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My Day on the Nakasendo Trail

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I don’t know if you know this, but Japan is a pretty cool place. The temples. The trains. Even the food. And the Nakasendo Trail. Wait, what is that, you ask? Don’t worry, I’m getting to it. First we stayed in Tokyo for a few days and drove some really fast, crazy go-karts. Then we went to Lake Shoji and took a bunch of photos of Mount Fuji. Too many, maybe.

THEN we went and hiked part of the Nakasendo Trail. It is this really old walking path that was super popular back in medieval Japanese times with, like, samurais and geishas and emperors and stuff, I guess. These days its mostly tourists, I think, but who knows, it’s hard to say what all those people get up to in their free time.

Classic old buildings in Magome along the Nakasendo Route

First we took a train and a bus to get to the village of Magome. The Japanese train seats have lights over them to tell you if someone has reserved it (green) or it’s free (red). Which seemed backwards to us, but maybe red isn’t considered an evil colour in Japan the way it is in Canada. There is even a yellow light that tells you the seat may be empty now but fair warning, somebody’s going tor be showing up real soon.

And you best get the hell out of it when that time comes because Japan does not like making exceptions to rules. But they do like putting handy little lights on stuff, though, so things mostly work out.

Magome

Magome Chaya is a very traditional old Japanese hotel with thin paper walls and “tatami mat” floors. They called these hotels “ryokan”, which probably means “place that can be destroyed really easily”, on account of them being really fragile and all.

Man sitting awkwardly at a low table in a Japanese ryokan

The hotel gave us cool old robes to wear and there were awkward low tables and a traditional guitar just sitting there in the lounge, like we were supposed to use it or something. In our room we had futons for sleeping and really uncomfortable rice pillows that made it feel like you really had gone back to the old days when everything mostly sucked and you were always uncomfortable. The traditional A/C and wifi were nice, though.

Man posing in a traditional Japanese robe

And, boy, they sure don’t skimp on the slippers. There were slippers for every occasion. Slippers to use in your room, different slippers for going outside, other slippers for using the bathroom and even “onsen” slippers. An onsen is basically a shower – except you share it with a bunch of other dudes (or women, for Laynni), like in a locker room or something.

Blue toilet slippers with wedding couples on them

It’s kind of different, though, because it didn’t smell like hockey equipment and also because there was a bathtub so one person could just relax and people watch. There were also a bunch of little stools and handy little mirrors on the wall at the perfect height for examining your junk. I didn’t find any weird surprises either, so I was happy about that.

The Nakasendo Trail

The next morning we started walking. The trail was mostly a wide, rocky path that apparently was an old “feudal” route that ancient people used to get between Kyoto and Edo, which I guess is Tokyo now, even though the words don’t sound the same at all.

I really wanted to hear about all the nasty blood feuds that started because of this path but I was told that’s not what “feudal” means. But I said, hey, I’m the one here who speaks English, I think I know a feud when I imagine it. That shut them up, that’s for sure.

Statue and watermill in front of a traditional Japanese building

Magome is made of mostly old wooden buildings, either dark brown or maybe black and faded from the sun, I didn’t have time to get to the bottom of it. There was even an old watermill, which didn’t spin very fast and moved hardly any water. I don’t see why you wouldn’t just use the tap.

The trail followed a little river most of the time, which made a nice sound, although it wasn’t like, incredible or anything. Just a river, you know? I was more impressed with the rest areas and all the bathrooms, another one every kilometre or so. Although I didn’t love the sign over one of the urinals that basically said, hey, pee in there, like of course we would, then a picture showing a guy just walking away. It felt a little insulting, like maybe we’d forget that part or something.

Urinal with diagram showing to pee in the urinal and then leave

We skipped the free tea stop, though, where they basically said, hey, come on in, we’ll give you free tea, even though we don’t know you from a hole in the ground. Seemed a bit suspicious, that. I figured it might just be a cult or something, and I wasn’t falling for that again.

We passed through a few smaller villages, kind of like Magome but, l don’t know, not as nice, I guess. The houses were still old but more like the kind of houses people actually live in, you know, and not just places to sell little statues and samurai pictures and fridge magnets with Japanese writing.

Small creek, forest and dark clouds

We took a short detour to a little private garden even though there were signs warning us that it was “nothing special” and saying we would probably be disappointed. They were right, too, it wasn’t very special at all. But we weren’t really disappointed because they had already warned us ahead of time. Pretty smart, when you think about it. But their garden could be better, no question about that.

