At the Edo Tokyo Museum, my docent told the most animated stories about ancient Japan, and one that caught my attention was about the emperor traveling between Tokyo (or at that time, Edo) and Kyoto. Of course, when he traveled, his entourage of samurai, servants, and government officials followed, essentially making it seem like all of Tokyo was packing up and traveling to Kyoto. There were five routes, each dotted with post towns which had accommodations, food and necessary services. These routes were essentially the highway of ancient Japan.
The post towns were strategically located with a day’s walk between them. That would be, a day of walking carrying the emperor on his littler, or lugging a huge amount of supplies. So, they’re not actually very far apart.
Two post towns on the Nakasendo route have been preserved (or more accurately, restored) to retain their ancient town charm. The 8 kilometers of road between them, while tangled up with modern streets and crisscrossing people’s lawns and farm land, is also still intact. So, walking between Magome and Tsumago has the feel of stepping back in time minus all of the back- breaking lifting.
On a nice, sunny fall day the hike was an enjoyable three hour leisurely stroll with a long stop to drink green tea and eat homemade pickles and candy along the way. Not the intense labor of the original trek, but a perfect way to enjoy a beautiful day outdoors.
It seems like most people begin the hike in Magome, which is accessible by bus from Nakatsugawa train station. The town is very small and has an excellent tourist office adjacent to the bus stop where you can pick up a map, get directions to the start of the trail, and even pay to have your bags delivered to Tsumago (if you arrive before 11 am). Before arriving at the trail head you’ll wind your way uphill, through the picturesque streets, passing water wheels of dubious authenticity.
There are plenty of options for lunch so indulge in all the carbs you can- you’ll be walking them off soon enough.
I arrived looking for an intense hike, but ended up loving every minute of the casual stroll. This is the type of place that exemplifies the, “life is a journey, not a destination” side of travel. We passed through small towns that seemed to consist of a single road dotted with homes displaying elaborate wood work and beautiful gardens. We walked through wooded passages, where the town had installed bells along the pathway that can be rung to scare away bears. With the sun peaking through the trees I could not image a more perfect way to spend the day.
At one point along the hike, you’ll come to a 250 year old farm house, which has been converted into a rest stop for hikers. It’s run by volunteers who offer a friendly welcome and cup of green tea to visitors. On the day that I was there, the volunteer was a retired office worker from Tokyo, who moved to the Kiso Valley to pursue his dream of a quiet life on a farm. He was eager to practice his English and share shots of homemade liquor.
My favorite part of the trail was near Tsumago, where we began passing through bamboo groves, crossing streams and finally walked the last section through fields and between a few homes. The locals were also outside taking in the sunshine and were eager to greet us and we walked across their lawns. They must see thousands of visitors a year, and I’m sure they greet each one with such warmth and hospitality. I love Japan.
My only regret for the day is that we didn’t leave earlier. By the time we reached Tsumago, it was nearly 4:30pm, which only gave us half an hour before the shops closed. The town is better preserved in comparison to Magome and, in the afternoon, was busy with domestic travelers who had arrived by tour bus. Despite the crowds, the architecture was incredible and we loved having a cup of macha to relax after the walk.
Want to Hike between Magome and Tsumago?
The closest major city is Nagoya. From there, catch a train to Nakatsugawa station. At the station, take the local bus to Magome. The bus leaves about once an hour and has English announcements.
There’s only a couple of pricey ryokans located in either of these towns. I recommend staying in Nagoya and making your hike a day trip. In order to do this, you’ll want to leave early enough spend time in the towns on both side of the hike and still catch the last bus (which was around 6pm) in Tsumago. There’s really no need to stay later than 5pm since everything quickly shuts down and all tourists board their buses back to Nagoya at that time anyway.
The trail has several shops along the way where you can get water, or a full meal. The rest stop that I mentioned above has a bathroom, as do some of the shops. Since the rest stop is run by volunteers, make sure to throw some Yen in their donations bucket on the way out.
Hiking the ancient Kyoto-Tokyo road my list of best weekend trips from Tokyo and I encourage you to check out my 3 other suggestions too.