Hiking Japan’s oldest road.
Japan prides itself on historic preservation and its integration of ancient architecture into the modern landscape makes for tourism that satisfies both the hunger for exquisite scenery sprinkled in historical intrigue. Few places exemplify this phenomenon as well as Yamanobe-no-michi does, a 1,000-year-old road which narrowly meanders through present-day farms and towns while maintaining its cultural heritage.
Located in Nara — an area brimming with historical and World Heritage sites — Yamanobe-no-michi trail was once part of Shinkaido, the most ancient road in Japan, which started in Tokyo. Yamanobe-no-michi (or Yamanobe Road) dates back to at least the 8th century when it was mentioned in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), one of the nation’s oldest classical texts. Nonetheless, it is likely that it was constructed even much earlier than that.
The road is heavily winded, as it was built around the wetlands, forests and settlements. However, the wetlands eventually dried up, and as people began to use newer and straighter paths, so did the usage of the road. Yet, it never fully disappeared. Instead, it was incorporated into the development built around it so remnants persist to this day.
Walking the trail is quite easy as there are very few inclines or obstacles. Much of the path is paved in dirt, but sections of it, particularly in towns, are concrete. There are signs along the way in many languages, including English, as well as a number of convenience stores, vending machines and rest stops. There are also quaint fruit and vegetable stalls, with goods picked straight from the nearby farms that operate on the honor system. (Leave some coins if you take any!)
Start at Tenri station, a short ride from Nara station, and follow signs pointing to Isonokami Jingu (Shrine). Follow the trail until it ends at Omiwa Shrine near Sakurai station (about 11 kilometers or seven miles total). You can also hike the trail in reverse.
Though easy, the full hike is quite long, and can take up to four hours (including stops). For a shorter walk, start at another station on the JR Sakurai line which runs parallel to the trail, or check out a bike rental shop like Yamamoto Cycle (Map).
Along the trail, you will find many attractions, which are worth a visit. Here are some of the most significant shrines and temples:
Isonokami Shrine – This quirky shrine is beautiful and steeped in history. Roosters freely roam the grounds and visitors can see a collection of ancient weapons inside.
Chogaku-ji Temple – Said to have been founded by the same monk as Wakayama’s Koyasan, this temple has gorgeous gardens that flower year round. There is a nearby restaurant of the same name that serves incredible miwa somen — traditional noodles from Nara’s Miwa region.
Omiwa Shrine – Legend has it Omiwa Shrine is the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. The place certainly feels mythical, shrouded by trees and filled with images and symbols of a snake god.