The Nakasendo trail is considered one of the most important trails in Japan. The trail was established during the Edo period (1603-1867) and connects post towns from Kyoto to Tokyo.
In ancient times, this road was frequented by government officials, warlords, and Samurai.
As one might expect, the trail’s length of 534 kilometers (332 miles) makes it prohibitive to most hikers. However, because it is divided into 69 section, hikers with limited time have many options to choose from. One lovely spring weekend, a friend and I decided to hike the section from Magome to Tsumago.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Alps are extraordinarily popular with Europeans. Indeed, we came across a number of hikers speaking German, Italian, and Spanish. The only occasional English we heard was British-accented.
While it takes planning and effort to get to this part of Japan, it is well worth the time: hiking the Nakasendo is an unforgettable experience.
Nakasendo’s Wide-Ranging Scenery
There are many similarities between the Japanese Alps and Europe’s alpine regions. The air is fresh and crisp, the mountains are magnificent, and the rivers are cool and crystal clear.
What makes the Nakasendo so exciting is the chance to see the kind of flora and fauna native to Japan. The route weaves through bamboo forests, alongside waterfalls, and past rice field terraces.
We got to see the famed Kiso Valley cypress trees, which are considered especially precious and are used in the construction of shrines. We had ample opportunity to admire the gorgeous Edo-era architecture and roofs as we passed through rural villages.
Happily, we got to see scenes from rural life: of farmers caring for their crops, of villagers tending to weathered shrines and cemeteries.
What DON’T you see? High-rise buildings, malls, fast food chains, and flashy colors and lights. A trip along the Nakasendo is for the person looking to go into nature, contemplate history, and imagine what life would have been like in ancient Japan.
Nakatsugawa to Magome Juko
Our journey began at Nakatsugawa, a wonderfully preserved town accessible by the JR line. We spent the night at a clean, comfortable hotel a five minute walk from the train station.
The following morning we set off. The initial portion briefly travels through the city and involves several short, steep hills.
It may have been because it was a Sunday morning, but we came across NO foreigners during the 10 kilometers (6 miles) between Nakatsugawa and Magome.
The locals along the Nakasendo are incredibly friendly. In addition, they appear to be in phenomenal shape. As is the case in mountainous regions, it is not uncommon for Japanese in their 70s and 80s to breeze past hikers half their age. Indeed, en route to Magome Juko we got passed by a couple in their 80s. Since they clearly knew the area, we followed them and were touched when they paused at a junction. They did not appear the least bit fatigued – they simply were going to take a different path and wanted to ensure we got on the correct route. They smiled, bowed, and pointed at the path.
How’s that for kindness?
Magome Juko to Tsumago
The 8 kilometer (4.8 mile) hike from Magome to Tsumago is the most popular portion of the Nakasendo trail. Given how beautifully preserved the two towns are, this makes sense.
Amusingly, it was not until a few hundred yards before reaching Magome that we first saw tourists…emerging out of buses.
Because the town is set on a steep hill, buses are only capable of dropping off visitors at the base of the town. The rest must be navigated by tourists on foot. It is not an area suitable for wheelchairs or strollers, and all infants we saw were carried. Magome is so steep, in fact, that those who brought wheeled luggage for an overnight stay stared in dismay.
All of this only adds to Magome’s allure. It is the very lack of easy access that makes you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.
Many charming Edo-era shops line either side of a narrow street. If you are looking for a unique souvenir, this particular region of Japan is celebrated for its woodcraft, handicrafts, and straw products. I also strongly recommend gorging yourself on something equally as meaningful…the food.
Must-Try Regional Specialties
Oyaki are steamed buns of buckwheat flour with succulent fillings: pumpkin, walnut, red bean, eggplant, radish, meat, and vegetables. At only ¥200, they are a filling and absolutely scrumptious treat.
Another local specialty are yomogidango, which are dumplings made from rice flour and mugwort, served in tiny balls on a stick.
For lunch, we stopped for a meal of fresh river trout, rice with chestnut, soup, Japanese tea, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, and a small citrus dessert. The price for this feast came to a bargain ¥1900 ($14.22). I’m not certain what technique they used, but the trout was so soft and flavorful that we were able to consume the entire fish, from head to fin…including the bones. Delicious!
It that’s not your thing, then opt for soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat and are also native to the region.
There is so much food to try. In order to enjoy it, hike and work up an appetite!
Tsumago to Nagiso Station
While you can choose whether to hike from Magome to Tsumago or vice versa, the major advantage to beginning at Magome is that you start at a higher elevation and descend.
