Day One on the Nakesendo Trail: cherry blossom and fried grasshoppers

Forest trail from Magome to Tsumago.
Forest trail from Magome to Tsumago.

“There are worse things in the world than eating French pastries in the middle of a forest in the heart of Japan” Declan said with a smile. There was no disagreement.

We caught the Shinkansen south of Tokyo after the boys and I geeked out over the beautiful high-speed trains at Tokyo station. The highlight of the trip South was passing the base of Mount Fuji. The top was shrouded in cloud but the base was so big that at first we failed to see what we were looking at. We changed to a smaller train, and then a bus and finally arrived in Magome.

The Nakensendo Trail snakes from Kyoto to Tokyo and during the Shogunate was the major route used by Lords and Merchants as they made their way between the two cities. A series of post towns broke the trip and some of these are preserved today. Mogome was town number 42 on the Trail and our aim today was to walk to Tsumago, town number 43.

Magome itself is a lovely little town. After a series of fires there’s not a lot left that is original but it’s all in the original style. As it is built on a mountainside there are streams everywhere, often interrupted by water-wheels. This far South and up in the hills the cherry blossoms are still out in full bloom, providing a lovely counterpoint to the wooden houses and spring flowers.

Kettle in the rest house.
Kettle in the rest house.

It didn’t take long to leave Magome behind and soon we were walking through forests of spruce and bamboo. The only sound was a strange dry rustling from the bamboo leaves and the occasional ringing bell. There are still bears in these woods and very so often a bear-bell stands by the wayside to scare them off the track. The air was clear and smelled of sap from the spruce trees and the Sun was shining down in a perfect Spring day. In fact as we walked on our only problem was we had too much cold-weather gear, thanks to a forecast that was way off.

The Trail took us through some small hamlets and then back into deeper forest. At one pint we came across a secluded house, a free rest stop. Inside a 300-year-old house an open fire had a blackened kettle bubbling over it and a lovely man offered us green tea. He gleefully explained in very broken English that we were the second Australian group to pass through that day making us the winners for the day – his list of other countries was exotic but short.

Feeling rejuvenated after the tea we strolled on through the woods, we didn’t have all that far to go so took it easy – we also weren’t pushing it because Declan has a nasty head cold and was suffering at times in spite of trying manfully to hide it. I was actually worried about wether he was enjoying himself until he expressed his happiness at our afternoon tea stop under a huge tree beside a river, where we ate pastries we’d bought in Tokyo earlier.


The second half of the walk was as pleasant as the first. We kept on turning corners and seeing lovely views down the valley. Eventually we meandered into Tsumago past some absolutely beautiful cherry trees. Tsumago is another well-preserved town – little wooden houses surrounding a cobblestone main street.

Our accommodation was at the far end of town in a traditional Japanese hotel. It’s run by a family and has only five rooms. Tatami mats and futons and a bath tub made of local spruce wood.

We’ve just been trying out the tub. The process is really very sensible – which not surprising given the Japanese have been bathing for centuries during which time my ancestors thought baths caused you to fall ill. You sit on a small stool and thoroughly clean yourself, before getting into the bath. Not only does that mean the bath water can be used by several people, but it doesn’t confuse the mechanics of getting clean with a good soak in the tub. Then we all changed into Yakutas before dinner.

Dinner was whole rainbow trout – “you must eat head and tail” – grasshoppers, sashimi duck, tempura, local mushrooms and a great many other things. We promised ourselves before we left that we’d rty everything and did so. The whole fish was confronting; the grasshoppers surprisingly good.

A lovely day’s walk, Japanese bath, yakutas and fried grasshoppers. This is the real thing.

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