Walking through 17th Century Japan
The ridge trail beginning at Sakamoto through the ancient forest is at least as old as 1604, and little changed since then. With the dissolution of the Samurai class, it’s been a hundred and fifty years since anyone walked this route wearing a sword.
Sakamoto-Juku to Karuisawa-Juku
Following the original Nakasendo, we have reached the end of the rail line at Yokokawa. Here we continue on foot. Our goal is the modern resort town of Karuizawa, about five hours away.
Toyko to Yokokawa
Our trip began in Tokyo this morning. Walking into the station, I reach for my JR Rail Pass, and a 1 yen coin drops from my pocket. At ¥120 to the dollar its less than a penny, so I ignore it and keep walking. About 20 seconds later a young man brings it to me, in perfect English says excuse me sir, you have dropped this penny. Just another example of Japanese exceptional manners.
We take the Chou line from Tokyo, it follows the Nakasendo. Eventually, we transfer to the Takasaki Line along the same route, which terminates in Takasaki. There, we transfer to the Shin-Etsu line, terminating in Yokokawa Station. It’s been a long trip. By the way, anyone can find directions between two stations on Google by following this link as an example.
⇒ Tip: The ease of finding train connections in English via Google is one more reason to ensure your WiFi access is unlimited in Japan.
Lunch at Ogino-Ya
Now in Yokokawa, we take a pause for lunch at the restaurant next to the station, Ogino-Ya. It turns out to be a super find, Ogino-Ya opened its doors in 1885. A business that started at the end of the Edo period, almost 150 years ago. Serves this wonderful kettle rice, Japan’s most popular station lunch.
Ogino-Ya seats perhaps 20 people, the interior is spartan, but comfortable. One of the several women in their 50’s and 60’s that scurry around between the kitchen and the dining room, presents us with a menu, saying something in Japanese. Yiyi tells me our hosts ‘apologize for offering a limited menu’ during the holiday.
We order cold soba noodle dish that is made with all fresh ingredients and a clay pot full of rice and vegetables. Sold in many parts of Japan, its a combination of rice, chicken, burdock, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots , quail eggs, green peas, pickled ginger, chestnut, and apricot. Delightful. Similar to a dish called steamed sushi available at Casa Arigato restaurant in Redondo Beach. Hunger satiated, we must begin our trek.
Our route on foot starts at the station in Yokokawa, and continues through Sakamoto to the trailhead for the ascent to Karuizawa. It’s 4km to the trailhead. As we walk, there are small signs with 中山道 marking the trail.
Almost immediately we came upon a troop of Japanese macaques. About ten of them came out of the forest to forage among the houses. At the same time, the resident of the house came out to leave. They paid her no attention and continued foraging. According to her they will enter unlocked houses.
Our path takes us through the Edo period gate, Usui Sekisho. It was used to monitor traffic along the Nakasendo. Part of a larger settlement, it was an official checkpoint, one of many. Travel was strictly controlled within Japan, and for much of the Edo period, travel outside of Japan was also strictly regulated.
The next few km cover the town of Sakamoto. Sakamoto-juku (坂本宿) is 17th post town on Nakasendo, out of 69. Located just before Usui Pass that was among the most difficult on Nakasendo. For that reason, it is one of the larger towns. It’s a pleasant small town, with many Edo period structures, small shops and restaurants. During the Edo period, there would have been four major residences for the use of Samurai, their retinue and retainers, along with 40 other buildings for their use.
It seems every town in Japan has a directory, kept up-to-date with business locations, and Sakamoto is no exception. Somehow this town, once a vital link in the function of the government, thrived, even when by-passed by major roads and rail.
Two notable locations in Sakamoto include a shinto shrine at the north end, and a modern, public, flush toilet with heated seats. These are the destinations of first resort for all through-hikers on the Nakasendo. As we only have time for one stop, we choose the latter.
At the end of this town, a fork in the road and a foot tunnel (1886) that was from an old train. Inside it was pleasantly well lit and dry, even a drain in the ground had a light inside of it. At the end of this tunnel sign pointed to a single track trail nakasendo. This pointed to a single track trail across the road.
Sakamoto-Juku to Karuizawa
This part of the journey will be through the forest on a single track trail. It’s 9 km to Karuizawa. We are blessed with perfectly clear skies, and begin a difficult ascent (20 degrees) to the ridge line.
View of Sakamoto-Juku
After the first 45 minutes of hard climbing, our reward is nice view of Sakamoto. At this point, a young Japanese man and his dog passes us from the other direction. He made the outbound this morning, and is returning from KumanoKotai Shrine. He encourages us by saying we have three more hours of hiking and it’s easier than the ascent.
The route through the forest followed the pattern of ascent to a ridge, and continue along a ridge. Ridge trails are preferred over river trails for hikers. They are more direct, easier to maintain and efficient transportation for those going by foot. Also, they do not suffer the effects of changing riverbeds, floods and falling rocks. Originally, along this trail were a number of tea houses for the travelers. Now, a single rest stop at the 2.5 km mark greets us.
Besides the tea houses, a number of shrines and other historical locations are marked on the trail. In a few places are stone foundations worth exploring. Signs are only in Japanese, however, so I make a mental note to have these translated when I return. That job is still open.
We eventually come across signs of recent civilization. The first building was a small schoolhouse at the end of the road. Then, abandoned houses and finally an old school bus.
After four hours of pleasant, if uphill, hiking, we arrive at KumanoKotai Shrine, marked as the end of the trail in the image above. KumanoKotai (熊野皇大神社) is one of three Kumano Shrines located here in the Usui province of Nagano, it marks the boundary between Nagano and Gunma prefectcures.
We don’t have time to explore this shrine, as we are losing day light. This tiny village has a few tea houses. The only car remaining is leaving offers us a ride down the hill to Karuizawa. They drop us at the station, a modern Shinkansen facility. Huge.
Karuizawa is a famous resort town. Fancy shops, lots of hotels and restaurants. Across the tracks is an outlet mall. The information center at the train station is incredibly helpful and found us a hotel which is rather on the expensive side but it’s nicely appointed and we have comfortable accommodations on New Years Eve.
Ride to Karuizawa
Train: four hours, then 9 miles of uphill hiking, with a 2800′ ascent, in a mixture of urban and single track forest trails through 17th Century Japan. Wonderful.