Hiking the Kiso Valley

Right in the centre of Japan is a very old highway spanning over 500km: Nakasendo. Between bustling villages, the road winds through misty woodlands, farmlands and valleys full of mossy rocks and waterfalls.

Nakasendo used to serve as the main road connecting Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), samurai, government officials, peasants and pilgrims would frequent this route. There were 69 post towns between the two cities – 11 of these in the Kiso Valley. Many of the towns no longer exist, but since WWII a number have been restored to their original state as part of a preservation project. There are many sightseeing/hiking spots, and it’s common to drive the length of the road making pit stops at certain places along the way. My friend and I decided to do an 8 kilometre hiking trail that stretches from Tsumago in Nagano prefecture to Magome in Gifu prefecture. It was a completely spontaneous decision to go but it turned out to be one of my favourite trails in Japan!

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To hike this part of Nakasendo, you can start at either Tsumago or Magome. Although we started at Tsumago, I believe most people start at Magome because it has easier access from the train station. That, and it has more downhill sections so is a bit easier!

Walking down the streets of Tsumago, you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal. Everything from the traditional wooden buildings to the lamp posts to the street signs, are a reminder of how things used to be. In restoring this town, they went as far as concealing all electricity wires, TVs and satellite dishes. And although the town looks like an open-air museum, the buildings are actually fully functional. Some are used as inns, souvenir shops and cafés!

Kiso Valley Kiso Valley

After soaking up all that history in Tsumago, it was time to hit the road. Once we passed through the township, we followed a road over the river and towards the forest. The scene changed dramatically once we were outside of the tourist area. The shops disappeared and were quickly replaced by agricultural fields and quaint country houses.

We noticed a few bells along the way. At first I thought they might have been like a shrine where you ring the bell and say a prayer. But actually the sign below them said to ring the bell to scare off bears! I wonder how often a bear is sighted here?! After the bear bell, we came across a rest stop manned by a really nice old guy. We had a chat with him and he gave us some delicious warm soup from this very traditional fire place which you see in old houses. At the Nagano/Gifu border, we stopped at another rest house to try escape the rain that was pouring down. I bought a few sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves. I’m not the biggest fan of mochi, but I loved how they were presented! I bet travellers back in the Edo period would eat this to give them energy, too.

I imagine this road was once a lively, busy place. There are actually a few famous ukiyo prints that depict farmers herding their ox along the path, or peasants balancing woven baskets on a rod over their shoulders as they make their way between the towns.

But now, it’s a very different story. There are many sections of the trail where you literally feel like you’re the only person in the world (apart from your hiking partner). The woods are so peaceful; all you can hear are birds chirping, trees rustling in the winds, streams bubbling, and the occasional waterfall. The trail twists and turns through the valley. While some parts were steep and slippery in the wet weather, most of the trail was either gravel, bitumen, concrete, grasslands or forest floors.

It was a very do-able and well-marked hike and took us about 3 1/2 hours with a few rest stops due to the rain. The thing I loved most was how the trail passes through so many different types of landscape, rather than just going up and down a mountain. The scenery was always changing, but always beautiful!

Even though the weather wasn’t great, we did see a few other hikers every now and then. The ‘hiking spirit’ in Japan always makes me smile. In the city, nobody pays any attention to anyone else, but as soon as you hit the countryside, we all magically change and greet each other with こんにちは (hello) and sometimes even a 頑張って! (keep going!) during more difficult parts of the trail.

Kiso Valley

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18 thoughts on “Hiking the Kiso Valley

  1. This is a wonderful post Celia. I can see a bit of the mountains that you like to hike through. I love your description of the quieter sections of the trail. It was very calming and peaceful reading it, and such wonderful pictures. :)

    It is great to see the preservation project on many of these towns. The buildings are like stepping back in time! :)

    Thank you for sharing! :)
    ~Carl~

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    • Thanks Carl! I loved the old towns. It was a fun but peaceful hike through the valley and I’d love to do it again – or other parts of Nakasendo. I think there are half a dozen or so trails.
      Thanks for reading :-)

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  2. Hi Celia,
    it looks like your spontaneous decision resulted in a memorable day. Do you know more about the stacked stones in your second last pic? I used to see these when walking in Japan and have always wondered if there is a story behind the practice or if it is just a fun thing to do. Love your pic of the old traditional fireplace – the heart of the home.
    John

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    • Thanks John! :-) I’ve heard a few different theories behind those stone piles. One is that if you can add a stone without making it topple over, then your prayers will be answered by the spirits (basically, it’s good luck). Another is that they symbolise well-wishes for hikers or travellers. And another is that they’re like a comforting message to passers-by letting them know they’re not alone. I’m also fascinated by them too!

