Nakasendo: A Walk through Kiso Valley (Magome-Tsumago)
Japan is not a big country, but we have many things. Mountains, forests, waterfalls…
Many foreigners do not expect Japan to be so mountainous, but in fact, 80% of the territory is mountains. Nakasendo literally means central mountain road, and it was one of the five national highways; one of the two that linked Tokyo to Kyoto during the Edo period. While the Tokaido connected Kyoto to Tokyo along the Pacific coast, the Nakasendo ran inland through the mountains. It was a 540km route, along which in the past were situated with 69 post towns.
My trip to Nakasendo started from Tokyo, where I took the shinkansen to Nagoya, followed by an express train to Nakatsugawa. I met a friend at Nakatsugawa station; we jumped on a bus to our hotel and left our baggage there, before starting to walk the Nakasendo trail between Magome and Tsumago. The local buses in the area are very infrequent, especially the line between Magome and Tsumago which runs only 4 times a day. Therefore, it is paramount to check the bus timetable in advance, when planning your itinerary. There is a tourist information centre at the station, and you can get some maps and leave the luggage there; but please remember that they close at 16:00.
We took a taxi, and in only 8 minutes we arrived at Magome-juku. It was a rainy day and not ideal for hiking; but actually, the rain did match the atmosphere of the townscape of Magome-juku. We enjoyed taking pictures of the iconic symbol of the town, the watermill, and ate the local traditional soba buckwheat noodles - very tasty and healthy!
The trail between Magome and Tsumago, two well-preserved old towns of the former Nakasendo, is about 8km long and takes around 2-3 hours on foot. According to the hotel staff, walking from Magome to Tsumago involves slightly fewer uphill sections than walking in the opposite direction. With such a good insider tip, it was a no-brainer for us to decide where we would be starting from. It would be from Magome, of course! Most of the hikers engage in the full route from Magome-juku; but not fully trusting our stamina, we decided to go for the shorter one. It starts from Magome Toge, it is only 5.3km long and takes around 1.5 hours on foot.
After a 10 minutes journey on the bus from Magome-juku, we arrived at Magome Toge Pass.
It is the highest point of the trail and the border between Gifu and Nagano prefectures. In other words, from this point to Tsumago, it is entirely downhill! We crossed the border, stepped into Nagano prefecture, and started hiking into the forest. Although it was still raining, and the path was muddy, we enjoyed walking through an area with many hinoki trees (Japanese Cypress), breathing plenty of fresh air.
By the way, we never came across any Japanese tourists but only some foreign hikers on the trails, and they walked so fast! I heard that in ancient times Japanese people walked very fast and they averaged about 30km a day carrying 25-30kg of heavy loads. They used to depart around 4a.m. in the morning and walked until 3p.m.; then prepared for the next day. They must have been excellent walkers! I admired them very much, especially when I started to realize that my legs were already tired before arriving in Tsumago!
After about 40 minutes on the trail, we saw a sign that pointed to Odaki (male waterfall) and Medaki (female waterfall). As they are off the walking trail, we did not go near the waterfalls; but we took pictures of the Odaki waterfall from a distance. It was totally full of water and so impressive to watch!
We finally arrived at Tsumago-juku, and it felt like stepping out of a time machine! The old town looks like a film set. I was so impressed! Back in the '60s, Tsumago was in danger of vanishing, and a group of local citizens stepped forward to save the town. They removed corrugated metal sheeting and advertising boards to recover the lost landscape. They reverted to the traditional scenery by getting rid of all the things that did not exist before, and by not allowing concrete buildings.
We were also lucky to visit an exhibition of more than 1,000 Hina dolls at fureaikan (the local free resting area of the town).
At a traditional tea house, we treated ourselves to goheimochi. It is a toasted rice ball with walnut, sesame, and soy sauce. We enjoyed the day to the fullest and went back to the hotel by bus. The tasty Japanese cuisine and the hot springs at the hotel took away the fatigue of hiking.
The next day was a complete change from the day before. The weather was beautiful! We spent the morning at Magome-juku, went up the steep hill, passed the old watermill, and headed up the main street of the town. There are plenty of shops selling local products such as fresh bamboo shoots, sake, local crafts, and souvenirs.
A short walk up the main street, and you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Central Alps. It is an open area at the top of the hill, and the starting point of the full trail towards Tsumago.
Before leaving the town, we did not forget to taste the local specialty, oyaki. It is a stuffed dumpling made from a fermented buckwheat dough. We had a nozawana oyaki (savory buns filled with pickled greens) and anko oyaki (buns filled with sweet azuki bean paste). They tasted delicious!
We admired the breathtaking view of the mountain range on the way to Nagiso station, where our short trip to Nakasendo ended. If you are tired of modern life, you can come here, lose yourself in the beauty of nature and forget about your busy life. It is also a great way to experience old Japan!