Hear about hiking Japan’s Nakasendo Trail as the Amateur Traveler talks to Dave Grenewetzki about his experiences on this trip into the Japanese countryside between Kyoto and Tokyo.
“I spent many years in the video game business and I traveled to Japan often on business, mostly to Tokyo and Kyoto. So we went back at this time purely in vacation mode and we decided to get off the beaten path and out of the big cities and indulge our hiking hobby at the same time.”
Dave and his wife decided to hike parts of the Nakasendo Trail after seeing an article years ago in the New York times about this route that connected Kyoto and Edo (later Tokyo), emperor and Shogun, during the Edo period of Japan (1603-1868). A portion of the towns along this route were preserved in the 1960s and that is the portion they decided to hike.
Along the way, Dave and his wife stayed at ryokans, small family houses that had been turned into inns. “You’ve heard about Japan being expensive. This is really not that expensive for what you are getting. We were paying about $120 a night per person which includes 2 meals, incredible meals, probably twenty plates in front of each one of us both for dinner and for breakfast, and we would grab lunch along the way. The best kind of hiking, just a bottle of water in your pocket and hiking through the Japanese countryside.” Dave shares some of the secrets of how not to offend local customs in a ryokan.
“We started in a town called Magome and it’s a beautiful town. It has services for tourists but it’s not touristy. There are no cars allowed in this town. Everything has been rerouted since this 1960s preservation movement. There is a wide stone path surrounded on both sides by Ryokans. You’re always hearing water. All along this trail, you’re hearing running water, water wheels, waterfalls. You’re going through the countryside as you would imagine the countryside to look like. So you’re going through small farms and rice paddies, bamboo, random shrines along the side of the road. There are ancient signboards that were along the road back when it first opened.”
Dave describes getting lost along the way. A place where you were instructed to ring a bell to keep the bears away, gorgeous views, and one active volcano along the route. Come with us into Japan’s countryside and into its past.
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Listened today and was excited as it is one of my favorite cities we visited on our last 3 month trip to India. Your guest left a lots out. The Hyderabad zoo is one of the best in India. Golconda fort at night has a great sound and light show and the shah tombs are very interesting to walk through. A great city to visit.
Davo on Travel to Kyrgyzstan – Episode 478
The recent podcast on Kyrgyzstan was spot on. Your guest definitely hit the highlights, there was one thing that wasn’t covered in the depth I feel it deserves… the overwhelming Kyrgyz hospitality.
After spending two weeks there, my partner and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of the people we met. For example, while in Karakol we rented bikes. We got about 10km out of town when one broke down. We were able to hitchhike back to town. The guy who picked us up brought us to his brother’s house and fixed our bikes for us. Had his brother been home, I think he fully intended on serving us tea, then insisting we stay for dinner, then probably drinks, later. Based on anecdotes from other tourists we met, this is a common scenario. Hitchhiking is a great way to have a very personal cultural experience, and it seems pretty safe. My partner said it is the only country of the 33 we’ve been to that she would consider hitchhiking as a solo female traveller.
Thanks for highlighting this incredible destination, one that is too often and undeservedly overlooked. My favorite thing about Amateur Traveller is that it highlights so many places like this that most people wouldn’t think to go (or even know where they are).
Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by TravelSmith. There’s no time like the present to take a trip, and nobody makes it easier for you to pack up your things and head out than TravelSmith. With apparel, luggage, gear, and tips for every traveler, TravelSmith helps you get there, look great, and feel good. Check out TravelSmith.com today.
Music: I’ve got my bags packed. On a roll, Heading out there, and I’m ready to go. Looking real good in my passport photo…
Amateur Traveler episode 479. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about hiking in the countryside of Japan. We’ll hear about mountains and rice paddies, ryokans and castles made of wood as we hike Japan’s Nakasendo Trail.
Welcome to the Amateur Travel, I’m your host, Chris Christensen. We’ll hear more from our sponsor, who is TravelSmith, later on in the show. But first, let’s talk about Japan.
I’d like to welcome back to the show Dave Grenewetzki who’s come to talk to us about Japan. Dave, welcome back to the show.
Dave: Hey, Chris, great to be here.
Chris: And Dave has been on the show twice before, once talking about Iceland, which made my list of top shows that I remember for the last ten years. And then also India and I enjoyed that episode as well. So welcome back. You did a part of Japan that I did relatively recently, but you did it very different than I did.
Dave: Yeah, I spent many years in the video game business, and I traveled to Japan often on business, mostly to Tokyo and Kyoto. So we went back this time purely in vacation mode, and decided to try to get off the beaten path and out of the big cities, and indulge our hiking hobby at the same time.
