Ancient Trails, Modern Tales: Traversing Kanagawa reveals paths from long ago and comforts of today

Ancient Trails, Modern Tales: Traversing Kanagawa reveals paths from long ago and comforts of today

To keep feudal lords loyal during the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shoguns forced them to live in the new capital of Edo every other year. And when they returned to their home province, they had to leave their families behind in the capital as hostages.

The back-and-forth journey they had to make was long, something we discover firsthand on a hot and sunny autumn day under the guidance of local Shin Kaneko. As the nationally licensed tour guide leads us along a stone-paved road running through the beautiful forest—beams of sunlight piercing the leafy canopy of towering cedar trees—we find ourselves on a trek made by nobles and commoners alike for hundreds of years.

Many visitors to Japan are familiar with the Tokaido Shinkansen. What they may not know is that the tracks run alongside an ancient route built not for bullet-train carriages but rather palanquins. Thankfully, unlike passengers of old, today’s travelers need not bite on rope to protect their tongues from the rough ride.

Born and raised in Hakone, Kaneko also spent six years in France and five in the United States growing up. Later, he studied business at the University of Southern California and set off on a career as a strategist for Japanese retail giant Aeon Co., Ltd. But the call of home—and nature—grew louder and louder, and he left Tokyo life in 2015 to make his way back to the lakeside haunts of his childhood.

As Kaneko observed English-speaking visitors staring holes through maps as they tried to guide their own way, he decided to create Explore Hakone, a bespoke agency that provides tours limited to one group per day. And by group, I mean a family, a couple, or a solo adventurer. This personal treatment has made Kaneko’s adventures very popular among those seeking to experience authentic Japan. And today, we get to experience it for ourselves.

Kanagawa trails

The development of the Old Tokaido Road, Kaneko explains, is tied to key events in Japanese history, and the preferred paths through the Hakone area have changed over the centuries. Some 1,300 years ago, during the Nara and Heian Periods, people used the longer, flatter Ashigara Mountain Pass to the north, which runs along the border of Kanagawa and Shizuoka Prefectures. But when Mount Fuji erupted in 802, the path was covered in ash and became difficult to traverse. Travelers began opting for the shorter but more mountainous route we are taking today.

I can only imagine how difficult the climb up and down these hills must have been in those days, when the path was paved with thinly cut and dried bamboo. It wasn’t until 1860 that the large stones which now mark the trail were put in place.

As we make our way through the tranquil woods on our seven-hour, 6.5-kilometer hike, Kaneko shares an enormous amount of the trail’s fascinating history.

The section of the 500-kilometer Old Tokaido Road that we’re traversing is known as the Hakone Hachiri, the 32-kilometer stretch between the Odawara and the Mishima post stations. Hakone Sekisho is located at Lake Ashi, one of 53 checkpoints erected by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Due to the very steep climbs—the total elevation change is about 900 meters—travelers during the Edo Period needed regular breaks. There were once nine teahouses on the route offering refreshment. Today, just one remains: Amazake Chaya.

We stop for an energizing cup of amazake, the warm non-alcoholic rice drink from which the rustic rest stop takes its name. Paired with two surprisingly filling pieces of mochi rice cake, the amazake was a welcome respite, as it must have been for those ancient sojourners.


While rejuvenating for the next leg of our journey under the thatched roof of history, we talk to Satoshi Yamamoto, the current owner of the business that has been passed through his family for 13 generations.

For more than 400 years, the doors of Amazake Chaya have been open, every single day. The only time they were closed was for a brief period during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to keep the teahouse as it has always been, serving people in a traditional way,” Yamamoto says. “Although we own the teahouse, the atmosphere is created by our customers. We only provide service. The culture and story behind [Amazake Chaya] have been made by travelers for centuries.”

He says he also enjoys meeting travelers from abroad and learning more about other cultures while sharing his own.

“While the world might change, communication between us and the travelers will never change,” Yamamoto adds. “They may have different outfits, they may speak different languages, but the concept of welcoming guests will always remain the same.”

