Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a ryokan, my friend Celia and I stared down at the dish before us. We’d partaken in kaiseki, a traditional Japanese meal, many times previously, but had never once seen this item. At least 15 insects filled the small container, and we could see every last detail: the four small front legs, the two larger hind legs , the tiny black eyes, and the two wings that acted like a shell, striping the back of the insects. Their brownish color gave off an almost cockroach-like appearance. Reaching down, they felt crispy to the touch, clearly fried in various sauces. I could almost hear the uncomfortable crunch they’d make in my mouth. Despite the chef’s best efforts to mask their identity, they were unmistakable.
Celia’s eyes showed a reluctance that I’m sure mine reflected. There was no way we could eat these; they looked practically alive. But then we caught sight of the chef, an elderly Japanese man, watching from the kitchen. He sat, hoping to see satisfied faces and hear expressions of enjoyment. He’d been so sweet to us; we simply couldn’t let him down. Plus, to some degree, we’d actually wanted this. Well, maybe not exactly this — but something like it.
When planning our trip, Celia and I longed for a more immersive experience of Japanese culture than we could find in a museum or on a typical hike. We wanted a physical and intellectual adventure. Walking the Nakasendo Trail seemed like the way to do just that, and we were right. Our journey thus far had given us the experience we’d hoped for, the perfect mixture of everything Japan embodies.
During Japan’s Edo Period from 1600 to 1868, the country lived under the oppressive rule of the Shogun and his samurai. This military leader enacted numerous orders to control his people and assure his unchecked power. One such measure restricted all travel to walking, which led to the creation of an extensive trail system. Tokyo, the political capital at the time, sat 270 miles (435 kilometers) away from Kyoto, the home of the Imperial Palace. Such a distance required a multi-day journey, and to accommodate travelers along the way, towns sprung up along the footpaths. Magome became one such stop, number 43 of 69 on what was known as the Nakasendo Trail or Kiso Nakasendo. Lying on such an important path, the town blossomed.
Celia and I had arrived in Magome just over a day before facing our cricket-heavy dinner. Walking toward our accommodation for the evening, we encountered cobblestone streets lined with small two-story houses. Greenery clung to the buildings’ facades, and hydrangeas added a pop of color to the otherwise brown and white structures. Not a speck of trash littered the ground and the atmosphere was serene. Eventually recognizing our ryokan’s welcome banner, we stepped inside. In the middle of a bamboo-covered floor, smoke rose to the ceiling from a firepit with a small flame, despite the heat of the day. Wooden sandals, known as getas, lined the entryway steps in tidy rows. Light filtered through screened windows between the first-floor rooms. The scent of old, well-worn wood, mixed with traces of smoke, created the unmistakable smell of tradition. It felt as though we’d successfully stepped into the past, to the time when this building and the entire town came into existence.
In a room surely used by travelers centuries before, the ryokan’s owner placed getas in our hands and ushered us out onto the street. We gathered with other inn guests around a paper lantern sitting in the road. Decorated with delicate Japanese characters, it cast just enough light upon our otherwise pitch-black surroundings for us to see the faces of those nearby. Despite speaking little English, our leader, also the inn’s eighth-generation keeper, proceeded to teach us the steps to a traditional samurai dance, using gestures to explain the repetition and direction of movement.
The upper body movements came more easily than the steps, as the uneven stones and unfamiliar sandals further complicated the challenge of guiding our feet in the darkness. It seemed that whenever we tried to keep pace, the two small platforms on each sandal would catch the ground at different times; Celia and I had to cling to one another just to stay upright. Thankfully, we were not alone in our struggles, as the other guests also found themselves stumbling throughout the routine. Despite not knowing each other, we quickly bonded through our communal clumsiness and the continuous laughter that carried down the road.
Eventually, we found ourselves moving in unison, all of us gracefully making our way around the lantern. We lifted our right arms into the air for two counts, and then our left; we tapped our toes rhythmically. The clopping of our sandals rang out in the night, each step bringing us closer to the samurai, who danced just as we did. I felt as though I was a samurai warrior preparing for the next battle on my pilgrimage. Having already filled my stomach and fueled my body, this experience strengthened my spirit for the following morning’s journey to Tsumago, the next town along the Nakasendo Trail.
The next morning, within moments of setting off, Celia and I found ourselves completely alone amid a forest of slender trees. As we wandered through the woods, the refreshing breeze carried a variety of chirps through the leaves, and our eyes darted every which way in hopes of sighting their source. We followed the sound of rushing water to a nearby waterfall and sat, enjoying the cold spray it emitted. Appearing to emerge from the woods, small villages appeared, though the lush vegetation so wholly encompassed them that they were almost absorbed right back into the hillsides they stood on.
Since we encountered very few people along the way, it was easy to forget that cities like Tokyo existed only a train ride away. In the heart of the Japanese countryside, our days centered around the landscape, the trail, and our personal journey. Every now and then, we found a historical plaque or relic bearing the names of people from hundreds of years before who had also made their way to Tsumago, itching the same bug bites, hearing the same stomach rumblings, and having their progress slowed by the same oppressive heat. We were a part of Princess Kazunomiya’s 25,000-person wedding party, accompanying her en route to marry the 14th Shogun in 1862 — she in her royal box, the rest of us plodding along toward the next town. While we may have felt alone amid these serene surroundings, we were anything but, sharing this trail and our experiences with those who had ventured there centuries earlier.
In time, Tsumago appeared in the distance. Once there, the buildings felt more worn, the wood more cracked. The tourist sheen of Magome had vanished and was replaced by a more weathered exterior. Even smaller than its counterpart, Tsumago houses structures that press in on themselves, hugging the main street. If Magome had felt historic, this town was ancient. All signs of tourists from previous days had vanished, and we felt like the first individuals to happen upon the town in decades. As the sun set, clouds moved in and rain poured down. Lights flickered on along the street, casting a glow on the wet pavement. Checking in to our inn, we dropped off our bags and soon found ourselves sitting on the cool floor, with that dish full of crickets in front of us.
As we popped each one into our mouths, with our eyes shut tight during the first nerve-wracking bites I understood that the Nakasendo Trail experience extended far beyond the walk itself. During our time in Japan, we had hiked mountain paths and biked country roads. We’d seen temples and absorbed historical facts. But here, on this small portion of the trail, with crispy and surprisingly tasty insects in hand, we found what we’d sought the entire trip: the chance to literally move through Japan’s history. Rather than aboard a bus or within the confines of a museum, we learned about and lived through the physical experience. We stood in the countryside, in the buildings, and on the actual sites. Sweating and plodding, dancing and eating, we lived just as they had — bugs and all.