This becomes a common refrain as they rhapsodise about making pilgrimages to the Japanese capital almost every year, its teeming streets a paradise of shopping, food, technology and efficiency. Everyone seems to have his own list of “must- dos” – a ramen list, a sushi list, a museum list. I am soon completely worn out by lists.
So my husband and I, together with another couple who are good friends of ours, decide to go on a different sort of pilgrimage: a four- day, three-night self-guided walk on the Nakasendo in central Japan. It is an ancient 533km trail established in the Edo period (1603 to 1868) that connected Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto, the imperial capital.
We are walking only a tiny section of the Nakasendo, literally “central mountain route”, about 35km of walking plus a few bus and train transfers between the Kiso Valley towns of Magome and Kiso Hirasawa, but the route offered by tour operator Oku Japan (www.okujapan.com) promises a challenging, invigorating walk through low mountain passes and lush bamboo forests.
We decide to book a trip during the first week of April, traditionally the peak of the cherry blossom season in Japan. I press my face against the glass as we take the train from Narita Airport into the city. Neon lights wink beguilingly from every crowded street corner. But we are in Tokyo for less than a day before we are on board the shinkansen (bullet train) heading south-west. The long, smooth snout of the train slices through the city, quickly shedding it for vast expanses of countryside.
Our starting point in Magome is a bustling tourist pitstop. Shopkeepers selling gohei-mochi, rice balls served with a special miso sauce, beckon to us from open windows. As we ascend the cobblestone path through the village, dodging clutches of tourists with selfie sticks, I question myself: Is this what our walk will be like over the next four days?
But in about half an hour, just about every tourist seems to have vanished. We see the opening to a bamboo grove and a gleaming bell on a wooden post, one of hundreds of bear bells on the well-marked route. Small brown bears live in the forests and in the mountains, and even though we do not see any, hikers are encouraged to ring these bells – all sharp and sonorous – to warn the animals of their presence.
A group of half a dozen local walkers beams at us, greeting us with a warm “konnichiwa” (good afternoon) as they head back towards Magome, and they are the last large group of people we will see on our entire walk.
We have lunch at a tiny 15-seat soba restaurant run by the wife of the village postman, who plies us with endless dishes, including horse meat, and is tickled by our attempts at speaking Japanese.
Our walk takes us through small farms, past family shrines and perfectly manicured little gardens. We’ve been talking and laughing, then one of our friends suggests: “Let’s spend the next half an hour just walking and see what that’s like.” We agree to spend the next half-hour in meditative silence.
We pause to drink in the sight of thousands of tall, narrow pines standing guard over our dirt path, their leaves whispering in the light breeze. Our shoes make soft, snuffling noises on a carpet of fallen leaves. I feel an odd welling up in my heart as I look at the canopy, a tapestry of branches silhouetted against sunlight. I am no longer a hiker; I am a character in some sort of enchanted forest, where a crafty tanuki (the shapeshifting Japanese raccoon dog of local folklore) might emerge from the shadows.
The four of us have not spoken a word, but we are – simultaneously – profoundly and utterly moved.
We soon see O-Tsumago, the small hamlet where we will spend the night. Tanuki statues beckon from the doors of each ryokan. We stay at the Maruya Minshuku (tel: +81-264-57-3117), a cosy family-run inn housed in a 230-year-old wooden building. It has two shared baths with bathtubs made of cypress wood from the Kiso Valley and filled with hot, fragrant water, a delicious mix of bath salts that make me feel like a brand new person after a soak.
The walk on the second day is the longest at 18.4km; our guidebook indicates an elevation gain of about 723m. It takes us through a stunning, dense bamboo forest. Small rabbit-like animals skitter through the trees, too quick for us to identify. An eagle circling overhead pauses to rest on a tall post, observing us as we trudge through the drizzle. As we walk through one of the quiet hamlets, at least five Shiba Inus, one of Japan’s most well-loved dog breeds, bark at the disturbance, tails wagging cautiously.
The ascent is beautiful, taking us over bubbling streams, through rich farmland and picturesque little villages, where we greet lone farmers at work. However, the long, winding descent on tarmac takes us past swathes of charred and felled forest, leaving us wondering what might have happened.
We arrive at the Nojiri train station, ravenous after about seven hours of walking and in time to catch the train departing for Kiso- Fukushima, where a staff member from the Komanoyu Ryokan (tel: +81-264-23-2288) immediately bundles us off in a van to the gorgeous inn, which offers indoor and outdoor baths for guests.
Once we are dressed in yukata robes provided by the hotel, we are plied with sake and a 10-course dinner featuring ingredients sourced mostly from the area, including grilled salmon and tender beef.
We take the train to nearby Yabuhara the next morning, embarking on one of the loveliest walks of the trip, a climb up a forested trail to the Torii-touge Pass. It is a crisp, sunny day and the weather is perfect for a good hike, offering sweeping views of the valley below, including Narai, “the town of 1,000 inns”, where we will spend the night.
Perched atop the mountain pass, nearly 1,200m high, is a beautiful shrine built in the 15th century by a prominent samurai warrior to thank the mountain spirit for helping him win a significant battle.
We have passed several small jizo (stone bodhisattvas) on our trip so far. While most of us are not religious, we stop at each one to thank any mountain spirit that might be nearby and sometimes leave a small stack of rocks next to the statues as a little traveller’s prayer.
In Narai, we stay at Iseya inn (tel: +81-264-34-3051), which was established in 1818. During the Edo period, it served as one of the town’s two porter-service offices. Its private baths are made of Kiso umbrella pine and there are only 10 guestrooms. Narai’s historic buildings are well- preserved and travellers throughout the years have rested at its inns after climbing the Torii-touge.
Our journey ends the next day with a short but pleasant walk alongside a burbling river to Kiso- Hirasawa. We stop to buy some pieces of lacquerware, which the town is known for, and strike up a halting conversation in English with the storekeeper, who says he much prefers the peace of village living to that of the city.
I do not give that conversation much thought until we are back in Tokyo navigating the labyrinthine Shinjuku station, hemmed in by thousands of commuters as they make their way from one train to the next.
The city, I suppose, has its own pulse, a rapid palpitation of schedules to follow and trains to catch. We stay in a capsule hotel for a night just for the fun of it, but the isolation of urban living soon catches up with me.
Those four days of walking, slowly, from village to village, where time becomes elastic and stretches out, languorously, ahead of us – I think that slowness is something to be savoured in a world where we constantly race ahead, but leave so much behind.