Walk Japan: Nature by Foot From Kyoto to Tokyo

view of japanese rice fields and houses

Olivia Balsinger 

Japan probably brings to mind the bright lights and endless skyscrapers of Tokyo. It often makes us think of technology and futuristic attractions, of bullet trains and cosplay (costume play) in the Harajuku district. However, beyond Tokyo’s blinding lights is an entire nation with a rich history and unparalleled natural beauty.

The Nakasendo Way walking tour, crafted by local tour operator Walk Japan, was created in order to provide visitors with an experience of Japan that truly highlights its history and natural wonders. Walk Japan's mission is to showcase the "off the beaten path" hiking and cross-cultural experiences throughout the country. 

While Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. With an estimated population of 126.8 million in 2016, only 27 percent of its land is habitable, as the other 73 percent is so mountainous.

In part, this landscape is responsible for the historic Nakesendo Way, which connects two densely populated urban centers otherwise separated by forests and mountains. 

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Journey Japan's Historic (& Stunning!) Nakasendo Way

view of japanese river and trees
Olivia Balsinger

Beginning in Kyoto and ending in Tokyo, the Nakasendo Way is a historic road from the Edo period (1603 - 1868), a time of unprecedented economic growth in Japan’s history. The Nakasendo Road led samurai, feudal lords, merchants and pilgrims from one city to the other.

Today. travelers trek the same route across the mountains and forests of Japan. Stopping at ryokans (traditional inns) along the way and alternating between train travel and light hiking, the Nakasendo Way tour covers almost 500 kilometers between Kyoto and Tokyo.

Both cities are located on Japan’s main island, Honshu, which is the historical center of Japanese culture and political power. The terrain in this region is mountainous and volcanic, with Japan’s highest peaks and Japan’s longest river, the Shinano River.

The journey begins in the middle of the island in the Kansai Region, which contains four national parks and more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other region in Japan.

Japanese culture has a deeply rooted appreciation and respect for nature. National parks in Japan are managed by The Ministry of the Environment, a government agency responsible for environmental conservation and pollution control.

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The Engrained Respect of Nature in Japan

A Shinto temple in Nakatsugwa.
Olivia Balsinger

Japanese appreciation of nature goes far beyond governmental practices. Ancient Japanese myths, grouped under the belief system known as Shinto, promoted the worship of spirits or kami that were often times elements in the landscape or forces of nature. Kami are considered to be of nature -- they possess positive and negative energies, they represent good and evil and therefore they must be venerated and respected.

The values of Shinto myths have influenced modern Japanese attitudes towards nature and harvested a sense of duty to protect it. This respect and relationship with nature is what pulsates through the Nakasendo trails.

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Day One: Kyoto

The start of the Nakasendo Way at Kyoto's Sanjo-Ohashi Bridge on The Kamo River.
Olivia Balsinger

The start of the Nakasendo highway is marked by the Sanjo-Ohashi Bridge, spanning the Kamo River in Kyoto. While the exact date is unknown, there are records of the bridge's existence dating back to 1590.

The first night of the tour, the group gathers at The Royal Park Hotel, located in the heart of the city. Following a first multi-course dinner and a tour briefing, travelers visit the Sanjo-Ohashi bridge to celebrate the beginning of this unforgettable journey connecting with nature. 

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Day 2: Kyoto to Hikone to Sekigahara

Hikone castle in Japan
Olivia Balsinger

The first official stop on the walking tour is reached by train. However, there is plenty of walking to be done in the castle town of Hikone. The castle at Hikone is one of the few in Japan that has been preserved perfectly, untouched by time. The castle, which is considered a national treasure, was completed in 1622, the heyday of The Edo Period. It is truly revealing of cultural times. Take the staircases of the castle which were deliberately built extremely steep to prevent potential invasions.

Travelers walk through the city and enjoy the castle in all its splendor before jumping back on the train. The next stop on the tour is the town of Sekigahara, which is of particular historical significance to both Japan’s history and the Nakasendo highway’s history. What some consider to be the most important battle in Japanese history took place at Sekigahara in 1600. After the famed battle at Sekigahara began the 265-year long Tokugawa dynasty and The Edo period.

At Sekigahara, travelers can experience their first traditional Japanese inn complete with tatami-mat floors and an indoor natural hot spring bath known as an onsen.

After dressing in the provided yukata (literally, "bathing clothes"), the relaxation and peace from escaping outside society will begin to sink in, surrendering to nature. 

