Self-guided hiking tour offers enchanting side of Japan –
The rain misted down, and I had two choices: the road up the hill, or the one alongside the river. I stood next to some kind of cement plant, most of it hidden behind a corrugated metal fence dripping with moisture. My pack pulled down on my shoulders. The river, engorged by two days of rain, roared and echoed against the mountains. A man in blue overalls emerged from behind a small Fuso truck.
Like many people I'd encountered in Japan, he wanted to help me. I was grateful. I put roughly 25 percent of my Japanese language skills to work.
"Sumimasen?" I said (Excuse me.)
He gestured down the road, I thought along the river. He said quite a few things that I didn't understand. I thanked him and strode off, pack on back, hands on straps, rain on head.
A half-hour later, after continuing along the river and then beneath a highway overpass, pressing against the wall because there was no shoulder, and then doubling back in confusion - this can't be right - I found myself outside the same plant, beside the same fence, talking to the same man. He seemed mildly frustrated with me. He gestured again, and this time I went up the hill. Of course - when you have a pack on your back, the destination is always up the hill.
I soon came into Tsumago, a beautifully preserved Edo-era town on the Nakasendo road in the Kiso Valley. I had wanted to visit for years - 35, actually - and had chosen to walk from the train so I could first experience the town as travelers had in the 19th century: on foot, the neat rows of wooden houses revealing themselves in diminishing perspective as I turned the corner. But it was 2011, so instead I entered via the parking lot and had to negotiate my pack between an idling bus and a pair of vending machines featuring the image of Tommy Lee Jones.
My obsession with Japan began in 1979 when my parents took me from our house in Brooklyn to see a show of woodblock prints at the Cooper Hewitt museum in Manhattan featuring works by the great landscape artist Hiroshige.
The show featured prints from Hiroshige's first famous series, the 53 Stations of the Tokaido, which chronicled life along the ancient coast highway that connected Edo, present-day Tokyo, and Kyoto.
Traveling the road was an envied, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and those who got the chance availed themselves of spectacular views, local culinary delicacies, hot spring baths and other more carnal pursuits along the way. Those who couldn't go, or wanted souvenirs to remember their journeys, bought prints like Hiroshige's for roughly the price of a double serving of noodles.
The strikingly modern designs, the warm hues of the skies and trees, the towns nestled in the mountains or by the sea, the raucous joy of the travelers, and the almost palpable sense of the seasons lit up something inside me - I stood there transfixed. I was soon spending hours trying to draw like Hiroshige. I became obsessed by all things Japanese - books, movies; I even took up Japanese fencing. The country had recovered from the war but was not yet the economic powerhouse it would be become in the 1980s - it was something of a blank slate for my imagination.
This interest never quite faded away like others of adolescence. But over the decades, various events (college, jobs, children) seemed timed to prevent me from actually visiting Japan. Or maybe I just told myself that. I suppose, deep in my heart, I didn't want modern reality to get in the way of my childhood fantasy land.
So in 2011 when my wife and two children had finally had enough - Why don't you just go? - I screwed up my courage and went, with one goal of recreating the Hiroshige experience. The Tokaido is mostly built over, but portions of the Nakasendo, which connects Tokyo and Kyoto via the interior, and which Hiroshige had also chronicled, are still preserved.
The evening after my rainy wrong turn I clumped eagerly up the road from Tsumago to the town of Magome. I was in some kind of heaven that day, in either bright sunshine or cool, crisp shade, but was rarely out of earshot of a highway. At one point, deep in the woods, I encountered a vending machine (Tommy Lee Jones again). I had an iced coffee.
Four years later, as I planned my return to Japan, I knew I had to travel beyond the populated heart of the country if I wanted to really replicate the world I had seen in those prints, going farther afield than Hiroshige himself.
And so I chose the Kumano Kodo, a series of trails through deep forest and small towns on the Kii Peninsula several hours south of Osaka. It's a religious pilgrimage that I came across in my obsessive reading. Pilgrims go to visit the numerous shrines along the way, worshipping the mountains themselves. They've done so since the sixth century. It's said one can achieve spiritual powers by enduring the route's physical challenge.
Spirituality aside, this seemed to have everything I wanted: long walks deep in the woods, beautiful towns with little hotels promising hot baths, sake and great meals. The idea of going alone was intimidating (I could only imagine how little English was spoken) but I hated the idea of being part of a group with a guide. My Japanese obsession is a very private thing. And that's when I discovered Oku Japan and the self-guided tour.
I found it online. The reviews were good. For $955, Oku would book my hotels and provide me with a step-by-step guide to the trail. The company, based in Cheshire, England, had an office in Japan with an emergency phone number; this made my wife feel better. I opted for a four-day, three-night hike, paying a little more for a single supplement but less because I'd take care of my own train tickets with a Japan Rail Pass. Oku provided me with timetables.
And so with my trusty pack on my back, I set off for my second trip to Japan.
At my inn in Kyoto, a package awaited from Oku Japan: my 12-page itinerary, a booklet detailing the Kumano Kodo with directions (I would be taking the Nakahechi route) and several beautiful laminated color maps with height elevations. I was all set. The next morning, having condensed my essentials and a few of my favorite books about Japan into a shoulder bag, I grabbed a boxed lunch at Kyoto Station and got on the Super Kuroshia No. 7 limited express, nonreserved car, as per my instructions.
I studied my itinerary and maps as the outskirts of Kyoto and then Osaka gave way to small towns and finally, the blue expanse of the Inland Sea, dotted with tiny islands as jagged and numerous as those portrayed by Hiroshige. The train hugged the west coast of the peninsula before arriving at the town of Kii-Tanabe, where I got off and found the bus that would take me into the interior.
