The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Step Back in Time

Tour operator’s treks retrace history of Japan

Text and photos by Vicki L. Beyer

It’s fun to look around and try to imagine what a place must have been like in the past, and perhaps even wish to go back in time. Alas, time travel isn’t possible—or is it?

I recently learned that it is possible to journey into Japan’s past—on foot. Until not so very long ago, travel on foot was the standard method of getting around in Japan.

There was some use of horses, but the wheel was not used for transportation until the early Meiji period, just a century and a half ago.

So, to experience ancient Japan, or even Japan prior to the middle of the 19th century, you have only to walk.

It helps to walk with someone who knows the history and can tell you what to look for, however. Here’s where the folks at Walk Japan come in.

Walk Japan offers off-the-beaten-track guided tours that take travelers back in time. Because most of their tours feature substantial spells of sightseeing on foot, you can get up close and personal with much of Japan’s history.

Some of the tours are real “treks,” for intrepid hikers who can comfortably cover 10 to 20 miles a day (classified as levels 4–6 by Walk Japan).

Other tours are much easier, involving less than three miles a day on foot and liberal use of more modern means of transportation (level 1). Pick your level of difficulty and hoist your pack!

Start in the 8th century
travelIt is possible to travel all the way back to the 8th century. Buddhism was then a relatively recent import from China, being adopted by means of integration with Shinto and other traditional practices based in animism.

One result was Shugendo, a form of esoteric Buddhism centered on mountain isolation. The Kunisaki Peninsula, in northeast Kyushu, is host to several shrines and temples dating back to that time.

Walk Japan’s level 5 Kunisaki Trek (10 days/nine nights) uses an ancient pilgrimage trail to visit a number of these, including the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu.

Skilled guide and Walk Japan executive Mario Anton leads tourists on precipitous mountain trails and through verdant valleys, while providing information on the religious history of Kunisaki, as well as past and present agricultural practices.

The tour features a bird’s eye view of rice paddies that have been under cultivation for over 1,000 years.

These ancient paddies, with their varied shapes and sizes, are in stark contrast to the more modern rectangular paddies visible in the next valley, the product of post-Meiji land reforms.

Anton also provides introductions to the priests at a couple of the peninsula’s oldest temples, scions of families that have cared for these temples for generations. Chatting with these young men and learning of their efforts to revitalize their communities was a real treat.

While most tours include several nights in traditional Japanese accommodations with sumptuous kaiseki-style meals, in Kunisaki the overall experience is enhanced by a night in traditional Buddhist temple accommodation.

Buddhist vegetarian meals are served and you have the opportunity for morning meditation.

Entering Edo
travel2For a peek into Japan at the beginning of the Edo period (1603–1868), the 12-day/11-night level 1 Shogun Walk is a great place to start.

The tour focuses on sites associated with Will Adams, the 17th-century inspiration for the Blackthorne character in James Clavell’s novel, Shogun.

Adams was shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and became a trusted advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu. He frequently traveled the length of Japan to Nagasaki and Hirado in Kyushu to assist Dutch and English traders whose access to Japan was limited to those two ports.

Just as Adams might have done, the tour stops along the way in Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Shimonoseki, other cities associated with those early days of the Tokugawa shogunate.

The operator’s flagship tour features the Nakasendo, a Tokugawa-period road through mountainous terrain between Edo and Kyoto.

This inland route was preferred by female travelers of the day, as it involved fewer river crossings than the coastal Tokaido. The 11-day/10-night level 3 tour takes travelers through time and mountains to effectively traverse the shogunate period.

The tour originates in Kyoto and makes an early stop at the site of the Battle of Sekigahara, where Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory in 1600 made him shogun.

Travelers then walk several stages of the Nakasendo’s original cobblestones, stopping at various post towns—way stations for travelers that ensured government control over use of the road—until they reach Tokugawa’s capital, Edo, which became Tokyo in 1868.

Walk Japan also offers a couple of urban tours. Tokyo is often lamented as a city whose history was destroyed by the 1923 earthquake and World War II fire bombings.

But walk the city with a knowledgeable guide, like Walk Japan’s Paul Tierney, and learn how much of old Edo is still in evidence.

You probably walk past bits of history every day without realizing their value. In two days, Tierney guides visitors through 300 years of Edo history, often bringing it to life with old photographs or period woodblock prints he carries with him.

Nihonbashi is a classic example. Between the old prints and Tierney’s adroit explanation, one can envision the raucous spectacle of 18th-century fishing boats, travelers, and merchants.

Tierney will also bring to life the Boshin War that ended the Tokugawa period, even pointing out bullet holes in the wooden gate of Yanaka’s Kyoo-ji, where the Shinsengumi attempted to make a final stand after losing the Battle of Ueno.

I’ve often thought the downside of time travel would be losing modern conveniences. But, by time traveling this way, one is transported to the past without surrendering comfort.

For moderately active tourists with a healthy sense of curiosity, what could be better?



Vicki L. Beyer is a vice president of the ACCJ.