Walking the Nakasendo: Magome and the Stone Pavement of Ochiai

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.

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Shiojiri station where I changed trains to begin my journey through the Kiso Valley

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.

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Riding the train through the Kiso Valley and admiring the beautiful autumn colours

Magome

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.

Exploring Magome

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.

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An old water mill in the town of Magome

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!

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My room at Magomechaya Guesthouse

Afternoon Hike

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.

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Tourist Information Centre in Magome

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!

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A more modern part of Magome…and not a tourist in sight!

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.

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Beautiful scenery along the Nakasendo Way
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A small pond near a traditional house on the Nakasendo

Suwa shrine

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.

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The lanterns and the torii gate mark the path to the Suwa Shrine
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The guardian of the shrine

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!

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Views of the valley along the Nakasendo

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.

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The Stone Pavement of Ochiai is a glimpse into what Nakasendo looked like centuries ago

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!

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The twists and turns of the Stone Pavement of Ochiai

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.

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Being alone on the road made the walk even more special

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.

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Beautiful landscape bathed in afternoon sunshine
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Sunset viewed from Magome
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Magome after the daytrippers have departed

Traditional Dinner

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!

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My delicious traditional Japanese dinner set

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.

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Living room at Magomechaya Minshuku Guesthouse

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.


The Trip

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

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34 thoughts on “Walking the Nakasendo: Magome and the Stone Pavement of Ochiai

  1. Andrea on Vacation says:

    Wow! Your photos are amazing! I stayed at a similar guesthouse in Koyasan and loved the simple rooms and delicious meals. I’ve actually never heard of the walk but I loved Japan so much I’m definitely going to head back someday.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Koyasan is on my list of posts to do! I loved exploring its temples and the Okunoin cemetery! It was fantastic! So cool that you got to stay there! I did it as a very long day trip

  2. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler) says:

    What a wonderful adventure you had in Magome, Nakasendo. The views were amazing with the stunning photos. Loved the old stone pavement through town and the best seems when the visitors left and you had the streets to yourself. The key seems to spend the night at the Magomechaya Guesthouse with a traditional dinner that looked amazing. Great details on how to make this trip. I pinned this for my next visit to Japan. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Stephanie. The time seemed to stand still there – especially when the tourists headed home! Definitely recommend and it’s not as difficult to get to as it may first seem!

  3. Trippin' Turpins (Kelly) says:

    This is the Japan I want to experience! It looks just beautiful! Great photos and your meal looks amazing. That is just one other thing I really can’t wait to explore when I get to Japan – their food! I just love it…. and I don’t think I have eaten horse meat yet!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Horse meat was actually one of the highlights of the meal – very tasty! The food in Japan is absolutely fantastic and one of the main reasons I wanted to visit! Thanks Kelly!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      If the weather was warmer, I would have loved to read some Murakami somewhere along this walk! The food was amazing!

  4. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    What a fabulous place you discovered in Magome! When we visit Japan, I want to get into the Countryside and away from the tourists and I want to experience “true” Japan – I definitely think I would get this visiting here. I love the stone pathway and the wooden houses, and I too would probably have visions of samurai, geisha girls and ancient Japanese culture. I love the tourist information office and the fact there is nothing to do at night except enjoy the peace and quiet. Pinned for when we travel to Japan! #feetdotravel

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Angie, this definitely would fit the bill! I could almost hear voices of people walking along the road! Would recommend this to anyone!

  5. Garth says:

    OMG I would love to do this! Everything about this trip you did looks incredible from having the place to yourself, the scenery and the food!! I remember watching Joanna Lumley recently on TV when she visited Magome and thinking how beautiful it was. Very jealous you’ve been too! I will pin this, as I’m almost certain we will return to Japan, and try the autumn like you did.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Garth, you guys should definitely head there in the autumn – while the autumn colours in the rest of Japan are just beginning to show, they are so beautiful here at this time of year! Definitely recommend this area!