As I got on, I noticed a group of Westerners who seemed to be following the same instructions. This was something I had not considered: Others would be taking the same self-guided tour at the same time and I would be, by default, part of a group.
The bus climbed away from the cluttered coastline into rich green mountains and eventually along a wide, pebbly river. Soon enough, and right on time, we were in Takijiri, a tiny town in a deep ravine at the intersection of the Tonda and Ishifune rivers where the Kumano Kodo begins.
I paid the 960 yen (about $8.80) Oku had prepared me for and went into a shop to get water and a bamboo walking stick. I also wanted to let the others get ahead of me.
I followed my instructions. The first shrine, Takijiri oji, was just behind the shop. I walked toward it, and then to the left around it, and saw the beginning of the trail, a sharply ascending ladder of logs and tangled tree roots, slick with damp leaves, beside a steep drop-off. Up I went.
Have I mentioned that I'm not much of a hiker? Beyond my Japanese-fencing phase, athletics have never been a priority. I'm not outdoorsy; I'm indoorsy. But my Hiroshige fantasy propelled me onward, even as my chest started to ache awfully soon.
The first day was only 2.8 miles. Soon I descended into the tiny town of Takahara. Here two roads met on a gliding slope, and there were a few shops and one hotel, the Organic Hotel Takahara Kiri-no-sato. Every room in the place, from the wide-open lobby-dining room with its bare support beams to the men's and women's baths to the bedrooms, had spectacular views of the yawning valley below, now tinted gold.
I tossed my bag in my room and went to have a beer and take some notes on the terrace. The afternoon cooled: The instant the sun dipped behind the mountains, it felt as if the valley became air-conditioned. I found the group from the bus and discovered that after my solitary train-bus-walk day, I didn't mind a little company.
After a bit I went for a bath, joined in the wooden tub by two chatty and elderly Japanese men, and enjoyed the view of the darkening mountains some more before getting dressed for dinner, set for precisely 6:30 p.m.
One member of the group, Janet, invited me to sit with them, and I liked the idea, but my hosts said this would be impossible: We were different parties, after all. Sometimes in Japan, I've found, rules can be intractable. So I ate alone at the next table over, my back to the others. It was equal parts awkward and comic. "How are you doing over there, Wendell?" Janet asked at one point over her shoulder.
The rules were relaxed as the meal ended, and I shifted my chair around and joined the other table as I finished my sake (not included in Oku's fee). There were five of them: Janet; her husband, Stan; her aunt Elvina; her colleague Pat; and Pat's friend, also named Pat.
We traded the basic details of our lives. They were from Canada, Edmonton and Vancouver, with jobs that included judges and lawyers in family court. It made for fascinating after-dinner conversation. They were also fierce hikers, having tackled many ambitious walks, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain. They were indeed following Oku's instructions and had found the first day's walk a snap.
"Have you seen the elevations for tomorrow, and the day after?" one asked me.
I had and said I was worried.
The second day's hike was 6.5 miles, including 1,575 feet of ascent. I went down to the village to take in the view from there and to allow the Canadians to get a head start; I still envisioned my hike as a solitary adventure. Soon enough I was deep in the woods, marveling at the towering and straight-up Japanese cedars and passing an abandoned house that looked like something out of a Japanese horror movie. Some trees were flecked with early-autumn orange. I sat on a stump to eat two sandwiches the Organic Hotel had packed for me for lunch.
At one point I paused beside an especially deep ravine. The cedars stood like an infinite army of stoic and towering sentries all around and above and below me. Oku had warned that the Kii Peninsula could be rainy, but I never had anything but sun. My stamina followed an arc: I tired quickly, then got into a rhythm, magically energized. I felt my mind open up and go free - it wandered through time, over that print show at the Cooper Hewitt, my family, my first trip to Japan, even my job: Solutions to several vexing problems at work suddenly became clear.
I tired again as I approached my destination, the town of Chikatsuyu, where Oku had booked me at a minshuku, a guesthouse, more modest than a traditional Japanese inn. It sat on the far bank of the Tonda. I had another long, hot bath, this one fed by a hot spring, again with two chatty and elderly Japanese men, although not the same ones as the evening before.
I threw in once and for all with the Canadians at dinner. Maybe I'd already tired a little of my own thoughts. We agreed to stick together the next day. Another group at the guesthouse was from Spain, including a stocky bald man said to be a karate expert.
We started early the following morning - Elvina was soon way ahead - and marked our progress on our maps. We had lunch in a small field next to a stream: I had two rice balls I'd bought at a shop in Chikatsuyu and an egg that Elvina made me take from the hotel, saying she was worried I wouldn't have enough for lunch.
That day's hike was the longest at 9 miles with roughly 2,000 feet of ascent. I was glad for that extra egg. This was the moderate option suggested by Oku; it included a quick bus ride. There was an easier option with a longer bus ride but that felt like cheating. Eventually, we came out of the forest and walked along paved roads in little farming towns. The hike ended in the magnificent Grand Shrine at Hongu, a key stop for many of those mountain-worshipping pilgrims.
That night's accommodation was a modern hot springs hotel. I had a bottle of Kirin from the refrigerator in my room before sampling all the various sulfur-smelling baths. I bathed inside, I bathed outside, and after a farewell dinner with the Canadians, found one of two private baths unoccupied, so I bathed there, too, finally alone.
If Hiroshige could see me now.


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