Chris: I get the impression that there is a hiking culture in Japan.
Dave: Yeah, it’s interesting. We did this trip in October of last year and the weather was great, but we really ran into no hikers on the trail, except for one day we ran into a huge group of Japanese hikers going the other direction. So, it was a great time of year, there just was nobody on the trails but I think it’s something that folks do, it’s just that you have to quite often get out of the city to do it.
Chris: Sure. Well, you mentioned the trail. Let’s talk about which trail we’re talking about.
Dave: Sure. We decided to… After seeing an article in the New York Times a long time ago, we file all these articles away, so this was a 2005 article that referred to this ancient hiking trail called the Nakasendo Trail. And the entire trail is more than three hundred miles long. It goes from Tokyo to Kyoto. Constructed in the eighth century, and it was used by messengers, pilgrims, merchants to move goods and people through sixty-nine little towns along the way that were there to service the highway. They were called post towns because there were I think posts all along the way. And these were built up around some of the real crossroads. And so what happened in the 1960s in Japan is these 400 year-old towns, a number were chosen to be preserved, and that’s the segment of the trail that we chose to hike, which was through countryside and towns that looked like they did several hundred years ago. So it was quite gorgeous.
Chris: And that section, where is that in that span of Kyoto to Tokyo? Is it in the middle, or?
Dave: It’s really interesting, because to get there from Kyoto, you go in successively slower modes of transportation. So you start out with a bullet train and then you go onto a limited express train, and then on to bus, and then on to foot. So it’s a half a day to get there from Kyoto and you’re moving north and west towards Tokyo. And you start in this place called the Kiso Valley. We hiked over about a four day period, just 20 or 25 miles, of just gorgeous countryside. So we’re kind of in the very middle between Kyoto and Tokyo.
Chris: Okay. And let’s talk logistics first of all. When you say you hike, this is a full backpack hike? Or this is a someone carries my luggage from place to place while I get to walk?
Dave: It is the second. So…
Chris: I like the second. Okay.
Dave: Yes. The first night, there was a baggage forwarding service that the tourist information people did, and sent our bags to the next town. The next day, we actually sent our bags two towns ahead on a taxi cab. There was no service, but we had a taxi guy carry them, and we just carried day packs that got us through one night without a pack. And so we were hiking and staying at ryokans, or very small family houses that had been turned into inns. Just gorgeous, gorgeous places. And you’ve heard about Japan being expensive, well, this is really not expensive at all for what you’re getting. So we were paying about 120 dollars a night, per person, which includes two meals, incredible meals, and probably 20 plates in front of each one of us for these meals, both for dinner and for breakfast. And we would grab lunch along the way. So the best kind of hiking, just a bottle of water in your pocket and hiking on your own through the Japanese countryside.
Chris: You mentioned the ryokans, I’m not sure that everyone knows about those. But we’re talking about a very traditional Japanese style place. Usually you’re sleeping on the mat on the floor.
Dave: Yep, that’s exactly what we were. You walk into a room in a Japanese ryokan and you wonder where all the furniture went. It’s basically a room with traditional tatami mats on the floor, with nothing in there. Maybe a low table, a kerosene fired heater in the corner, and that’s about it. There are some closets full of bedding and things like that. In fact, it might be fun to talk a little bit about the etiquette of all this. There are lots of rules that you have to learn, and they’re not intimidating and people are there to help you, but when you enter a ryokan, you leave your shoes outside and you put on a pair of slippers that they give you.
Chris: And there’s usually a collection of shoes there. It’s not like it’s a big surprise.
Dave: No, it’s quite obvious. One of the problems, I’m six foot three, is that essentially nothing fits. So if you’re a big guy, you’re out of luck, and we’ll get to the robes later, which are even a worse fit. But the shoes, I would get my two or three toes into these slippers and kind of clod along to my room. Then when you get to your room, you leave the slippers outside of your room because you’re only supposed to walk on the mats in your bare feet or in stocking feet. So you never take your slippers into the room, and the other thing to watch out if you’re six foot three, is you’re always looking down to step over a threshold, and when you do, you’re likely to basically brain yourself on a doorway that is much lower than we would expect it to be here. So, got to watch your head, watch your feet, and make sure you’re wearing the right shoes. In fact, there’s yet another pair of shoes.
If you go to the bathroom, which generally, the rooms do not include a bathroom. So you step off the mat into your slippers, walk to the bathroom, and then you leave your shoes outside the door there and put on the bathroom slippers, which only are for use in the bathroom. And never the twain shall meet. You’re in and out of a lot of slippers all the time depending on where you’re going.
