“I can’t believe we’re doing this!”
While living in Japan has many benefits, one of the things I find most frustrating is the lack of spontaneity. But, a chance conversation with a friend about the Kiso Valley, a serendipitous half-day off and some last-second bookings led my friend and I on a weekend reprieve.
Friday: Off from Shinjuku
On late Friday afternoon, we hop on a bus from Shinjuku and head off into the sunset to Magome, for a weekend of walking one of Japan’s ancient postal roads, which stretches from Gifu to Nagano Prefecture.
Although during the Edo period the Nakasendo Way stretched all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto, most of its 534 kilometers are now mired by highways and train lines. Thanks to the mountainous, remote nature of the Kiso Valley, there are still a few sections that have been left intact. With only a weekend to spare, we decided to focus on two of the prettiest sections — the Magome to Tsumago trail and the Yabuhara to Narai trek. We looked forward to finding the ancient stone paths, expertly preserved postal towns and picturesque nature trails.
Saturday: Ready to hit the road
After a good night’s sleep at Magomechaya Minshuku, a simple hotel fitted with futons and tatami mats, followed by a cup of brew at the newly opened Hillbilly Coffee, we started our first day on the trail. The Magome to Tsumago section is perhaps the most famous and considered the most beautiful, thanks to the two villages it connects and the old stone roads which grace several sections. Wandering up through the town, we see traditional inns and bright wildflowers and water wheels, which seem to be something of a theme along the Nakasendo, all framed by the Central Alps mountain chain.
As we move away from the town, little markers and bear bells spring up every so often to keep us on track for the eight- to nine-kilometer hike, a relief for two people with no sense of direction. Across little hamlets, wooden bridges and following the bright green rice fields filled with choruses of frogs, we barely meet a soul and revel in the quiet and cool mountain breeze. Little rivers of snowmelt line most of the trail, and it would be a pity not to take a leisurely break and dip your feet into the refreshing water.
The trail is pleasant and almost completely devoid of steep inclines so even beginners can take it on. There are a couple huts which can provide drinks and snacks along the way, although it might be better to stock up in town as there are no convenience stores to be found, a pleasant change of pace from the big city.
We arrive in Tsumago about three hours later, ready to sample the local oyaki (buns filled with veggies or bean paste), chestnut-laced sweets and chewy soba noodles.
A bit busier than Magome thanks to easier bus and train access, we admire the houses and not terribly fish-like Carp Rock, then move on towards Nagiso. While this section is a bit more modern, the dramatic rock gardens and artists’ homes that dot the way are charming, and the chance discovery of the huge Momosuke wooden suspension bridge just a short walk from Nagiso Station make it worth the walk.
We hop on the train to Kiso Fukushima, our home for the night, and are lucky enough to arrive just in time to sneak in a few minutes at Kozenji Temple, which boasts Japan’s largest rock garden.
We check into the Mikawaya ryokan (Japanese inn), which is a great bargain for just under ¥9,000 a night (including dinner, breakfast and the chance to fall asleep listening to the river). A dip in the hot springs, a couple rounds of local sake and a few minutes of stretching later, and we are out for the night.
After being awoken by a town-wide 6 a.m. wake-up call (that seems to be a trend across the valley, with loudspeaker announcements throughout the day), we hop on the train to Yabuhara, where we will start the six-kilometer trail that will take us to Kiso Narai.
While Yabuhara is not one of the picture-perfect postal towns, this is of little importance as the houses soon fade into a forest trail, taking us up towards the Torii Pass. Much wilder and more sparsely populated than Magome-Tsumago, we are careful to ring every bear bell and check in with the lively trio of ladies coming the other way.
While the trail is not technically difficult or overly steep, the leaf-strewn track rises steadily for over 1km until you reach first a spring of refreshing mountain water and then the shrine of Torii Pass, where it turns into first a relaxing flat walk and then narrows into a steeper, rather rocky trail that eventually drops you off in Narai.
The most stately of the postal towns, Narai’s whitewashed, weathered wooden buildings and old street signs, combined with the fact that they are still obviously private homes and restaurants instead of staged sets, immediately rockets it to the top of our list. We linger over yet more oyaki and fresh peach juice, checking out the wooden combs, elegant bridge and the unprepossessing cedar-lined path which marks the end of the original Nakasendo trail, tapering away anticlimactically into someone’s backyard.
While most visitors take the train from Narai to Shiojiri to catch the Azusa Rapid towards their next destination, we decide to stretch our legs and head one more town over to Kiso Hirasawa, famous for its lacquerware. While the road of elegant shops demonstrates that the lacquer business is obviously prospering, the complete lack of people (or open restaurants!) is somewhat surreal, like a very restrained apocalypse. But this is of little concern, as we soon make our way to Shiojiri and then onwards back to Tokyo by train, stretched out with a couple glasses of the sweet local wine, senbei rice crackers and wasabi-filled onigiri (rice balls).
Short, sweet and relaxing, a weekend discovering the history of the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo Way is an ideal getaway for history buffs and nature lovers alike, with lots of good cheap snacks and water sources along the way.
How to get there
From Tokyo to Magome, the easiest option is catching a bus from the Shinjuku Bus Terminal. The Chuo Liner Kani runs daily at 7:20 a.m., 10:40 a.m. and 4:50 p.m., and it takes just under five hours to get to the Chuodo Magome stop, from where it is a 1.5-kilometer walk into town.
From Nagoya, buses leave from the Meitetsu Bus Center once an hour and stop at the Chuodo Magome stop.
From Shiojiri station the Azusa Limited Express train departs every hour or so, providing a direct connection back to Tokyo (stopping at Shinjuku station) or Matsumoto, from where you can catch a bullet train towards Nagoya, Kyoto or Osaka