Welcome to the Nakasendo Trail: the road that will transport you to another Japan.
Nakasendo (the way through the mountains) was one of Japan’s ancient highways running between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. Although now the only people who walk along it tend to be visitors, during the 17th century it was a vital thoroughfare, full of merchants and pilgrims. It was also a route often taken by feudal lords, who would have been guarded at all times by their watchful, loyal samurai.
You can spend a week walking the whole trail, or if you’d like a short version like we did, you may want to opt to walk the section between the beautifully preserved Edo-period post towns of Tsumago and Magome, located in the picturesque Kiso Valley. Both are incredibly well prepared to help visitors walk the trail, and have a bag delivery service that will promptly take your bag from one town to the other, so you don’t have to lug it around with you. You can find out more information on the Tourist Information website.
The full Nakasendo Trail is around 330 miles and takes around 10-12 days to finish – something I’d love to do in its entirety at some point, but with a 4-year old in tow? Maybe not.
We decided to start our hike in Tsumago, mainly because I had read it was *slightly* easier, with one less hill. This pedestrianised post town transports you back into the 18th century, its Edo-Period wooden buildings beautifully preserved and looked-after, gorgeous but simple teahouses where you can get a bowl of soba noodles for an energy boost, or gohei mochi (sweet rice cake) if you have a sweet tooth, as well as shops selling crafts, artisans perfecting their skill – it’s all here, with the mountains as a stunning backdrop. Our four year old was easily bribed with a local chestnut ice-cream, which was simply delicious!
THE NAKASENDO TRAIL
From here it’s very easy to find the start of the trail – there are signs in English, and the town is so small you’re bound to bump into the tourist office if you need help. We visited Tsumago on a Saturday, off-season in November, so didn’t experience the crowds that usually make this peaceful town feel like Disneyland.
There were a fair number of trekkers passing through, but after a mile or so the numbers thinned out considerably. We took the pace quite slowly as we had a pair of little legs with us, and were pleased to find several other groups walking with us most of the way, so we got to chat with quite a few friendly Japanese walkers, as well as people from all over the world.
For the most part the route from Tsumago to Magome, which is the section we covered, is very easy. It’s very well-marked, and the ground is firm. Apart from a few fairly steep hills, it’s perfectly suitable for younger children, though the trail is uneven in parts so if you’re travelling with a scooter, leave it behind (lesson learned!).
We passed stunning cedar forest and tumbling waterfalls, drinking in the breathtaking views on all sides. Every half a mile or so we would pass little bells attached to posts, which people rang as they walked past. Of course our son was in charge of doing this for us. After a few miles we asked a fellow walker what the meaning behind it was, thinking it might be to chase away evil spirits or something. Actually, no. It’s because there are bears in the area, and ringing the bell is a way of (hopefully) letting them know you’re around so they will naturally stay away! We kept our eyes glued to the sides of the road for movement but didn’t see anything remotely bear-like, although Charlie did find a nice pointy stick that he promised he would protect us with if any bears tried to make us their lunch. By the way, you can read here about the time we really did encounter bears, close-up.
After about 8 kms, with the afternoon gradually wearing into evening, we arrived in the lovely town of Magome. Having been destroyed by fires throughout the last few centuries, Magome has been lovingly restored and feels slightly more touristy than Tsumago, though still a beautiful place to visit. The residents here have banished anything modern-day, from telephone lines to electric lighting, from the main street, so it’s easy to imagine what life would have been like three centuries ago when these postal towns were instrumental in the Nakasendo highway. The road is lined with teahouses, restaurants and shops, but by this time we were starving, so we made a beeline for the nearest place that looked like it sold good soba noodles (if you’re new to One Tiny Leap, I am mildly obsessed with noodles). Sat down at a low table and slurped our way through large bowls of the most delicious noodles, washed down with local beer – delicious!
Our airbnb host had very kindly offered to pick us up from Magome – just one reason why we rated him with 5 stars and would have given him a sixth if we could – so we had an hour or so to wander the area. As you might expect, Tsumago’s main street though in a sense very traditional is well-geared to visitors.
We could have filled our bags twice over with tempting handicrafts and tasty snacks. There are several good Ryokans in the town – we unfortunately couldn’t find room, but will defintely try in the future. I have read, however, that if you’re staying in either town, everything shuts at sun-down so try to eat beforehand!
After showers and a wonderful night’s sleep, we bade farewell and returned to the train station, to head onwards to Kyoto and the hectic pace of city life. If you’re visiting either Kyoto or Japan then I highly recommend making a short detour out to the countryside – it’s a different world altogether and not at all difficult to navigate if you’re lucky with your accommodation.
How to travel from Tokyo to Tsumago or Magome:
Catch the JR Tokaido shinkansen train to Nagoya straight from Tokyo Station, or Shinjuku.
- To get to Magome: transfer from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa, where you can get a bus to Magome (30 minutes)
- To get to Tsumago: transfer from Nagoya to Nagiso, where you’ll be able to get a bus or taxi to Tsumago.
Where to stay in Tsumago or Magome:
Having failed to secure one of the few Ryokans in Magome or Tsumago, we booked a stay in a lovely AirBnB, run by an even lovelier couple who were unbelievably good hosts – we’ve had some fantastic AirBnB experiences all over the world, but so far nowhere compares to Japan.
We took a bullet train from Tokyo, connecting in Nagoya with a regional train to Edo, and were then picked up from the station by our hosts and given a whistlestop tour of this beautiful area. Our accommodation was charmingly traditional, with comfortable futons and snacks provided, and our hosts were even kind enough to not only transport us to and from a local restaurant, but also order our food for us, as the staff spoke little English.