Chris: I may have done that last one wrong but I don’t remember the extra pair of slippers.
Dave: That’s a pretty big black mark in your book, but they’re so polite you’ll never really hear about it.
Chris: Well, you mentioned the bathroom. In addition to a toilet, what I found is that traditionally you’ll also find a bathroom. There is a bath included in a ryokan quite often.
Dave: Right. Depending on the one you go to, they may be like a public bath. I think it’s called an onsen. Some places are co-ed, most are not. That’s another place where you need to figure out what the rules are. It’s a little bit intimidating, but you put on your robe, which in my case, it didn’t fit. And put on your slippers, and plod down to the onsen room, and go in there, and there’s a series of low benches outside of a very hot pool. It’s not a bath like we think of it, you don’t bathe in the bath. You relax in the bath, you actually are required to bathe before you get into the bath. So you sit on the low stoop, and you soap up, and hose off with the hose they have there. And that’s all the prep work you need to do until you slowly, very slowly dip your toe in and get into the very, very hot water.
So it’s generally naturally heated spring water coming in from somewhere. Really, it’s a fun way to relax after dinner. In the first inn we went to, we weren’t quite sure what the rules were. When we went down to dinner, we were wearing Western clothes and basically everybody else was in their robes. So robe wear is the way to go while you’re in a ryokan, and from that day on, we knew the drill and we came down dressed appropriately.
Chris: Ok, let’s take a break here and hear from our sponsor who is TravelSmith. Planning a vacation, family reunion, business trip or weekend getaway, there’s no time like the present to take a trip. And nobody makes it easier for you to pack up your things and head out than TravelSmith. With apparel, luggage, gear and tips for every traveler, TravelSmith helps you get there, look great and feel good. Their vast collection is full of lightweight, easy to pack items that are loaded with features to make your travel easier, safer, and more comfortable. TravelSmith also has the industry’s largest selection of RFID blocking luggage, gear, and apparel to keep tech-savvy thieves from ruining your travels. For vacations, quick getaways, business trips and more, shop TravelSmith.com today. Take the stress out of your travels and go there with TravelSmith. www.TravelSmith.com.
Chris: Now, let’s get back on the trail. You started where then?
Dave: We started in a town called Magome, so that was the first stop. It’s a beautiful town, it has services for tourists, but it’s not touristy. That was really fun. There’s no cars allowed in this town. Everything’s been rerouted since this 1960s preservation movement. And there’s a wide stone path surrounded on both sides by ryokans. And you’re always hearing water. All along this trail, you’re hearing running water, water wheels, waterfalls, and so there’s a wide stone path in Magome, and that’s basically the start. So we got there in the afternoon, checked into our ryokan, went out for a walk just to get the lay of the land, watched the sun go down and returned back to the hotel to get ready for the first leg of the hike. Which was starting the next morning.
We were leaving Magome and heading on the first part of the path, which is probably the most famous and most traveled piece of the Nakasendo Trail. It is the five mile hike from Magome to Tsumago. It’s an easy three hour walk with about a thousand feet of ascent in it, so it’s very tough at all. But there’s plenty of places to stop and you’re going through the countryside as you would imagine Japanese countryside to look like. So you’re going through small farms and rice paddies, bamboo shrines, just random shrines along the side of the road.
Oh, the one thing that’s fun are the ancient sign boards that were along the road back when it was first opened more than four hundred years ago. So there’s these old sign boards which are nothing in English obviously, but they were the way that the news was distributed in those days. So we saw very, very few people on the road, and of all the people we saw, I would say less than five percent were foreigners. So it’s a day trip for most people, so at all these towns things got very, very quiet at night. But at Magome, the good news was there was a really good tourist information place with English-speaking folks that helped us think about how we were going to handle the rest of the trip. We did have, by the way, reservations at all the inns we stayed at, so I’m not sure at this time of the year it would have been necessary, but we wanted to make sure we weren’t stuck in the middle of the country without a place to stay.
Chris: And then in terms of following the trail, the trail markers are clear enough for someone who does not speak Japanese?
Dave: This day they are. A few days into the trip, it was a little less so. So the trail is very good from Magome to Tsumago and very well marked. One interesting thing is the tourist office said, “Do you want to take a bell with you?” And we said, “Why would we need a bell?” And they said, “Well ringing the bell keeps the bears away.” So that was a little bit concerning. And all along the way there are signs with pictures of bears and they actually have bells mounted on stands along the way. We did not take one from the tourist office, but we did ring the daylights out of the bells every time we saw one, and we did not see any bears.
