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Japan: A 10-day walking holiday on the Basho Tour

By: Shamus Sillar

Shamus Sillar samples a 10-day walking holiday that follows in the footsteps of Japan’s most famous haiku poet.

The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of water.

This simple but evocative haiku was penned by the 17th-century master of the art, Matsuo Basho. In 1689, at the age of 45, Basho set out from Edo (modern Tokyo) on a 150-day journey through the Northern Provinces of Honshu. His resulting travelogue, Narrow Road to the Deep North, forms the basis of Walk Japan’s Basho Tour, a wonderful guided expedition into some secluded nooks of the country’s main island.

This is my second Walk Japan experience and, frankly, I can’t imagine a better way to explore the country. The company’s trips present an ideal combination of nature, culture, history and hiking, with unique accommodation, gobsmacking food and atmospheric onsen along the way. Below are some of the moments I enjoyed the most on this recent journey around Japan.

 

Bold birds at Matsushima


After a night in Tokyo and a chance to meet my fellow walkers and our guide over dinner (most meals are included in the price of the tour), Day 2 of the Basho Tour is bookended by a bullet train out of the capital in the morning and a ferry ride in Matsushima Bay in the late afternoon. In between, we explored castle remains, nosed around a fascinating rural museum, strolled along country paths, and stopped at a couple of impressive shrines. For the Japanese, the tiny pine-clad islands of Matsushima constitute one of the three most scenic spots in the country. (Another is the iconic orange torii gate rising out of the water near Hiroshima.) For brazen local seagulls, though, it’s a place where you can eat snacks straight out of the hands of giggling ferry passengers.

Autumn leaves at Motsu-ji


A thousand years ago, Hiraizumi rivalled Kyoto in splendour and sophistication; today it’s a modest town of 8,000 people. Yet vestiges of its former glories remain in the form of two temples, Motsu-ji and Chuson-ji, linked by a delightful forest trail. In its heyday, Motsu-ji boasted 40 pagodas and 500 monasteries; they’ve long since burnt down. Instead, the highlight is a lake surrounded by cherry trees and maples, ablaze with autumn colours during our November visit. Speaking of colour, the Chuson-ji complex includes a 900-year-old timber pavilion completely covered in dazzling gold leaf.

Stone steps on Haguro-san


An average day on the Basho Tour includes around 10km of walking; the longest day is 14km. Most of this is easy ambling along country paths, though there is one daunting section – at least on paper: the 2,466-step ascent of the holy mountain, Haguro-san. Yes, it’s a big number, but it’s a surprisingly manageable climb. The steps are old and roughly hewn but they’re also low and gentle, and you can scale the mountain in an hour or so. Don’t rush though. This is perhaps the most beautiful piece of forest I’ve been in, lined with 600-year-old sugi trees and old timber pagodas (including a remarkable five-storey one).

Perfect reflections at Zuigan-ji


Temples and shrines loom large on the itinerary, and none is more impressive than the 400-year-old Zen temple, Zuigan-ji. Our visit fortuitously coincided with an autumn festival that sees the temple and surrounding forests and caves dramatically illuminated each night. The centrepiece of the show is a pitch-black pond that reflects the glowing trees above in breathtaking fashion – about as Zen as it gets.

Reminders of 2011
The first few days of the Basho Tour pass through some of the areas most brutally affected by the 2011 tsunami. There are poignant reminders of the disaster, including before-and-after photos sticky-taped to the windows of rebuilt shops and restaurants on the coast.

Sometimes, though, the devastation isn’t visible to the naked eye. While Zuigan-ji temple was lucky to escape any major impact from the wave itself, many of the majestic cedar trees that line the avenue to the temple are dying from salt toxicity from exposure to the high water level.

Most poignant of all is the memorial on the summit of Haguro-san where, alongside the mossy gravestones of an ancient cemetery, you’ll find a grassy slope covered with thousands of timber stakes cluttered together, painted with dedications to the deceased. Beside the stakes, red pinwheels spin in the breeze, a reminder of the countless children who were killed or left orphaned by the tragedy.

 

Misty gorges of Mogami-gawa


You don’t travel by foot alone on a Walk Japan trip. The Basho Tour, for instance, also includes a combination of short coach-rides, enjoyable train journeys (bullet trains and scenic “view trains”) and interesting boat trips. Of the latter, I’ve mentioned the Matsushima ferry already; another is a cruise along the Mogami, one of Japan’s feistier rivers. Basho also took this journey, penning the following poem:

Gathering early summer rains
How swift it flows
Mogami River

Appropriately, it drizzled rain for most of our time on the river, too, though even then the views were impressive.

Golden sunrise on Fukuura Island


Our guide for this particular tour was John McBride, a Sydneysider with a long association with Japan, and an admirable fluency in the country’s language and customs. His insights were always fascinating, and he’s a fun companion to walk with (and drink sake with). During an early morning stroll around tiny Fukuura Island off the coast of Matsushima, we stood under a tree to admire the views of the famous bay, only for John to admit that he had camped under the same tree back in his early 20s when he was backpacking around this part of Japan but couldn’t afford a hotel.

Hot springs at Akakura Onsen


Accommodation at tiny Akakura Onsen (a ski resort in winter) is a traditional Japanese ryokan with huge tatami-mat rooms, sublime fresh produce and thermal hot-spring baths that include an alfresco section where you can wallow in the 40-something-degree waters while overlooking a stream of smooth stones. The food here is perhaps the best on the trip and, like all dinner feasts on the tour, is a friendly group affair with everyone wearing the yukata robes supplied by the inn and enjoying a few post-hike drinks.

Choose an itinerary
Founded in 1992, Walk Japan offers more than a dozen tours, each aimed at showing visitors the “real” Japan, in terms of both culture and geography.

I did the 10-day Basho Tour, though time limitations meant that mine was a truncated version of the trip – I peeled away on the morning of Day 6 and returned to Tokyo. The full-length version ends in Kyoto.

Walk Japan’s flagship experience is the 11-day Nakasendo Way, which follows an ancient highway through picturesque villages and mountain passes. Shorter versions of the Nakasendo are offered, too.

Other tours include:

  • Kunisaki Trek – 10 days following in the footsteps of monks on Kyushu’s remote Kunisaki Peninsula
  • Hokkaido Hike – 10 days exploring the wilder side of Japan on the mountain trails of Hokkaido
  • Mount Fuji Circuit – 6 days walking the countryside around Japan’s most famous peak
  • Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage – 9 days following one of only two Unesco-listed pilgrimage routes in the world (the other being the famous Camino in Spain)
  • Tokyo Tour & Kyoto Tour – 2-day tours of Japan’s main tourist destinations, exploring lesser-known features of each city

All Walk Japan tours are physically active, but you can choose a tour to match your ability, whether you prefer light walking or you’d like to scale some mountains. The Basho Tour is a Level 2-to-3 tour on the Walk Japan scale of Level 1 (easiest) to Level 6 (hardest).

Logistics
The Basho Tour runs mostly in the spring and autumn months, departing Tokyo every second or third Sunday on average. For all upcoming dates for 2014 and 2015, plus the full itinerary, costs and other details, visit www.walkjapan.com.

Getting There
Plenty of airlines fly Singapore to Tokyo. Scoot’s service via Taipei is the cheapest of the lot and the stopover isn’t long.

 

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