“If one walks, a road is made.”
So reads the cover of the walking map for the Nakasendo I brought back with me from Japan–a sentiment which perfectly encapsulates the origins and spirit of the Nakasendo. An ancient postal road connecting Kyoto (Kyo) and Tokyo (Edo), the Nakasendo was built over 400 years ago in the Edo period. Much of this route has remained frozen in time, transporting travelers back to a time long past.
Along with my friend Brandon, I had the privilege of hiking a popular portion of the Nakasendo from Magome Juku to Tsumago Juku. Two of the best preserved postal towns along the original route, these are the quintessential stops for anyone looking to explore the legacy of the Nakasendo.
As hikes go, the difficulty is quite mild. There is a little elevation gain at the start, but after that hikers descend down the other side of Magome Pass and head towards Tsumago. All told, this section of the Nakasendo amounts to about 8 km along well-kept trails. Take a look at the stat chart below, which I made using Ramblr’s web app. The horizontal axis shows the distance traveled, while the vertical shows altitude gain/loss.
Our day started in Nagoya, where we caught a train on the JR Chuo line to Nakatsugawa. The train ride gave us a chance to catch up a bit and enjoy the increasingly rural scenery as it scrolled past. Upon arriving in Nakatsugawa, a quick stop at the tourist information center provided us with the information necessary to catch the local bus to Magome.
We made our way up the main thoroughfare and found our guesthouse–an old, traditional Japanese style inn with tatami mats in the rooms. Dropping our bags off allowed us a short while to explore the town before dusk settled.
The next morning, we rose early and set off on the path towards Tsumago. At the top of the hill rising behind the town, we stopped at a viewpoint which provided us a great view of the countryside below and Mount Ena in the distance. We soaked the sight in for a few minutes, then turned our backs and headed into the forest.
Within minutes, Magome faded away and the countryside of Japan revealed itself. Old, traditional-style houses popped up everywhere as the trail wound through well-tended fields, stately forests, and over bubbling streams. We’d made the decision to allocate two whole days of our trip to hiking the trail (return) and, as a result, were able to take our time and ramble along at an appreciative pace.
From time to time, the age of the trail revealed itself in the form of headstones and tombs. Surrounded by creaking cedars and incorporated into the forest itself, these are places of solemness and reflection. Part of the magic of the Nakasendo is the rich sense of history that seems to seep from every scene.
Shortly after the pass was a small, wooden tea house staffed by wonderful employees. Travelers like us, weary from crossing the pass and seeking relief from the sun, may stop by and enjoy a piping hot mug (or 3) of green tea. If you’re lucky, you might be offered some candy as well; don’t forget to leave a small tip in the box on the table!
After our tea break, we carried on along the trail. The way is indicated by a series of signposts and trail markers in both English and Japanese. Take a look at the right-hand sign in the picture below. If you ever get a little turned around on the trail, look for the three characters on that sign. Those indicate you are still on the Nakasendo.
The trail had one last surprise for us before we made it to our destination. Just off the trail are two waterfalls a short distance apart. An old favorite of travelers, the falls are named Odaki and Medaki–which translate to ‘man’s waterfall’ and ‘woman’s waterfall’, respectively. They are so named because they lie side by side, just like a couple.
There were many moments when all we could do was pause and soak in the beauty of what we were looking at. This scene greeted us while we crossed a small, wooden bridge. I could’ve stayed for hours.
Walking further down the trail led us at last to Tsumago. After taking shelter from a brief storm in our ryokan (which by a fantastic twist of fate happened to be outside the town, saving us from a good drenching), we carried on down the path to the town proper.
Tsumago is the idyllic picture of an Edo-era village, carefully restored and maintained since 1968 when local residents decided to make a concerted effort to preserve their town’s history. Strolling through its quiet streets while savoring some of the local chestnut ice cream was one of my favorite memories of Japan. I hope someday to return, perhaps to hike the whole Nakasendo.
Take a moment to check out the Ramblr trip I created to accompany this post. The tool makes it easy to plot a course and place picture, video, note, and audio attachments on specific GPS points. While I used the web tool to enter all the info post-hike, I hope to use the phone app to do some real-time logging in the future. Check out the trip I made by clicking below and let me know what you think!
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