Winding through the central mountains of Japan, the Nakasendo, which literally means the “Central Mountain Path” in Japanese, is a historic trade route that connected Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo). It played an important role during the Edo period (1603-1868), when lords and their entourages, samurai and merchants all travelled the 534 kilometre route. Along the way, they would stop at one of the sixty-nine post towns to rest, eat, and find accommodation.
Today, one of the best preserved sections of the Nakasendo Way is in the Kiso valley of central Japan, in particular the trail between the two beautiful post towns of Magome and Tsumago, which will make you feel like you have taken a step back in time.
This article takes you on a virtual journey along the Nakasendo, showing you what you can expect when you visit, how to get there and plenty of tips for walking on the trail.
Why walk the Nakasendo Way?
Encompassing 8 kilometers of eye-catching scenery through the captivating Kiso valley, a journey along this section of Nakasendo trail is certainly one to remember. Starting off in one of two well-preserved post towns, there are plenty of sights on the way including picturesque rice fields, quaint rural villages and lush cedar forests where you can pass two secluded waterfalls right next to one another. At the end of your walk, you’ll discover another stunning post town with traditional timber construction, latticed windows and Japanese-style accommodation for those wishing to stay for a night.
Should you start in Tsumago or Magome?
While it’s possible to do the walk from Magome to Tsumago or the other way round, often the recommendation is to start in Magome as there are fewer uphill sections compared to going in reverse.
For those considering a hike on the Nakasendo, our advice would be to make an early start so as to get the most out of your day. When deciding where best to begin, it may help you to consider which would suit you more – Tsumago with its abundance of stores selling souvenirs and snacks right at the start, or perhaps treat yourself at the end?
Our choice was to set off from Magome and head towards Tsumago so we’ll be introducing the trail using this route. As we go into considerable detail on what you’ll experience on the route, if you want to quickly find information on how to get to the Nakasendo or where to stay, we would recommend returning to the Table of Contents above and navigating to the section which interests you the most.
Walking from Magome
Magome(馬籠) which literally translates to “horse and basket”, is a beautiful place to begin your exploration of the Nakasendo Trail. Once you get off the bus, head back and take a left at the shops. You’ll see the trail slopes uphill towards a giant Keyaki (Zelkova) tree and veers sharply towards the left.
As the post town is situated on a hillside of 600 metres, you can enjoy stunning views of the Kiso valley in several spots. Make sure to pause and turn around to catch a glimpse of Mount Ena in the distance once you pass the Keyaki tree.
The path because less steep once you reach the large wooden waterwheel in front of a granary now converted into a rest area. Step inside and you’ll find an Irori (fire place hearth) and an electric meter display on the right. Written in Japanese is an explanation that the waterwheel powers the electricty for the stone lantern outside and you can check how many Kwh of green energy have been generated so far this year by this waterwheel and its smaller cousin higher up the path.
As you make your way up the cobbled main road lined with wooden houses, you’ll come across restaurants serving up delicious Japanese soba noodles, sweet shops offering traditional treats, and souvenir stores with various items on display.
Those who have a sweet tooth are going to be delighted with the numerous dessert and snack choices on offer. From desserts such as Kurikinton (chestnut sweets) at tea houses to local Mochiyaki (rice cakes) stands, there are plenty of options and in summer you can try the iced Matcha-flavoured Mochi bars and Kakigori (a shaved ice dessert). When it comes to snacking, nothing beats Oyaki in our minds. This dumpling delicacy hails from the Nagano region and can be loaded with a selection of tasty fillings such as Nozawana (a healthy mountain leaf vegetable), walnuts, or eggplant and miso.
Free Wifi in the rest area
Tucked away at the edge of the post town, you will notice a small building on the left where you can catch your breath and get free Wifi. A quick glance will reveal a drink vending machine on the side covered with a brown exterior to mask the white plastic in an effort to match the town’s historical wooden buildings. Aside from the Wifi, you’ll find a notebook filled with stories and entries from travellers for the past 10 years, and you may see some small gifts available if you leave a donation.
