A Pilgrim's Trail: The Nakasendo

A Pilgrim's Trail: The Nakasendo
 

Once a vital 17th century pilgrim’s trail between the imperial capital of Kyoto and the Edo-era capital of Tokyo, the 500km Nakasendo Way, or “the road through the mountains”, offers avid hikers a chance to step back in time as it winds through traditional shukuba ‘post’ towns - weigh stations for weary walkers – where beautifully-preserved medieval homes line a route that once defined ancient Japan.

The Nakasendo Walk captures the beauty and rich heritage of Honshu’s remote mountain regions, including communities little changed since they first welcomed pilgrims passing between ancient capitals. 

Ideal for time-strapped travellers, the one-day Magome to Tsumago trek begins with a short train journey from Matsumoto in Chūbu to Nakatsugawa, from where one of the best portions of the ancient Nakasendo Way walking route begins. At the heart of the Kiso Valley, the post town of Magome was the birth place of Shimazaki Toson, Japan’s first modern novelist. Beautifully preserved with broad stone walkways, manicured gardens and authentic timber architecture, Magome is a contrast to the rugged beauty of nearby Tsumago, where residents pride themselves on living a life free of modern conveniences, including electricity. The 8km trail between these two villages is well maintained and meanders through bucolic countryside before passing the twin waterfalls of Otaki and Metaki (the man and the woman) and the ruins of Ichikokutochishirakiatame Bansho-ato, an Edo-era castle. After touring Tsumago, famed for it’s authentic, Honjin, guest houses for the elite, and Wakihonjin, guest houses for commoners, head to Nakatsugawa station for a train to Nagoya, and a relaxing night at the newly opened Mitsui Garden Hotel Nagoya Premium hotel. 

 The post town of Magome.

The post town of Magome.

For travellers looking to delve a little deeper into this remarkable landscape, the four-day guided journey through Kiso Valley departs Ena city in Gifu Prefecture, bound for Narai. Capturing the heart of The Nakasendo Way, this 39km hiking adventure starts at Nakatsugawa  (just outside Ena), at the Hiroshige Print Museum, from which a 6km trail climbs to the historic Magome Pass before entering magnificent Kiso Valley. Experience traditional Japanese hospitality at Shinchaya Inn, a tea house turned minshuku or traditional family-run inn, located just outside Magome.

From the inn, you’ll have a chance to explore Magome onday two, while also passing the Otaki and Metaki Fallson your 10km hike to Tsumago village, famed for its 400-year old traditional architecture. Arguably the most beautiful of the route’s post villages, Tsumago prides itself on its untouched aesthetics; the town has banned power poles, power lines, and even vending machines inan attempt to maintain its authenticity. Finish the day’s walking at Iwaya Inn, where you can visit the onsen thermal baths for an indulgent full-body rejuvenation and detox experience. 

At the beginning of the third day, you’ll kick off with a visit to a reconstructed barrier station before being transferred to an ancient 12km trail head that leads over the towering Jizo Pass, climbing through dense forest to 1,355m before descending down onto Kaida Plateau, a captivating landscape dominated by active volcano Mt Ontake, a sacred Buddhist site. After lunch, you will again ascend to capture stunning panoramas of the plateau before descending to the alpine resort of Kaida Kogen and your hotel, Yamaka-no-yu.

 An ancient Nakasendo path.

An ancient Nakasendo path.

Finish your Nakasendo Way adventure in Yabuhara with an 11km hike that climbs Torii Toge pass, named for the shinto torii, or gate, that marks one of four protective sites surrounding sacred Mt Ontake. At 1,197 metres, the Torii Pass is also the second highest point on the itinerary, with hikers emerging at the outskirts of Narai, the half-way point between Kyoto and Tokyo and one of the route’s most famous post towns. Narai, one of Japan’s Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Sites, has sought to maintain its Edo-era architecture and hospitality, making it one of the most popular stops along the greater route. After lunch and a short coach transfer you’ll be able to soak those aching legs in the steaming mineral baths of Myojinkan Ryokan, the perfect conclusion to any Nakasendo encounter.

 

 

A passionate traveller, writer and budding photographer based in Hong Kong. Ever since doing exchanges to New York and San Francisco, Isabelle has had the travel bug and when she's not jetting off on assignment you can find her exploring the latest restaurants and bars in her home town.