Day 64-66: Nakasendo Highway and Matsumoto Castle

After traveling for over two months in Europe and Asia, the culminating event was walking along the Nakasendo Highway in Japan. An ancient highway for over 400 years to provide communication between Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo), this route was used by messengers, tradesmen, and government officials.

Between postal stations and forest paths, much of the route is annotated with historical features. Literary references to famous Japanese writers and haiku poems about the physical environment were identified along the path, as well as religious shrines, military battles and scenic spots.

After scant Japanese and English translations at railway stations, the information transfer magically yielded maps and schedules. We were handsomely rewarded with instructions for a 500-meter change in elevation, three-hour walk through Magome Pass from Tsumago to Magome. We traverse gorgeous lush pine, maple and bamboo forests, deep glades and gushing river streams, and gently seductive waterfalls for an exhilarating experience.

We fell in love with this area surrounding Matsumoto. Although we had never heard about it before, it is famous for trekking, skiing, soba and sake. They all seem to fit well together.

I have been in such awe of the natural beauty of this area that it tempers my entire voyage to date. While my travels have been unabashedly Euro-centric to date, I am being severely challenged by this newly rediscovered Asian culture.

The Japanese have a deep, rich history and its status as an advanced industrialized country is impressive. Together, Japan has a lot going for it.

See the gallery below for a random assortment of shots in Magome and Tsumago, both prosperous villages at the time of their development and renovated, and the delightful walk between.

At the end of a day of hiking, we stayed at a ryokan in the lovely hilltop village of Magome.

Matsumoto

Our day was packed with three hours of  travel and three trains between Kusatsu Hot Springs to Matsumoto Castle.

Not being a Japanese speaker, I find that traveling in Japan is challenging. However, with a wealth of information available on line and at tourist information counters at stations, one can manage. Good travel skills like speaking slowly, waiting for stilted English to emerge, and a lot of body language and gestures definitely help.

The castle was built over 400 years ago in the Bunraku Period (1593-1594) and is Japan’s oldest existing castle tower. It is designated as a national Treasure. Take a look at the impressive stone foundations.

There were three moats surrounding the castle to slow down invaders. Shelves were constructed to release stones against soldiers attacking the castle. Guns eventually replaced bows and arrows used as weapons from the towers.

You can climb up steep steps to the top of the sixth level for a view of the Japanese Alps.  The castle and grounds  are impeccably preserved.

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The sleek and elegant Bullet trains have transported us seamlessly between points, making it a pleasure to travel in Japan. Little English is (admittedly) spoken outside of Tokyo, but there are enough minimal signs to direct you to the right trains. Patience and fortitude pay off in one of the safest, most courteous countries in the world.

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