A walking tour through Japanese history

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Victor Block

Neon signs crowd the streetscapes in modern Tokyo, a city of more than 13 million people. Elsewhere in the city and around the country, well-preserved elements from Japan’s storied history remain, from the imperial palace to Buddhist temples.
Photo by Luciano Mortula/Dreamstime.com

The traffic-clogged streets, towering skyscrapers and dazzling lighted billboards could be in Times Square — but they aren’t. An ancient trail that snakes through dense woods and over mountain passes might be one that runs through a U.S. national park, but it isn’t.

A big surprise for many visitors from the U.S. to Japan is how many things remind them of home. At the same time, there are dramatic differences in the history, culture and other aspects of the country. That dichotomy — foreign and familiar, old and new — is one of the pleasures of a visit to that intriguing destination.

 Walking in some areas of Tokyo, I was besieged by the usual fast food chain restaurants and signs promoting brands of electronics, clothing and other goods that would be at home in Washington.

At the same time, centuries of history sprang to life as the guide displayed wood block prints and old photographs illustrating how many hidden side streets, bridges and other features of the setting had their beginning centuries ago.

From Kyoto to Tokyo

The roots of modern Tokyo were planted during the Edo period, which began in 1603 when Tokugawa Leyasu became the shogun (military dictator) of Japan and ruled from his palace in Edo (present-day Tokyo). While the emperor lived in Kyoto, the shoguns of the Tokugawa clan controlled the country from Edo. The Tokugawa shogunate ended in 1868, with the opening of Japan to the world.

Our trip with the Walk Japan tour company focused on Kyoto, Tokyo, and an ancient trail that was used during Japan’s feudal period by shoguns, samurai (military officers) and other high-ranking officials to travel between the two cities.

Our journey began in Kyoto — one of the best preserved cities in Japan — which is rich in tradition and important sites. So endowed is it with historical treasures that during World War II the United States removed it from a list of possible bombing targets.

 With some 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, magnificent palaces, lovely gardens and more, the welcome challenge for visitors is how to experience and enjoy as much as possible in a limited time.

One popular site is the Kiyomizu (“Pure Water”) Temple, built in 780. It stands in an inviting setting near a waterfall, and is surrounded by a maze of narrow, charming streets lined by small shops.

The Ryoanji Temple is famous for its lovely rock garden, which is believed to have been created around 1500. Laid out for Zen meditation, it consists of immaculately manicured white gravel raked into a wave-like design surrounding rock islands.

One of the most popular buildings in Japan is the Rokuon-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), a Buddhist hall that was burned and then reconstructed. The building was designed in the architectural style used for aristocratic mansions in Kyoto during the 8th to 12th centuries. Its most distinctive feature is the gold leaf that covers the upper two levels of the three-story structure.

Clean, gleaming Tokyo

Walking between Kyoto and Tokyo along an ancient trail called the Nakasendo Way, which connects several major Japanese cities, immerses visitors in a close-up view of Japanese life and culture. Walkers stay overnight at family-run guesthouses, and pass through farm villages like this one, with a rice paddy outside a home.
Photo courtesy of Walk Japan

If Kyoto continues to wear its history in plain sight, the past is more hidden in Japan’s capital. Tokyo today little resembles the modest fishing village of Edo that it was before the Tokugawa shogunate made it a seat of power.

Upon arrival, the first-time visitor may be put off by the sheer size of the city, along with the crush of people, glare of neon-lit streetscapes, and other sources of sensory overload.

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to recognize welcome differences from many other urban areas.

For example, even though throngs of people are often encountered in the vast underground subway stations, there’s usually little sound other than that of feet on the floor. People wait patiently in orderly lines for the trains to arrive, which they usually do at the minute for which they’re scheduled.

It’s unusual to encounter trash anywhere on streets or sidewalks. And most locals who are asked for directions or other assistance go out of their way to provide it.

Given the magnitude of the city, a good way to enjoy specific places of interest is to group them by area. In addition to temples, shrines and other major tourist sites on many a “must see” list, that also provides introductions to neighborhoods with concentrations of museums, shops and other appeals.

One good place to begin a tour is sprawling Ueno Park, which is home to temples, pagodas and shrines along with a number of major museums. The Walk Japan Tokyo guide displayed a scene in a wood block print made in 1631 showing that little has changed since then.

Any visit to Tokyo also should include the Edo Castle, which was built in 1457 and served as the residence of the shogun Tokugawa. At the end of his shogunate, he was forced to leave when the emperor arrived from Kyoto and moved in.

The present Imperial Palace sits on the base of the former castle, and the main gate, along with some original walls, turrets and moats, survives.

Another plunge into Japan’s feudal past is provided at the Edo Museum, where exhibits demonstrate how a small 15th century fishing village evolved into the vast metropolis of today. Visitors are immediately introduced to old Edo, as they cross a life-size replica of the wooden Nihonbashi Bridge that was built in 1603 over the river of the same name.

