Explore a section of the famous Nakasendo walking trail and visit two charming towns along the way.
The Nakasendo Trail (中山道 – literal translation “middle mountain way”) is the old route that connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. The section of the trail that winds through the Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture passes through two exceptionally pretty and well-preserved old Japanese towns—Magome and Tsumago, and makes for a nice day trip from Nagoya, or as part of a rustic retreat for a few days.
Three tips for walking the Nakasendo Trail
The Nakasendo hike is a pretty easy one, but here are some ideas to make it even easier, from sending your bags on ahead to keeping connected.
1. Heels or hiking boots?
The Nakasendo hike is a gentle 5 miles (8km) with only slight elevation changes, and should take a leisurely 3-4 hours. No special footwear or equipment is necessary; comfortable flat-soled shoes (no heels!) like sneakers should be fine. There’s a nice teahouse rest stop and public toilets along the way, so plenty of opportunities for a breather.
2. Fast, free wifi on the Nakasendo Trail
There’s a free wifi rest stop at the top of the hill as you leave Magome, which allows you to connect up to 20 times per day, but for only 15 minutes each time. In the video here, myself and Andres from Boutique Japan test it out. This free wifi is great for last-minute route changes, checking into your hostel ahead of time, or getting some podcast downloads to keep you occupied.
3. Luggage forwarding on the Nakasendo Trail
A local company offers a handy baggage forwarding service at either town. You can drop your baggage off at the information center between 8.30am and 11.30am, and for ¥500 (per item) they’ll forward your item(s) to the other town’s information center. Keep in mind that this service is only available from mid-March to late November (the warmer months of the year in Japan).
Magome-juku: A charming starting point for the Nakasendo Trail
Magome (馬籠 “horse and basket”) is the 43rd of 69 old post towns in the city of Nakatsugawa. It’s a beautifully preserved old town situated on a hillside, along a winding cobble path which takes you up to the Nakasendo Trail to Tsumago.
The town was also the final of 11 stops on the kisoji, a route that preceded the Nakasendo Trail and ran through the Kiso Valley. You’ll find delightful little eateries, snacks and souvenir shops, and ryokan (Japanese inns) along the path, so before you start the hike be sure to take your time and sample some of Magome’s wares.
One of the highlights is the section of restored houses which stretch along the sloped main street of the town. Once you reach the top of the cobbled road, take stock of the view and continue along the signposted Nakasendo path to Tsumago.
With a number of museums and restored buildings, the town is great for a relaxing stroll, with plenty of cafes and food-stands to tempt you in along the way.
Home to Japanese author Shimazaki Toson, the town has a memorial museum to his life in the original principal inn, and he’s buried in the local cemetery. Close to the museum is Eiheiji Temple, which is mentioned in his popular novel Yoake Mae (Before the Dawn).
There’s the wooden Masugata waterwheel and a watchtower guarding the entrance to the town, as well as a carefully recreated signboard from the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate with the town’s rules—banning Christians and sentencing tree-fellers to death. There are a series of small museums too, including the Magome Wakihonjin, the Tsuchimaya Shiryokan and the Shimizuya Shiryokan, although English information is limited.
Accommodation in Magome
Assuming you are keen to go traditional on your Nakasendo hike, there are a few friendly places to choose from in Magome.
Guesthouse Gaku Magome is an afforable hostel option with an old-town feel. It’s located in the old Magomefurusato school and has incredible views of Mount Ena from all rooms. There’s a shared kitchen, free wifi throughout and they offer luggage storage too. The dorm rates start from ¥5,000 and offer comfy beds, in capsule or bedroom-style rooms.
Alternatively, the popular Guesthouse Nedoko offers a stylish yet traditional stay with tatami rooms, futon beds and a chilled-out feel. Located close to the Toson Memorial Museum in the middle of town, the guesthouse has wifi throughout, aircon, a shared kitchen and a continental breakfast available too. You can choose from dorms costing ¥3,500 or private rooms which start from ¥10,000, including breakfast.
The Nakasendo hike: Cedar trees, irori and Shiba dogs
The Nakasendo Trail continues from Magome through a light cedar (sugi) forest, and about halfway through there’s a nice little rest stop, featuring a traditional irori (Japanese sunken hearth). It also features a very friendly local gentleman who will serve you green tea and likely burst into traditional song (or at least did when we were last there).
