The trail winding over the Torii pass was held to be the toughest part of the Nakasendo Trail. The towns either side made their living from travellers preparing for the pass, which is steep and high. That said, maybe our travels on the Inca Trail and the alps of New Zealand have left us over-prepared for this sort of thing, but really there was nothing to it.
Callum was our guide for the day and we had an inauspicious start when, through no fault of his, we went astray almost immediately after leaving the train station. We would have turned back earlier were it not for another walker striding confidently along about 50 metres in front of us. Eventually though, it became apparent that we were nowhere near where we needed to be and turned back. The other walker soon came to the same conclusion and we reversed positions. When he caught up to us, it turned out he was a South African living in London who had no real idea of where he was going, so he joined our party for the walk.
The first part of the trail led up on roads by the train tracks, but soon enough we were back onto a path leading through the forest. We zig-zagged up and up until the trains and houses looked like toys beneath us. The forest was made up of spruce and a type of beach tree, and was still clearly awaiting Spring to hit it at this altitude. As we went upwards there were banks of snow in the shaded parts of the trail, but the day was warm enough that we were walking in t-shirts.
We came to the top of the pass soon enough, so soon in fact that all five of us stood looking at each other with a sort of “Was that it? Surely there’s some more.” look. The top is marked by a gate and shrine, built by a grateful Samurai in the 1500s, that gives the pass its name.
The trip down the other side was almost a mirror image of the way up. The only significant difference being that we ran into a group of Japanese walkers one of whom decided to talk to us in Japanese – a lot. The only thing we could really make out through her exuberant smiling and arm waving was that she thought the boys and I were handsome – leaving our poor South African friend, who actually was handsome, out of the picture. We made that out because she said it a lot, and I mean a lot, until we managed to extract ourselves from her company with a lot of bowing and “arigatos’.
And so we made our way into Narai – the town of a thousand inns. Because of the pass Narai was filled with inns back in the days when the Nakasendo Trail was the only way between Kyoto and Edo. Even today the main street is lined with small shops and places to stay. Our own is a strange place, very much like something out of a medieval movie (if not reality). The front facade is only a couple of metres wide, but the place snakes on backwards up and down a bewildering array of stairs and round convoluted turns. Our rooms are at the very back and I feel like I need a map to find my way back to the front without finding myself in someone else’s room.