The Nakasendo trail (中山道) is a beautiful hike in the Kiso Valley in Japan. Officially this road of the samurai was over 500 kilometers long, but fortunately for tourists there is a shortened version of 8 kilometers. It takes you past the traditional villages of Magome and Tsumago, along Japanese tea houses and the walk goes through a beautiful nature reserve. A unique experience in Japan!
Are you planning to walk this amazing Nakasendo Trail? In this travel guide I will first give you a short historical explanation of this trail. Then you can read more about the villages Magome and Tsumago and about the hike itself. Let’s go to the Kiso Valley…
What to do with your suitcase/backpack? If you don’t stay overnight, it is possible to ask the local tourist office if they will bring your suitcase/backpack to Tsumago. Of course for a fee (500 yen).
The history of the Nakasendo Trail
The Nakasendo trail (中山道) was one of the two official main roads between Tokyo and Kyoto at the time of the samurai in the Edo period (1603-1868). The road was more than 500 kilometers long in total and the route was mostly inland. It was also one of the best routes the Shoguns and samurai could walk to get to Tokyo or Kyoto. Especially since they did not have to cross any rivers. However, the main route remained the Tokaido, as you can see from the map.
In total there were 5 main roads, also called gokaido. Each main road consisted of a number of stopovers where the samurai could rest. The Nakasendo Trail consisted of 69 rest stops. The tourist walk described here is about loop between the town of Magome (stop 43) in Gifu Prefecture to Tsumago (stop 42) in Nagano Prefecture. Truly a beautiful walk although the weather during my walk was quite disappointing. But that could not spoil the fun.
The village of Magome – Beginning of the Nakasendo Trail
The Nakasendo Trail can be hiked from Magome to Tsumago or the other way around. Magome is a village of less than 1000 inhabitants. There is a friendly atmosphere, the houses are typical Japanese and you will find plenty of souvenir stores and nice restaurants. Still really traditional, right?
But appearances are deceiving. The village was completely restored a few decades ago, but fortunately it has not lost its typical Edo houses. There is generally one main street that it is nice to stroll through, before actually starting the walk.
While we don’t know much about the distant history of Magome, we do know a few things at the time of the Meiji restoration (1868). Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943) was born in Magome and is one of the most important writers of his time. He wrote the book Before the Dawn (1930), describing the pros and cons of the change in power from the Tokugawa to Emperor Meiji and the impact it had on Magome. The social and political changes were a slow and difficult process for the local people.
A number of small museums in the village are dedicated to Shimazaki Toson, including the Honjin/Toson Memorial Museum and the Wakihonjin Museum. Both are open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
The beautiful 8-kilometer hike
The Nakasendo Trail is a hike of about 3 hours. Although the trail goes up and down a little hill, it is not difficult and for many people it is doable. It brings you along some beautiful waterfalls and is a relaxing walk through the beautiful Japanese nature. You will also encounter a few houses and restaurants along the way. Do not forget to drink Japanese tea in one of these restaurants.
Although you will not encounter samurai here, there is danger lurking on the road! That’s why it’s important to ring the bell, as it makes a deterrent sound for wandering bears. Of course, the chances are slim that you will encounter one, but be prepared.
Tsumago – End point of the Nakasendo Trail for you…?
Upon arriving in Tsumago, you still have the idea that you are in traditional Japan during the time of the samurai. This is also what makes this area so unique. In 1968, Tsumago was restored with precision, so as not to give the idea that we are living in the modern era. Tsumago also has no more than 1,000 inhabitants, has some nice restaurants and stores and is pleasant to stroll through.
In addition, in Tsumago you can also visit the Honjin and Wakihonjin. These were a kind of hotels where officials and generals stayed and discussed their battle plan here. Both are open daily from 7 am to 7 pm. Also in Tsumago you will find the Kotoku Temple from 1500.
From Tsumago, it’s fairly easy to catch the bus to Nagiso and head for your next destination. Depending on how much time you have, it is of course also possible to spend the night in this traditional village….
Walk the Nakasendo Trail between Magome and Tsumago?
How to get to Magome?
Magome can be chosen as the best starting point for this hike. To get to Magome you have to take a bus from JR Nakatsugawa Station (JR Shinano Limited Express between Nagoya and Nagano) to Magome. It takes about 30 minutes and costs just over 500 yen. From Tsumago there is a bus to JR Nagiso Station which will take you back to Nagoya or Nagano.
If you want to do this walk from Tokyo then the most important thing is to go to Nagoya. From the Central Station take the JR Shinano Limited Express.
Finally: Most people walk the Nakesendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago. The other way around is of course also possible.
Do you have more tips, ideas or remarks about the Nakasendo Trail in the Kiso Valley in Japan? Feel free to leave a message below!