Walking the ancient Tokaido trek: The centuries-old secret trails of Japan

Fresh snow crunches under our hiking boots as we follow a fairy-tale trail. The paving stones we're walking on are buried in white, but two parallel rows of tall cedars show us the way, planted for that very purpose 400 years ago. Sunshine sparkles on a lake we can just see through the trees. We're only a few minutes from Hakone, a popular Fuji-viewing town near Tokyo, but there's no one around.

A few centuries ago we'd have shared this trail, called the Tokaido or "eastern sea road", with merchants, monks, feudal lords carried in palanquins, and assorted other travellers journeying on foot between Tokyo and Osaka. Today the Tokaido is a paradox: all but forgotten, yet still transporting people across this part of Japan's main island. How is this possible?

I'm in Shizuoka Prefecture, south of Tokyo, to find out, walking the first four days of a new seven-day Shizuoka Tokaido and Fuji Trails trip that launches in October. The plan is to spend two days following sections of the Tokaido Trail then do two very different day-walks in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

Leading the trip is Sydney-based walking guide Relle Mott, a former Japanese teacher and long-time Japanophile who started offering walking tours in Japan a few years ago. She recently teamed up with Tourism Shizuoka Japan (TSJ) to develop the new walk, one of many regional tourism initiatives spreading the tourist love beyond Tokyo and Kyoto.

"The Shizuoka [walk] is quite different to my other walks. It's all about opposites: modern and ancient, urban and wild. And despite its proximity to Tokyo, this is a part of Japan most tourists don't see," says Mott.

Before we leave Tokyo, our group of six has one important stop to make. At Nihonbashi, an old bridge in the middle of the city, a small plaque marks Japan's original "zero milestone". Five historic roads once fanned out from this spot, including the Tokaido and the now-popular Nakasendo Trail, and it's still the reference point for road signs all over the country. But you'd miss it if you didn't know it was there; an expressway now runs right over the top of it. It's a sign of things to come on this trip.

Four hundred years ago the Tokaido was the most travelled route between Tokyo and Osaka. Because it took the path of least resistance between the two cities (along the coast of eastern Honshu) it was subsequently paved over but it's still Japan's busiest transport corridor – two expressways, a train line and the Tokaido Shinkansen, the world's first high-speed railway when it opened in 1964, now follow the Tokaido's footprint.

Sections of the original walking trail remain and, with TSJ's support, communities living alongside the trail have started restoration projects. "It's not just about jobs or visitor numbers," says Tony Everitt, a Kiwi expat and consultant for TSJ walking with us that first day. "It's about bringing the spark back to locals' lives."

One of the advantages of the Tokaido's modernisation is that we can use trains and buses to link these newly restored bits of the trail, thus we leave Tokyo aboard the Tokaido Shinkansen, covering the first 80 kilometres of the trail at 285km/h. Before we know it we're standing in front of Odawara Castle – and an unruly band of samurai warriors, one with horns protruding from his helmet. It's a free photo op – we pose with them and snap pictures with our own cameras – but it brings the Tokaido's origins to life.

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It was here that an army led by samurai general Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of Odawara in 1590; he was subsequently appointed shogun by the emperor and given the castle town of Edo (which became Tokyo), from where the Tokugawa shogunate or military dictatorship ruled Japan between 1603 and 1868. The Tokaido was created in the early 1600s to connect the new political capital (Edo) with the imperial base at Kyoto (and extended to Osaka in 1619).

Like the Nakasendo, the Tokaido was a village-to-village walk punctuated by 53 "post towns" a day's walk apart. But it was tough: horses were few and bridges and wheeled carts were forbidden to prevent armies marching on Edo; porters had to carry or raft people and cargo across rivers.

Our next stop is one of the Tokaido's last remaining teahouses, Amazake Chaya, a short bus ride up a winding mountain road from Odawara. Run by the same family for 13 generations, it's named after its specialty, amazake, a hot glutinous fermented (non-alcoholic) rice wine that tastes like sweet porridge in a cup and is deliciously warming on this wintry day. Outside, fortified by the Edo-equivalent of a sports drink, we cross the road and take our first steps on the Tokaido. It's a beautiful forest trail, recently re-paved and surprisingly wide – 3.6 metres – reminding us this was no mere footpath but a foot-freeway.

Too soon, we walk into Hakone. Mount Fuji is lost in the clouds, but there's a consolation prize: just as we check in at the rather grand Hotel de Yama (Mountain Hotel), it starts to snow. We hurriedly change into the yukata and slippers provided in our rooms and shuffle to the hotel's outdoor onsen. There we sit neck-deep and rosy-cheeked as snow monkeys, watching snowflakes thickly fall and settle on the branches of the pine trees around us.

Early the next day I open the curtains in my room for my first glimpse of Fuji, freshly snow-caked and blushing in the morning sun. Dressing warmly, I head out to wander the snowscape, everything in the hotel's palatial garden, from rhododendron trees to stone lanterns, smothered in whiteness.