Chris: Reminds me of an old joke, but we’ll go on.
Dave: We were hoping it wasn’t the dinner bell.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. I think I used the joke in a recent episode, so I won’t go there. In the second day then, you’re off the famous five mile trail?
Dave: Yep, so we hit Tsumago. It’s just a gorgeous little town. Very, very well preserved. Our suitcases were waiting for us, so it was very nice. And it was raining a little bit that day and we hit town and it was raining and there were a lot of tourists, well not a lot. Not a lot compared to the rest of Japan, certainly not that kind of crowds. But there were tourists there, and it mostly emptied out at night. And we had an amazing dinner at a little place called the Fujito Ryokan where we stayed, which included a dessert of baby bees, which was interesting. Honey soaked baby bees.
Chris: So those would be larva?
Dave: Yes, yes, they were larva. That was the end of the first day of the hike. So the next morning, we got our bags out and had the ryokans send them on two days ahead. And this was the biggest day of hiking that we had. We had to hike fourteen miles this day to a town called Nigiri, where we grabbed a train. And we had about twenty-five hundred feet of altitude to go through. But we made it in about six hours with a lot of stopping and really no strain at all. This is not a strenuous hike, and you’re stopping so often to take pictures that you really don’t have time to get tired. This is where the trail got a little harder to follow. At the beginning, they were really well defined. Then we got basically impossible to find paths in the forest, deep in the forest. We had to pull bushes apart to poke our heads in and find the trails.
And we went through there, and then we ended up somehow, and we don’t quite know how, back on a road where we had to hike through a mile long tunnel. Luckily no cars came through it while we were there. And we got out approximately in a right place and managed to find our way back to the trail. That was not on the trail, that was a detour that we somehow came into. But the fun thing on this day for us is that when we came out the other side of this tunnel, we saw the what are called the Japanese Alps. And this was about a month after Mount Ontake had erupted and killed 57 hikers. And it was still spewing. It looked like a volcano should look, spewing things out the top. So we walked for a while with that in sight, and made it to Nigiri.
And took the train from Nigiri to Kiso-Fukushima. And at that town, our ryokan sent a car to pick us up at the hotel, and we spent a great night there watching the volcano, soaking in the onsen, and they took us star-gazing that night to the top of the mountain. And there were actually a couple of Western tourists with the group there. And we got to the top of the hill, and it was literally so cold, that after about two minutes of star-gazing, which was quite amazing because there was nothing in the sky to obscure the view, but I think the cold won out, and we begged to be taken back to the hotel. But it was a great day.
Chris: Now, why the train? Why is there a segment of the trail that is not complete anymore?
Dave : No, the trail was complete, but we chose to intersperse this…
Chris: Rather than do one contiguous segment, you did a larger sample.
Dave: Yeah. We wanted to go on the best chunks of this, and so we did hop on and off the train a couple times during the trip. And it just gets you through countryside that might be a little more repetitive. Some of these inns were quite famous and we wanted to make sure that we spent our nights at the right places. So then the next morning, we got up and again we took a car back down to the Kiso-Fukushima train station and took the train to the town of Yabuhara. And in Yabuhara, we were hiking up and over what’s called the Torii Pass. And the Torii, you probably have seen, are the kind of statues, I would say they look like the symbol for pi. Very colorful, tall, wooden, two columns with a crossbeam on the top, and there’s one of these at the top of this hill. Only about a thousand feet up, but we hiked through this valley again, until we came to a beautiful fall colors through the forest. This was the day when we actually ran into people coming the other way.
And met a group of friendly Japanese tourists going the other way and they were really outfitted. Looked like everybody had made a recent trip to REI and loaded up with the best and brightest. Expected to see tags hanging off some of the things, but they all had sticks, and canteens, and backpacks, and they were having a lot of fun. And we said, “Hi,” and passed them. This was a great sign posted day, the road was easy to find. And lots of bear bells today, but no bears, thank goodness. And we ended up in Narai, which is just a beautiful town. This was, in the day, it’s said that this was the richest of the post towns. And so in this Edo period, which is I guess the 1600s, the 1800s, you’re much more of a history buff than I am, that this was a rest spot after the arduous climb to the Torii Pass. We didn’t find it that arduous, but it still was a great place to spend the night.
