Road trip on the Nakasendo highway: Japan’s route 66
The Nakasendo Highway -- or central mountain route -- is an overnight road trip out of Tokyo that takes you out of the city chaos and into the past.
Running through the Kiso Valley it is an eighth-century road once used by feudal lords and their posse to walk between Edo and Kyoto. The highway consisted of 69 post towns, or juku, where weary travelers could rest before continuing on the next leg of their journey.
Not all 69 juku have been preserved but in two days, all you’ll need are three.
Feel the traditional Japanese spirit
From central Tokyo hop on the Shuto Express #4 and keep driving until you hit Okaya Junction (remember to glance out of your left-hand window for clear views of Mt. Fuji).
The Dangou Zaka service area is an excellent place to stop to stock up on some of the world’s zaniest snack foods –- blueberry cheesecake Kit Kats, pancake juice and crunchy nut balls.
From there, get on Nagano Expressway to Shiojiri then its route 20 to route 19 to Narai, "the town of one thousand houses.”
Straight out of a Kurosawa film, Narai’s main street has been painstakingly restored and maintained, looking much like it did in the Edo period.
Stroll the streets, find the five public wells that still offer refreshment to travelers, hunt for the statue of the Virgin Mary jizo and order a coffee at the syphon coffee house. It uses a scientific brewing method that uses two different chambers –- the lower vessel heats the water and the upper vessel holds the coffee grinds.
As the water temperature increases it forces water into the upper vessel and slowly brews a cup of coffee so clean it'll taste like a whole new drink.
The town of wood
Sticking with the historic nature of the journey, have lunch at Kokoro-ne, a 100-year-old soba shop with an exposed wood beamed ceiling and an irori, an open-hearth charcoal fire.
The cypress hinoki trees and umbrella pines are ubiquitous in the Kiso Valley and it’s no wonder that most of the products sold on the main street in Narai feature wood or lacquer in some form.
When all senses have been sated, get back in the car and drive 60 kilometers to Tsumago, arguably the best preserved post town in the valley.
Fujioto-san, the proprietor of Fujioto Ryokan and his lovely daughter Sayaka will be awaiting your arrival in Tsumago if you were smart enough to book ahead.
The Japan you have always dreamed of
Fujioto ryokan is conveniently located on the small main street in Tsumago, an ideal starting off point for your hike tomorrow.
Even though motor vehicles are banned from the town of Tsumago, the ryokan will have a choice spot to park your car.
Check your Tokyo pace of life at the door and change into the cotton yukata the ryokan provides.
As with most ryokan, dinner is plentiful and includes many dishes prepared with locally grown vegetables and freshly caught fish. After dinner, swap your slippers for traditional geta -- the wooden shoes worn outside -- and take a night time stroll around town.
Walking in yukata and geta, passing homes hundreds of years old, lit only by lanterns, you might find that finally, despite the concrete of the cities, the imagined-image of traditional Japan does actually still exist.
Up in the mountains
In the morning after a hearty breakfast at the ryokan of bacon, eggs and toast cooked on individual burners (request Western breakfast at check-in if you so desire), ask the proprietors for a stamp pass –- your official record of the hike you are about to undertake.
Then decide which direction you will go: Tsumago to Magome, about a four-hour climb mostly uphill or Magome to Tsumago, about a three-hour climb mostly downhill.
The paths are the same but the altitude of the town in which you start determines the difficulty of the climb.
Regardless of which you choose, you will encounter verdant mountainous views, rustic farm houses, a water wheel with cascading water, a small shrine, a tea house complete with a tea server in a conical hat -- do stop in for a cup of complimentary hot tea and homemade pickled plums, two waterfalls, and raw natural beauty.
At the top
At the end of the hike, find the small tourist information booth in town and for ¥100 receive your hiking certificate made of wood.
Surely you’ve worked up an appetite so choose from the many restaurants in town for a hearty lunch of shinshu soba -– buckwheat noodles served cold with a dipping sauce or warm as a soup, and gohei mocha, a rice lollipop of pounded sticky white rice skewered, dipped in sweet sauce and grilled over an open flame
Before getting back on the road, if you can stretch the road trip a little further you can soak your tired body in the onsen at Kuwa Resort.
Then its back to the future via route 256 to route 153 and the Chuo Expressway straight into Tokyo, the big city rushing into the future while the Nakasendo trail basks in its past.