Updated: Aug 6
Magome, Tsumago and a 7km trail that was used during the Edo Period.
Magome and Tsumago are two postal towns located in the Kiso Valley. They were frequently used by people traveling between the old Capital of Kyoto and the new capital of Tokyo. The towns have been perfectly preserved to reflect life during the Edo period.
THE WAY THERE
The Kiso Valley can be accessed by trains and buses from Nagoya City. From Tokyo you can either take the Shinkansen to Nagoya, and then switch to local trains heading for Nakatsugawa, or visit the Kiso Valley via guided tours. I live in Nagoya, so it was easier for me to access the express train. If you have time and want to save I would suggest taking the local train which takes around an hour and a half and costs half as much as the express trains.
The most common starting point for accessing the Nakasendo Trail is the famous post town called Magome. In order to reach Magome you need to go to Nakatsugawa Station from Nagoya.From there you need to hop on the No.3 Bus that goes directly to Magome. It's a 30 minute bus ride from Nakatsugawa Station.
Hundreds of years ago in the Edo period(1603-1867), there were mainly five roads ( called Gokaido) that were built to connect the old Capitol of Japan (KYOTO) to Nihonbashi (TOKYO). The most travelled road was the Tokaido road, which is still used commercially today. The longest and most tiring road was the Nakasendo road. It covered a distance of 534 Kms and had around 69 post towns along the route ( 26 of which are located in the Nagano Prefecture). The Nakasendo trail is a picturesque route which goes through the mountains and runs through our destination, The Kiso Valley.The locals still refer to this highway as the Kisoji. The post towns were resting stops for fatigued travelers in the past. Apparently the entire route would take several weeks to complete.
We cant go back in time, but if you want to see a glimpse of medieval Japan, then the Kiso Valley is where you'd want to go. Some sections of the Nakasendo remains mostly in its original form even today. The two most famous sections of the trail are located in the Kiso valley, the towns of Magome and Tsumago and the walking trail that connects them. If you want to experience what life was like in seventeenth century Japan and if you are interested in Japanese History or simply hiking in general, then you should definitely check out the Nakasendo!
Magome (in kanji 馬籠) is a beautifully preserved old town on a hillside overlooking the the forest and mountains, giving you an amazing view to start with. Restoration in Magome was done in the 90s to make the place feel brighter or perhaps more touristy is the word.
There is plenty to see in Magome such as museums like the Magome Honjin and Waki-honjin, a lot of sweet shops and local restaurants. The Honjin and Wakihonjin functioned as inns along the Nakasendo route, serving only high ranking, officials and their entourage. They later were transformed into museums to uphold the town's legacy.
After taking the historical tour, you can leisurely stroll among the houses and take in the landscape from the Magome Viewpoint which provides beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Nagano is famous for its famous soba noodles. So do visit the small shops and get something to eat before the hike ( trust me you will need it)
Also I would recommend not taking any food with you on the hike since the smell can allure animals.
The hiking road from Magome to Tsumago is about 7.7 Kms and will take a good 3 hours to finish if you want to take in the beauty of the trail. The route will take you past a lot of farms, fields, stone statues and waterfalls as well as many miles of dense forest. I would suggest wearing comfortable shoes ( hiking shoes are recommended if you have them) since you will have to do a lot of uphill hiking.
There is a confusion usually amongst people about which is the better place to start the hike from, Tsumago or Magome. I would suggest that you start the Hike from Magome because, although the first 2 kilometers are steep, once you pass the highest point, walking from there to Tsumago is a breeze.If you decide to hike from Tsumago, keep in mind that the walk is mostly uphill. Magome is the more popular route that people take, but you can choose it according to your preference.We decided to go with the easier route and started from Magome to Tsumago.
Signs are provided in both English and Japanese all throughout the route, so follow the signs to not get lost in the forest. If you are tired of walking you can take buses from mid point as well but keep in mind the timings of the bus ( no service is available after dusk).
I would recommend to take your time during the hike and really enjoy the wonderful experience. Walking through the towering bamboo groves makes the hike really worth it.
Along the way you will come across various signs warning you for bears and boars. Make sure to look out for bells and ring them in order to scare away any animals. Its best not to hike during the dusk and dawn since bears hunt and forage around those times.
Carry plenty of water and a bamboo stick if you are planning on exploring the trail in summer. Hiking in winter is not recommended since the ice can make the path dangerous and slippery.
Anyway back to the route, after a good 40-50 minutes you will reach the highest point of the trail and from then onwards it is mostly downhill but make sure to watch your step since it is a bit rugged. Last thing you want is to hurt yourself with bears around! The beautiful scenery and the ambience of trees lining either side really did make me feel like I went back to the Edo period for sometime. The whole experience made me appreciate the grit and bravery of travelers who ventured through the path during the Edo period.
Streets of Tsumago
After the beautiful hike you will reach Tsumago (妻籠 in kanji). Stepping into this town is like taking a trip back in time. It is worth spending a night at one of the local inns to fully appreciate the experience. Also you can take a night stroll among the enchanting traditional village with beautiful glowing lanterns. I felt that Tsumago is by far one of the best preserved towns in Japan and the whole aura will reflect the Edo period so beautifully that its surreal. People often tend to think that Kyoto is the place to go when one wants to experience Japans authenticity and roots, but towns like Tsumago will definitely give you a new perspective.
When compared to Magome I definitely found Tsumago to be the better post town. But it is also true that Tsumago is at a lower vantage point, which means it lacks Magome`s majestic mountain views.One should definitely check both of them out to experience their unique offerings.
For our journey, we wanted the whole experience, so we decided to stay at a family run inn (Minshuku )called Daikichi. We definitely recommend this place because the staff were very friendly and served fantastic food ( that included horse sashimi and grasshoppers). There are only 4 rooms so make sure to reserve. The location is right on the edge of the Tsumago village and comes with views surrounding fields and hills.
Next time you're in Japan and want to step off the beaten path, consider the Nakasendo trail. The place stands in stark contrast from Japan's hyper-crowded cities and gives you a look into a side of the country that travelers don't usually see.
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