This was called the Narai of a thousand houses, so it was a fairly good sized town in those days. Street is, again, running water everywhere. Beautiful wells at both ends of the street, and water spouting out in various places along the way. A temple at each end and five shrines in between. It was one mile, preserved area, and we just really had a good time there. Very, very friendly folks at the place where we stayed called the Isaya Inn [SP]. It was a place built in the 1800s and it’s a very small place with just a handful of rooms. No onsen there, but great food, great people who insisted on taking our picture. It’s usually the other way around, but they wanted to document our visit, and this was the 34th post town along the entire route. And I think it’s pretty much the halfway marker between Kyoto and Tokyo.
Chris: You mentioned the Edo Period. Basically, as I recall my Japanese history, what happened was the emperor, for many years, was in Kyoto. It wasn’t the only imperial capital. Obviously, nearby Nara was also a capital for a time, but for many years the capital was in Kyoto. And then when the shogun basically takes control of the government, and I want to put that in the 1100s, but I’m doing this from memory, the capital moved to Tokyo, in some ways, to just get it a little further from the emperor’s influence at that point. And Tokyo changes name from Edo to Tokyo. And so I’m wondering when you say the Edo Period, if that’s during the time period where Tokyo is still Edo and therefore, not the capital.
Dave: Yeah. I don’t know that. I do know that there were several sign posts talking about the emperor’s party. The emperor and his entourage moving through some of these various cities and some of the entourages were so long that it took two days for them to pass by a certain place. It may have been at the time when things were moving, and this was the one and only true way, I think, between the two towns in those days.
Chris: Right. Now as you mentioned these different towns, you’re saying picturesque, but you’re not saying, “And then we stopped at this particular site.” So I’m not getting that there is this temple or that shrine you really have to see while you’re in town more that it’s a picturesque setting.
Dave: That’s exactly the case. The temples along this thing are all very small local temples. There are some castle sites, but they’re basically ruins now. They’re always on some impressive overlook, so we hiked to a few castle ruin sites to look down on the towns that we had just come from. But these are basically single story, four hundred year old, wooden houses packed very tightly along the street. It’s as you would imagine old Japan to be. And there weren’t a lot of must see, World Heritage spots along the way. So, you’re absolutely right, this was more of the overall experience of seeing Japan as it was hundreds of years ago.
Chris: Okay, and I got my Japanese history just a little wrong there, in the sense that Edo was established by the shogun to move the power away, and then didn’t actually become the capital Tokyo until the 1800s, when the restoration of the imperial power at that point. So I saved myself a few e-mails. Let’s just do that. Talk about the castles, castles are really interesting for me in Japan. I saw one, I think I saw one when I was there. There are only eight surviving, as I recall, because they were wooden. Castle and wooden are not two things that we, as Westerners, tend to put together, as two words that go together, so most of the castles have burned down.
Dave: Yep, I’ll tell you, we ended up at a castle at the end of this. So we were in Narai, the next day we got up and walked to the next post town down the road just a couple of miles down called Hirosawa, which is famous for its lacquer wear shops. And that’s their local craft there, and we went to the top, and basically nothing was open. So we made some strategic error there, but we enjoyed it, and then we walked back and grabbed the train. This was the end of our walking part of this, but we did go take the train from Narai to Matsumoto. And Matsumoto Castle is an amazing castle, so…
Chris: One of the larger ones. That and Osaka, I want to say, but I’ve been wrong already in this show.
Dave: Yeah, well Matsumoto Castle was again, so this was us creeping back into civilization. Matsumoto is a real town. And the castle, built in the 1500s, and restored and burned, and restored and burned many times, but one of the things that I think is important lesson here is the friendliness of the Japanese people. So we got to Matsumoto, we threw our bags down, and we decided to go see the castle. And when we got there, there’s basically a booth out front that said English-speaking guides, just ask. And so we went over to the booth and the guy said, “Oh, I’d love to take you around.” And we found that to be the case everywhere in Japan, and I heard in your episode, you were really helped out by a gentleman you met on the street. It’s the same here. If you look the least bit confused, somebody will come up and offer to help you.
And I think it’s innate friendliness, but it’s also because they learn to read and write English in school, and they don’t have their chance to practice speaking it quite often. And so this booth was set up outside of Matsumoto Castle and run by a group of people who each come one day a week and just will take you around. This was a really cool guide that had been to America a couple times, but just loved talking about the history of the area. So he took us around Matsumoto Castle. We really had a lot of fun with him and learned some of the history behind…This is one of the really top historic sites in Japan and it’s a five story high wooden castle and a lot of fun. But it was the end of this part of the trip, and after a night in Matsumoto, we hopped the train back to Tokyo and spent a few days there, and ended what was a seventeen day journey with four or five days of fun hiking in old Japan in the middle of it.
