Walking the Nakasendo, Visiting the Tawaraya – Kyoto, Japan

In the Footsteps of Shoguns and Samurai

In the 17th century the 315-mile Nakasendo – literally “the road through the central mountains” – was the principal inland route between the capital, Kyoto, and Edo, a growing political and commercial center better known these days as Tokyo.

Today “Walk Japan” cov­ers the most enjoyable, most scenic, and best-preserved section of the Nakasendo, a 63-mile stretch that affords a glimpse of medieval and rustic Japan even the Japanese rarely see. Luggage goes by car while walkers put in a moderate 14 to 16 miles a day, stay­ing in old post towns like Tsumago and family-run inns, many of which date from the early 1600s. These inns are a highlight of the trip, providing excellent meals, the ambi­ence of Hiroshige feudal woodblock prints, and the occasional soak in a hot springs bath (onsen).

Japanese-speaking American or British academic specialists accompany you and provide running commentaries on both the Edo period (1603-1867), when the road traffic of feudal lords, itinerant merchants, and pilgrims was at its height, and contem­porary issues. It’s worth a year back in the classroom.

For a luxurious stay at the beginning or end of your trip, don’t miss the Tawaraya, a 300-year-old family-run ryokan (inn) now in its eleventh generation. Elegance and refine­ment pervade every aspect of the operation, from the almost starkly decorated accommo­dations (where the hand-painted scrolls change with the seasons) to the small, Zen-like private gardens off most of the eighteen rooms.

The gardens are an important part of the Tawaraya experience, each a harmonious blend of red maple, bamboo, ferns, stone lanterns, moss rocks, and water, revealing the serene spirit of Japanese culture. A restora­tive soak in the searing water of a perfumed cedar tub is followed by dinner, an elaborate, artistic, multi-course, kaiseki-style affair served in your room by a kimonoed attendant. After that the shoji screens are drawn and a plump futon is brought out and covered with fine starched linen sheets.

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