Further along the path, there are numerous traditional wooden houses, and a small amount of village industry. You might also be greeted by one or two furry locals, like this little guy:
If you want to stay in one of the towns and make a day trip to the other, you can hike both ways or catch a bus on the way back. The bus times are available here. There are usually four buses a day in each direction, although during peak seasons there might be an extra bus around 9am.
Rain or shine: Weather on the Nakasendo Trail
While Japan’s famous four seasons are a little milder in the center of Honshu, they still affect your walking plans to a degree.
Spring and autumn are the best times, as you have mild temperatures and beautiful seasonal changes to admire on the journey. In summer, temperatures can reach up to 30+ degrees centigrade, so you’ll need to carry plenty of water, sunscreen and take your time. In winter, the snow transforms the towns into stunning scenes, but the ice can make the path dangerous. Snowshoes are reccomended for some of the sections and good walking boots are required throughout to ensure you don’t slip—with poles or chains suggested for some sections.
Tsumago-juku: An equally charming end-point
Eventually the path reaches Tsumago (妻籠 “wife and basket”), which is a truly enchanting village of traditional Japanese wooden houses, shops and more ryokan.
As the 42nd town on the trail, it was also the tenth on the Kisoji Trail, and is packed full of history. In 1968, the community began a restoration project and around 20 homes had been transformed in three years or so. After that, a charter was created to protect the homes in the town, and it was later assigned the status of Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site.
The town’s dedication to preservation means there are plenty of things to see. The Nagiso Museum of History shows the restoration of the town, there’s the ruins of the Tsumago Castle, and the unusual Rurisan Kotoku-ji Temple which dates back to 1500. Much like Magome, Tsumago has a row of restored homes along the central road, which is pretty photogenic to say the least.
Once again, there are plenty of souvenirs to be had, many local crafts/craftsmen—including a tailor making rather impressive flared trousers, the kind Elvis (should he still be alive) would wear to a rave.
For lunch/eats, Yoshimura Soba serves a selection of cold/hot soba dishes (the buckwheat flour is milled and kneaded into noodles on premises). And for dessert, there’s a rather old-school matcha tea shop across the road for Japanese tea and sweets.
Accommodation in Tsumago
For an excellent value deluxe experience, we recommend Takimi House, a rustic and family-run onsen/ryokan—only a short drive from Tsumago. Takami House will drop you off and pick you up at either end of the hike, plus the private onsen makes for a great soak at the end of the trip. It’s mid-range pricing, but with your own personal chef, onsen and the whole setting, it’s hard to beat.
Coming from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa, the rapid train takes 1hr 15mins and costs about ¥1,320, while the “Wide View Shinano” train takes 45mins and costs roughly ¥2,500 if you book a non-reserved seat. You can then catch the bus to Magome, which takes about 25 minutes and costs just over ¥500.
For the return journey, there’s a 15-min bus (or 45-min walk) from Tsumago to Nagiso, from which you can catch a local train to Nakatsugawa and then change to an express back to Nagoya.
Frequently asked questions
1. How do you get to Magome?
To get to Magome, you can catch the train from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa. The fastest option—the Wide View Shinano—takes 45 minutes and costs about ¥2,500. The regular rapid train takes an hour and 15 minutes and costs close to ¥1,320. From Natasugawa, you can catch a local bus to Magome which takes 25 minutes and costs just over ¥500.
2. How do you get to Tsumago?
To reach Tsumago, you need to catch a 15-minute local bus from Nagiso. If you’re traveling from Nagoya, some of the Wide View Shinano trains continue on to Nagiso, adding a couple of extra hundred yen to the ticket price. Otherwise, you can catch a local train from Nakatsugawa, which takes just under 20 minutes.
3. Where can you stay in Tsumago?
In Tsumago we reccommend the lovely Takimi House—a small lodging with a friendly host and traditional style. For more details, check the section above.
4. When’s the best time to hike the Nakasendo Trail?
While this section of the trail can be hiked throughout the year, spring and autumn are the best times. Not only are the temperatures mild, there are cherry blossoms or fiery autumn leaves to admire on the journey.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in March, 2016. Last updated in April, 2020.