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  • Writer's pictureDanae Bianco

Nakasendo Road, from Magome to Tsumago, the most beautiful villages of medieval Japan

How about embarking on a journey along the legendary 'Samurai Route,' following paths that have been traversed for centuries by samurais, feudal lords, and traders?



Dotted with charming traditional villages, streams, and waterfalls, the Nakasendo Route is one of Japan's most famous trails, cutting through the Kiso Valley in the Japanese Alps.


Think of those villages that seem frozen in time, with dark wooden houses and paper lanterns, connected by a path that winds through forests, mountains, streams, waterfalls and rice fields. As you follow in the footsteps of ancient travelers along the Nakasendo Road, it's impossible not to feel transported to a samurai movie set.


In this post, I will share what makes the Nakasendo Route so special and how to hike it - it's easy, well-marked, and doesn't require great physical fitness.


It was one of the most special experiences we had in Japan, and I guarantee it will be one of yours too!


 

Other posts about traveling in Japan:

 
Vista do mirante de Magome, no início da trilha a Tsumago. Nakasendo Road, Japão
View from the lookout point in Magome, at the start of the trail to Tsumago.

What exactly is the Nakasendo Road?


The Nakasendo Road translates to "Central Mountain Road." It was one of the five main routes that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto, the capital of Japan at the time, during the Edo Period (1603-1868).


This approximately 500-kilometer route was used by samurais, traders, and messengers. Along the way, there were various "post towns," small villages where travelers could rest and spend the night. It is estimated that there were about 200 post towns along the five routes during the Edo Period. The Nakasendo Road had 69 post towns, making it the route with the highest number of them.


Magome (also known as Magome-juku) and Tsumago (or Tsumago-juku) are two of the best-preserved post towns, and the path between them is one of the few sections that still remains from the original Nakasendo Route.


It was exactly this stretch that we explored during our 4-week trip through Japan.


You might be wondering how did I discovered this journey completely off the beaten path of the usual tourist path in Japan.


The folks at Japan National Tourism Organization - JNTO, the official tourism agency of the Japanese government, gave me this tip. They are available every weekend at Japan House São Paulo, Brazil, to help you plan your trip to Japan - I can confidently say that without all the tips and guidance they provided, our trip to Japan wouldn't have been the success it was. It's free of charge. Check if there is any branch of this service near where you live.


It was there that I first heard about the Nakasendo Route and where I gathered some information. The rest is the same as always: by combining what I found in the blogosphere with the little information provided by Lonely Planet, we embarked on this adventure and added the satisfaction of completing this completely unconventional journey in Japan to our itinerary!


If you want to discover another journey that is also completely off the standard tourist route in Japan, take a look at the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, our journey crossing the Japanese Alps.



How to get to Magome or Tsumago


We started the Nakasendo Road in Magome; if you're beginning in Tsumago, you can simply follow these instructions in reverse.😉


The most common way to get to Magome is to take a train to Nagoya's station (we traveled from Tokyo to Nagoya on the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, with the opportunity to see Mount Fuji on the way: sit on the right side of the car to get a view of the most iconic Japanese mountain).


From Nagoya, we took a regional train to Nakatsugawa (JR Chuo Line Rapid Train). It's also possible to reach Nakatsugawa from other town in the region, such as Matsumoto or Nagano.


In Nakatsugawa, you just have to catch a local bus to Magome. The bus stop is right in front of the station, so you can't miss it. Google Maps has everything mapped out and will show you the exact bus departure place & times. We relied on the information provided by the app, and it worked perfectly.



Where to stay in Magome


In both Magome and Tsumago, there are a few (but not many) accommodation options. You can stay in other towns in the region, such as Nakatsugawa, Nagiso, or even in Matsumoto and make the Nakasendo Road a day-trip.


However, the more I researched the Nakasendo Road, the more convinced I was that to fully experience it, it would be necessary to spend at least one night in one of the post towns.


We chose to spend the night in Magome, and, as it couldn't be otherwise, I decided we would stay in a ryokan.


Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns. They are the typical Japanese houses that inhabit our imagination: rooms with tatami flooring, paper sliding doors, futon mattresses, kaiseki meals, and, to top it off, hot baths (onsen). Not to mention the kimonos (yukatas) and straw sandals.


Our ryokan - Magome Chaya - had all of this except for the onsen. It was the most fascinating lodging experience we had in Japan. It wasn't luxurious (and I admit the pillow left something to be desired), and it had shared bathroons, but the overall context made that moment unforgettable.


Since everything in the village closes at night, we chose to have dinner and breakfast at the ryokan. Both meals were in the best traditional Japanese style, a delicious sequence of various small dishes (kaiseki), undoubtedly one of the best meals we had during our four weeks in Japan.


Other highly recommended options in Magome are the Guesthouse Nedoko and the Tajimaya Ryokan, both of which are ryokans as well.


Check availability and rates here: [insert link].



Baggage forwarding service on the Nakasendo Route


Before you ask: you don't need to carry your luggage on the hike (unless you want to, of course).

Between Magome and Tsumago, there's a baggage forwarding service.

You leave your bags and backpacks at the tourist information center in Magome and collect them at the equivalent center in Tsumago, or vice versa.

In Magome, the luggage drop-off point is located right next to the Magome Chaya ryokan and across from the Toson Memorial Museum. In Tsumago, it's in the center of the village, next to the post office.