  6. Oana says:

    Amazing post, I love places that are not so touristy. The landscape was peaceful and stunning I wish I can get there myself soon to have a hike like this. Thanks for showing us this lovely place.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      If you do find yourself in Japan soon, feel free to give me a shout if you have any questions! This part of Japan is great to explore!

  7. Jenn says:

    This sounds like a great adventure! I love that you got to see everything ranging from beautiful foliage in the countryside to the peaceful setting of the small town, all without upsetting the Gods at their temple! The views also look incredible and I love the rich colors of everything from the guesthouse to the food. This looks like a great opportunity to see the other side of Japan!

  8. Lisa says:

    Love this post! This would be right up my travel alley for sure. So cool to hike on trails of history. The fact that is doesn’t seem to bombarded with tourists is another plus.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Lisa, yeah you would definitely love this trail! I think it can get a bit busier in the peak season but I was surprised how few people I saw on the way!

  9. ThriftyTrails says:

    Stone Pavement of Ochiai looks so peaceful! I haven’t heard of this town until now. How long would you recommend staying in the area? Did you have the option to choose a meal set? I’m wondering in case someone doesn’t eat seafood or if someone is a vegetarian. Your photos really helped convince me that I would enjoy a trip to Magome.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      I stayed only one night but I arrived early afternoon one day and left around late afternoon/evening the following day. That’s plenty of time for a couple of hikes as well as exploring the surrounding areas – however I do walk very fast! I wasn’t asked about choice of food but you can specify if you are allergic to something or don’t eat certain types of food and they were very accommodating to those requests!

  10. SamH Travels says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Finding places which are off the tourist trail are very special and it looks like you found a great spot. The stone pavement of Ochiai looked very special and somewhere I would like to walk. Thank you for sharing you wonderful trip and photos 🙂

  11. Kreete says:

    This sounds like the best way to get to know the local culture. Just head off to the country, discover the local food and hike the empty historical roads. With every post about Japan, I feel the feet getting itchy wanting to go and discover those places myself. Thank you for taking me on a tour!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      You should totally go – especially as you are not that far away now! Heading deep into the country and finding out more about its history and culture goes a long way to “getting” it!

  12. David (Travelsewhere) says:

    Magome looks so charming and walking along the path of Ochiai must have been quite an experience. Magome is definitely going on my list of places for Japan and I imagine I’d get a real kick out of doing the hike you went on. You just keep building up my desire to head to Japan!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      You’ve gotta do it! This is definitely a great walk and I don’t think it’s even busy in peak season as it’s in the opposite direction to the famous Magome-Tsumago hike!

  13. barbie says:

    my kids nd i had a great walk from ochiai until the observatory deck. it was a shock when i got to the bus stop. i didnt think there were lots of people visiting but not even going down to the tip of the pavement. anyway it was a beautiful town.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      It is a pretty stark contrast once you reach the bus stop! Always great to explore the less touristy parts! Glad you enjoyed it!

  14. Mandy says:

    We are walking from Magome to Tsumago but want to start at Ochiai Village. It’s confusing, Ochiai keeps popping up in my search as located in Lya Valley (which is nowhere near the Keso Valley). Is this old Ochiai v new Ochiai? I’ve been trying to find accommodation in Ochiai Village so we can start our trek from there.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Hi Mandy – you need to search for Ochiai-Juku, which is the right place. Ochiai Village, as you quite rightly point out, is somewhere entirely different.

  15. Amy says:

    Awesome article! We are actually staying at the same place in Magome in a few weeks time. May I know how long is the walk through the stone pavement of Ochiai and back? We’re not sure if we can squeeze the walk in before dinner as we would arrive at Magome just before 4 pm. Thanks 🙂

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Hi Amy! Ah, that’s so cool – it’s a great place and you will LOVE the dinner and the town itself. It’s definitely doable before dinner depending on how long you need to get ready. I just checked my tracking app and I started just after 3:30pm and the 4.25 km walk took me about 45 minutes not counting stops. So I guess allow 1.5 hours for a comfortable walk which should still get you back in time for 6 pm when dinner is served. Let me know if you need anything else!

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