Welcome but nothing special sign in the bush

We saw lots of different people on the trail. Some slow people, some old people, some young people, a couple normal people. One guy with a big camera who always seemed to be there, no matter if we were walking fast or stopping to take pictures. I guess he liked all the same stuff as us even though he was Japanese.

There was a guy with big boots that weren’t done up right so they kept dragging along the ground. And a girl wearing really lewd leggings, those ones that really outline your ass, except they didn’t seem to fit right so she was always adjusting them, up and down and everything, but nothing felt quite right, I guess. People are always saying the best part about travel is the people, so maybe this is the stuff they’re talking about.

There were lots of tourists coming the other direction, too, but we knew that it was more uphill walking that way so when they passed us we were nice and all, but on the inside we were just laughing about how much smarter we were to go our direction. But then at the end we found out there was a bus that could get you from one end to the other in just half an hour, so that really knocked us down a peg, let me tell you.

Woman walking on a trail on the Nakasendo Trail in Japan

Every once in awhile there was a bell next to the trail. At first I thought they were religious bells or something, like you ring the bell to get Buddha’s attention when you need something. Something spiritual, probably, not just snacks and things. But then we translated one of the signs and it said we should be worried about a “bear infestation”. Well, we didn’t like the sound of that. Like, how many bears does it take to call it an “infestation”. 3? 10? Hundreds of thousands, like termites or bedbugs? Because that would be a problem, I bet.

We thought about it, though, and it didn’t seem like there would be many bears around, what with all the people walking everywhere and stuff. And even if there were, they would probably be Japanese bears, right, which I assume would be fairly polite and quiet, like everybody else in Japan.

Bear infestation sign

But that guy I was talking about, the one who we saw everywhere? Yeah, that guy, he rang every bell, just to be safe. Hard, too, like he wasn’t messing around. Like he really meant it. And we didn’t see any bears so, who knows, maybe it worked.

Tsumago

In the end, it took us about 2 hours to walk from Magome to Tsumago, walking pretty slowly and stopping to pee a few times and taking some photos here and there, just in case. Tsumago is a lot like Magome. Not so much that you’d get them mixed up and think you got lost and went back to where you started. Just kind of similar.

Tsumago is a bit longer and quite a bit busier, but that was probably just because we got there around lunch and Japanese people really like to buy food whenever they go places. Especially places that are different than the places they normally go.

Woman walking down old streets of Tsumago

We had paid to have our backpacks sent from Magome to Tsumago. With a company that does it everyday, though, so it’s not like we just asked some random guy in a truck or something. That would have been weird, I think. So we were pretty excited about that, the not having to carry them part, not the leaving all our stuff with strangers part. But we couldn’t pick them up until 1 o’clock so we kept walking past Tsumago to some old ruins.

I led us on a couple wrong turns, then realized the ruins were up a pretty big hill, then Laynni started making that face that means, hey, I don’t like this, or I’m not happy about this, or why are you making us do this – you know the kind. So she decided to wait at the bottom where there was this nice, flat rock surrounded by bamboo trees that was the perfect place for watching TikTok videos, it turns out.

Woman sitting on a rock next to a trail and bamboo grove

She made the right choice, though, because the ruins were pretty shitty, although there was a decent view of the valley, so it all depends on your priorities, I guess. Then we went to a noodle place and ate some ramen noodles. Just because we were hungry, not because they were traditional noodles or anything, just regular noodles with pork. And we got free water, so that was cool.

Tsumago valley on the Nakasendo Trail

After that we said goodbye to Tsumago. Not literally, I mean, it’s just a village, people would really give you a look if you did that. But, you know, figuratively. People say it’s good to use literary devices when you write. Which is probably why everyone prefers to look at stuff on their phones instead.

Matsumoto

The train to Matsumoto was really slow, way slower than you’re probably thinking right now. It stopped everywhere. Well, not literally everywhere. But figuratively everywhere. Which means it felt like we stopped everywhere but that would actually be impossible, or at least it would take more than 3 hours, I think.

Matsumoto is famous for its huge black castle. It was nice, sure, but Japanese castles are made of wood and seem like they’d be pretty easy to smash, so if I had to choose, I’d definitely go for one of the big stone Welsh castles or one of the ones built right into a mountain, like in Slovenia. Especially if I had loads of enemies, which I probably would if I lived in the old days because, let’s face it, there’s no way I could have cannons and crossbows and stuff and not use them all the time. That’s just being realistic.

Black castle across a moat and red bridge

The castle did have a pretty cool moat, though, and the moat was full of huge fish that were, honestly, creepy AF. So at least that would have scared off a lot of the attackers, especially the ones that weren’t strong swimmers.

And that’s pretty much all we did that day.

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