Apples and dried potatoes had been carefully arranged on porches, along with collection jars and handwritten price signs; water mills chugged in steady circles outside rustic wooden houses; the only sound was the occasionally ringing of bear bells that had been placed periodically along the trail.
To really understand a place, I think it’s so important to explore its urban, as well as its rural side. The Nakasendo trail in Japan’s Kiso Valley was the perfect place to explore the Japanese countryside. This quiet trail couldn’t be in greater contrast to the urgency of Tokyo or the grandeur of Kyoto.
During Japan’s Edo period, the full Nakasendo trail was one of two trails that connected Kyoto and Tokyo. Hundreds of years ago, the Nakasendo trail was a busy route with everyone, from samurai to merchants, making the multi-day journey by foot or horseback. We hiked a well-preserved section of the route, which runs between the towns of Magome and Tsumago. These towns were ancient juku, or post towns, where travelers could rest for the night, taking a short break from their long journey.
If you’re die-hard about getting off the beaten path, then you might think Magome and Tsumago are a little tourist-y. However, both small towns are beautifully restored and Tsumago, in particular, works to maintain its old-world atmosphere by prohibiting cars on the main street, and concealing electrical cables and wires.
While many tourists visit Magome and Tsumago, the trail between the two towns felt quite isolated. Starting in Magome, it’s about an 8km walk along a rugged path to Tsumago. This portion of the ancient Nakasendo trail takes roughly 2-3 hours to walk (or 4 hours if you’re stopping for frequent photos like we were), and is well-marked with signs in English and Japanese.
The route winds through the mountains, taking you into bamboo forests, along rivers, and past tiny, 5-house villages. We actively slowed our pace because this walk is a definite example of the experience being all about the journey itself, rather than the goal of reaching the destination.
Just before reaching Tsumago, we stopped at a small restaurant, where the grilled fish came straight from a local fish farm down the street, and the soba noodles were hand-made and served with assorted mountain vegetables.
It’s possible to spend the night in either Magome or Tsumago, but the accommodation options are limited to a handful of expensive traditional Japanese inns. Plus, both places basically become ghost towns after 5pm. It’s easy, and far more budget-friendly, to walk the trail as a day-trip from Nagoya.
Once you reach Tsumago, you can either walk back the way you came along the trail, or catch a quick 20 min. bus back to Magome.
What do you think? Does the Japanese countryside intrigue you as much as the big cities?