The vast open space surrounding the walkway is filled with exhibits illustrating various aspects of Tokyo’s past and present. Detailed scale models realistically represent buildings and towns from the 17th through 20th centuries. Cultural icons include a life-size reconstruction of a kabuki theater, where that classical dance-drama form of entertainment has been popular since the early 17th century.

 Another aspect of life in the Edo period was the creation of various types of gardens based upon Japanese sensibilities. Gardens for emperors and nobles were designed for recreation and aesthetic enjoyment; those at Buddhist temples served for meditation; and promenade plantings lead visitors on a path past carefully composed landscapes.

In addition to demonstrating the intimate role of traditional gardens in Japan’s history, their profusion throughout Tokyo can provide a respite from what, in places, is the city’s frenetic personality.

Walking an ancient trail

No matter how lovely a variety of gardens, how magnificent the temples and shrines that grace Kyoto, and how beautiful the architectural gems from the Edo period hidden beneath the modern veneer of Tokyo, it was the five days I spent walking along a section of an ancient trail between those cities that provided me with the most meaningful immersion in the history, heart and soul of Japan.

Laid out in the 8th century, that 310-mile path was trod by shoguns, samurai and other nobles, and the underlings who comprised their entourage. The support staff tended to the horses, prepared meals, and took care of the countless other chores that provided the comforts and luxuries to which those who occupied the upper levels of society were accustomed.

Our trek traversed the Kiso Road section of the historic route. The sojourn began by following a short stretch of the original flat paving rocks that were laid down hundreds of years ago, and passed by one of the earliest stone mile markers.

Along the way, we came face-to-face with both intriguing tangible remnants of the country’s past, and with stories and memories of its history that left an indelible mark. Our daily 8- to 10-mile treks followed valleys past rushing waterfalls, wound through dense forests, and crossed over mountain passes. The occasional steep sweat-inducing climb was made easier by switchbacks that eased the way up.

We passed numerous Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and unadorned rock structures that represented, or paid homage to, emperors and other human deities and spiritual beings.

Here and there stood a lonely farmhouse, centuries-old mill and wooden waterwheel powered by the rushing streams that cascade down many hillsides. Houses in tiny farm villages are surrounded by rice paddies, and an occasional grove of bamboo reaches toward the sky.

Stops along the way

Come nightfall, our band of hikers followed in the footsteps — literally — of the feudal lords and others who preceded us along the route centuries ago. “Post towns” were spaced a day’s travel apart to provide food and overnight accommodations to those travelers. The traditional wooden buildings in some of the historic villages have been lovingly restored, and continue to offer the same services they did long ago.

Three of the best-preserved post towns — Magome, Tsumago and Narai — are strung out along the Kiso Valley section of the route, and provide an even more in-depth look at what early travelers experienced. The family-run guesthouses where we stayed introduced us to customs and cultural touches of Japan both past and present.

It didn’t take long to learn the rules: Upon entering the modest structure, remove shoes and replace them with the ubiquitous slippers that are neatly lined up on shelves near the front entrance. Be prepared to sleep on a fluffy but surprisingly comfortable futon laid out on the floor.

Don’t expect to order dinner from a menu, but do know that among the numerous dishes that will be laid before you are sure to be at least several that will be as pleasing to your taste buds as they are to the eye.

This experience was very different from the architectural treasures of Kyoto and the hustle and bustle in Tokyo beneath which its past hides in plain sight. This combination introduces visitors to the very essence of Japan in a way that leaves a very lasting impression.

If you go

My wife and I traveled with aptly named Walk Japan, which has conducted tours in that country since 1992, and certainly lives up to its name.

The focus on using various kinds of public transportation, staying at local inns, dining at family-run restaurants, and other trip features brings travelers (a maximum of 12 on most itineraries) into repeated close contact with Japanese people from various walks of life.

The tours themselves range from city sightseeing to trail walking to more strenuous experiences, and even in Tokyo and Kyoto we logged several miles by foot each day.

In addition to accommodations, meals, sightseeing and outstanding guides, Walk Japan trips provide participants with an in-depth introduction to both Japanese history and contemporary life that is as enjoyable as it is informative. For more information, log onto www.walkjapan.com.

Prices range from about $675 (for the two-day Kyoto tour) and $745 (for the two-day Tokyo tour) up to about $4,745 for an 11-day tour, depending on the exchange rate. The five-day Nakasendo Way tour is priced at $1,982. (Prices do not include airfare.)

For more Japan travel information, see the websites of the Japan National Tourism Organization at jnto.org.au and World Guides at www.world-guides.com/asia/japan. Information on Tokyo is available at https://www.gotokyo.org/en and Kyoto at http://kyoto.travel/en.

The lowest roundtrip airfare from BWI in late December is $1,430 on American Airlines. United Airlines offers a slightly higher fare.