Marking the Way on the Tokaido

This waterfall runs down a mountain and crosses the original path of the old Tokaido near Hakone. During the Edo period (1603-1868) the Tokaidō was one of five major travel roads, and one of the two most important linking the former capital city of Kyoto with the then-new capital, Edo (now called Tokyo). The Tokaidō, or “East Sea Road” roughly paralleled the southeastern coast of Honshū (Japan’s largest island). Its 53 stations, or post towns, were (and remain, to an extent) famous subjects of Japanese art and literature. I hiked a section of the old Tokaidō near Hakone last autumn, and visited again in

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Rice Fields in Magome

One benefit of travel is the opportunity to see amazing things – some of which don’t always fit neatly into an article or blog post.  A good example is this rice field in Magome, Japan – a town in the Japan Alps on the old Kisoji and Nakasendo routes. I walked upon this scene accidentally while waiting for the bus the morning I left Magome after a three-day research stay. The air was crisp with autumn, sharp with wood smoke, and carried the musky scent of drying leaves and ripened rice stalks. My jacket was warm enough, but just barely–another week,

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Hearths, Tables, and Samurai Welcome Feasts

My newest Hiro Hattori novel, BETRAYAL AT IGA, features a welcome feast gone horribly wrong. In medieval Japan (and in traditional homes to this day) the tables looked quite different from the ones in Western homes. While Europeans used waist-high tables and sat in elevated chairs, Japanese tables looked like this: People knelt (or sometimes sat cross-legged) on cushions placed directly on the floor. In poorer homes, or on occasions when formal tables were not used, families ate while sitting or kneeling around the irori, a sunken hearth with a bed of fine dirt or sand upon which fires were kindled. The irori was also used to heat the

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Lanterns on the Nakasendō

During my autumn 2016 research trip to Japan, I spent three nights on the Nakasendo–the “Central Mountain Route” that once connected Kyoto with Edo (now Tokyo) via the Japan Alps. Since the southernmost part of the Nakasendo overlays the even older Kisoji–a travel road that will feature in an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery novel, I focused my time on Magome, the southernmost post town, which has been restored to its Edo Period condition and preserved as a slice of living history. Most visitors leave Magome at 5pm, on the final bus for Nakatsugawa (the closest railway station, and major town, about 30 minutes

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Dawn on the Nakasendo

(Click here to start the series of posts on the Nakasendo from the beginning.) During Japan’s medieval age, the Nakasendo was the primary northern travel route connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto. The southern end of the Nakasendo tracks the course of an older travel road, the Kisoji, which connected the mountain towns of the Kiso Valley. A preserved and restored portion of the old Nakasendo/Kisoji runs through the mountains between the southernmost post towns of Magome and Tsumago. The 8.5 km (just over 5 mile) journey takes between 2 and 4 hours, and includes some breathtaking views of the Kiso Valley. On the morning I made the

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Autumn Treats in a Japanese Mountain Teahouse

(To start this series from the beginning, click here.) As the sun went down on my first day in the restored Edo-period post town of Magome, I decided to rest my hike-weary feet in one of the teahouses that lined the sloping street. Although I had several options, I decided to try Yomogiya, an inviting-looking teahouse that sat next door to my minshuku (guest house or traditional inn). The sign out front suggested the teahouse also offered coffee – and although tea is the traditional choice, I love good coffee, so I decided to go inside and let the menu make the

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Stairs to the Summit: Musashi-Mitake Shrine

(Click here to start from Part 1 of this series on hiking Mount Mitake.)  High atop Mount Mitake, northwest of Tokyo, Musashi-Mitake Shrine offers gorgeous views of Chichibu Tama-Kai National Park, home to a number of sacred peaks (including Mitake). The entrance to the shrine looks much like many other Shintō holy places, with a purification fountain: and a torii marking the formal entry to the sacred space: Carved stone lanterns (toro) and ceremonial stones flank the flight of steep stone stairs leading up to the shrine’s main gate. On the day I visited, cool breezes fluttered the flags beside the stairs. Although the clouds obscured my view of

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A Visit to One of Japan’s Most Spectacular Waterfalls

Minō Park, North of Osaka, is home to one of Japan’s most spectacular waterfalls – the 33-meter (99′) Minō Falls: The falls are the park’s most famous attraction, though it’s also known as one of the best places in the Kansai Region for viewing colorful autumn foliage (momijigari). Even the manhole covers in the park demonstrate the area’s pride in its autumn leaves: Visitors reach the falls by hiking a paved 4km trail from the park entrance. The path terminates at the falls, and takes about 45-60 minutes to walk, depending on walking speed and physical fitness. (The walk is paved the entire

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The Cats of Fushimi Inari

Like many Japanese shrines and temples, Fushimi Inari Taisha, south of Kyoto, has its share of resident cats. Although not numerous, the cats appear to be permanent residents of the shrine, and though some, like this little fellow: seem to live on the mountain itself. That said, unlike most feral cats, the residents of Fushimi Inari seemed eager for human attention. The handsome tuxedo in the photo above followed me along the path, meowing insistently, until I stopped to pet him. A group of visitors gathered behind me, pointing at the cat, and as soon as I left him they moved in

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