Japan is a hiker’s paradise. There are endless trails across the island chain that range from lush forests to coastal views and mountain peaks. If you are looking for a hike with history, you might have come across mention of the Old Tokaidō Road. Here is a brief guide to walk in the footsteps of Edo-era samurai.
What is the Old Tokaidō Road?
The Old Tokaidō Road was the main walking trail between Edo (the name for Tokyo during the Edo era, 1603–1868) and Kyoto, the former capital of Japan. It was an important — and probably quite busy — road for samurai, officials and merchants during that time.
Along the road, there were posts, inns, temples and shrines at the service of weary travelers. Nowadays, some of the religious sites remain, but most of the posts and inns are gone. There are some castle ruins near Hakone and an old inn in Okitsu left that you can check out.
Can you still walk the Tokaidō Road?
Now, let’s be clear here: this is not the Japanese version of the Camino de Santiago in Europe that is completely walkable from beginning to end and fully caters to pilgrims. Sadly, most of the old trail has been swallowed up by National Route No. 1, also known as, you guessed it, the Tokaidō Highway — a motorway with no pedestrian walkway.
If you are ambitious, you can trace the whole trail from Tokyo to Kyoto, like this woman did. The whole route will take you around three weeks, but note that many bits of the road are rather mundane. Think slogging suburban landscapes and skirting around a highway.
However, other bits are well preserved offering proper, beautiful hiking trails. The most popular section is the one around Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture.
How long does it take to walk the Tokaidō Road?
If you want to walk the whole trail, which is around 500 km from Nihonbashi in Tokyo to the outskirts of Kyoto, it will probably take you around 21 days.
This is the rough route of the Old Tokaidō Road:
The route starts in Nihonbashi, Tokyo and leads toward Kawasaki City on the outskirts of Tokyo. From there, you continue to Yokohama. The next stop is Hakone in the mountains. Then, walk back down to Mishima near Mt. Fuji. Follow the coastline passing Shizuoka. Make a stop in Nagoya. Finally, arrive in Kyoto.
If you want to walk just a portion of it, you could make a day trip to Hakone out of it. Alternatively, you can explore just the main sites along the Old Tokaido Road on foot while using the Tokaidō Shinkansen or local trains (which are much cheaper) to ferry you across the less scenic parts. As it is the Tokaido Line, you’ll stay faithful to your route. For the train and walking option, we would recommend devoting a week’s time.
Day trip itinerary: Hakone section
If you want to hike a small section, we definitely recommend the route through Hakone. There are signs and maps, though in Japanese, making it a proper hiking trail that takes around 2 hours to walk. The trail is beautiful, leading you through cedar alleys and featuring cobblestones from the original Tokaido Road.
Along the hike, you will come across the old Hakone checkpoint of the Tokaidō Road (Hakone Shrine), small temples and the ruins of Yamanaka Castle. Plus, views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day!
This section is an easy hike that can be done in a day. However, you may want to stay overnight in Hakone to give yourself lots of time to explore.
Before you start, best head to a tourist information center in Hakone and ask for a map and directions, which can be provided in English, Chinese or Korean.
The route starts in Hakone (Kanagawa Prefecture) and ends in Mishima (Shizuoka Prefecture), but some people opt to only explore the most scenic sections around Hakone.
If you want to go all the way to Mishima, you will have to cross the National Route No. 1 a few times, but there are signs in Japanese to guide you. In Mishima, the route ends at Nishikida-Ichiri-Zuka with milestone markers of the Old Tokaidō Road.
Old Tokaidō Road: One-week itinerary
If you want make it a longer adventure, consider this one-week itinerary of the Old Tokaidō Road.
Visit the Nihonbashi area in Tokyo which marks the starting point of the Old Tokaidō Road. It is a business district now though with not much to see, but have your morning coffee here. Then embark from Tokyo to Hakone (note: make sure you get an early start to your day). From Hakone, start your hike to Mishima, where you’ll stay overnight.
Take the train from Mishima to Shizuoka. From there, hike along the coast with stops in Kambara, an old post town and Okitsu. Consider staying at the old Oka-ya Inn in Okitsu. It is one of the last original inns of the Tokaido Road that is over 200 years old.
From Okitsu, take the train in Shizuoka and explore the city. You can hike along the Abe River which was crossed by travelers on the Tokaido Road back in the day. Take the local train to Hamamatsu and spend the night here.
Hamamatsu itself is a business city with not many sights to explore, but check out Hamana Lake, a massive body of water. You can hike along the lake and take boat tours. Continue along the Tokaido Road via local train to Nagoya and spend the night here. Nagoya’s bar and restaurant scene is definitely worth checking out at night!
Explore Nagoya for the day, the highlight being the well-preserved and impressive Nagoya Castle. In the late afternoon, take a local train to the city of Kusatsu, a small town on Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Kusatsu (not to be confused with Kusatsu onsen town in Gunma Prefecture) was another post on the Old Tokaido Road and the checkpoint can still be visited today.
From here, explore Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest freshwater lake. Hikone Castle on the northwest side of the lake is a national treasure and not to be missed. Omihachiman boasts Hachiman-bori Canal, which offers boat tours down the picturesque stream that pass well-preserved historic warehouses. In the late afternoon, head to the other side of the lake to Takashima. There, you can enjoy the sunset behind the famous floating torii gates in the water, which are part of Shirahige Shrine.
You made it! The final stop of the Tokaido Road crossing is the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge in Kyoto. From here, explore one of Japan’s most beloved cities. There is a lot to see, so we recommend staying at least two nights.
Finally, a note on traveling this route via rental car on the National Road No. 1: While you would stay even closer to the original road with a rental car, road tolls in Japan are quite hefty, so it wouldn’t be the most economic scenario. The train network is super convenient and as the trains for this itinerary run on the Tokaido Line, you are staying pretty faithful to the old route, with some added modern conveniences.