Nakasendo Way Trail – by Sam Ludbey
I’ve felt the desire to hike. It’s a new interest. My kids are grown up. I’m relishing not being pulled in a million different directions on those family holidays that we all know – that we need a holiday – to recover from!
When I was enjoying a slice of Italian summer on the Amalfi Coast back in 2022, the seed for hiking was planted. I ventured outside the bourgeois hotel and its magnificent view over stacked-up hillside homes embedded beside the Mediterranean Sea – I went beyond the tourist orientated cafes, bars, restaurants, local shops and gelati stands – and did the Path of the Gods hiking trail in Positano.
Things happens in life; we get older, we face challenges and difficult times and our priorities change. Perhaps it was on the Path of the Gods – with its solitude and breath-taking sights, dirty and dusty Nike runners and lower calves and snippets of foreign accents hanging in the breeze from around the world – that I felt I had a direct line to God. God reached down from the heavens, grabbed my shoulders, and whispered in my ear….
“‘I’m not mucking around, you’re halfway to dead. The armour
is keeping you from growing into the gifts I’ve given you, that
is not without penalty, time is up.’…this is what you see happen
to people in midlife. And it’s not a crisis. It’s a slow, brutal unravelling.
This is where everything we thought protected us keeps us from
being the partners, the parents, the professionals, the people we
want to be.”
OK, so, it wasn’t God, but inspirational Brene Browne (2022) who popped into my head! It was on this walk that I began to make some sense of what Browne was saying. My God? What I was doing with my life? Who am I? What is important to me? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?
So, how did I end up hiking a section of the Nakasendo Way Trail? End of a trying week during Friday night dinner with my treasured friend of twenty-five years, a lot of Pinot Noir – one might suggest that my mental health was in the toilet – so my observant friend invited me to join her on a seven-day hike covering a section of the pilgrimage. Feeling particularly carefree under the influence of wine, I was in!
Old patterns persist and life goes on as we know it. Months later though, I’m in hiking boots dragging my suitcase around, disorientated roaming Tokyo Marunouchi at 2.30am trying to access Hotel Metropolitan, a hotel in the sky. Yep, the Qantas flight was delayed for four hours due to an engineering issue, no surprises there! My Merrell hiking boots, well-worn in, I thought made me appear like a cool and carefree traveler, yet inside I was rattled, out of my comfort zone.
Crisis from the night before averted – who would have thought – my friends and I reunited at breakfast and spent the next few days and nights exploring exuberant Tokyo, buying tickets, and navigating train lines to districts wonderful with hip cultures including Cat Street Harajuku, Takeshita Street Shibuya, arty Shimokitazawa with its lingering old-Tokyo vibe, high gallery fashion in Omotesando and the Prada Tower famous for its architecture. We devoured Japanese cuisine, artisan barista coffee, cake menus, crepes, cocktails, and cute candy a go-go! We settled in and watched the sunset at the New York Bar and Grill in the Park Hyatt that arguably has one of the best big city views in the world. The view merging from day to night is like watching humungous Christmas tree’s lights ceremoniously get switched on.
Each armed with snacks and a good book we travelled by bullet train to Ena, Oicho, our first accommodation before beginning the hike the next day.
I’m conscious of not giving a detailed account of my experience on this hike – the main reason being – that whoever does this hike will be treated to their own personal, tailored, and magical time. However, as a kickoff as encouragement to do this hike – on our first night before officially starting the hike – after chilling out in the steamy mineral Onsen, then being fresh faced, clean, and relaxed wrapped up in kimonos, and our feet in slippers – we settled in to enjoy and devour the most ambient and delicious Japanese meal in a private sunken dining space behind sliding screens on tatami mats and cushions at the Enakyo Grand Hotel. The hospitality, sense of family-owned business pride steeped in history, warm local sake and gratefulness flowed and this set the scene for the entire hike.
To cut to the chase, day by day, this seven-day section of the Nakasendo Way hike – without me even realizing it – slowly and gently deconstructed me resulting in an overall empowering and transformative experience. I liken my hiking journey to that of Dorothy and Toto, finding themselves in the magical Land of Oz after a cyclone and following the yellow brick road with her friends to each of their enlightenment. Great news though. There is no Scary Wicked Witch of the East or flying monkeys to overcome, except perhaps your own inner demons – but there is however signage and bells scattered all throughout the forest warning hikers to “Beware of bears!” and to “Ring the bell if you see a bear!”. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” It is highly unlikely you’ll spot a brown bear though. If you are lucky enough to do so, you’ll become an overnight local hero! You may meet some curious and playful monkeys in the woods though.
