The Nakasendo Way is hardly a secret (it’s listed in the top 25 things to do in Japan by Lonely Planet), yet it doesn’t feature on many first-time visitors’ itineraries. If, like me, you love being active and want to get a taste of rural Japan, a visit to Magome, one of Nakasendo’s prettiest spots, should be near the top of your list.
Through Kiso Valley
It all started with a four hour journey from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, the train speeding out of the suburbs into rolling countryside, passing picturesque towns, green valleys and mountains. After a change in Shiojiri, I jumped on a train heading to Nakatsugawa through beautiful Kiso Valley, as small villages whizzed by the window and rivers twisted their way through the valley. The track cut into mountain frequently, with regular tunnels disrupting my view.
And what a view it was. A colourful blanket covered the mountain sides as the forest foliage showed off its fiery autumn coat. Mountains are first to welcome the famous autumn colours in Japan and they didn’t disappoint here, the slopes already sporting stunning shades of red, orange and yellow. The gorgeous midday sunshine made the colours stand out even more as I was glued to my window, hoping to spot another picture-perfect landscape after we emerged out of each tunnel.
After arriving in Nakatsugawa, I caught a bus to the heart of the Kiso Valley, where I was due to spend a night in a traditional minshuku (a Japanese bed and breakfast). After a 35 minute ride, I found myself in the historic post town of Magome, one of the gateways to the Nakasendo Way.
Back in the Edo period, the Nakasendo Way was one of the main routes that linked Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Shogun, feudal lords and messengers used the road on official business and to travel between key locations quickly. Post towns located along the road were therefore welcome rest stops for travellers, offering lodgings, provisions and various services. With advent of rail travel, many towns fell into disrepair but some, like Magome, were restored to their Edo-era appearance.
I struggled up the steep hill with my bags, passing an old water mill and headed up the town’s main street. It was like stepping through a time machine! The town has been lovingly restored, the stone path leading past traditional wooden houses and shops selling delicious snacks, local crafts and souvenirs. Power lines and cables were concealed from plain sight, giving the town an authentic feel. You could really imagine that you were transported back centuries! The only thing that spoiled the illusion were the crowds of day trippers walking around.
I reached my guesthouse – Magomechaya – and opened the sliding wooden door. I rang the bell and a friendly owner welcomed me and showed me up to my room. Despite early but I was allowed to check in – result! She explained that dinner will be served at 6pm so I had a few hours to kill!
I stepped back out onto the street and headed to the tourist info centre just a few metres away. I grabbed a map and asked the girl in the window what my options were – I planned to do the popular Magome-Tsumago hike the next morning but was hoping I could do another walk before dinner.
I was in luck. The girl explained that if I headed in the opposite direction out of Magome, I would reach Ochiai-no-Ishidatami (Stone Pavement of Ochiai), a short section of the Nakasendo with some original stone paving remaining from the Edo period!
I headed back downhill towards the bus stop and crossed the road, following the Nakasendo. The contrast was striking. Behind me was Magome and hundreds of tourists and schoolkids eating ice cream and snapping selfies. Ahead – an empty road as far as the eye could see!
I passed farmhouses, rice paddy fields and a small cemetery while mountains rose into the sky in the distance. Houses here were more modern but still retained a traditional feel, with small gardens, ponds and water features.
Soon, I stumbled upon a torii gate to the left of the road. This turned out to be an entrance to a local Suwa Shrine. The deity worshipped here was a god of hunting and agriculture. I followed the cedar-lined path into the forest, with stone lanterns flanking the way. I walked through another gate and emerged at an opening with steps leading up to the main shrine. Two lions guarded the steps, baring their fangs in an intimidating scowl. There were also some stone tablets to the side of the main courtyard. Sunlight barely reached here and together with the silence this gave the place an eerie feel.
Tip: Be careful not to walk through the middle of the torii gates as that path is traditionally reserved for the gods! I hope I haven’t upset any of them on my brief visit!
Back on the road, I passed stone tablets and milestones and enjoyed stunning views of the valley. Other than a few locals waving hello and cats snoozing in the warm sunshine, I didn’t see another soul on my walk – I was pleased to have the road to myself!
Stone pavement of Ochiai
After reaching a fork in the road and grappling with my map, I turned a corner and saw the start of the Ochiai stone pavement. The leaves-and-moss-covered ishidatami (paving stones) were in stark contrast to the smooth surface of the modern main road. Back in the day roads were mainly unpaved but stones were laid over the rough sections of the Nakasendo, such as steep patches and or areas prone to washing away in rainy season. This helped travellers navigate the road and made it easier to carry heavy loads.
Walking down the winding 840 metre long stone pavement briefly transported me to a different time, as I imagined horses, messengers and samurai negotiating this section of the Nakasendo hundreds of years ago. Sunlight broke through the cedar trees and bounced off the stones as birds warbled above me. I was surprised to be the only traveller on the road today but it definitely made for a more special experience!
I walked the length of the pavement, passing a closed inn on the way and emerged back at the main road, near the town of Ochiai. At this point I decided that it was time to head back and get ready for dinner so I returned along the stone pavement, getting a different perspective on the twists and turns of the road.
Just before reaching Magome, I turned to check out the scenery with the fields and the hills in the distance bathed in the late afternoon glow. I headed up the hill to the now almost-empty town (the daytrippers having long departed) and explored the quiet main street in peace before catching the sunset from a small platform near one of the houses.
It was almost dinner time so I got changed and headed to the restaurant across the road from the guesthouse. I was shown to my table and sat down to one of the best looking dinner sets ever! I was treated to a feast of delicious grilled fish, horsemeat and tempura vegetables with another portion of mushrooms and vegetables cooking in a small pot right on my table! The meal was accompanied by all the green tea I could manage, helpfully topped up by the guesthouse owner. It was great to sample a traditional Japanese meal, especially one so lovingly prepared and set out!
Evening in Magome
I walked out of the restaurant and was met by darkness. Magome was still and peaceful, lack of street lights adding to its incredible atmosphere. Being quite high up in the mountains, nights can be cold in Magome and it was already about 0 degrees! I spent some time exploring the traditional guesthouse, ending up spending majority of the evening by the heater in the living room, relaxing and reading on a tatami mat.
There is no nightlife or entertainment in Magome and it really retains the character of the post towns of Edo-period Japan. I climbed into my traditional futon, cranked up the heating and closed my eyes, dreaming of shogun, samurai and an ancient stone-paved highway.
What: Magome is a beautifully-restored Edo-period post town. It is also an ideal access point to the historic Nakasendo Way.
Where: Magome is located in Kiso Valley, Gifu Prefecture in central Honshu.
Getting there: From Tokyo, take the JR Azusa limited express train from Shinjuku station Shiojiri (2.5 hours) and then take the JR Shinano limited express train to Nakatsugawa station (1 hr.) This journey is fully covered by the JR Rail Pass (otherwise around ¥9500). A bus from the station will take you to Magome (¥560). For a comprehensive guide to getting to Magome, visit this website.
Where to Stay: Magomechaya Minshuku Guesthouse offers a range of traditional rooms right on the main street in Magome. Prices depend on number of guests per room. The room I stayed in (photo in post) was ¥10044 (£70/$90) per night with dinner and breakfast included