Magome Noticeboard and Viewpoint
One of the attraction points of Magome is the carefully recreated Kosatsuba noticeboard that sits just outside the town opposite a soba restaurant with its elegant wooden walls and well-kept Japanese garden. The noticeboard was used in the Edo period to display the decrees of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and built high above the readers to remind them of the Shogun’s authority. The writing is hard to understand but we can make out from this sign that farmers rebelling against the government is definitely not going to end well.
Just a short climb up from the Kosatsuba, lies a gravel filled car park with an incredible view of the Kiso Valley and its encompassing mountain range that extends to Mount Ena. One can find a marker noting the height of 653 metres at this location, as well as a stone inscribed with a quote from Shimazaki Toson – the famous author who lived and wrote about Magome at the start of 20th century.
The trail from Magome to Tsumago
At this point you will have realised that many tourists have retraced their steps and descended down the hill to get back to coaches or the bus waiting at the bottom for them. Luckily this means from here on out the Nakasendo way will be generally quiet and peaceful, and you will only cross paths with fellow travellers every so often.
After the viewpoint, you’ll continue along the upwards slope passing wild flowers, vegetable gardens and rice fields. As soon as you reach the first patch of forest on the trail, it’s easy to see why this route is so popular; the iconic stone-paved path weaves up and around pine trees and bamboo thickets, and you’re surrounded by nature. Every now and then, there are roads to cross and scenic clearings with places to rest such as this one with a creaking waterwheel.
There are some stop off points along the way – one being a sign inviting you to enter a private garden which is charming but slightly overgrown, and then when the path intersects with a road, you’ll find a cafe where you can get refreshments, traditional snacks, or ice cream.
Further along, you’ll discover a sleepy rural village with traditional houses and protruding balconies like the one below. As you wander the more modern path in this area, you may notice something unique about it – small stones of a light hue dotted throughout. It’s almost as though cherry blossom petals have been sprinkled over the path and have been left there.
As you make your way past the shrine gate, you’ll be nearing the Magome Pass – which at 790 metres is the highest point on your route to Tsumago. While there’s no spectacular panorama at the top, what you will find is a cheery signpost attached to a tree stump along with distant mountain views. Take pleasure in knowing that it’s all downhill from here to Tsumago.
Something to call out is from the Magome pass, it’s still a good 5.5 kilometres to Tsumago and you’ll notice the path switches to a hiking trail through a forest of Japanese cedars. There are wooden bridges across small streams and the lucky 777 metre spot where you can ring a bell to scare away any bears who may be nearby. This section is one for those who truly enjoy being out in nature and hearing the birds call out to each other high up in the trees above.
As you walk down the winding earthen slope through the tall Japanese cedar forest and navigate the log bridges across the mountain streams running beside the path, you can experience the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing), where you boost health levels by spending time in the forest. Your journey downhill continues for a while like this and just as you get into an almost meditative walking rhythm, a clearing opens out in front of you.
Ichikokutochi Tatebachaya Tea House
A welcome sight for many weary travellers over the years has been the Tatebachaya Tea House in Ichikokutochi. This historic building was originally built as a farmhouse in the Edo period, but since then it was converted to serve passing visitors with a cup of tea and hospitality. Inside, those in winter are treated to the delight of being warmed by an Irori sunken fireplace, and on arrival, the manager of this tea house will often be there to greet you with limited English, provide tips for hikers or even perform traditional songs.
One important thing to remember is the tea house may be closed if you go later in the afternoon like we did at 4pm – so this is another reason to set off earlier in the day. While we could not get the chance to rest inside, it was interesting to look at the wooden noticeboard outside and seeing the flags of all the travellers who had visited earlier in the day. There was also a watermelon being cooled in the water station outside, and although there wasn’t time to see it, a 250 year old weeping cherry tree is located nearby.
