I came across this link that illustrates an old trade route between Kyoto and Tokyo: Nakasendoway.com
Without doing a lot of research, I chose a small portion of the trail from Shiojiri to Naraijuku. The reason I chose this route was that I had transited Shiojiri before and it looked to be an interesting city, and the end destination of Naraijuku was one of the more interesting and preserved post stations. Also, the total length of the walk was about 25KM which is perfect for a half-day walk.
Shiojiri was a pleasant little town. I took a stroll around before heading off. The main attractions for the area were some wineries and fruit tours. After I will, I headed off down the road.
Following Google Maps, I walked through the Soga neighborhood before joining the main highway. Interspersed among a rural suburban setting, was the small fruit farms that are typical of Japanese agriculture. It was June, so the grapes were just starting to appear. After a short while, my route joined up with Nakasendo.
It was a little bit of a boring walk along the highway which had a lot of truck traffic, however, the path would at times go to the original stretches of the route.
The jukus (post-towns) were spaced out along the old highways for the convenience of travelers. In the eyes of the Tokugawa government, ‘travelers’ were officials, daimyo and samurai who were moving around on business connected either with their administrative responsibilities or with the system of alternate attendance (sankin kotai). The term did not include individuals who were traveling for pleasure or on pilgrimage, merchants moving themselves or goods from place to place, others who were involved in commerce, or commoners moving in search of employment.
At last I approached my first juku – I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the kanji name literally means “horse wash” so from this name I can infer that this was the Tokugawa-era equivalent of a rest stop. Not much to see here as this sign was more place marker.
After continuing my walk, the next juku I approached with Niekawa. There was a JR station there and it had a bit more to see, with some historical markers (in Japanese)
Niekawa was mostly a functioning neighborhood with many of the original buildings still standing. While it was not that interesting from a touristic standpoint, it would have been a better place to start my walk since after this point, it started to get more interesting.
I passed through another town – Hirasawa which is famous for production of traditional lacquerwares. I saw the sign that I was only 1.7km from my final destination Naraijuku.
The walk went uphill, and wound through more wooded environment and followed a river.
At last, I started to approach Naraijuku.
Along the route was this beautiful stone building that houses a traditional lacquerware store.
Naraijuku is one of the more developed destinations along the Nakasendo highway. There is quite a lot to see here as it was a major stopping point.
Walking around Naraijuku was really fascinating. It was one of the most non-touristy destinations that I have seen so far in my travels throughout Japan. Most of the shops were authentic – selling goods like lacquerware that were the traditions of the past. Absent were the tacky tourist shops that you often see in many destinations like softcream and made-for-tourist trinkets. This town had a really authentic feel to it.
What was also amazing was the relative lack of tourist traffic. While my visit was during a weekday, it was early June and a perfect time to visit. Most of the tourists that I did see were Japanese. I also overheard a discussion at the train where the staff were reporting other visitors from France, Singapore and Australia. The other observation that I made is that most visitors were middle age.
I spent about 2 hours walking around and exploring Naraijuku before taking the train to Matsumoto to stay the night. I generally pick the largest city in the area to stay as the cost of hotels are generally much cheaper.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable 23km walk. The first part was rather boring as I did not spend much time to research on what a good starting point would be and made the choice at the spur of the moment. However, no regrets as it was a good learning experience and I got some great exercise that day.
In the future, I am considering picking up the trail again at Naraijuku and make my way towards Nagoya. It should be very interesting as it goes through the heart of Nagano prefecture.