Hiking the Kiso Valley
My edited version of this story is also featured at the Japan National Tourism Organisation.
The clang of brass bells is the Kiso Road’s soundtrack. I think of Spain’s Camino de Santiago trail, where it’s customary for hikers to carry a symbolic scallop shell on their trek. Here, you’re encouraged to rent a bell to scare off bears.
The Kiso Road, or Kisoji, runs alongside Japan’s Central Alps. It’s been chronicled since 701AD, but its prominence soared in the Edo period (1603-1868) when it merged with the Nakasendo, a major highway joining Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo).
Juku post towns like Magome and Tsumago thrived on the passing trade. Daimyo lords and samurai on mandatory trips to the Edo shogunate, pilgrims, monks, merchants, peddlers, entertainers and holidaying folk formed a motley parade. In 1862, Princess Kazunomiya journeyed to Edo and her entourage of some 25,000 took three days to pass one town.
Magome’s and Tsumago’s fortunes fell when the shogunate dissolved in 1868 and a railway then national road diverted traffic from the late 1800s. From the 1960s, locals restored their romantic feudal townscapes which continue to lure tourists today.
Japanese cities like Tokyo are grey expanses spliced with neon, riddled overhead with power and communication lines. In Magome and Tsumago, wires and electric poles, concrete structures and advertising billboards are hidden or banned.
Magome means “horse basket” as travellers once had to leave their horses at inns before the steep path. The town is a sloped street with wood and plaster buildings and wood plank roofs held with stones. Fires repeatedly destroyed Magome so its buildings are 20th-century replicas but their movie-set charm faithfully evokes the Edo era.
Walking on the Kisoji of the Nakasendo Way
The two and a half to three-hour walk from Magome to Tsumago reveals shrines, waterfalls, bamboo groves, terraced rice paddies, a teahouse rest stop and a forest path with large, rough stones laid in the early 1600s.
We passed through small scratches of villages, some desolate and rundown, others spruced with decorations. In autumn, orange persimmons, vibrant as paper lanterns, hang to dry in rows under eaves.
Japan’s bear attacks usually occur farther north but there are more warning bells on the path. Their rings echo frequently through this popular trail. They start to sound like a dinner bell. “Come and get it!” A starving bear could find a human sushi train right here.
Centuries ago, dignitaries rode horses or were carried in palanquins. Commoners walked and you can trace their straw sandal-clad steps and imagine carrying an oiled paper umbrella or raincoat like in olden times. People also once feared being bewitched by foxes, badgers and ghosts in these woods.
The cedar and cypress trees form a tranquil, meditative backdrop. The Nakasendo inspired many poets and artists. Haiku poet Matsuo Basho and woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige are two of its most famous fans.
Tokyo is like a video game with endless futuristic sights and sounds to navigate, from automatic opening taxi doors to electronic bird tweets at train stations for the visually impaired. Here, you place one foot in front of the other and your mind clears toward higher thoughts or nothing at all.
People once buried the dead in the mountains above and believed the souls became resident gods and spirits in the rocks, trees and water. Japan’s other major highways were called do, meaning ordinary road. The Kisoji has the mysterious name ji, meaning a place where the traveller walks and calls down the gods and spirits for company.
Don’t miss Tsumago’s Wakihonjin Okuya, a former inn for high-status guests rebuilt in 1877 entirely from native hinoki cypress. In 1967, a group of locals met around its hearth and started Japan’s first town preservation movement. Tsumago became a nationally designated cultural property. It’s still maintained by local volunteers.
Agriculture struggles in this snowy, mountainous region so people looked to the forest. Wood was harvested to build castles and shrines. Townsfolk crafted goods like lacquerware, furniture and ornaments. Woodwork is still a Kiso speciality. The hinoki cypress is very prized. When turned into tubs for bathing or cooked rice, heat unlocks its fine fragrance.
Kiso Valley Food
Local treats include gohei mochi toasted rice balls with walnut, sesame and soy sauce (highly recommended), buckwheat soba noodles and sake made from pure alpine water. Autumn delivers chestnuts which can be stirred through rice or pureed into sweets or ice cream.
The area is landlocked but there’s ayu river sweetfish, delectable over charcoal. Bee or hornet larvae or locusts (not bad with soy sauce and sugar) are a protein source. The Kiso horse, bred since ancient times, can be served as sashimi or cooked offal. Old-style Japanese inns serve set meals with no menu so if you don’t want these, tell the staff.
After dinner, we explored Tsumago in our inn’s cotton yukata robes. The town has no bars and we were alone. We were eons from Tokyo, where every night is illuminated like Christmas, blinding enough to obliterate the stars. Here, we strolled under starlight and a few lamps. The clanging bear bells had stopped. The only sound was the “clack-clack” of our wooden geta sandals slapping the street.
The Kiso Valley is about midway between Kyoto and Tokyo. You can cover Magome, Tsumago and the hike in a day or stay overnight in a traditional inn. The hike between Magome to Tsumago is regarded as easy but if you want the more downhill route, start in Magome.
Sources: Scott Wilson, W., Walking the Kiso Road, Shambhala Publications Inc, 2015
Walking the Nakasendo, Journeys in Japan, (documentary), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), 2016