Compared to Magome, the terrain around Tsumago is flatter, the street is broader, and it is more accommodating for beginner walkers, or for those whose mobility is limited. A word of caution: with the exception of the traditional inns, the town shuts down at 4 p.m. We had initially hoped to stay in Tsumago, but every inn was fully booked.
Knowing that there would be limited options after we departed Tsumago, we stopped inside a 300 year old house for a snack of Kuri-kinton (a chestnut sweet) and a lovely cup of matcha tea.
The distance from Tsumago to Nagiso is 4.1 kilometers (2.4 miles) and is an easy, pleasant walk on uncrowded roads. Outside the train station, we stopped to visit one of the town’s star attractions: Momosuke Bridge. With a length of 247 meters, Momosuke Bridge is the longest wooden suspension bridge in Japan.
When I first saw the bridge, I was impressed but a little confused. Why was the bridge placed at the widest section of the river, when it would have been more convenient and less expensive to build a bridge at a narrower point? I laughed at the answer: the bridge was built because Momosuke wanted Japan’s longest bridge. He built it because he could.
Peach Blossoms vs. Cherry Blossoms
There is so much beauty along the trail. One of my favorite surprises was seeing peach trees in bloom. I’ve never seen a flowering peach tree before.
Japan’s cherry blossoms tend to steal the show. The blossoms are so revered that no fewer than three Japanese apologized that peak cherry blossoms season had passed the week before. My friend and I still came across several cherry trees and got caught in three delightful cherry blossom ‘blizzards’. There’s nothing like thousands of pale pink petals swirling about to evoke a childlike feeling of wonder.
As beautiful as the cherry blossoms were, these PEACH tree blossoms left me truly stunned.
Three distinct shades of pink burst out of a single tree. If you’ve never seen a peach tree in bloom, head to Nakasendo in April. Their beauty and vibrancy is nothing short of extraordinary.
Watch Out For Bears
We came across multiple stationary bear bells along the trail. Many hikers were perplexed by the bells and paused to read the signage, which urges hikers to strike the bell and alert bears to their presence. I know of no other country that uses this system.
Although some may think it gimmicky, the Japanese hikers take the practice seriously and are meticulous about striking the bells as they pass.
Surprisingly, there are many hikes in Japan that involve bear warnings.
My friend casually mentioned the day before our hike that there had been an uptick in bear attacks in Northern Japan.
Just to be extra cautious, I purchased a bell for ¥660 ($4.93). (If you are staying in Magome, the tourist information center will loan you a bell.)
Nakasendo’s Many Surfaces
Walking sticks are not necessary, comfortable footwear with strong tread definitely is. The ancient path includes uneven cobblestones covered by moss. While it is visually gorgeous, it can make walking challenging, particularly after a storm. Near the waterfalls, expect to encounter some slick and muddy sections.
The forest also has areas that are prone to landslides. En route to Tsumago, we had to take a 200 meter detour after seeing signs that the traditional route had been secured for safety.
There are small sections of the trail that involve road crossings. However, there was minimal vehicular traffic and it never presented any issue.
One of my favorite surprises is that the Nakasendo path from Nakatsugawa to Magome is flecked with yellow. Departing Magome, the flecks change to a pale pink so subtle we initially thought the asphalt was strewn with cherry blossoms.
As you can tell from the photos, the route could not be more obvious. 🙂
Whether you leave from Yokosuka or Tokyo, the most efficient way to get to the Nakasendo Trail using public transportation is to take the Shinkansen to Nagoya. From there, take a local train to either Nagiso or Nakatsugawa.
While the least arduous way to get to Magome is to take a tourist bus, I am a fierce believer that the BEST way to properly appreciate the town is to walk.
The overwhelming majority of foreigners on the trail were clearly day hikers – they carried no packs. However, you are hiking from town to town, you will definitely want to pack water and snacks.
If You Go
Be cautious about using Google Maps. The most efficient and direct route may not necessarily be the ‘old’ Nakasendo trail. Generally, the original route was very well marked, with ample signage.
Because the towns are so quaint, the traditional Japanese inns book quickly. If you hope to stay in Magome or Tsumago, make certain to book your stay well in advance. Also, to avoid going hungry, be certain to check the hours of restaurants, as many close before dinner. Nagiso and Nakatsugawa have convenience stores, but food options outside of these towns may otherwise be scarce.
The journey from Nagiso to Nagoya takes one hour by express bus. If you have plenty of time and are looking to economize, the local train takes two hours and is a fraction of the cost.
Here’s wishing you a safe and happy adventure!