I feel obligated start my Japan outdoor travel blog with the trail I have done the most: the Nakasendo. Raised from obscurity largely by the efforts of tour companies like Walk Japan, the Nakasendo is fast becoming a must see destination for those interested in history and the Japanese countryside. With views of the Central Alps, 300 year old villages, quaint hot springs inns and delicious regional food, it’s easy to understand why. Here are some more details about the trail and why you should put it on your Japan travel bucket list.
The history of the Nakasendo dates back to the Edo Period (1600-1868) when the Tokugawa Shoguns required Daimyos (regional lords) to make appearances in Edo (Tokyo) yearly, bringing suitable gifts and an entourage. The idea was that the Daimyo would spend so much money and time traveling that any resistance to the Shogunate would be futile. While the industrialization of Japan in the Meiji Era modernized portions of the Nakasendo, some sections were left untouched because of their remoteness. These preserved Shukuba Machi (post towns) were where people stayed the night, rested their horses and hired porters along the way. The best kept portions and the best walks of the Nakasendo are in this steep Kiso Valley. For this reason the Nakasendo is alternately called the Kiso Road and the 11 post towns of the Kiso Road are the most commonly walked.
If you only have one day, walk the 7.5 km section from Magome to Tsumago. It is a nice 3 hour walk with various historic sights, quaint villages, and amenities along the way. Make sure to stop at the Tachiba tea house after Magome pass for some free green tea and candies. Sometimes, the volunteer inside will even treat you to his rendition of a Kiso folk song. You can eat lunch in either Magome or Tsumago. Local delicacies include soba noodles, Goheimochi, a flat sticky rice mochi stick with walnut miso paste that resembles a popsicle, and dried persimmon stuffed with chestnut filling. There are ryokans and Minshukus (different types of Japanese inns) in either village, although in the busy seasons of Spring and Autumn reserving prior to arrival is highly recommended.
For multiple days trips, there are various options depending on the length of trails you want to do. To get the most out of your experience, I recommend hiring a guide. You will get access to hard to book ryokans, trails tailored to your ability and local food off the tourist map. Some highlights to include on a longer trip include Naraijuku, one of the three best preserved towns along with Magome and Tsumago, Kiso Fukushima (not to be confused with the nuclear disaster) and Kaida Kogen. Technically, Kaida Kogen is not on the Nakasendo but it is a nice side trip offering stunning views of Japan’s second highest volcano and sacred mountain, Mt. Ontake.
How to Get There:
From Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, take the Azusa Express to Shiojiri Station and Transfer to the Shinano Express. This will take you to Kiso Fukushima, Nagiso or Nakatsugawa on the Southern end of the Kiso Valley. From Nagoya, take the Shinano Express to any of these stations from the opposite direction. The nice thing about the Nakasendo is that once you’re there, you are never far from the train line so you can always hop on a train or bus after hiking.
Where to Stay:
Best Time to Travel:
Spring and Autumn