Walking the Nakasendo: Magome to Tsumago Hike

Walking a part of the ancient Nakasendo Way was one of the must-dos on my trip to Japan. While hiking may not immediately spring to mind when coming up with an ultimate Japan bucket  list, I could not miss the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of shogun and samurai. I ended up discovering not just an awesome hike, but a window into the country’s past.

After the previous day’s adventures exploring Magome and the Stone Pavement of Ochiai, it was time for the big one! The 8 km hike between Magome and Tsumago is one of the best walks in the country and is featured in most guidebooks as one of Japan’s top experiences. It was even featured in Joanna Lumley’s Japan TV series in 2016. As a keen hiker, I definitely wanted to check out what all the fuss was about!

Magome and the Nakasendo Way

After a hot shower and a delicious set breakfast at my guesthouse, I was ready to hit the road. I headed uphill on the empty main street (the coaches carrying the daytrippers were yet to arrive) past beautifully restored houses and neat, traditional gardens. At the edge of the town, I stopped to check out a noticeboard, which back during the Edo Period would have been used to display important announcements and prohibitions.

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A huge noticeboard at the edge of Magome

Just a little further, I came out to a viewpoint with sweeping views of the valley and the mountains beyond – the autumn colours and the jagged peaks providing a beautiful backdrop!

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Stunning views from the lookout point

The trail followed a road for a while before climbing through forested areas and a small village with a shrine at its edge. I grabbed a bamboo walking stick from outside a small café (the sign asked to deposit these back in Tsumago) and continued on.

Hitting the trail

While I was a little worried about the trail being overrun with tourists clutching their guidebooks and selfie sticks, my fears were quickly dispelled. I only met a handful of people on my walk and largely had the trail to myself. The cold November air in the mountains probably had something to do with it!

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Beautiful scenery and solitude on the trail!

Around 2km in, the path headed deeper into the forest and became a bit more remote but was still well-kept and easy to follow. I walked along and over small streams, past trees sporting autumn leaves and spied markers and tablets on the side of the path.

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Autumn colours along the Nakasendo Way

Bears and teahouses

One thing I didn’t expect to see on the walk were bear warnings! Black bears inhabit this part of the Kiso Valley even though sightings are rare. Nevertheless, bells were placed along the trail, prompting walkers to “ring hard against bears”. You didn’t have to ask me twice!

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“Ring hard against bears”

A bit further on, I emerged by a traditional Japanese teahouse and a popular rest stop on the walk. Those who watched Joanna Lumley’s Japan series would immediately recognise the tea room – and Mr Suzuki (“like the car”) – who greeted me outside the entrance.  The teahouse used to be an inspection post used by the Government to monitor travellers and goods passing through.

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The old teahouse on the trail

Union tree

I continued through the forest, ringing the bear bells as I went, admiring the beautiful scenery and silence of the forest. I stopped to check out a “union tree” – two cypress trees that were planted in the early 18th century and grew together before eventually intertwining!

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The union tree

The trail is very well signposted in English, with clear directions and distance markers at regular intervals – it’s ideal for novice hikers as you would have to try very hard to get lost!

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The frequent markers on the trail make it easy to navigate

Soon after I saw the first group of people I’ve seen since leaving Magome – Japanese hikers whose clothing and equipment were probably a little too advanced for this hike. I say “saw” but I actually heard them first – they had their own bear bells attached to their clothes! I am not sure many bears would hang around with all that racket!

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The varied landscape of the Nakasendo Way

Otaki-Metaki Waterfalls

After about 5km, I reached the Otaki-Metaki Waterfalls – or Male and Female Falls as they are also known! The falls were made famous by a fiction book about the life of a famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi. The story goes that Miyamoto and his travelling lady companion cooled tensions between them by standing in their respective waterfalls.

I got as close to the falls as I could, which made clambering back up the rocks a little challenging as I tried not to fall in! The beautiful waterfalls and the streams flowing through the forest around them are definitely worth a short diversion from the main trail!

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Nakasendo

The trail passed another village before climbing again – offering some great views over the surrounding area. I passed a small tablet commemorating cattle that died on the Nakasendo – which was unusual as these usually honoured horses (that’s what the sign said anyway).

The path descended and took me past more villages, through crop fields and across rivers as well as a bamboo forest!

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Crossing a river

Tsumago

I eventually reached Tsumago, its wide streets almost empty save for a first small coach group of the day.