Odaki and Medaki Waterfalls
After you leave the tea house, the route continues onwards crossing the road to Tsumago and at one point you’ll walk alongside the road as there was a landslide which has closed the walking path. However, you’ll soon see a signpost directing you back into the woodland area, where one of the highlights of the Nakasendo Way awaits.
The path will lead you down some flights of wooden steps, coming to a point inbetween the Odaki (male) and Medaki (female) waterfalls. The Odaki waterfall is the taller of the two with the water crashing down into a deep pool below while the Medaki is more graceful with the water cascading down over a wider area. During summer when temperatures soar above 30 degrees and the humidity is high, the cooling air around the waterfalls is extremely refreshing, so take a break here to re-energise.
For the history fans out there, legend has it that the celebrated Samurai swordsman, Miyamaoto Musashi, honed his legendary skills almost 400 years ago right here among these two waterfalls.
When you spot the Ishidatami cobblestones, it’s a visual signal that Tsumago town is close, and the section of iconic stone path through the cedar trees you see in the photo above is often thought to be the most picturesque part of the Nakasendo Way. On the way down, you’ll find an informative sign explaining how cattle were used to carry heavy loads up the slope instead of horses, before you reach the valley at the bottom covered with a patchwork of rice fields and beautiful farmhouses.
The closer you get to Tsumago (妻籠), which translates to “wife and basket”, the more the trail takes on a residential aura and at times even goes past some local back gardens. Should you be staying in Tsumago, you know with each bend and turn that your destination is near now. As you continue, you begin to recognise traditional inns and Minshuku accommodation by the road, until eventually after crossing over the wild Araragi river you arrive in central Tsumago.
Once you set foot in Tsumago, the beauty of this historical post town will likely take your breath away. The sight of the main street lined with Edo-era wooden lattice buildings, accompanied by an incredible view of the Kiso valley mountains in the background, is something you won’t soon forget. To maintain its authenticity, extensive restorations have been carried out on buildings in Tsumago, and local rules ban electricity cables and cars – allowing visitors to truly feel like they have gone back in time.
Perhaps one of the most magical times to visit Tsumago is during dusk, when the streets are abandoned and lit by lanterns hanging above each traditional inn. Passing by each one you can glimpse the traditional interiors, and some ryokan even take out their sliding doors so passers-by can see their beautiful interior waiting rooms with Tatami mats and Shoji paper doors.
Even if you can not stay overnight, there are plenty of attractions to see. Of particular importance are the Tsumago-juku Honjin, which housed important figures such as lords and government officials during their travels, and the Nagiso Museum of History that showcases the town’s restoration. Additionally, visitors can check out the right angled masugata street that was designed to protect Tsumago against attacking forces, as well as some more water wheels and stores.
Remember that stores and restaurants in this town close early so be sure to arrive earlier in the day to avoid missing out.
Best time of the year to walk the Nakasendo
The optimal times for visiting and hiking the Nakasendo Way are during the spring and autumn months. Either of those times, you can enjoy mild temperatures as well as captivating visuals; take in the beauty of cherry blossom trees in spring or be mesmerized by the vibrant red and orange foliage come autumn.
Summer of course is hotter and humid and then there are the occasional typhoons from mid-August to late-September. Despite this, an advantage of going in summer is there are fewer people walking on the trail, and you can really escape from the hustle and bustle of tourist cities.
Exploring the Nakasendo in winter can be a beautiful adventure as it is one of the most picturesque times to visit. However, be mindful that the days are shorter and temperatures are low, so it is advisable to dress warmly. We also received advice from Juliane of Japan Holidays who highlighted the importance of taking appropriate walking boots for grip as there can be snow or ice on the trail. In addition, public toilets are closed in winter and luggage transfers stop between November and February.