It costs ¥1,000 per piece, and you can drop off your luggage at one of the information centers between 8:30 am and 11:30 am and pick it up at the other center between 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm.


Please check the official websites of Magome or Tsumago for the service's operating season, which typically runs from April to November, and the delivery and pickup hours during the period you plan to use it.

Mapa da Rota Nakasendo, de Magome a Tsumago, os mais lindos vilarejos do Japão Medieval
Guide to the Nakasendo Trail - between Magome and Tsumago

When to hike the Magome-Tsumago trail


The ideal time for hiking the trail from Magome to Tsumago is during the period from April to November when there's typically little to no snow. We did ti in July, which proved to be an excellent choice.


(However, if I had the opportunity, I would opt for the autumn season - the colors must be breathtaking!)



The hike on the Nakasendo Road between Magome and Tsumago


The trail between Magome and Tsumago is approximately 8 kilometers long and takes about 2 to 3 hours to complete.


We took a leisurely pace, with stops for rest, taking in the scenery, and having snacks, and it took us just over 3 hours to finish it.


There's no entrance fee, which means the path is open to all and free to access.


The trail is really well marked, so it's almost impossible to get lost along the way.


Magome sits at approximately 600 meters in altitude, while Tsumago is at 420 meters. The highest point on the trail, Magome Pass, is at 801 meters above sea level. Starting from Magome, there's a 200-meter gain in elevation, and from Tsumago, it's 380 meters, which is why most people choose the Magome -> Tsumago direction.



Magome-juku


Right at the entrance of Magome-juku, there's a watermill that serves as the city's symbol, along with a sharp right turn. Constructing these sharp turns at the entrances to towns was a strategy of the time to force enemy troops to slow down, thus gaining time for defense.


Another interesting feature of the village is that Magome is one of the few post towns situated on a hill. This is why the various watermills are crucial, not only for providing energy but also for assisting in firefighting. The city suffered two major fires in 1895 and 1915.


Very close to Magome-Chaya ryokan is the Toson Memorial Museum, dedicated to a famous Japanese writer, Shimazaki Toson, who was born and spent a significant part of his childhood in the city.



The hike


Starting from Magome, the trail winds through the forest and rural areas for a considerable stretch, mostly uphill. While the ascent is generally gradual, there are some steeper sections, including sets of steps.


The uphill stretch covers 2.4 kilometers with an elevation gain of about 200 meters, reaching its peak at Magome Pass. From there, it's all downhill to Tsumago.


About 850 meters after the highest point on the route, you'll come across Ichikokutochi Tatebachaya, a teahouse with over 300 years of history - certainly one of the most authentic you'll encounter during your trip to Japan. Here, you can take a well-deserved break and enjoy a complimentary tea. Unlike the usual practice in Japan, tips are welcome!



From that point on, the most beautiful section of the route begins (in my opinion). Following alongside a small stream through the forest of cypress, cedar, bamboo, and maple trees, you'll walk about 1.8 kilometers to reach the two waterfalls on the journey: Odaki and Medaki.



After the waterfalls, there are approximately 3.8 kilometers left to Tsumago.


When we went, a portion of this final stretch was blocked due to a landslide. We walked for about 2 kilometers along the paved road until we reached Omata Bridge, where, almost in Tsumago, we returned to the historic path and covered the last meters of the Nakasendo Road.




Tsumago


Upon arriving in Tsumago, I was impressed: how can this village be so different from the previous one and, at the same time, so similar? (Am I crazy? Well, maybe a little!)


In Tsumago, it's worth visiting the Nagisomachi Museum, which consists of three parts: Waki Honjin Okuya (dating back to 1877), Tsumago-juku Honjin, and the historical archive.


Tsumago-juku Honjin is a life-sized replica of the accommodations intended for the daimyos, the feudal lords who governed a region, when they traveled along the Nakasendo Route.



We had lunch at the Omote restaurant, right next to the tourist information service in Tsumago, where we picked up our luggage.


After enjoying a bit more of the village, we made our way down to the bus stop heading towards Nagiso.


Oh, and don't forget to try the goheimochi, a regional sweet treat, a kind of skewered grilled rice with a sweet sauce – it's delicious!


In Nagiso, we caught the train to Matsumoto. You can find the rest of our journey in the post about our 4-week itinerary through Japan.



Tips for the hike


- Wear comfortable clothing and suitable footwear. Specific trekking attire is not necessary; sports shoes are enough.


- Bring water and some snacks. There are a few points along the trail where you can purchase water, ice cream and snacks, not to mention the essential stop at Ichikokutochi Tatebachaya for a cup of tea.


- Follow the indicated path and respect the environment: leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos, and carry nothing but memories (and your trash!).


- If you're not staying in Tsumago (or in Magome, if you hike the oposite direction), make sure to check the return bus schedules. In addition to checking on Google Maps, it's a good idea to visit the tourist information center and confirm departure times.


In summary, the days we spent in Magome and Tsumago, and the hike along the Nakasendo Road, marked our trip as the place where we truly immersed ourselves in traditional Japan and its natural beauty. The serenity of the landscape and the charm of the villages along the way made this journey a unique experience.



If you want to learn more about these two towns, check out the official tourism association link for Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku (available in Japanese and English).


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Check out our other posts about Japan:


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Nakasendo Road, the most beautiful villages of Medieval Japan - the guide on how to hike it - www.danae-explore.com/en

Nakasendo Road, the most beautiful villages of Medieval Japan - the guide on how to hike it - www.danae-explore.com/en

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