It's late at night when the bus driver points us to the beginning of the detour to the Magomechaya ryokan.
We felt the cracking cold from the outside. That patch of country Japan remained in the past. We lacked a technological solution that would help us to overcome the long ramp ahead. Reformed, we carry the heaviest backpacks against gravity. Until our legs boiled and sweat ran down our flushed cheeks.
We catch our breath when we enter the reception of the old building. A helpful Japanese Canadian accompanies us. Despite the fragility of the moment, little or nothing spares yours. Instead, it transmits information to us in bursts about the culture of the ancestors.
When we finally got some recovery, we realized that we must be the only guests in that traditional inn. We surrender to the comfort of freshly unrolled futons and a refreshing sleep.
Awakening Early Bird and Magome Street Just for Us
We woke up at 7 in the morning. We feel rejuvenated and ready for the winter but sunny Saturday. We left after a Japanese breakfast, curious about the newness of our surroundings.
We don't see a soul on the steep, medieval-looking street. We traverse it up and down, so many times and with such intrigue that we soon need to re-energize in a sort of historic tavern.
There we sat devouring pastries manju still steaming, accompanied by milk tea.
Returning to the discovery, we find an old watermill well preserved and running in full.
We went up a new staircase. A wooden board that displays the rules and penalties dictated by the shogunate catches our attention. Tokugawa and by the daimyos (feudal leaders) to use the stations that made up the road and the surrounding lands.
Among the many, the penalty given to anyone who cut even one of the region's cypresses, necessary for the construction of the rulers' castles, stands out: death.
The Old Nakasendo Path Between Edo and Kyoto. Or Vice Versa.
It was just one of the main avenues (gokaidos) ordered by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the general who, in 1603, following complex war games, came to control Japan and saw his power legitimized by the Emperor who gave him the title of shogun (supreme commander).
The shoguns established 69 intermediate stations along the route (jucus), in villages that, in addition to welcoming travelers and their horses, centralized the distribution of mail.
Magome, the picturesque and ancient village where we found ourselves, was the 43rd of these stations, following the neighboring Tsumago.
Not on purpose, when we went back up the sidewalk smoothed by the authorities for greater comfort for residents and visitors, did we come across a postman in full delivery.
He wears a trustworthy uniform from that time and comes with a black light wooden suitcase, with huge kanji characters that identify his function.
Further up, a housewife washes tubers that we have difficulty identifying. Rinse them using a board and a bucket.
It's still early. We were able to appreciate this and other episodes from the real life of the village, even if Tsumago and not Magome is the more genuine of the two villages.
Literally, Magome translates as a horse's basket. The name of the village became popular because travelers were forced to retrieve their horses there before facing the steep climb at the beginning of the route to Tsumago.
The same ramp that had left us trailing on the frigid night when we reached the village.
The Increase of Visitors. And the Nakasendo Walkers.
Three hours had passed since the dawn awakening. We noticed that the number of visitors was increasing visibly. Like the number of customers in cafes, sweets, craft and souvenir shops on both sides of the road.
At some point, the affluence becomes overwhelming. To the point of having difficulty walking in a straight line and not stepping on the hundreds of pocket dogs that Japanese ladies and maidens walk on a short leash.
We took advantage of a stop at a tourist information point to ask what was going on. Against her strong shyness, an employee there decides to use basic English and explains to us: “It's a special weekend. Cultural weekend. Three days. Many Japanese come here”.
We appreciate the clarification. Soon, we saw a bilingual graphic notice asking people to use rattles when walking the forest trail between Magome and Tsumago.
It guaranteed the alert, that this was the best way to scare away the bears since the animals only attacked when surprised.
More than the bears, it was the menacing excess of Japanese humans in Magome that bothered us. Even so, we go to Nakasendo on the round stone pavement shidatami why it meanders for 7.8km to Tsumago.
Above and below, among verdant smallholdings, along dismal forests of cedars.
We stopped only to photograph the most seductive scenarios. And to harvest some of the irresistible persimmons that abound by the wayside and in backyards, as in much of Japan, in the coldest months of the year.
We crossed convenient bridges around waterfalls and over streams, ancient structures that once justified the historical preference of Japanese women for the Nakasendo, fed up with soaking in unavoidable streams in other older ways.
Through the Nippon Forest Below, Towards Tsumago
At first and for a moment, we have the feeling that Nakasendo is on our own. We didn't take long to hear distant tinkles. Unexpectedly, groups of hikers follow us, wary of the furry beasts of the forest.
Soon, we would come across many more of these raucous pilgrims, in the opposite direction of the route.
Certainly, much quieter, the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashô will also have traveled these places, during his long journeys of descriptive contemplation of Japan.
We arrive at the last intricacies of the trail that, already in the vicinity of Tsumago, surrenders, for a moment, to the asphalt to soon regain its authenticity.
The main street of this 42nd station, like that of Magome, was closed to traffic and concentrates a variety of centuries-old dark wood buildings.
Tsumago, Magome's Also Picturesque Rival
houses, inns, temples and shrines of ancient Japanese architecture make up a picturesque set equally occupied by some of the best artisans, confectioners and gastronomes in the region.
Women paint conical wicker hats. Others spread scarlet chillies to dry in shallow baskets.
As was the case for a long time in Magome, there too a solidary crowd of Japanese families appreciates and records to later recall these seductive visions of the origins of their homeland.
In midwinter, the afternoon quickly turns freezing and rushes to the end. As they gradually appeared, these heirs of the Edo era took refuge in the restored restaurants and inns in the area.
A rosy twilight, then a pitch attenuated by a warm golden illumination takes hold of Magome and Tsumago and all of this Japan of other times.