Chris: What surprised you about this… You’ve been to Japan how many times before?
Dave: Probably twenty.
Chris: So what surprised you about this particular trip?
Dave: Well, it was just fun to see Japanese towns with no cars, for instance. These old towns, that the traffic had been banned, there’s no driving in there at all. It’s just a different Japan than I’ve seen in all my business trips to Japan. But again, the Japanese friendliness is there to be seen no matter where you are in Japan.
Chris: Excellent. And you ended up in Tokyo, so let me do my second correction, which is I was only off by five hundred years on the Edo Period. It started in 1603, so missed it by that much.
Dave: Yep, so it was an amazing trip, and as you mentioned in your trip to Japan that it wasn’t high on your list. It’s always been high on my list and was never high on my wife’s list. But after this trip, she’s ready to go back anytime we can get it in the schedule. It’s so beautiful, the food is so good, and the people are so nice that it’s very hard to stay away, I think.
Chris: Well, you mentioned the expense. The two things, that as we were talking before we started recording, that had kept me away from Japan, because it’s not like Japan is not interesting, were that I thought it was very expensive, and that I thought that it was intimidating. And I didn’t find either of those to be true. Now I have talked to another travel blogger who said that they were in Tokyo and they could not figure out the subway system. And I know that there were a few kanji characters, if you didn’t know them, you wouldn’t know which was the adult ticket and which was the student ticket or the child ticket, so there were places where a few English signs would have made things a little more easy.
Dave: Well, it’s interesting because when I first started going there, everything was in kanji. Then they started, in the center of town, started adding English, and as you ventured farther, many stops out it would change. And at that point, you’re just doing pattern matching trying to find your stop. I haven’t found that to be the case in my last few trips there, that English is migrating to most of the signs. I do have to say that one time in Tokyo Station, which is one of the craziest stations you’ll ever go to, that we had a very nice gentleman come up and help us find our track. There’s probably fifty gates and fifty tracks going in different directions, and this guy saw that we were confused and actually took fifteen minutes to walk us to our gate and deposit us there.
Chris: Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me at all.
Dave: Very, very nice.
Chris: Well, and you mentioned, and I think it was a good comment there in terms of more English…See, I did find more English in…Tokyo Station is chaotic, but better signed than any other station that we saw. And we took the train from Tokyo Station out to the Edo Museum, which is a little further out. And when we quite confidently approached the map, to figure out which train to get back, and it was all in Japanese. It was one of those you looked around for a different map, and everything really is completely in Japanese. And we figured it out, but it did take us a minute to try and figure out which train we had come in on, or what stations we had seen and try and figure out the characters. It wouldn’t hurt to write down the characters for Tokyo Station, or something like that, before you leave there when you’re looking at the map that does have English.
Dave: Well, when I first went to Japan, I was told when you leave your hotel, take a postcard because you can always show it to somebody and they will help…
Chris: Never a bad idea, exactly. Well, and we did run into a little weird situation that we happened to be in Tokyo in the winter time and it snowed. And it doesn’t really snow very often, as I understand, and they had an inch of snow, and they started shutting down the trains. So we’re on the platform, and an announcement happens, of course entirely in Japanese, and everyone leaves. It’s just one of those when you go, well, I think they just shut down the trains. I don’t know what just happened, but I think we’re not getting back on the train. At that point, you find a hotel and call a cab. So, find someone who speaks English. And at any reasonably sized hotel, you’re going to find someone who speaks English.
Chris: Excellent. What other recommendations would you have for somebody who is coming to this trip or to Japan for the first time?
Dave: Going to Japan for a first trip, there’s nothing wrong with spending time in Tokyo or Kyoto. Both of them are amazing towns. There’s great things to do. This trip, I did something that was recommended by a friend of mine. I went to a place called the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, which was the most crazy chaotic evening I’ve ever spent in my life. We really needed to decompress after that. Tokyo’s exciting enough, but the Robot Restaurant takes it up to the next level, and that luckily just a day or so before we started heading to the countryside. Japan is a great country, I would say don’t be intimidated, bring plenty of cash because it’s basically a cash society. And it turns out that if you want to use your credit card or an ATM card to get cash, you do it at the Japanese equivalent of a 7-11 or at a post office. Your card will not work generally anywhere else, so keep a lot of cash in your pocket, realize that people will help you, and just poke around and explore. It’s an amazing country, and the mix between old and new in the big cities is startling and really, really interesting.