Back on the road with renewed energy, we pass across one of the highest points between Tokyo and Kyoto and begin our descent to Lake Ashi, our final destination.

As we near the Hakone Sekisho checkpoint, we walk under the shade of 400-year-old cedar trees planted by the shogun to shelter travelers from the elements at this key point of their long journey. A nice gesture. But off in the distance is Otamaga Pond, named after a woman who was captured and beheaded for sneaking out of Edo. So, while the shogun could show kindness, he also showed no mercy. You played by his rules. But those rules also brought peace to Japan after nearly two centuries of civil war and upheaval, allowing art and culture to bloom and the society we know today to take shape.


Kijitei Hoeiso

After the long hike along the Old Tokaido Road, my legs are demanding a reprieve. Fortunately, Kijitei Hoeiso ryokan was happy to oblige.

Nestled in the verdant hills of Hakone, the traditional Japanese inn is a delightful escape from the stresses of modern life. Like Hakone Hachiri, Hoeiso transports you to a simpler time when nature was an integral part of life.

We are welcomed by the inn’s owner, Kenichiro Hara, who shares a bit of the property’s history as we gaze out windows that dissolve against the lush backdrop of the mountainside. In the distance, we see the open-air hot springs we’ll visit later tonight.

And as a tease of the delectable flavors to come, we are offered yumochi, a traditional Japanese sweet made of rice flour. During my 27 years in Japan, I’ve enjoyed many such sweets, but this is truly a standout. (I even went out of my way to visit the shop near Hakone Yumoto Station the next day and buy more as gifts.)

After the exertion of the day’s hike, I’m certainly feeling peckish, and a highlight of my stay is the cuisine. Hoeiso is renowned for its menu that features pheasant—a game bird often associated with the British countryside that is actually native to Asia—and the chef’s creativity does not disappoint.

Kanagawa food

Of particular note is how Hoeiso can accommodate various dietary needs and preferences. While the pheasant menu is very popular, vegetarian options are readily available—something not easy to find in Japan.

I opted mostly the standard course, but, because I do not eat most seafood, Hoeiso prepared a course that was perfect for my palette. This is often a sticking point for me in Japan, but is no problem here.

Steamed pheasant egg custard with ginger and tri-colored dango dumplings lead the way ahead of pheasant round with salt from Sado Island, sashimi of fresh pheasant breast with ponzu, and pheasant and shiso porridge. Just highlights of an overflowing kaiseki course dinner bursting with color and flavor.

As dusk gives way to the darkness of night, I grab my towel and make my way to the private outdoor onsen situated alongside a mountain stream. I cannot adequately express how rejuvenating it is to sit alone in the steaming water, the sound of the trickling stream dancing in the background as I look up at the twinkling stars in the pitch-black sky. I’ve rarely felt so connected to the universe as in this moment. It’s as if the energy of distant worlds is flowing around me.


Retiring to my spacious room, I gaze out the windows at the night sky that is normally obscured by city light and recall those childhood evenings of stargazing in my grandmother’s countryside front yard.

Carefully prepared amenities make for a restful night.

The next morning, Hara and several Hoeiso staff see me off as I board the bus to Hakone Yumoto Station. An impeccable ending to an absolutely relaxing stay.

Kamakura gardens

Kamakura Gardens

From Hakone, we make our way around Sagami Bay to Kamakura, seat of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo, more than 400 years before the Tokugawa shogunate developed the Old Tokaido Road. But we’re not here to see the usual landmarks such as the Great Buddha. Instead, our journey today takes us around the historic city to explore its rich heritage through gardens.

We meet our guide, Saori Imoto, just outside Kita-Kamakura Station. Imoto is a garden designer who studied in Japan before moving to the United Kingdom. The Kamakura local joined her husband there when he was transferred for work and found the perfect opportunity to build on her love of horticulture. Studying in London, she became an expert in English garden design and has won multiple awards for her work. Since returning to Japan, in addition to crafting landscapes for clients, she has been sharing the beauty and history of Kamakura with visitors through private guided tours.

