Nakasendo. The whole hiking trail involves over 500 kilometers. About 300 miles of Edo-era post road connecting Kyoto with Edo (now Tokyo). All in all, there are 69 post towns, some very well-preserved or restored. Imagine them feudal lords, samurais and even nobility walking these “official highways” long before the advent of railways and locomotives. The best-marked trail and best-preserved or restored post towns are Magome, Tsumago and Narai. Between Magome and Tsumago is a 7.7 kilometer hike up and down a path meandering across bamboo, pine and maple forests. It’s hard to escape the sound of flowing water, stronger at some parts. And one is regularly reminded that bears lurk in these forests with bells to ring to shoo away these shaggy-haired four-legged resident animals who can stand on 2 feet.
We took the 2-hour Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya, then the slower one-hour train from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa where some chose to start the hike. Luggage transfers can be arranged through the JR Tourist Information Office right beside the Nakatsugawa Train Station. This means you can arrange for your bags to be delivered to the JR Tourist Info Office in Magome or in Tsumago (wherever you plan to end your hike) or directly to your ryokan or minshuku in either post town if you’re staying a night. In our case, we brought our big bags with us because we arrived late and the JR Office is already closed. Thankfully, there are taxis 24-hours in Nakatsugawa Train Station. A bus to Magome takes 30 minutes but we were not up to it, tired and all. Besides, the taxi fare only cost us under ¥4,000. Not bad.
Just a few meters uphill from the start of the Magome-Tsumago Trail is a viewpoint where Mt. Ena stands majestic. You may think it’s too soon to catch your breath but do stop and savor the landscape. Besides, it would be uphill for a few hundred meters from here through a winding path. I came here even before I started my hike. In fact a good hour before my 7:30 a.m. breakfast at Magome Chaya. I intended to see the sunrise but was a few minutes late. There I met this old man – a local – whom I asked to take my photo. He couldn’t figure out my iPhone cam so I said it was ok. But it wasn’t. He persisted to learn how to snap a photo…. and ended up taking 35 photos of moí. I didn’t have the heart to stop him. Hilarious how we never spoke a word the other would understand, but spent some 5 minutes delighting in our encounter. At some point, I felt he wanted to take me home and share breakfast with him. Ha Ha Ha 😂
There were hardly any other pilgrims or hikers. And the ones we met were mostly locals eager to experience Japanese rural life. Must be city folks, who delighted in the rustic vibe, the local food, and asked many questions from the locals. We also met some European pairs who walked in reverse — from Tsumago to Magome. The lovely thing about this trail is both Magome and Tsumago are so charming with their Edo-period two-storey wooden houses, some of which have been converted to traditional lodgings called ryokans or minshukus.
If you’re hiking, make it a point to stay at least a night. The touristy post towns are nearly deserted at night, devoid even of noise, that one feels being transported in time. When I woke up real early the next morn and looked out the window from our room, there was not a soul in sight for a good half hour. I have to warn you though that these modest lodgings only have tatami mats, futons and shared bath facilities from the hot springs. Dinner is served at 6pm and they serve only what they have, there are no choices. So if you have diet issues, better bring your own food and be self-sufficient. Breakfast is at 7:30am, no earlier. The meals are simple Japanese food, which in my book is good. Salmon, miso soup, rice and tamago (egg) for breakfast? I’m not complaining. If you want coffee rather than the house tea, you get drip coffee for an additional charge.
We spotted a number of water mills, farm scenes and too many “bear” reminders. 😬 We paid heed and rang the bells as loudly as we could. But one thing I’ve got to say — this trail is so well-marked one needs no maps or compass. Every so often, the path is marked in terms of distance from either Magome or Tsumago. There’s even a Free Rest Area and a midway tea house! Ever so polite and considerate, the Japanese are making this Nakasendo Trail a truly safe, comfortable and memorable adventure.
Love this trail. You would too. Despite some discomfort. Well, there’s always a trade-off. The uphill climbs are leg muscle killers. But then again, it’s only 7.7 kilometers. Some 2.5 to 3 hours walking. Another 4 kilometers if you’re walking from Tsumago to Nagiso where you can catch a train back to the nearby Nakatsugawa Train Station to pick up your bags. (Yes, we dropped in on the JR Office in Magome the day we left to have luggage transferred to the train station)
Would I go back? I sure will. My back felt good on that futon-topped tatami mat. And I do like dressing up in a yukata. Early dinners and not-so-early breakfasts meant calling it a night hours earlier than usual. But I’d most definitely bring my drip coffee next time!