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  3. In Kyushu, we have an old highway called the Nagasaki Kaido, which is about 228km long and runs between Kokura and Nagasaki. During the Edo era, Nagasaki was chosen as the only trading port with the Netherlands and China because of the government’s policy of seclusion. Foreign cultures, civilisation, even exotic birds and beasts went to Edo along the Nagasaki Kaido. Also many young and brave men like Sakamoto Ryoma trod this road to gain the Western knowledge and technology in Nagasaki. Therefore, it is said that the Nagasaki Kaido led Japan to the dawn of civilisation and enlightenment. Undoubtedly there must have been a lot of places just like Tsumago and Magome, forests and farm lands with beautiful scenery on the Nagasaki Kaido as well, however, we have lost them all. Therefore, it is so wonderful for me to see the pictures of the restored towns along Nakasendo to get some ideas of what the life of the Edo era was. It must have been so good to have the delicious warm soup, sitting by the fire place at the old rest house and watching the heavy rain outside. I guess that you felt just like a traveller of the Edo period, wearing a kimono.

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    • I hadn’t heard of the Nagasaki Kaido! Very interesting, but a shame they didn’t think to preserve any part of it as the country modernised. I’m sure it must have been just as picturesque as Nakasendo. Perhaps Sakamoto also travelled to Edo through Magome and Tsumago! It’s crazy to think about all the people who have walked on that same path over the past few hundred years.

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  4. It looks and sounds like you had a great day. I loved the post. The idea that they hid the wires and satellite dishes is amazing. I wish more places in Japan could do this. It really has that old time feel. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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    • Thanks Anthony! Yeah, I think going as far as hiding any sign of modernism shows how important the restoration was for the local residents who initiated the project. It’s great to see people care so much about their past and keeping their history alive!

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  5. Dear Celia, you know how I like your blog and your pictures, but I love this post especially, because it throw me back to one of the best moments during my Japan trip last year! I did this 8 kilometers hiking from Magome to Tsumago. It was really memorable, one of the best experiences I had in Japan. I did it at the beginning of April, the weather was gorgeous and some cherry trees were blossoming! I met a very few people along the trail and no bears at all! I loved both Magome, with its fantastic view just at the top of the village, and Tsumago, where you feel like in another century. I slept in a ryokan where I had a great welcome and felt like at home. I can’t forget the delicious dinner and breakfast I had at that place, one of the best meals I had in Japan. If I go back to Japan, I wouldn’t hesitate to do this hiking again! So, thank you for sharing your experience at Nakasendo! :-)

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    • So glad this post brought back great memories of your trip there, Bruno!! Hiking during the cherry blossom season must have been amazing! Staying in a ryokan is the best way to experience traditional Japanese home life, and it sounds like you really enjoyed it, too. With the ryokan as well as seeing the old towns, you must have really felt like you’d travelled back in time!

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  6. Celia, it is a lovely post…the way you have touched on every aspects of the travel, observing and analyzing nuances of the nature and nitty-gritty of the man-made changes. With such a long history behind the place, it is always tempting and teases one pause a little more at each place and get to know something which others would have missed to take a look at, it’s only with spending quality time and closely chatting with the locals makes them reveal to us new facets of the place and make us realize the significance of history attached to each such geographical locations.

    The pictures that you have captured are amazing and the second and the third picture along the road and the huts and house alongside is so beautiful and takes you back into the history and presses you to stay back and absorb into the basket of history and nostalgia.

    Happy Hiking and Great exploring through such journeys and yes, a quick decisions on travel is always advisable, that’s how unplanned travels throws to us so many pleasant surprises…

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    • Thanks for your wonderful comment, Nihar. Yes, I think chatting to locals or tour guides is often more beneficial than people realise. You can learn many things about a place that you wouldn’t necessarily know just by being there. The old man we talked to was a volunteer and seemed to enjoyed sharing his knowledge with us, especially since we were not Japanese. :-)

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