and wares of the post towns
This tour is created with the avid walker in mind and is suitable for any reasonably fit walker who can walk from 7-25km in a day at a leisurely pace and is interested to experience authentic Japanese culture and who enjoy walking. Not only is walking terrific for your health, and will provide you with a sense of accomplishment when your destination each night you will interact with Japan in a visceral way. You will meet locals as they are busy with their daily tasks and the vendors that provide you with accommodation, sell things in their shops, and ply you with the most delicious foods. This tour will provide you with a memorable experience that others would envy!
So, what is the walking actually like? The route is generally undulating but also includes some short stepper climbs along a mix of lanes, gravel tracks, forest paths, cobbled roadway and bitumen country roads. I refer you to some of the stunning photos of this blog. This is what the lane ways, and walking really looks like. There are two occasions on the tour where more than 20km will be covered in one day. During the Edo period is was common for the average Japanese person to walk up to 40km. And remember, you will be walking the same paths and staying In the same accommodation that has been used by Japanese for hundreds of years.
The Nakasendo can be translated as 中 = central; 山 = mountain; 道 = route, road or way (hence the popular translation Nakasendo Way) that spans 534km, consists of 69 Post Towns beginning at Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto and terminating at Nihonbashi in Tokyo. You will walk somewhere in the vicinity of 120km during your 12 journey along the Nakasendo. There is a total of 69 Post towns dotted along the route as it wends its way through the modern day prefectures of Shiga, Gifu, Nagano, Gunma and Saitama.
These are two full days of walking and the route is long. If you are used to walking a reasonable distance in a day then you should be able to magage. This is not a full-on trek (If you want a real challenge, then I have the trek for you to try in Japan - drop me a line). The scenery is picturesque and the view from some of the mountain passes is spectacular. While most days include walks between 6-12km at a relaxing pace there are two days in this itinerary that will provide a challenge for most people where you will cover approximately 25km in one day. This includes walking from early morning until dusk.
You will explore post towns of the Edo Period, the surrounding village, the houses built for Prefectural Lords who passed through these post towns and museums, authentic castles that are classified as national treasures and have survived in tact to present day, art galleries and museums that relate to the Nakasendo, and local shops selling traditional Japanese wares, foods, lacquer ware and the opportunity to buy unique souvenirs.
Keeping in line with the Edo Period theme most nights have been organised in traditional Japanese accommodation. Staying in ryokan or minshuku is an interesting experience in itself. These establishments have been servicing the travellers of the Nakasendo for around 150 years, handed down from generation to generation.
These are generally small family-run businesses that accommodate between 12 and 25 travellers. The rooms are in traditional style with tatami mat floors, futon and small but deep Japanese baths. Your body will cherish the opportunity to soak in these wonderful baths followed by being nourished on wonderful cuisine.
The establishments provide a multi course dinner and breakfast using local seasonal ingredients. Some of the local delicacies include ayu (a salted fish), carp, soba and tempura. For a more detailed dive into the food on the Nakasendo refer to our blog post Nakasendo Cuisine. Please keep in mind that these establishments are often in ‘difficult to reach places’ in the mountains and the countryside.
Consequently, the owners of these establishments can’t easily source produce to cater to specific likes and dislikes. However, if you have a particular allergy critical to your health and well-being, it may be possible to arrange an alternative in advance.
What is Special about our Nakasendo TourMy vision is to provide you with the best experience possible. Our tour has some stand-out experiences that I have not found in other Nakasendo tour experiences. This are:
- A multi-course welcome dinner in Kyoto accompanied by geisha;
- A night in a ryokan in Bessho Onsen with multi-course kaiseki meal; and
- A farewell dinner at Myugen Style Restaurant in Tokyo.
A Night with Geisha
Unlike other Nakasendo tours you may come across, our tour, on your very first night includes a dinner with geisha. You could easily imagine daimyo (fuedal lords) enjoying a full course dinner while being entertained by perhaps the most highly trained entertainers anywhere in the world.
Meeting one of Kyoto’s geisha is a magical and memorial experience. Popularised in the novel Memories of a Geisha these are highly skilled entertainers who appear at high-end dinners, private parties and special events. Geisha have trained for years in traditional Japanese arts including for example, music, dance and conversation to provide the perfect entertainment companion.
Kyoto is the heart of the geisha world. Fully fledged geisha are known as geiko-san and are usually young ladies between the ages of 15 and 20 years who have undergone a rigorous training schedule for a period of five years.
During this training period they are known as maiko-san. Knowledgeable insiders estimate that there are about 100 geiko and 100 maiko in Kyoto. Other cities also have maiko-san and geiko-san, however, they may not have necessarily undergone the strict rigorous training as those in Kyoto.
Arranging a night with geisha cannot be easily accomplished without the personal introduction from an existing client of a particular geisha house. This is one of the many elements that makes this an exclusive experience in Japan, providing a window on a traditional aspect of Japanese life that the average person (Japanese or foreign) is unable to experience easily and will no doubt form on of the stand-out experiences of you visit to Japan.
