Historic trail through the mountains from Kyoto to Tokyo
Hardened walkers can set off from Sanjo Ohashi bridge in Kyoto, the official start of the old Nakasendo trail, and walk the 535 kilometres all the way to Nihombashi bridge in Tokyo. But for those of us who want to experience the best sections of the trail in a week’s visit to Japan, 6 days of mostly village to village walking between Nakatsugawa and Sakamoto is enough to slow down and channel Edo era travellers without the fleas and ronin ambushes.
The Nakasendo, also known as the Kiso-ji, was once one of the land access routes between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo), traversed by feudal lords and their retinues, samurai, Buddhist priests, merchants, ordinary people and the occasional princess in a palanquin. There remain 69 ‘post-towns’ along the route, where accommodation and fresh horses could once be procured.
This trail has been largely restored in recent years and as a walker staying in traditional ryokan overnight, you get to enjoy the film-set-pretty villages after the daytripper buses have left. Magome, Tsumago and Narai are the crowd-pleasers here – well-preserved and restored villages with rows of atmospheric black timber houses and shops lining a central stone-paved street.
The Nakasendo originally sparked my interest in the historic trails of Japan, as I lived in an old merchant house fronting this ancient route in the post-town of Fukaya as an exchange student many years ago. In the progressive 1980’s of headlong modernization in Japan, this old trail was largely forgotten and built over in urban areas. But in the heart of Gifu prefecture, the trail winds up mountain paths through forests, along quiet rural backroads in the valleys, through the backyards of thatch-roofed farmhouses, and past bear warning signs to the next pretty town. Wayfinding markers are frequent now, and back-tracking to find the path is only occasional. The often octagenarian locals are always keen to point you in the right direction, or invite you in for tea!
Spring and autumn have a special photogenic charm, but winter is a wonderful time to walk the trail through snowy landscapes. My tip is to avoid summer as it is sooo hot in Japan, even in the Gifu mountains. There are some sections which require train travel on the charming ‘wan-man-densha’ literally one-man train – 2 carriages, and a driver who doubles up as conductor, with automatic tickets.
Summary of 6-day Nakasendo Trail:
Day 1 – Train from Tokyo to Nakatsugawa, walk Nakatsugawa to Magome – approx 9km
Day 2 – walk Magome to Tsumago – approx 10km
Day 3 – walk Tsumago to Nojiri – approx 24km (train on to Kiso-Fukushima)
Day 4 – train to Yabuhara; walk Yabuhara to Narai over Torii Toge Pass – approx 8km
Day 5 – train to Matsumoto – visit castle and old town; train on to Karuizawa
Day 6 – Karuizawa to Sakamoto down Usui Toge Pass – approx 17km; train on to Tokyo
All images are by Relle Mott and subject to copyright