Chris: Now it’s interesting, I don’t remember having trouble getting cash, but I do remember being in a number of 7-11s just picking up a pork bun or something like that when I didn’t want to take a break for lunch, so they are everywhere.
Dave: They are everywhere, yes indeed.
Chris: So, in the whole place you went this time, if I said you were standing in the prettiest spot, where are you standing, and what are you looking at?
Dave: I think I’m standing in the garden of our hotel in Tsumago, the Fujito Ryokan. The Japanese gardens are, in general, very beautiful, and that one was amazing. I could see it from my room, and I could also stand in the middle of it, and you’re between a beautifully sculptured Japanese gardens, ponds with koi and the sound, again, the sound of running water which is a theme throughout the entire trip to Japan. The gardens are the top spot.
Chris: Now, you’ve done a number a of trips to Japan, and a lot of them, as you said, on business, would this be your recommendation for someone’s first trip to Japan, or second, or third? What would you recommend for a newbie?
Dave: I think the kind of Tokyo/Kyoto run and a ride on the Shinkansen bullet train between the two is a great first trip, and you’re in the city where there’s some infrastructure to help you out and get a feel for the country. If you’re a veteran traveler, there was nothing intimidating about this. But a first trip to Japan, if you’ve not been in big Asian cities before, Tokyo and Kyoto are some of the best to get that experience. I just love…I’ve looked at my wife several times in these crazy big towns and just said, “I just love this. I love the chaos, I love the excitement. I love the fact that all these things are going on, and I only understand about ten percent of it.” I know that’s not for everybody, and in the countryside, you’re away from all of that. But you’re also a little bit more on your own. But again, the friendliness of the folks makes it all very, very doable.
Chris: So what do you wish you had brought? Or what do you wish you had known? Besides a trail map of that one spot.
Dave: Interestingly enough, we looked hard for trail maps. And I think there are a lot of companies that offer pre-packaged tours along the Nakasendo Trail. And we looked at those and just decided that the expense was…we didn’t think it was worth paying those prices for what we could do on our own, but I think they’ve hoarded, or they’ve shut down all the sites maps on them. We kind of picked our way through it. So, having a better map would be great. But I think the thing to know is probably…it was really important for us to have cash in our pocket. I knew that before in the past, but in the big cities, it is pretty easy to get cash, but along the Nakasendo Trail, you’re away from many things electronic, and you need to make sure that you have that covered. And the rest of it, you can figure out on the fly basically.
Chris: Now, you say you’re away from many things electronic, I’m guessing you still passed by one or two vending machines.
Dave: Oh, vending machines are everywhere, of course. And you can get all manner of things that you expect to find in vending machines, and things that you don’t expect to find in vending machines. So, we lived out of vending machines. They’re available on the road, and that was how we hydrate along the trail.
Chris: Right. And besides a bottle of water or cold green tea or something like that, what was the most interesting thing you saw in a vending machine on your trip?
Dave: Well we bought a giant can, a giant in terms of Japanese vending machine, can of something that was called American coffee. And we couldn’t quite figure out what it was, and it actually didn’t taste anything like American coffee, so we had to try it. It was good. The amazing thing about the vending machines, as I think you mentioned, is you have to look at the button before you press it because the blue ones are cold drinks and…
In unison: The red ones are hot drinks.
Dave: And those are really hot, so when you reach in and grab that can, if you haven’t been paying attention, you could get quite a surprise.
Chris: You talked about the meals being good, was there anything different about the countryside cuisine?
Dave: It’s highly, highly vegetarian in most places, although they do, I think, we had a lot of fish, a lot of trout and sashimi. There was beef steak in a few places, but lots of vegetables. Lots of noodles, lots of tempura. It’s very hard to get a meal that’s not excellent, and also just beautifully plated. I’ve never seen…we took a picture every night of every table before we dove in and devoured it, because it’s just kind of presentation that you’re not used to at most restaurants State-side.
Chris: Okay. Anything that you would pack for this trip that you wouldn’t normally pack on a walking tour?
Dave: Well, the only thing is that maybe you might want to find a robe that will fit you if you’re six foot three. Because the robe is definitely the way to go, and one place did…she came in and looked at me and she ran out and got a bigger one, so one place was prepared. In general, I just don’t think they get a lot of Westerners, at least in the middle part of the trail. They’re sized for the locals, and might be more appropriate to get something that doesn’t want to spring open every time you take a step.
Chris: And before we get to our last three questions, anything else we should know before we duplicate your trip?
