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!
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!
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.