Japan is undoubtedly a top destination for any world traveller. Despite the huge masses of people living in Japan’s many cities, there are still many locations around the nation where you are able to quietly appreciate the aesthetic of the samurai, admire cute wooden houses and not be overly bombarded by tourists. So let's examine one of those lesser-known magical places of Japan, the ancient route of Nakasendo 中山 道 which connects Tokyo (formerly Edo) with Kyoto.
Tokyo, a city of beauty.
The seasons are very distinguished in Japan. Springtime consists of millions of sakuras blooming everywhere, Summer is hot and very humid and Autumn is when Japanese maples called ‘momiji’ display the most gorgeous of seasonal colors. In November, temperatures in Tokyo are a likeable 20º Celsius and you will be pleasantly surprised by the air quality, which is unimaginably clean for such a huge, sprawling city.
Tokyo offers a plethora of activities and things to do for almost everyone. There is plenty of accommodation options available in all price ranges. We decided to stay in one of the famous ‘Capsule Hotels’. These hotels offer single, cylindrical sleeping tubes, shaped for just one person. Surprisingly, they all you need for a peaceful and comfortable sleep. We chose the brand-new Bunka Hostel in the Asakusa district.
Asakusa district is an exciting, lively location in Tokyo. There are plenty of bars, restaurants and also a beautiful Buddhist temple, Senso-ji. Suffering slightly from jetlag, we headed to Senso-ji at five o'clock in the morning. We were completely absorbed by its breathtaking atmosphere and despite the early hour, we were not the only ones there. We lit incense sticks and sat in peaceful admiration of its beautiful interior. I just love the scent of ancient temples, there’s really nothing quite like it.
After the temple we headed to nearby Ueno Park for a walk at sunrise. Dawn is a great time to visit as the popular park is a lot less busy. Whilst walking in this beautiful setting, what could be better than to drink some tea? Luckily there are wonderful yidohanbaiki 自動 販 売 機 (AKA drink vending machines) located all around the park. You can choose from about 20 different types of tea or coffee to enjoy either warm or cold. Japan is the undisputed king of vending machine design. The Japanese put so much thought into their contents and design (wouldn’t it be great if Europe caught up to their level one day?). This is something that’s easily noticeable about Japan, they have a lot of technology there which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Especially when it comes to vending machines.
The Shinkansen bullet train, towards the tea plantations.
After enjoying our time in Tokyo we set off to discover the mysterious and mythical Nakasendo Trail, our main mission for the trip. At Tokyo Central Station we boarded the Shinkansen 新幹線 (otherwise known as the ‘bullet train’) and headed towards Shizuoka.
Traveling by Shinkansen is an absolutely incredible experience. Of course, everything works absolutely on time; the precision of arrivals and departures could be measured in split seconds.
On the way to the train, we bought boxed breakfast called ekibento 駅弁 and some warm, unsweetened tea from the autumn harvest. Once we were settled on the train, we began enjoying our breakfast feast. After opening our ekibento, believe it or not, these clever little boxes start self-heating! The presentation of the food was impeccable, an ornate box decorated in Japanese maple motifs and comprised of lots of different sized compartments. Inside there were pickled vegetables, a piece of grilled fish, various types of seaweed and lots of fresh vegetables. All perfectly harmonized and fresh. Food preparation and presentation is a big deal in Japan. Meanwhile, our train was moving at an incredible 280 kph! It really does live up to its nickname, all without a single bump or judder the whole journey.
In less than an hour we had arrived at Shizuoka. Here we switched trains and took the line heading to Fujieda, a small town famously renowned for tea growing. A friend of ours was already waiting for us at the station to take us to the tea plantations. After a fair amount of autumn rain, the rural roads were left muddy and soaked. Our friend, Tamiko was cutting corners like it was no big deal as we wound through the plantations. At certain moments I felt like we were going to fall off the cliff’s edge!
Eventually we made it to our destination. We forgot about the wild ride thanks to the magnificent fresh air and breathtaking views. Enjoying the beauty of the green plantation hills was easy enough now.
After enjoying the view, Tamiko decided that we should continue on by taking the road which ran straight between the plantation fields. Wonderful idea, I initially thought. However, let me just point out again that the roads are very narrow and very steep...and that it had been raining a lot.
