Walking in Japan

As vegetarians, Japan has always been intimidating as a travel destination for us. We had been to Tokyo with our 1-year old many years back for a couple of days but didn’t do much sightseeing.

So when a couple of our friends in Singapore suggested we join them for a walking tour of Japan, we weren’t sold on the idea right away, but there were many recommendations for this type of trip so we decided to go ahead, thinking that at least we would get to spend some quality time with friends. We started planning six months in advance and based on everyone’s availability, we needed a customized tour. This meant that most of the cost of the trip was nonrefundable so, needless to say, we purchased travel insurance. There were many near misses in the few days before our departure that threatened the trip but we all made it, and I'm so glad we did. The most amazing part about the trip was the walking. There is such a charm to seeing things on foot rather than in a van or a car. It gave us a sense of achievement and given the pace of our movement, there were so many little things we were able to see. In some places, we walked through people’s backyards; in others we walked on bridges over streams. Our trails were through towns, villages, wooded forests, as well as hillocks. Each area had its own unique character and we enjoyed not only the beauty but also the variety of terrain that the walk offered.

The towns we went though were small and, as such, the only accommodation were ryokans. That experience was truly amazing. Each one had a different flavor; some of them were very basic and we had to decide the shower sequence among us to use the one common bathroom! Others were a bit larger and had beautiful, scenic onsens. The one that stood out for me was in our first town Ena. It was a small, pretty property run by a 16th generation innkeeper. As such, there was a great sense of pride that the owners had in having done this for so long, and I was completely blown away when, for dinner, the grandmother and mother of this lovely lady stood with her to say, "Today, you are being taken care of by three generations." The towns we went through were a treat. There were no big chain restaurants or coffee shops, just tiny mom and pop stores with locally made sake and macha.

One town in particular that we couldn’t get enough of was Magome. It was just so beautiful with its sloping walk through the shops. We went up and down a dozen times and spent half a day there, even though we were just supposed to make a quick stop. The flexibility that we had to make decisions about where to eat and spend time if we were enjoying ourselves was much appreciated as we skipped through some recommended sights and lingered in others. Our walks through the wooded trails took us to many shrines. We enjoyed going around them as well and taking in the steps through the painted gates. The small countryside homes were just as beautiful with their lovely, manicured trees. Our experience with the locals was wonderful. Every time we asked for help they went out of their way. It helped that we had learned a set of phrases in Japanese given to us by our tour organizers.

We decided to make the most of our last night back in Tokyo as well. All the walking we had done that morning (22 km to be exact) ensured we were not up late but we went for drinks and dessert to Gonpachi in Roppongi, which many of you may know was made famous by the movie Kill Bill. The buzz was fabulous and the desserts were nice too. A few weeks back in Hong Kong, the beautiful Japanese countryside with its persimmon trees seem really far away, but the trip was an extremely satisfying one - physically, with all the walking and trekking we did, and in terms of the scenery and culinary delights. Our inns made sure we were catered for as vegetarians and we had some fabulous dishes. The variety of alcohol was definitely exciting. We all came back with bottles of Yuzu Honey Liquor, Umeshu and Sochu. It has to be one of the best travel experiences I have ever had, and with Japan being a hop skip and jump from Hong Kong, it’s an absolute must do.

Walking tour details: 5 days Self- guided Nakasendo Trail (55km) Cities covered: Ena, Shinchaya, Magome, Tsumago, Nagiso, Kiso-Fukushima, Narai Organized by: Walk Japan Best town for browsing: Magome Best Ryokan experience: Ishikawa Inn, Ena Things to try: Yuzu Liquor, Yuzosco (Lemon tabasco), warm Rice crackers and chestnut icecream (sold in small stalls everywhere) 

By Gunjali Singh