Tsumago, one of the many post towns along the Nakasendo Way, served as a rest stop for travellers, including prominent shogun and their entourage. The towns offered accommodation, food and a break for the horses. With rail travel becoming more prominent at the end of the 19th century, post towns declined in importance until restoration projects in the latter part of the 20th century brought towns along the Nakasendo back to their former glory.

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Tsumago

Tsumago felt a bit more rustic than Magome, which gave it a lot of charm. Both towns have suffered from many fires over the years but Tsumago has been affected less which, together with impressive restoration and Government protection, has led to it feeling more authentic.

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Tsumago

Tsumago Castle ruins

I wandered along the main street, past shops and traditional houses, peering into shrines. I spotted a sign for Tsumago Castle ruins and climbed a path for another kilometre, passing through a bamboo forest and a filled in section that used to be a wooden bridge!

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Bamboo trees on the way to the Tsumago Castle ruins

The castle was demolished centuries ago so there weren’t any ruins to see per se (other than a few stone pillars and markers) but the views of Tsumago and the valley around it were fantastic!

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View of Tsumago from the castle ruins

Delicious lunch

I returned back to Tsumago and saw a noticeboard just like one in Magome. It’s still possible to read the messages – if you know Japanese!

I stopped for a much deserved break at a small café and had a delicious lunch gohei mochi – grilled rice cake with walnut sauce, a red bean anko (a pastry with red bean paste) and sweet milk tea. I enjoyed the mochi so much, I ordered seconds!

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The delicious gohei mochi – grilled rice cake covered in walnut sauce

Back on the trail

After resting my legs, I started making my way back to Magome. While there is a baggage forwarding service between the two towns, I left my bags in the guesthouse as I found it would be easier to get to Nagoya, my next destination, from Magome. Plus I wanted an extra challenge – if you are going to do one of the best hikes in Japan, you might as well do it twice!

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One of the paved sections of the trail

I made quick progress as I stopped less to take photos and look around. I encountered a few more people heading to Tsumago – while it was by no means busy, I was glad that I set off early!

End of the road

Soon after saying goodbye to my trusty walking stick, I arrived back in Magome. I headed to the tourist information center and bought a commemorative wooden certificate (¥300) to confirm that I’ve completed the hike. It was even stamped, however there was no special reward for doing the walk twice!

After enjoying a warm rice cake – sour plum and sugar flavour – and wandering around the town for a little while, I picked up my bags and made my way down the hill to the bus stop to end my ancient Nakasendo adventure and head back to modern Japan.


The Hike

What: The Nakasendo Way is an ancient highway used during the Edo Period. Post towns along the way were used as rest stops by travellers. Magome and Tsumago are two restored towns and it’s possible to hike between them along the Nakasendo

Where: Nakasendo Way stretched between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. The Magome to Tsumago section is in central Honshu.

How: The hike is very well signposted from both Magome and Tsumago. It’s an easy 8km walk with some uphill sections – Magome to Tsumago is slightly easier than the other way round. The round trip took me 3hrs 30 minutes to complete not counting the Tsumago Castle detour  (1km each way), Otaki-Metaki falls (50 metres from trail) and time exploring Tsumago.

There is a baggage forwarding service available from tourist information centres in both Magome and Tsumago. You need to drop the bags off between 08:30-11:30 and they will be delivered by 1pm. Cost – ¥500. This service is available from mid March to late November but dates will vary. Check here for 2017 dates as they become available.

Getting there: Both Magome and Tsumago are accessible by public transport from all major cities. Magome has more connections than Tsumago so plan accordingly. Getting to either town can be done by using the JR Rail Pass. For a comprehensive guide to getting to Magome and Tsumago, visit this website.

Walking along the ancient Nakasendo Way was one of the must-dos on my trip to Japan. The hike between Magome and Tsumago is a window into Japan's rich past.