Winding headlong through the plantations, the tea bushes scratched the windows of our car like ghosts from Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. Then suddenly the car lost its grip and its small wheels began to slip. It didn’t help matters that the gradient of the hill we were trying to climb was literally 90º degrees! The car really began to slip and slide a lot now. Suddenly we now found ourselves stuck in the mud! So out we got to push the car in the hopes of freeing it.
Sadly, my brand-new, beautiful, white Onitsuka sneakers from Tokyo were now covered in mud. To make matters worse, as we stood behind the car, a huge spray of wet mud flew-out from under the wheels completely drenching us. That was it. We were now covered from head to toe in mud…and we were only at the beginning of our journey to Nagiso. Luckily, we took a detour to Tamiko's home and got cleaned-up before we continued onwards to Nagiso.
The eight kilometre trek to Nakasendo.
The small town of Nagiso is the starting point for one of the Nakasendo sections. Here we stayed in a beautiful house that was over 200 years old and owned by a very nice young couple. Since Nagiso is situated right at the foot of the mountains, it was quite cold. Japanese houses of this age obviously do not have central heating, although there was some wood burning in the fireplace it didn’t really do much. There was however an incredible bathroom made out of Japanese cedar wood called ‘Hinoki’ which smelled like absolute heaven.
The next day we woke up to a beautifully sunny morning. We took a bus to Tsumago, which was our starting point for the 8km hike to the town of Magome. Much like an Ukiyo-e (a 19th century Japanese woodblock print), the setting here was just picture-perfect. Idyllic countryside, ornate architecture and the beautiful sound of gentle cascading waterfalls was all around us. The town’s wooden houses from the Edo period looked much like the backdrops from Kurosawa movies and in the air hung the smell of rice crackers being baked; it was serene.
Volcanic springs – hot hot hot!
After the hike, we headed to the town of Matsumoto, mainly to visit its impressive castle bearing the same name. Apart from the castle, there is not much else to see in the town, so one afternoon would be enough time to visit. We then rented a small cube-shaped car and drove to Okuhida Onsen.
Because Japan lies on an active volcanic area, it has many different hot springs called Onsen 温泉. They spring from the bowels of the earth and, depending on where they are located, have different chemical compositions which are reportedly beneficial to your health. There are thousands of hot springs all over Japan, but of course we wanted to find the most beautiful and remote one.
Luckily, the gods would favor us in our quest. With much fog lounging around on the surrounding hills, the ubiquitous golden maples completed the atmosphere of a quintessential Japanese autumn day. It really was a perfect time for visiting the Onsen hot springs.
Finally we reached our destination, the first of a series of amazing hot springs called, Hirayu Onsen. We parked the car and ran through the pouring rain to the reception. No queue (thank god) so we paid for two adults, a set of towels and a bag with a toothbrush and razor blade for shaving; all perfectly packed of course.
In the Onsen
As per tradition, you must wash before entering the Onsen hot springs. In Japan, this means that you sit on a small stool made of hinoki wood, you take soap and shampoo from the dispensers and scrub your body clean all over. Everything here is adapted to the small stature of the Japanese, so a European of an average height overtops the separating walls at least by his head.
After thoroughly cleaning ourselves we entered the baths, which were mostly located indoors, however they also had outdoor baths which are called, Rotenburo 露天風呂.Because it was raining cats and dogs, vast clouds of misty fog was gently rising out the surrounding cedar forests. This was an incredible sight that I will never forget, especially as golden Momiji leaves were gentle falling all around us. Could there be anything better to see as you lay in a warm hot spring bath?
The weather forecast promised us some sun after all those previously rainy days, so we decided to go to the top of Mount Hotakadake by cable car. A lesser-known fact is that the cable car to the peak of Nishihotaka is the only double-decker cable car in Japan.
We arrived early in the morning and yet there were a couple of people already queuing. The rising sun lit up the golden leaves and the contrast of the blue sky against the golden momiji was simply breathtaking. As we went up higher and higher in the cable car, everything was slowly becoming more and more frosted, until we were almost surrounded by snowy mountains.
At the very top of the peak, the wonderful scenery looked like the movie, Mrazík, which is about the Russian Santa Claus. We soaked in the exquisite views of the surrounding mountain peaks whilst enjoying matcha lattes and cookies; we literally felt like we were the happiest human beings in the world.
Japan...there really is nowhere else quite like it. The limitations of the English language just simply cannot do it justice. If you haven’t been you need to save-up and go; it’ll change your life forever. Arigatō!