No matter when you make the journey, it is essential to remember that the route between Magome and Tsumago in Kiso Valley lies at a high elevation and its close to the mountains. It means the weather conditions can and does change quickly and unpredictably, so be ready for this and bring some rain wear just in case as you will be out in the elements!
How to get to the Nakasendo Way
The directions below are for travelling to Magome or Tsumago via Nagoya and Nakatsugawa as the well-preserved section between Magome and Tsumago is the most visited part of the Nakasendo Way.
Traveling from Tokyo to Nagoya
If you’re going from Tokyo, the quickest and easiest way is to take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen to Nagoya for the first leg of your journey, which takes just over 1.5 Hours by Nozomi (the fastest Shinkansen train) or 2 Hours by Hikari (the 2nd fastest Shinkansen train). Hikari trains are fully covered by the JR Pass, and for those wishing to ride the Nozomi, you can use your JR Pass by purchasing a special supplement ticket from October 2023.
For more information, please visit the JR – Central Japan Railway Company website.
Traveling from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa
By Train – Using the JR Chuo Main Line will be the best option and fully covered by JR Pass
From Nagoya Station, catch the JR Shinano Limited Express to Nakatsugawa Station. This will be a 50 minute ride and costs 2540 yen. Alternatively, you can take the JR Rapid Train to Nakatsugawa Station which is a 1 hour 16 minute journey but costs 1340 yen. An advantage of taking the Limited Express is you will have seats with foldable tables in front of you so you can enjoy a delicious bento lunchbox while watching the beautiful scenery go past.
For more details on train times, please check out the Japan Travel NaviTime page.
By Bus – Meitetsu Bus / Not covered by JR Pass
Head to the Meitetsu Bus Centre at Nagoya Station and take a Meitetsu Bus to Nakatsugawa. This is a 90 minute ride and costs 4,389 yen although the Express is another option that takes nearly 2 hours and costs 2618 yen. The bus runs several times a day from 7:30 to 17:30 with the last bus departing at 18:30.
For more information, please check the Nagoya to Nakatsugawa Travel by Bus page.
From Nakatsugawa to Magome
By Bus – Kita Ena Bus ( Local Bus ) / Not covered by JR Pass
After exiting JR Nakatsugawa Station, take the Kita Ena Bus to Magome town from the bus terminal located to the left of the main station exit. Board the bus at stop number 3 and be prepared for a 25-minute journey that will cost 570 yen. The bus runs approximately hourly between 7:30 in the morning until 18 – 18:30 depending on the time of year.
For those looking for a waiting area with seating, there is one outside the exit of Nakatsugawa station and another in the building with the tourist information office at the far side of the bus station.
For more details on bus times, please visit the Jorudan’s Japan Transit Planner page.
From Nakatsugawa to Tsumago via Nagiso
By Train and Bus – JR Chuo Line covered with a JR Pass however the Ontake Kotsu Bus ( Local ) is not covered
Departing from JR Nakatsugawa Station, a local train on the JR Chuo Line to Nagiso will be your first leg of the journey – a 20 minute trip that costs 330 yen. Then from JR Nagiso Station, take the Ontake Kotsu Bus to Tsumago which is about a 10 minute ride and costs 300 yen.
For more info on JR Chuo Line from Nakatsugawa to Nagiso, please visit the Japan Travel NaviTime page.
You can also find more details on buses at the Hogami Line, Magome Line, Bus Timetable, and Bus Timetable and Connections of Trains Sections of Nagiso Town Community Bus Timetable page.
Between Magome and Tsumago
For those who do not wish to walk the entire path, there’s a bus service by Ontake Kotsu running 4 times a day. It takes about 25 mins and costs 600 yen for the full journey between Magome and Tsumago. You can check more details on the Magome Line and Bus Timetable Section of Nagiso Town Community Bus Timetable page.