Dave: No, I think this is a very doable trip, only about fifteen or twenty miles of walking, easy walking over four plus days and you’re going to see some countryside that is what you expect in your mind Japan to look like. And well, well worth the effort involved.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in the Japanese countryside”?
Dave: Well, I think the funniest thing for me is that you have to change your shoes three times to go to the bathroom. And that’s just something that was unexpected and learning the fact that there were special shoes for the bathroom that can never leave the bathroom was a surprise and quite humorous.
Chris: And finish this question, you really know you’re in the Japanese countryside when…what?
Dave: When you’re hiking along the trail and you run into a tea house with a tiny Japanese man out front who beckons you inside, makes you tea, and gives you cakes and won’t accept any money for it. And just wishes you well and sends you on your way. We had just a great encounter with a gentleman along the way between Magome and Tsumago. He brought us in, was boiling water on an open fire, made us tea, gave us some snacks. And we tried to pay him, and he wouldn’t take it and he just wished us well. We didn’t’ have a single word in common in any language, and we just really enjoyed the friendship of a man who made the trail and made the day much more interesting and fun for us.
Chris: Excellent. And if you had to summarize your trip in three words? What three words would you use?
Dave: Serene, beautiful, and friendly.
Chris: Excellent. Well Dave, thanks so much for coming back on The Amateur Traveler and telling us all about a more unusual and interesting experience in Japan.
Dave: It was fun Chris, thanks much.
Chris: In news of the community, I heard from Jeffery on The Amateur Traveler Facebook page about the recent episode on Hyderabad, India. He said, “Listened today, and was excited as it is one of my favorite cities we visited on our last three month trip to India. Your guest left out a lot. The Hyderabad Zoo is one of the best in India. Golconda Fort at night has a great sound and light show, and the Shah temples are very interesting to walk through. A great city to visit.” Thanks so much, Jeffery.
And then on last week’s episode on Kyrgyzstan, Davo said, “The recent podcast on Kyrgyzstan was spot on. Your guest definitely hit the highlights, there was one thing that wasn’t covered in the depth that I feel it deserved, the overwhelming Kyrgyz hospitality. After spending two weeks there, my partner and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of the people we met. For example, while in Karakol, we rented bikes. We got about ten kilometers out of town when one broke down. We were able to hitchhike back to town. The guy who picked us up brought us to his brother’s house and fixed our bikes for us. Had his brother been home, I think he fully intended on serving us tea, then insisting we stay for dinner, then probably drinks later. Based on anecdotes from other tourists we met, this is a common scenario. Hitchhiking is a great way to have a very personal cultural experience, and it seems pretty safe. My partner said it’s the only country of the thirty-three that we’ve been to that she would consider hitchhiking as a solo female traveler. Thanks for highlighting this incredible destination, one that is too often, and undeservedly over-looked. My favorite thing about The Amateur Traveler is that is highlights so many places like this that most people wouldn’t think to go, or even know where they are.”
Davo, thanks so much, that’s certainly part of my goal for Amateur Traveler, and partially the reason we do that is it’s just interesting to me. And I should apologize for those of you who got to the episode on Kyrgyzstan when it first went up last week when I had misspelled Kyrgyzstan. Turns out, I wasn’t hearing that Z in there. With that, we’re going to end this episode of The Amateur Traveler. If you have questions, send in an e-mail, as Davo did, to host at AmateurTraveler.com, or leave a comment on the Facebook community as we saw Jeffery do. You can also leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com, we’re still trying to decide where to go next for the Amateur Traveler trip for 2016. Go to AmateurTraveler.com/trip to join private Facebook community. You could follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest as Chris2x, and always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.
+Chris Christensen | @chris2x | facebook
4 Responses to “Hike Japan’s Nakasendo Trail – Episode 479”
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Tags: audio travel podcast, japan, podcast
August 15th, 2015 at 12:25 pm
thanks for the japan story, planning to return after 30 yrs and it will be interesting
March 4th, 2018 at 4:40 pm
Just returning from Japan, I was very happy indeed that I listened to Dave’s description of the Kiso Valley. We walked the trail and stayed at the historic Fujioto Ryokan. We would have never thought to have visited this area, and it turned out to be a real highlight of our trip. Hope you will have Dave on the show again soon…
May 16th, 2018 at 8:21 am
I travel to Japan a few times a year for work. I like to take the weekend free and explore. This year (June) I want to hike part of the Nakasendo Trail (probably starting nearer Tokyo end). Do you have any suggestions on places to stay? Any specific Onsen to go to?
May 16th, 2018 at 11:16 am
I don’t but can pass your question along to Dave.