Central to our adventure are the area’s Zen temples, home to many of Kamakura’s most beautiful gardens. And our first stop is Engaku-ji. Founded in 1282, it is one of Japan’s most important temples and the second of what are known as Kamakura’s Five Mountains or Gozan.

“The reason I choose this temple,” she explains, “is that it has a beautiful Japanese garden and is surrounded by mountains, so we can see a lot of natural scenery as well.”

As we approach the Butsuden main hall, small children from the nearby kindergarten are practicing in the courtyard for their upcoming undokai, or sports day. Surrounded by a circle of seven juniper trees, they run, jump, and laugh as popular kids’ music plays on portable speakers. It’s a striking juxtaposition of ancient and modern culture and traditions.

The excitement of the children also contrasts with the reason we find evergreens here.

“Zen temples are very strict, and the monks need to concentrate on meditation and train very hard every day,” Imoto explains. “If there are a lot of deciduous trees, like cherry trees or Japanese maples, the monks can enjoy the seasonal transformation. They’re not allowed to do that, so Zen temples prefer planting evergreen trees, which create a calm and unchanging atmosphere, and show longevity.”

And the reason for seven? “Odd numbers are believed to bring good fortune,” Imoto says. “When we plant symbolic trees, we never use even numbers; we use odd numbers, because they cannot be divided.”

Kamakura Gardens

After touring the temple’s halls, we come upon a tranquil garden that reflects the landscape of Japan. A small pond at the center represents the sea, undulations conjure mountains, and gravel paints the coast.

To Western eyes, the lack of color may seem unusual. But, Imoto explains, there’s a reason for the absence of flowers. “In Japanese gardens, we try to replicate the natural scenery of Japan.” That means mountains, not fields—some 70 percent of Japan is mountainous. “Mountains are covered with trees, so we use a lot of trees instead of flowers,” she adds. “This creates a calm atmosphere, highlighting the simple beauty typical of Japanese gardens.”

In need of a rest, we stop at Butsunichian, an open-air café on the temple grounds that serves green tea as well as other light drinks. The tea is refreshing—I opt for hot matcha despite the unseasonably warm day—and am soon ready for the hike to our next destination.

As we leave the temple grounds and walk along backstreets, the lack of tourists is noticeable. While Kamakura teems with visitors, we’re enjoying a quiet tour using routes only the locals know. And we’re learning a great deal about the area along the way as Imoto shares details about the hidden spots we pass.

Kamakura Gardens

After a long walk, we arrive at Eisho-ji, Kamakura’s only nunnery, founded by a wife of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1636.

The grounds are covered by higanbana, or red spider lily. This striking flower, Imoto explains, is a symbol of Ohigan, a Buddhist period that falls around the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Higanbana mark the September observance. During this time, whose name means “other shore,” Higan, the world of enlightenment, and Shigan, our own world of greed and earthly desires, are believed to come closest to one another. This makes it the ideal time to remember those who have passed and to focus on spiritual awakening.

To end our exploration of Kamakura, we visit a cemetery at nearby Jufuku-ji Temple where Hojo Masako, the wife of the first Kamakura shogun Minamoto Yoritomo, is said to be buried. Masako was key to Yoritomo’s success and the power of the Kamakura Shogunate. Following his death in 1199, she became a nun but continued to yield great influence over the government until she passed away in 1225.

As we search for her final resting spot, we cross paths with a group of students who have dropped by the graveyard after school. Given Masako’s place in history, Imoto notes, they study about her in class and are curious to see the tomb firsthand. Like us, they use smartphones and GPS to locate the alcove tucked away in the back of the grounds.

As has happened many times during our two days in Kanagawa, past and present intersect in ways that highlight just how far back the history and culture of Japan stretch. There’s also something new to learn and explore.

Kamakura Gardens

Article written by C Bryan Jones in partnership with Kanagawa Prefecture

Hakone Reset


Kijitei Hoeiso


Kamakura’s Gardens