If you are embarking on this Nakasendo Pilgrimage I strongly advise you to read the Stroll walking notes. They have been collated by Meryl and they are meticulous and are jam packed with information and tips to make the very most of your trip. Meryl also takes people in submarines in Antarctica, so you can have complete faith and trust in Meryl’s first-hand experience of the hike when she compiled the information.
Beyond Meryl’s notes, below is a few anecdotal notes that personally stuck with me. Each day of this journey, just got better and better in that each day was a new and different experience. Making our way along the Nakasendo trail, hiking between sixteen and twenty-four kilometres a day, and stopping in at village towns and seeking relaxation and shelter in the Ryokans, the traditional Japanese Inns was so enjoyable. A perfect mix of nature, health and fitness, relaxation and indulgence. Each one balancing out the other with perfect balance.
It was the very best feeling managing your tired feet – one by one – out from their hiking boots at the front entrance of each accommodation before checking in and settling into our rooms for green tea and a snack. Then we’d hit up the Onsen soothing our weary bodies that had transported us over land, our light back packs in toe. Going to dinner – fresh faced, make-up free with our hair still wet or tied back, no fashion or outfit expectations simply throwing on a kimono and slippers – I found freeing. Best part is that no one cares what you look like, there is no judgement. We were only warmly welcomed appreciated for our authentic selves. One evening, after us women folk had surprised our host with the number of warm sake bottles consumed, which traditionally and culturally seems may be more common for men to do – we were in bits laughing at how we looked like, “…buckets of crap!”- compared to a going out in a Melbourne sense – yet we were so content, comfortable and happy simply being ourselves in each other’s company.
The Onsen’s are separated into men and women, and I quickly got over the “No bathers” rule for hygiene reasons. Being naked whilst showering and bathing in the communal Onsen’s became more the norm as self-consciousness faded. In fact, most of the time we had the area to ourselves, however as a safeguard, clever placement of the mini towels provided can work wonders if you’re shy. Sleeping on shikibuton mattresses and sokakawa (buckwheat pillows) on Katama mats, well, we got by as we were tired at the end of the day! The holistic traditional Japanese accommodation experience, for me, is the whole package lending itself to stepping back in time and simplicity.
Being immersed in nature – meandering and walking about – local community flower and vegetable gardens, home owned rice paddies, perfectly finessed traditional Japanese gardens, shrines, flower fields, bamboo forests, rain forests, waterfalls, rambling brooks, creeks and rivers, bridges, breath taking plateaus & views, local tea houses, ancient track cobblestones, museums, plateaus, views and outlooks, galleries, and thick tree landscape so vivid green the hue almost doesn’t seem natural. The constant soothing sounds of mountain run off dancing water keeps you company as does the picture book sights of sunlight gently filtering through the forest canopies aided by the gentle breeze. The wafts of flowers hanging in the fresh and clean air aids your lungs on those steep inclines and to feel earthly terrain under foot adds to the treats for the senses.
OMG the banquet dinners and breakfasts presented as a picture likened to Michelin star restaurants are delicious! Think –top grade sashimi, local river pole fish chargrilled on skewers, pickled octopus, crispy grass hoppers, sticky eggplant, caramelized pumpkin, flamed table hibachi grills, stock and soy baths, organic wagyu, free range pork, edamame, salt and spiced tofu, local farm to table vegetables and salad, varieties of dipping sauces, fruits, regional warm or cold sake, plum wine, green tea, traditional Japanese sweets and buns (the mochi with brown sugar – personal favourite!) rice and miso. Always rice and miso! A chef shared with us that it takes days to prepare all the delicate mouth morsels so proudly presented.
The mountain villages with their traditional Japanese wooden houses, shrines, tea houses, local coffee shops, street food, cafés, bars and restaurants, art galleries and gift stores excite all the senses. Even the clean scent of fresh washing meticulously hung out in the sun to dry wafts through the air as you enter or leave each village. Everything the local community offers in the villages is done with heart and soul. The local communities are so proud to welcome you and warmly invite you in to share in their lives, and the generations of family, tradition and history that has come beforehand.
The shared lived experience of this hike bonded me and my friends further for life. At times we sought solitude either hiking in silence or back in our rooms. Other times we had authentic and meaningful conversations, listening to, and supporting one another ‘in’ and ‘through’ our own individual difficult times. We laughed a lot and experienced so much joy. Being naked together in the Onsen’s will make you laugh, trust me! We shared stories, music tracks and at times there were a few warm tears shed.
It’s made me move away further from the ‘rat race’ and more towards being immersed in the simple things in life – love, nature, connection, friends, and family. At the end of Dorothy’s magical journey she says, “There is no place like home.” however as is the case for me and my heroine’s journey I’m running with, “You can plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough…. I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.” Elton John.
Written by Sam Ludbey