Experience: Walking the Nakasendo

On any action-packed itinerary of Japan’s megacities, one of the best things you can do to escape the crowds is to take a walk in the woods. One of my favorite rambles just happens to have a bit of history to it as well …

Before Japan was crisscrossed by the shinkansen (bullet train), travel around the country was accomplished via a series of post-roads. Begun as forested walking trails, these arteries blossomed under the Tokugawa Shogunate (the military government that ruled from 1603-1868) when travel was strictly controlled and all travelers – samurai, priests, pilgrims and merchants – were funneled along the same routes.

The old post town of Tsumago

The best-known, and the most heavily traveled, was the Tokaido Road, whch ran along the Pacific Coast and linked ancient Kyoto to the shogun’s city, Edo (now Tokyo). The route is mostly obliterated now, replaced instead by high-speed train tracks. But follow the traces of history into border region of Nagano and Gifu prefectures and you’ll find the Nakasendo Way – the alternate mountain route between the two cities – looking nearly the same as in the age of the samurai.

A walk on the Nakasendo Way, or the Old Kiso Post Road, is a great afternoon ramble through Japanese history. The most traveled section is an 8 kilometer (5 mile) stretch between the towns of Magome and Tsumago, but even on the spring morning I walked the trail, there were no more than a handful of people.

The old post town of Magome

From Magome – a town that bears a bit of exploration pre-hike due to its beautifully restored buildings – the trail climbs steadily into the hills. For the most part, you walk on pavement or dirt. Occasionally, you’ll have to pick your way over cobblestones. At the apex of the walk, the views over the valley are worth a linger. But if sweeping vistas aren’t your thing, head downhill towards Tsumago through quiet forests sprinkled with wildflowers. You’ll follow a stream for a bit and pass a few hamlets before the trail flattens out on the approach to Tsumago. On the March day I hiked the trail, I met barely ten people and had the woods to myself. What a gift in a country that’s known for its fast pace!

While the trail is easily hiked in a few hours, the hassle of getting to this rural region should encourage you to spend the night. There aren’t many diversions (no karaoke joints here!) so bring a good book or enjoy the peace and quiet. There are ryokan (Japanese inns) in either town. I have heard good reviews on many of them, but I’m partial to the Fujioto in Tsumago. I stayed here with a group of friends, none of whom spoke Japanese. The staff was incredibly welcoming and during our multi-course dinner, the owner’s daughter took the time to explain each course to us in nearly flawless English. The baths are a bit small and the hallways cold as you trudge to the bathroom at night (no ensuite), but our view over their Japanese garden in the morning was sublime.

The garden of the Fujioto Ryokan

Want to experience the Nakasendo Way for yourself? I’d be happy help you plan the perfect escape – check out the Uncover Japan website for more details on my personalized itineraries!

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