Photos by Nano Betts
Photos by Nano Betts

Hiking historic Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago in Kiso Valley

by Nano Betts
www.travelwithnanob.com

I’m in perpetual pursuit of rustic feels and shitamachi vibes of Japan. My soul is nourished by the sophisticated simplicity, local textures, shapes, and perfect imperfection of things around. For me, that’s the true face of this country – the old world meticulously camouflaged by the skyscrapers, neon billboards, vending machines, conveyor-belt sushi-yas, bullet trains and heated toilet seats.

Thankfully, Japan makes it very easy for you to escape the city clamor and transport yourself to not just a different setting, but a whole different era. And that’s exactly what I did the other weekend with my friend. Eager to uncover Japan’s hidden gems, we headed up to the mountains of Nagano Prefecture to visit the historic Post Towns of Magome and Tsumago in Kiso Valley.

As we boarded the early morning bus to Magome, I was giddy at the thought that I would soon be in Kiso Valley. I’ve been wanting to visit for so long, and finally, my big dream was about to come true. I was totally overcome by an excitement, a childlike wonder for the journey that was about to unfold.  It was also a beginning of our week-long travel around Japan which continued with stops in Kanazawa (another first for me) and my favorite Kyoto.

In five hours we arrived to the sleepy town of Magome nestled in the Japanese mountains, secured our bags in a cozy Japanese Inn, and set off for the famous Magome-Tsumago hike. We traipsed for three hours through the dense and lush forest to Tsumago-juku along the historic Nakasendo trail. This place really makes time travel possible.

For context, the Nakasendo (literally meaning a path through mountains) was a primary commerce route connecting Edo (old name of Tokyo) and Kyoto during the Edo Period. Like an artery weaving through the valley, Nakasendo played a major role in keeping Japan’s culture connected at a time that depended on it. Since the shogunate restricted use of transportation and forced the travelers to make their trips on foot, around 67 “post towns” were built every few kilometers to provide travelers with places to rest, eat, and sojourn after a long arduous journey. A few of these post towns have been meticulously preserved along the Kiso Valley and still welcome travelers. It certainly is one of the most atmospheric places among the traditional villages I have visited in Japan.

We ascended the mountain, twisting and turning through creeks, tall cedar trees and bamboo groves. Occasionally we’d pass other travelers, but for the most part, it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves. By the time we got to Tsumago, all major tourist buses had left and there was a hypnotizing serenity in the air. I enjoyed watching the shop owners slowly preparing to wraps things up and close for the day. Watching the slow life of the village and enjoying the soothing quietude of the place was nothing short of therapeutic.

Since we missed the last bus back to Magome, we caught a cab which brought us back just in time for dinner, served at 6 pm on the dot. That night, after a wholesome set meal featuring delicious local ingredients, farmed right around the village, we indulged in a steamy sento bath and tucked in our futon beds spread on tatami floors.

Next day, decked out in our yukatas, we headed out to enjoy the blissfully tranquil morning walk amidst Japanese rustic scenes. Not a single soul was out and the 7 am soft sunrays wrapped the village in a beautiful golden glow. Breakfast was served strictly at 7:30 am, and your plate was there whether or not you were.

 

We spent just a bit more time exploring Magome before heading back to Tokyo. Kiso Valley was everything I was looking for and then some. All the rustic Japanese vibes and having the entire village to ourselves was a pure perfection. The trip can probably be done in one long day from Matsumoto but I don’t regret for a second that we decided to spend the night. It gave us ample time to savor the destination and have it all to ourselves once the tourists deserted the town.

About Kiso Valley Hike:

The route is 8 kilometers long and the hike takes roughly three hours, depending on your pace. The Tourist Information Center gives directions and maps for you to hike the self-guided trail. It is moderately strenuous and winds through the forest the whole way. There are frequent signs so you will not get lost, just pay attention. There are toilets and, rarely, coffee stops/vending machines along the path when you hit certain tiny villages or roads. Wear comfortable shoes with good traction so that you don’t slip on occasional gravel. Beware of snakes and bears. Not as terrifying as it sounds, believe me. Most importantly, don’t forget to pick up “a certificate” at the beginning of your hike at local Tourist Information Center. They will put a stamp on it and then once you get to the other town, check in with their TIC to get a final stamp that will certify that you have completed the hike. It is a nice token that will remind you of this beautiful place.

 

How to get from Tokyo to Kiso Valley (Magone): 

You have an option to travel on a train, but it is expensive and involves multiple changes (here is the detailed guide to Kiso Valley Access by Japan Guide). We chose to hop on a direct bus going to Nagoya from Shinjuku Bus Terminal and get off at Chuodo-Magome Station. Here is a convenient English site for booking the bus tickets online. The ticket costs about ¥4000 one way as opposed to ¥12,000 by train. Once you get off at Chuodo-Magome station, you have to walk another 15-20 minutes to the Magome village itself. There are no taxis around so mind that while packing your luggage. You might also find this link of local Magome-Tsumago bus timetable helpful.

 

Kiso Valley Accommodation:

We stayed in the heart of Magome at a bit tired yet meticulously maintained Magome Chaya Inn. The service was outstanding and both meals were very tasty. It was a complete steal for the price we paid (around $90 for one night including two meals). I booked it via booking.com and staff speaks English. There are a lot of lunch (and coffee!) options in both Magome and Tsumago, but everything closes at 5 pm. So I highly recommend booking accommodation with full-board or requesting meals after you book a room, that’s what we did. Tsumago also has a lot of ryokans which can be easily booked via booking.com.

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