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Day 3: Sekigahara to Mitake to Hosokute

woman walks on the Nakasendo's original stone path.
Olivia Balsinger

The journey from Sekigahara to Mitake is traversed by train. At Mitake, travelers embark on the first extensive walk along the Nakasendo Way. The walk from Mitake to Hosokute is unmistakably a walk through Japanese feudal history. The original stone paving of the highway and small shrines along the road installed to bring travelers protection, along with the sites of former tea houses for travelers to rest, all recall the rich history of the very steps present-day travelers are taking.

The third night of the journey is spent at The Daikokuya Inn, which has been in business since The Edo period. Although the current building that houses the inn is relatively new -- built in the 1850s -- the building has a historic feel to it, with its wooden pillars and mud walls. 

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Day 4: Hosokute to Ena

Olivia Balsinger

For history buffs and lovers of Japanese tales, the walk from Hosokuteto Ena is one of the most exciting. Forgotten for decades, this section of the road--which dates back to the eighth century--was recently rediscovered.

The road from Hosokute to Ena is long but thankfully the quaint nineteenth-century village of Okute is a convenient stop along the way. Okute is a small town, best known for being home to one large and completely inspiring 1,200-year-old cedar tree (which you can buy in original coaster form in the village). The cedar at Okute is believed to be a kami - a spirit or god according to ancient Japanese mythologies.

Before the seventh century, before this section of the famed highway was established, the land between the towns of Okute and Ena was virtually impassable. Today, the path from Okute to Ena is still unpaved and rustic, but it offers spectacular views of Japan’s mountainous landscape, allowing travelers to feel more immersed in nature than ever before. Uninterrupted by traffic, the walk from Okute to Ena gives travelers a sense of total isolation and immersion with nature. 

Ena is a small city with an estimated population of 50,000. In Ena, the next inn provides accommodations -- a brief break from tatamis with a modern bed and room. However, before relaxing in modern comfort and amenities, it is highly encouraged to visit The Hiroshige Print Museum, exhibiting a collection of Nikuhitsu-ga paintings from the Edo Period.

Because they are made using a writing brush to draw directly onto silk, paper or wood, Nikuhitsu-ga paintings are one of a kind. The museum additionally affords guests the opportunity to complete their own print (with the guidance and expertise of onlooking volunteers!). 

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Day 5: Ena to Shinchaya

view of mountain path in Japan
Olivia Balsinger

The walk from Ena to Shinchaya is one that features the Japanese countryside in all its glory. Halfway to Shinchaya, travelers stop to enjoy the charm of an old post town - Nakatsugawa. Continuing on past Nakatsugawa involves steeper terrain, the steepest travelers have encountered up to this point in the 10-day journey. The uphill walk is worth it, however, considering the breathtaking views travelers experience as they begin their ascent towards Magome Pass.

A good night’s rest is due before reaching the top of The Magome Pass. Shinchaya Inn, which translates into "The New Tea House," is the best-preserved inn along the Nakasendo Way -- and arguably the most photogenic. After a day of steep climbing, the charm of the Shinchaya Inn does not disappoint. 

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Day 6: Shinchaya to Tsumago

views from The Magome Pass.
Olivia Balsinger

Leaving Shinchaya Inn isn’t easy, but the journey must go on.

What goes up must come down, of course, and so it is as travelers walk down the Magome Pass to the village of Tsumago. The journey from Shinchaya to Tsumago features two historic waterfalls-- Otaki and Metaki (Male and Female) waterfalls-- surrounded by the area’s dense woodlands.

Tsumago has been preserved to an uncanny degree-- with telephone poles, electric lines and vending machines out of sight on the main street. Tsumago’s residents take great pride in the fruits of their efforts to maintain the town of Tsumago as a historic site. At the end of a long day, travelers get to indulge in a thermal hot spring at the top of a mountain in Tsumago.

Accommodations for the night are provided by Maruya Inn, a traditional ryokan with a very authentic feel to it. Like the town itself, Maruya Inn gives you the sense time has stood still for centuries. 

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Day 7: Tsumago to Kiso-Fukushima

The sun shines down on the Nakasendo in Kiso.
Olivia Balsinger

The journey from Tsumago to Kiso Fukushima begins along the old highway and continues through alternative routes to avoid the busier parts of the road that have been taken over by modernity.