Our Nakasendo tour also includes a night at Beshho Onsen. Bessho Onsen is a small hot spring resort town just outside of central Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture. It is an onsen town dotted with quaint Japanese-style hotels (ryokan), aesthetic Japanese gardens and baths, divine cuisine and some of the most beautiful Buddhist Temples you could hope to find. This is one of the places in Japan to take that quintessential photo that others would envy. On our last night you can reminisce with your fellow walkers over one last meal and traditional dinner show. This show is unlike the usual ones you'd expect, and if I were to say anything more, it will definitely spoil the special surprise!
According to Japan Guide Bessho Onsen (別所温泉) is a small hot spring resort town just outside of central Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture. During the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), it served as the headquarters of the governor of the Shinshu Region (today's Nagano Prefecture), who built temples and brought Kamakura culture to the mountain town. This made Bessho Onsen into a prosperous center of education and religion, and in turn earned the town the nickname "Kamakura of Shinshu”.
Japan-Guide also states that Bessho Onsen is the oldest recorded hot spring in the region. Its sulfurous waters have long been regarded for their healing properties and are said to have healed the arrow wounds of warriors who bathed in them. There are three small traditional public bath houses found around town that offer visitors a chance to experience the atmosphere of a small neighborhood hot spring bath. For larger baths and more amenities, head to the Aisome no Yu public bath house at the entrance of the town.
This is one of the places in Japan to take that quintessential photo that others would envy. On our last night you can reminisce with your fellow walkers over one last meal and traditional dinner show. This show is unlike the usual ones you'd expect, and if I were to say anything more, it will definitely spoil the special surprise!
Mugen Ryu or Mugen Style restaurant is located in ritzy Ginza. Look back on the last few days with your fellow walkers as you have journey along the Nakasendo from Kyoto to Tokyo. Enjoy your last Japanese style dinner as you we entertained for the last time together. Every time the show and food is always different, so every visit seems like the first time. And it is always intimate, as the stage is very close to the tables. This is a wonderful way to celebrate the end of the tour and another memory I know you will carry around with you for a while. I haven't told you the special thing about Mugen Ryu for the very reason that the best way to find out is to try it for yourself.
Nakasendo - A more in-depth look at the history of the Nakasendo.
he nakasendo is a ‘post-road’ that connects Kyoto and Tokyo that traversers the central Japanese alpine mountains. The Japanese characters literally mean through the mountains path or way – sometimes referred to as 'The Nakasendo Way'.
The nakasendo is one of the seven major post routes that were developed as part of the Taiho Reforms – a formalised system of national administration that became known as the ‘Ritsuryo System’ based on the Chinese road system established during the Cho Dynasty (1122BC – 222BC). Developed to facilitate rice taxes gathered for transport to the imperial capital, allow rapid movement of imperial troops around the country and in time of peace provide an efficient network of communications.
Travel by the hoi paloi, although not entirely banned, was hardly encouraged. From the point of view of the Tokugawa Government travellers were defined as officials, daimyo and samurai who were moving about the country on business connected with administrative responsibilities or in accordance with the Alternate Attendance System (sankin kotai). This essentially excluded individuals who travelled for pleasure, on pilgrimage, merchants transporting their wares from city to city or common people in search of employment.
The sankin kotai system was a policy enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate requiring daimyo (provincial lords) to divide their time between the capital in their own domain and the Shogun’s capital city Edo (known as Tokyo today). The shogun was able to demand compliance because the daimyo's first born son and wife were forced to remain in Edo as the Shogun's guests - essentially held as hostages. This tradition began informally during the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1585 – 1598) but was codified into law by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1635.
Under this system daimyo were forced to spend alternating years in their own domain capitals and in Edo attending the Shogun’s court. Subsequently, the daimyo had to maintain lavish estates in both cities and pay to travel with their retinues of large armies between the two places. With the daimyo spending large sums of money on these operations it made it infinitely more difficult to fund uprisings.
Large armies constantly on the move along these national highways stimulated economic growth. Post towns popped up at convenient intervals of about 12 miles catering to the long and seemingly never-ending processions of soldiers by providing accommodation, food and services. A new kind hotel or guest home called the honjin established specifically for the daimyo sprang up along these routes. It also provided entertainment for local people as they turned out to watch them pass by - after all, who wouldn't enjoy a parade?
In due course the post roads became well established routes connecting provincial Japan with the Capital until the end of the Edo Period and the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships and the forced industrial modernisation of Japan at the start of the Meiji Period in 1688.
Today the original post road still exists although much of it is not in the original form as it has become a paved roadway, train tracks or morphed into modern cities and villages. And, as you will see when we travel together along the nakasendo that the best parts of this ancient road still exists, the pretty mountain passes, villages and post towns remain in the original Edo Period style.
The Nakasendo is an ancient highway that links Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) by passing over the Central Mountain Range in Japan. The Nakasendo is one of a system of five highways linking the two major cities with prefectural cities on the main island (Honshu) of Japan. It is often referred to as a Post Road as it was developed to quickly and efficiently distribute news from Edo throughout the prefectures of Japan. It was also used to collect rice taxes gathered for transport to the imperial capital, allow rapid deployment of imperial troops across the country, and for officials of the Bakufu (Feudal Government) to move about the country on sanctioned Government business.
If unavailable then a restaurant meal in the famous Ponto-cho district will be organised.