Every day, past and present rub against each other. On day two we walk past tourist coaches and pirate ships doing lake cruises on our way to visit Hakone Sekisho, a fortress-like checkpoint where the Tokugawa shogunate once monitored the movement of people and arms along the Tokaido. If we'd been there even 200 years ago, our all-woman group might have had problems. Women had few rights back then and almost no freedom to enter or leave Edo. Those who did travel followed the quieter Nakasendo Trail through the mountains, where there were fewer bandits, or took to the Tokaido disguised as men – and risked being strip-searched and arrested at checkpoints such as this.

Sometimes the Tokaido is a trail of the unexpected. Walking an unpaved section one day, I hear the wind in the trees – until we emerge at a pedestrian overpass and I realise it's the whoosh of cars. Then, just as suddenly, we find ourselves walking under blossoming cherry trees and past canary-yellow canola fields, daffodils nodding at our feet.

On day three, we leave the Tokaido and arrive at the small city of Fujinomiya, the closest city to Mount Fuji. We're too early for the July-September climbing season; instead we spend the day walking Fuji's foothills with local ecotourism operator En-Ya Mount Fuji Ecotours. After filling our water bottles with Fuji snowmelt, we set off on the Murayama Kodo. The oldest pilgrimage route up the mountain, it fell into disuse in the early 1900s until a group of local walkers started restoring it 10 years ago. We meet one of them on the way: a middle-aged farmer who still does the 16-hour trek up Fuji every year. "This is my backyard, so if you get lost, I'll find you," he laughs.

It's a relief to be in the forest all day, away from towns and highways, learning from local guide Mari about birds and trees and Fuji's eruptions (the most recent in 1707). After a picnic lunch we walk among oak, maple and silver birch trees and link arms around a giant Japanese elm. Fuji shadows us all day, between the trees, but the best views come that evening – from the rooftop onsen of our ryokan back in Fujinomiya.

Our last day is an "urban backroads" ecotour, which sounds like a contradiction until I chat to local ecotourism advocate Masa Shintani who set up En-Ya Mount Fuji Ecotours in 2017. Conservation starts with community, he says. These tours benefit about 50 local families, who in turn protect the natural environment. Village-hopping, we connect to the Japan that still exists outside its cities. We stop to say konnichiwa to those we meet, and for a tour and tasting at Fujinishiki sake brewery, which has been run by the same family since 1688. The highlight is lunch at Izumi Kakojo ("kakojo" means handmade) in Yuno village, which opened 26 years ago to use surplus from nearby farms and now employs several local women. All week we ate incredible meals, but the simplicity of Izumi's steaming bowls of soba with assorted locally grown tempura vegetables is hard to beat.

Our trip officially ends back in Fujinomiya that night, but the final itinerary will offer a few optional stops. We test-drive one outside Shizuoka City the next morning. Mariko teahouse was once on the Tokaido and it's now run by 14th-generation owner Shibayama Hiroyuk,i who greets us with a tray of small binoculars and points up – to 53 woodblock prints high on the walls of his tatami-floor tearoom. Because it was expensive to walk the Tokaido in Edo-era Japan, people would do it vicariously through "ukiyoe" prints by woodblock artist Hiroshige and his more famous contemporary, Hokusai. It's Hiroshige's 53 Stations of the Tokaido we see at Mariko, the binoculars helping us see details such as the travellers' expressions and clothing – and Hiroyuki's great-great-grandmother standing in front of Mariko with a couple of passing travellers, like us.

Something clicks for me in that moment. Past and present can coexist, the Tokaido seems to remind us. And as we head back to the station and take our seats on the shinkansen for the return ride to Tokyo, I can't help thinking of the centuries-old walking trail still beneath us, still taking travellers where we need to go.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN SHIZUOKA

CLIMB FUJI

The legendary peak's 3776-metre summit can be reached only in summer (July-September). En-Ya Mt Fuji Ecotours runs walks in the Fuji foothills year-round. See mtfujiecotours.com

RUGBY WORLD CUP 2019

Shizuoka's Ecopa Stadium will host four games in September and October, including Australia v Georgia on October 11. See rugbyworldcup.com

MT FUJI WORLD HERITAGE CENTRE

Designed by Pritzker-winning architect Shigeru Ban in 2017, this impressive information centre highlights why Fuji is so sacred in Japan. See mtfuji-whc.jp

IZU PENINSULA

South-west of Tokyo, mountainous Izu offers spectacular coastal drives, particularly on the less-visited southern and western sides. See exploreshizuoka.com

NIHONDAIRA ROPEWAY

This historic cablecar in Shizuoka City offers panoramic views of Fuji and Suruga Bay. See ropeway.shizutetsu.co.jp

TRIP NOTES

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Tourism Shizuoka Japan.

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

exploreshizuoka.com

FLY

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Tokyo Haneda daily and from Melbourne and Brisbane to Tokyo Narita daily; see qantas.com

WALK

Relle Mott's seven-day Shizuoka Tokaido and Fuji Trails trips depart February 23 and May 24, 2020. The cost is $3980 a person; private trips can also be arranged. See japanpackage.com.au namikitrails.com

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