Hiking in Japan – The Nakasendo Trail

Before Tokyo was the political centre of Japan and bullet trains and roads connected every town, paddy field and port, there was a walking trail that linked up the early Japanese empire.

Beginning at Kyoto and ending in Edo, (what Tokyo was called before it was Tokyo) this 530 km route connected 69 post towns through 67 stages. It was an important route for officials in the Edo Period, as well as samurai, commoners and merchants.

Today, the ancient route has more or less vanished under the waves of development in the time since the route went from a vital thoroughfare to historical artefact. Few sections remain that retain the original flavour, with this being the section preserved most keenly, largely for the sake of us visitors. That needn’t detract from your experience of the walk though.

See how you can walk a short section of the Nakasendo trail.

A signpost reading Magome and Tsumgao
Which way are you headed (head right for Tokyo, left for Kyoto)

Essential information

  • Time of hike: 2-2.5 hours (Magome-Tsumago) Longer in opposite direction (more uphill). Allow an extra hour to reach Nagiso station on foot.
  • Terrain: Gentle gradients along forest paths, paved paths and asphalt roads.
  • Travel: Take the Shinano line JR train from Nagoya (west end) or Matsumoto/Shiojiri (east end) to Nakatsugawa (for Magome) or Nagiso (Tsumago). From there, buses lead you to the trailheads (though they’re not very regular so time your arrival carefully).

The train is covered by the JR pass while the bus isn’t. Search Hyper Dia for train times. A single bus ticket costs 560 yen (Magome) and 300 yen (Tsumago). The Tsumago leg is walkable in an hour. More information here.

  • Accommodation: We did as a day hike, waking up in Kyoto and falling asleep in Kamikochi. However, there was one good looking campsite that we had planned to stay at if our plan fell through.

The araragi campground has tents and cabins to hire as well as pitches for your own. It’s a little walk away from the nearest bus stop, as described in this Trip Advisor account. Make sure you download (and print) the 10% token on the website (here).

  • Supplies available from Magome as well as a couple of grocery stores in Nakatsugawa. No need to stock up in advance (as we did) as there’s even a gentrified coffee shop within a minute of starting the trail!
  • Leave your bags at the tourist information in Magome by 11 am and they’ll be in Tsumago around 1 pm. We hiked with ours because of time, but it’s a nice option if you’ve time on your side and fancy a bagless stroll along this route.

Description of the hike

The hike itself is a straightforward one, signposted very well along the whole route. There are sections that are on forest paths, a few along sections of road or pavement and some lovely sections through paths paved with loose stones (think a Japanese equivalent of cobblestones).

A wooden sign in front of a mountain
A traditional sign near the start of the trail (from Magome)

From Magome, you climb upwards on a typically gentle gradient for around 30-45 minutes. You pass through the idyllic (if tourist-focussed) post town of Magome to begin (the bus drops you off 30 m from the trailhead next to a public toilet). The route here is mainly the paved cobblestone path which, I imagine, was typical of the routes through the numerous post towns en route.

After brief sections of forest and at least one rest stop (equipped with wifi!) you come to a short section of road that takes you over the pass and begins the long, easy descent towards Tsumago. Around halfway (it’s actually nearer Magome but probably halfway in time) there’s a beautiful old building.

Decked out as a traditional farmers house, it is a large wooden house, half of which inside is raised (no shoes) and the other half stone and tables to eat at. The host invited us in to enjoy the fire pit and some tea, but we declined as we wanted to try and make good progress and didn’t feel ready for a break just yet.

A stone path through a forest
A section of the idyllic hiking trail

Eventually, the downhill path takes you to walk beside a river. This becomes your companion all the way to Tsumago and the majority of the route is a forest path. After the tourist flavour of Magome (a diluted version of Kyoto and not badly done), the serenity we found along much of this trail was a welcome breath of fresh forest air.

Crossing onto more roads and a wide, uninspiring bridge, you pass the final section into Tsumago. This town has less of a tourist flavour, though wasn’t entirely devoid of shops. It also contains some beautiful buildings, some of which are hundreds of years old.

Stone pillars in forest
A trail-side shrine (and perhaps graveyard)

Along the route, keep an eye out for old notice boards by the side of the path and small shrines in the forest. There is also a story of two trees that became one near Tsumago, which is an entertaining tale. These elements really bring a sense of the traditional function of the route and I was glad they had been retained.

All in all a very enjoyable and easy walk. It was a good break between the mountains and gave us a different flavour of Japan in a few short hours.

More about the Nakasendo trail

The Nakasendo Trail was an important route for the officials of the Edo Period as they brought together the Japanese empire.

Along the length of the Nakasendo Trail were 69 post towns. These post towns were official calling points for the officials, daimyo and samurai who used the route. Their role initially focussed on policing the route.

Yet as the numbers of merchants, leisure travellers, commoners and pilgrims grew, many post towns had to adapt and became more commercially orientated as the Edo period progressed. Beast of burden, accommodation and food all became services offered, though the ‘official’ travellers were always given preference.

Read more about post towns and the Nakasendo Trail.

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