 

28 thoughts on “Walking the Nakasendo: Magome to Tsumago Hike

  1. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler) says:

    What a great hike on the ancient Nakasendo Way back and forth. Impressive… I for some reason can visualize you ringing those bear bells. I have heard to wear bells attached to your hiking shoes helps to keep Bears away.
    What stunning photos and it does look like you took a hike into the past.
    Such beautiful countryside with wonderful fall colors. The places to stop and eat plus rest is great along with the English writing on the hiking signs to help not get lost. I will pin this for later so I can take this hike next time I’m in Japan. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Stephanie – it was a fantastic walk and definitely lived up and surpassed my expectations! The beautiful colours were another highlight

  2. Jenn says:

    So glad you didn’t have to contend with lots of crowds here – the trails and scenery look amazing! The bells for the bears is a great idea – I think we need to implement that here!! I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with tea and am jealous of your time at the teahouse! Yet another impressive look at Japan – thanks for sharing!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks Jenn – I definitely picked a good time to go! Hardly any people and it wasn’t too cold (except at night). Sounds like you would love the area as tea was very plentiful everywhere I went!

  3. Simona Barbu says:

    I enjoyed walking this path in my head! I guess we need more waterfalls in the world to cool down all tensions! I laughed at the bear signs, since in the mountains in Romania are a common thing. I have two persons in my family who had bear visit their tent during the night (they are still talking about it after all these years). Great photos!!!!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Wow, I have seen a bear relatively close but not THAT close. Definitely wouldn’t want to share my tent with them. Yes, more waterfalls would be an amazing solution!

  4. Trippin' Turpins (Kelly) says:

    This walk looks stunning! It is definitely something I want to do. I have pinned it so I will not forget about it when I finally get to visit Japan. The gohei mochi looks delicious and all your photos are superb! This place looks fabulous. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Paul and Carole says:

    What an interesting hike. The bear warnings would of had us worried too, and that’s very amusing that the Japanese tourists actually had them hanging off their clothes! Great post! #feetdotravel

  6. Lisa says:

    I’m with you on all the hiking. It’s so amazing what you will see and experience off the beaten path. Spending time in Alaska and western US states, I’m not freaked out by bears, I have seen my share.Japan is on my must visit list so your posts have given me wonderful insight. Thanks always for this fabulous journey!

  7. Kreete says:

    Ahhh a story about hiking in Japan! I was so excited to read about this! Sounds like a great day and the photos are simply stunning. Loving the mountains in the backdrop and the bamboo forest looks awesome too! The gohei mochi looks delicious too, no wonder you went back for seconds! If I’m ever in Japan, I will make sure to hike from Magome to Tsumago!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      The mountains were stunning and so different to the images that many people have of Japan – cities, skyscrapers etc! You should definitely head over there sometime!

  8. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    I confess, yes this is on my “to do” list when we visit Japan due to Joanna Lumley’s show so it was wonderful to read about you literally walking in her footsteps (along with the samurai of course!). I had never thought that bears would be in this area though (I have a vision of you walking through the silent forest, just the rustling of the leaves and your footsteps … then a loud bear-bell ringing!) Glad to hear it wasn’t over run with tourists, I hope when we visit we will be as lucky and the autumn colours are spectacular. Joanna did venture off the track to visit one of the Otaki-Metaki Waterfalls so that also looked familiar as did the tea house 😀 The gohei mochi sounds delicious I must admit so I will look out for that – thank you for sharing all the information as well how to get here, I have pinned this to my Japan board! #feetdotravel

    • Travel Lexx says:

      I definitely overdid the ringing I think – but there was no one there and I got to amuse myself! Watching the show made me want to do the hike even more even though I was already set on doing it. I definitely recommend it for when you guys visit!

  9. Anna says:

    Looks like an amazing hike! Japan is on my bucket list, pinned and bookmarked your web for the future! All the forest and waterfall views look out of this world! Thanks for sharing

  10. David says:

    Whoa, this hike on the Nakasendo way has everything! I love a good hike but then you also have the waterfalls, traditional houses, beautiful nature. Tsumago seems to have an awesome ghost town vibe to it. Love that you basically had the path to yourself as well. Your posts from your Japan trip really make me want to visit Lex! This one is definitely getting saved for later.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      It’s a fantastic hike and even though I hear it’s busier in peak season, there are plenty of little detours you can do to avoid the crowds! A must-do in Japan in my opinion!

  11. Katherine says:

    I walked this trail with my school aged children the summer of 2016. Your wonderful description and photos brought it all back–thank you! The summer was very hot, but doable and we also did not find it crowded. We stayed at guesthouses in both Magome and Tsumago and it was one of the peak experiences of our once-in-a-lifetime trip. Thanks again!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Ah that’s incredible! The children must have loved it! It was really exciting to see it in person after hearing so many things about it – great to know you enjoyed it!

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