In order to cross the Kiso River, travelers must walk through a wooden footbridge that will take your breath away. The alternative routes of the highway take travelers through quiet farming hamlets and eventually a forest to Ne-no-Ue Pass. One of the highlights of the climb towards Ne-no-Ue Pass are the sightings of the old logging railway system which used to fuel the area’s economy. To finally reach Kiso- Fukushima, travelers take a train from Nojiri train station.

The ryokan for this night has been run by the same family for centuries. The ancient traditions of Japanese hospitality are well and alive at Iwaya Inn, which provides a deeply authentic experience, from the food to the outdoor baths. 

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Day 8: Kiso-Fukushima to Kaida Kogen

Olivia Balsinger

The walk from Kiso-Fukushima to Kaida Kogen follows an ancient path, over the Jizo Pass and down The Kaida Plateau. Standing on the plateau, you can see some of the best views of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan after Mount Fuji. While Mount Ontake is an active volcano, it is also considered to be a sacred mountain, therefore attracting artists who visit it in search of divine inspiration.

A night of the journey is spent at a Japanese Inn with a modern twist -- the Yamaka-no-yu Inn. The highlight of staying at Yamaka-no-yu Inn is the large windows that overlook the mountainous sprawling landscape outside. 

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Day 9: Kaida-Kogen to Yabuhara to Narai to Karuizawa

The Tsuruya Inn in Karuizawa, japan under snow
Olivia Balsinger

To reach the enchanting town of Narai from Kaida-Kogen you must first transfer to Yabuhara and walk eight kilometers over the Torri Pass. At the end of this long walk, explore the small town and its cafes and shops, before the train ride to Karuizawa. The train to Karuizawa traverses Japan’s Central Alps and allows you a view of the stunning sights surrounding the mountains. Window seats are a must on this journey. 

The Tsuruya Inn in Karuizawa, where the group will spend the night, is a high-end mountain resort. With the exception of the hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo, Tsuruya Inn is the most modern hotel in the journey. 

It is isolated and connected at the same time. 

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Day 10: Karuizawa to Yokokawa to Tokyo

Azalea blooming in Onioshidashi en and Asama-yama
Jun Yamaguchi/Sebun Photo / Getty Images

From the Usui Pass, you can see across the north Kanto Plain and all the way to Mount Asama, an active volcano.

The final stop on the Nakasendo Way is the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo’s business district of the same name. The journey's end is marked by a bridge, just like it began. 

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A Path Towards Modernity

The Nakasendo Way
Olivia Balsinger

The Nakasendo Way tour guides travelers towards inner peace and harmony with nature. It walking tour begins at a luxury hotel in Kyoto and ends at an equally extravagant hotel in Tokyo.

The tour is bookended by stays at some of Japan’s most luxurious and modern hotels because that’s exactly what the Nakasendo Way is and always was.

A path towards innovation, towards modernity. 

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Tokyo Optional Post Tour

The bright lights of Tokyo
Olivia Balsinger

After a journey of discovery and adventure in the wilderness, take time to re-assimilate into society in one of the world's largest and busiest cities.

With so much to see, Walk Japan offers a two day tour of the city for travelers who can’t get enough of the metropolis. The walking tour begins by delving into the feudal history of Tokyo, back when the city was a samurai military stronghold known as Edo. The first day of the tour is dedicated to learning about Edo culture and finding traces of Tokyo’s rich past in the present. Through the stories of powerful samurai, travelers come to an understanding of how Tokyo came to be the megacity it is today.

The second day of the walking tour is dedicated to learning about the common townspeople of the Edo period, who made great contributions to Edo culture including the development of kabuki theater and print making.

Throughout this Tokyo portion, the dichotomy of a city that welcomes globalization while simultaneously staying so culturally isolated is more apparent than ever.

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Additional Information

The Nakasendo Way with autumn foliage
Olivia Balsinger

 Walk Japan offers guided tours of the Nakasendo Way year round. However, packing recommendations will vary season to season. 

Each eleven-day, ten-night tour of the Nakasendo is accompanied by a bilingual tour guide with great experience of mountainous environments and Japanese culture.  Each tour comes to a total of JPY472,000, including accommodations for each night, breakfast and dinner. 

The Tokyo Tour is JPY 78,000, which includes accommodations for two nights and breakfast both mornings. 

For more information on walking tours throughout the country, can be found at Walk Japan's website.

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