Have you ever wanted to see an old-style Japanese town? If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve noticed that cities are very modern, and it can be hard to find streets with that “Japanese” feel. But you can find them, and one of the best places for this is near Nagoya in Magome and Tsumago, two post towns on the Nakasendo trail through the mountains.
This post will tell you how to get to Magome, all about the hike through the mountains, arriving in Tsumago, and how to hike back to Magome before getting eaten by bears. It will help you plan a successful day adventure and see old Japan.
What is the Nakasendo?
Nakasendo means Central Mountain Route. The route served as a main roadway between Kyoto and what is now Tokyo during the Edo period in the 15th to 17 centuries. It was used by the shogun and other important persons as a communication network.
Though the original Nakasendo is 534 km long, and much of the trail has been developed into modern roadways, a few small sections have been preserved. Two well-known post towns are Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku in the Kiso Valley. Magome is in Gifu prefecture, and Tsumago is in Nagano prefecture.
We started our day with a rental car.
Lucky for us, the rental car place is a mere one-minute walk from our house – we can see it from our window. We picked up our Toyota Vitz, set the car navi to our destination, and were on our way out of the city. As is our (my) custom, we blasted Red Hot Chili Peppers for our road trip, as we did on our way to Fuji Rock Festival last year.
I always love driving through the Japanese mountains. Sometimes the city can get to be too much. The forests, slow village towns, and terraced hills are a welcome delight after being surrounded by concrete and traffic. Of course yesterday’s bright and warm weather would put anyone is a sunny mood. An hour and a half later, we were searching for a place to park.
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Arriving in Magome
We began our day at around 10:30. I admit, the mountain air was a little chilly, but I didn’t want to say anything to my husband to let him know I didn’t dress appropriately for the weather. Anyway, I quickly warmed up and did not feel cold for the rest of the day.
We started exploring at Magome-juku, post town 43 out of 69 on the Nakasendo. Previously a bustling post town, Magome is now a popular tourist attraction. The streets and buildings are restored to what they would have looked like during the Edo period. It would have been a place for travellers to rest, eat, and buy provisions for their journey.
The road runs uphill, and is cobbled with stones.
It is surrounded by wooden buildings, blackened and built in Japanese style of construction. I can just imagine what it would have been like 300 hundred years ago. Everyone wearing kimonos, merchants hawking their wares, tired and dirty travellers looking for a place to eat, kids hanging out the window talking to friends below, and women scurrying here and there, baskets of vegetables in tow and parasol in hand.
I always think old Japan would have been so fascinating.
Hiking from Magome to Tsumago
After walking up through little Magome, we were on our way to Tsumago, the next post town on the Nakasendo. This section of the old route is 8 km and passes through the mountains and some tiny tiny remote villages. It’s a combination of hiking and walking through the forest. I imagine some of them are on their way to becoming ghost towns.
There were various points along the way stating how far it was to either post town. And many places with a bell to scare away bears. Whenever I go hiking, I always forget until halfway through the hike, that bears live in the mountains. I spent 90% of this hike worrying about bears.
The hike is very beautiful and passes through forests, past waterfalls, and along the Araragi River. Some small sections of the path are also lovingly cobbled. Somewhere along the way we passed from Gifu into Nagano prefecture.
We could not have asked for nicer weather, and took a short break and sat down at the Araragi River. The water was incredibly clear. I took the opportunity to drink some fresh mountain water and refill my water bottle. It tasted like such a beautiful clean nothingness. My husband and I also put our feet in the water. But only for a few seconds, as the water quickly numbed our legs up to the knee.
We dilly-dallied on the hike, taking our time and stopping several times. We even saw a big metal cage, which my husband told me was a bear trap. Cue heightened fear. It took about three hours to get to Tsumago, though the hike was not too challenging. It was fun and pretty.
In the next town, our first mission was to find lunch, and we only found one restaurant. We both ordered cold soba noodles and vegetable tempura. A bit late to be eating lunch, we were happy and full after walking 8 km, but of course not too full for ice cream. Like Magome, Tsumago is a post town on the Naksendo. It’s the 42nd stop and is also preserved to its historical glory. Though in my opinion, Magome is cuter.
Getting back to Magome
We wandered around for a bit then decided we needed to figure out how to get from Tsumago back to Magome where our car was. It was 4:00, and we found the bus stop to see that it wouldn’t arrive for another hour. We debated whether we should wait for the bus or do the hike back. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to make it in time before it got dark. The last thing I want is to be stuck in the forest with bears around. My gravestone would read “death by bear.”
Ultimately, we decided to walk back. The way from Magome to Tsumago is easier because there is less uphill, so we were going to do the difficult way. This time we walked quickly, and I was soon huffing and puffing up the rocky hills. Nothing like the fear of bears to spark a fire in your step. I was sure to ring all the bear bells that we passed.
I must say, we made excellent time, and arrived back in Magome in only one hour. The sun was still up, too. I am happy that we didn’t get eaten by bears. Though we were tired and sore from doing the hike so quickly.
I bough a box of strawberries and ate them in the car. The juice stung my sunburned lips, then I shamefully fell asleep while my husband drove. We arrived back in Nagoya to drop the car off just in time to make it within our 12-hour rental. For the second time that day, we filled ourselves with noodles. This time it was piles of ramen.
Magome to Tsumago was a lovely day trip and fun hike in the mountains. It was interesting to imagine what it must have been like to walk here a few hundred years ago.
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How to do this day trip from Nagoya
From Nagoya station, take the Shinano limited express to Nakatsugawa Station (50 min, ¥2500). Then take a bus from Nakatsugawa to Magome (30 min, ¥560). There is a bus between Magome and Tsumago, but it is very infrequent, so why not enjoy a nice nature hike instead? Give yourself one to three hours for each direction, depending how fast you hike. I did Magome to Tsumago in three hours but stopped a lot to look at things. I did Tsumago to Magome in less than hour because it was getting dark. The hike from Magome to Tsumago is easier.
Would you like to travel back in time and hike along the old Nakasendo trail?