Nakasendo Trail Tips
When planning a journey to Nakasendo, it’s best to keep several things in mind. Many restaurants in Magome and Tsumago close quite early and buses returning to Nakatsugawa or Nagiso station typically leave before 6pm. So to get the most out of your trip, these points should also be kept in consideration:
- Start Early – to get ahead of the crowds and also since many shops and restaurants close early
- Wear comfortable Clothes and Shoes – to fully enjoy your walk as it will take you about 4 hours with stops on the way
- Make Sure Not to Miss the Last Bus – as the last buses usually leave the area before 5:30 – 6 pm
- Be Aware of Sudden Weather Changes – especially during the peak typhoon months of August and September
- Take Some Rain Goods (at least a folding umbrella) – just in case as the weather can be unpredictable
If you do miss the last bus back from Tsumago to Nagiso station, you can search for Nagiso Kanko taxis at Parking Lot number 1 at the north side of the town. Taxis are not guaranteed to be there though so better to catch the last bus to be safe!
Traveling with luggage? Consider taking advantage of the Luggage Forwarding Service through the Tourist Information Centres. They offer a convenient way for transport of baggage between Magome and Tsumago. You can drop off your items between 8:30/9:00 – 11:30 am at either Magome or Tsumago’s office before picking them up after 1 pm at your desired location. It costs 500 yen per item to use this service. The alternative for those with wheeled luggage is to take a bus between Magome and Tsumago as it is not possible to take anything bigger than a backpack when you are walking the trail.
Where to Stay on the Nakasendo
There are a variety of accommodation options when staying in or around Magome or Tsumago. The popular choice is to stay in traditional Ryokan (Japanese Inns) or Minshuku (Japanese-style Bed & Breakfast accommodation). However, it is important to book well ahead to secure your rooms at traditional accommodation as the majority typically have less than 10 rooms. Here are our top picks:
Travellers to Magome will be delighted to find Tajimaya situated on the Main Street, mere minutes away from the bus stop. The Inn offers excellent meals where you can enjoy a variety of traditional and local dishes. Also after dinner, around the old irori sunken hearth which was built in 1897, you’ll have a chance to join in a samurai song and dance session where you listen to a Kisobushi-Kiso folk song and learn the dance steps of Kiso Odori. If you want to take part in this, we would recommend telling the inn when booking.
Hanaya inn is a well-maintained ryokan that has been in business for 8 generations. In the 300-year-old building just outside of Tsumago, you’ll be able to find works by the famous Japanese composite artist Teruko Kawaguchi on display as well. Apart from soaking up its history and art during your stay at this ryokan, you can enjoy local dishes like salmon sashimi from Nagano prefecture, river fish and pork hotpot as well as Shinshu soba.
Website: http://hanaya-tsumago.jp/# ( language options on top right )
Daikichi is an authentic Japanese inn where all the rooms are traditional Japanese style with tatami mats. This inn offers guests a memorable and relaxing experience with a TV and air conditioner also provided in each room. In their traditional dining room, you can savour the chef’s original dinner and breakfast courses including Chirashi Sushi, hand-made soba noodles, tempura, seasonal mountain vegetables and enjoy a glass of local wine.
Located opposite the Araragi River, this traditional ryokan inn has been in existence for more than two centuries. With the convenience of modern amenities, visitors can stay comfortably while indulging in sweetfish dishes and wild vegetables that are local specialties. Each guest room is separated by Fusuma sliding doors for privacy and to preserve its original atmosphere.
Website in Japanese: http://matsushiroya.sakura.ne.jp/
For other inns and hotels in the Magome, Tsumago, or nearby areas, you can find more on Booking.com.
Hopefully, this article has been helpful in providing you with a good idea of what to expect when traveling on the Nakasendo way. If you are planning to head to Nagoya on the next leg of your journey, we would recommend checking our recommendations of things to do in Nagoya as well as the best hotels to stay in Nagoya.
Note: All the information and details are correct at the time of publishing. The fares and prices mentioned in the article are at the time of the trip in September 2023. We would recommend checking each train, bus, hotel or other relevant website for the latest information.