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The Nakasendo Highway

About 100km (60 miles) E of Nagoya; 88km (55 miles) SW of Matsumoto

If you're traveling between Nagoya and Matsumoto, you'll most likely pass through Kiso Valley in mountainous Nagano Prefecture. Formed by the Kiso River, the valley has always served as a natural passageway through the Japan Alps and was, in fact, one of two official roads linking Kyoto with Edo (Tokyo) back in the days of the Tokugawa shogunate (the other route was the Tokaido Hwy., which passes through Hakone). Known as the Nakasendo Highway, it was the route of traveling daimyo and their entourages of samurai retainers journeying between Japan's two most important towns. To serve their needs, 11 post towns sprang up along the Nakasendo Highway in Kiso Valley. Back then, it took 3 days to travel through the valley.

Of the old post towns, Tsumago and Magome are two that still survive, with many of the old buildings left intact. An 8km (5-mile) pathway skirting the Kiso River links the two villages, providing hikers with the experience of what it must have been like to travel the 400-year-old Nakasendo Highway back in the days of the shogun. You can visit the two picturesque villages and take the hike in a 1-day excursion from Nagoya or Matsumoto, but I've included an overnight recommendation in case you want to linger. When I took my son, then 14 years old, on this hike in 2009, he declared it the highlight of our 2-week trip in Japan.

Essentials

Getting There -- Because neither Magome nor Tsumago is directly on a train line, you'll have to make the final journey by bus.

To reach Magome, take the JR Shinano express train (which connects Nagoya and Matsumoto and departs hourly) to Nakatsugawa Station. Trains from Nagoya take about 50 minutes and cost ¥2,430 for an unreserved seat. From Matsumoto, trains take about 75 minutes and cost ¥3,670. The 20-minute bus ride onward to Magome costs ¥540, with buses departing about once an hour.

Because of less frequent train and bus connections, it's harder to reach Tsumago, so be sure to check schedules beforehand. Take the JR Shinano train to Nagiso Station and then a 10-minute bus ride (¥300). A taxi ride between Tsumago and Nagiso costs about ¥1,400.

Note: Train and bus schedules do not always coincide and not all trains stop in Nagiso or Nakatsugawa, so be sure to plan ahead. Although it's the same JR Shinano train that travels to both Nagiso and Nakatsugawa, express trains stop at Nagiso much less frequently than in Nakatsugawa. Note also that buses between Nagiso and Tsumago are also less frequent than those running between Nakatsugawa and Magome, so inquire about bus schedules beforehand. The Matsumoto Station tourist office has information on bus schedules.

Visitor Information -- The best way to obtain information about Kiso Valley is to stop by the Tourist Information Center in Tokyo or Narita or Kansai international airports to pick up a leaflet called "Kiso Valley" (or download it from JNTO's website at www.jnto.go.jp by looking under "Browse by Destinations"), which provides a rough sketch of the 8km (5-mile) hiking path between Magome and Tsumago and gives some basic information about the villages; you can also stop by the tourist office in Matsumoto.

Otherwise, there's a tourist office in Tsumago (tel. 0264/57-3123; open daily 8:30am-5pm) and one in Magome (tel. 0573-69-2336; open daily 9am-5pm except in summer when it opens at 8:30am). No English is spoken, but they do have English-language pamphlets, bus and train schedules, and maps of the hiking trail.

Traveling Between Tsumago & Magome -- If you want to see the post towns of Tsumago and Magome but don't want to hike between the two (or wish to hike the trail, say, from Magome to Tsumago and then return to Magome), a bus travels between the two villages for ¥600, but service is infrequent so be sure to get the schedule beforehand.

Especially useful for hikers is a luggage-transfer service available between Magome and Tsumago on weekends and national holidays from mid-March to mid-November (offered daily during peak season, July 20-Aug 31). Luggage is accepted at either town's tourist office no later than 11:30am, at a charge of ¥500 per bag, and can be picked up at your destination's tourist office after your hike as early as 1pm, but must be picked up by 5pm. During other times of the year, your bags can be sent by taxi to either tourist office or your ryokan for ¥3,000 for one or more bags.

Walking The Nakasendo Highway Between Tsumago & Magome

Allow about 3 hours for the 8km (5-mile) hike between Tsumago and Magome. It doesn't matter which town you start from, though starting from Tsumago is easier if you have heavy luggage being sent via transfer service, as starting in Magome requires an 8-minute walk from the bus stop up a steep slope to the tourist office. I, however, like starting in Magome and ending up in Tsumago, which I consider the crown jewel of the hike.

In any case, the trail is mainly a footpath tracing the contours of the Kiso Valley and crisscrossing a rushing stream over a series of bridges. At times the trail follows a paved road and leads past interesting farming villages, as well as old signposts, watch-house ruins, and other historic remnants, with a short detour leading to two waterfalls, Odaki and Medaki. There are public toilets along the way. Because the trail goes up some steep inclines, wear your walking shoes. And have fun -- this is a great walk!

Tsumago -- Tsumago, the second post town from the south, is the more beautiful and authentic of the two towns. Threatened with gradual decline and desertion after the train line was constructed in 1911, bypassing Tsumago, the town experienced decades of neglect -- and that's probably what ultimately saved it. Having suffered almost no modernization in the rebuilding zeal of the 20th century, Tsumago was a perfect target for renovation and restoration in the early 1970s, and in a rare show of insight, electrical wires, TV antennas, and telephone poles were hidden from sight along the main road and strict building codes forbid changes to existing buildings. Thus, Tsumago looks much as it did back in the days of Edo. There are, of course, the ubiquitous souvenir shops, but many sell locally made crafts made of wood and bamboo, including sun hats made from shaved cypress, which started as a cottage industry in the Edo Era.

On the main street of Tsumago are three separate buildings, called collectively the Nagiso-machi Museum (tel. 0264/57-3322) and open daily from 9am to 5pm for a ¥700 admission. The Tsumagojuku Honjin was an officially appointed inn that once served as a way station for the 30 or so daimyo who used the Nakasendo Highway to travel to and from Edo. Like all honjin (an inn designated as the resting place for daimyo), it's divided into two parts: a large, grand area for the feudal lord and his attendants, and a few smaller, simpler rooms for the Shimazaki family, which managed the inn.

Apparently, the Shimazaki family had plans drawn up to rebuild its inn in 1830. Renovation, however, didn't take place until 160 years later when an heir discovered the plans and gave them to the township, which rebuilt the inn according to the original plans using techniques dating from the period. You'd swear it's the original.

Across the lane is the Waki-honjin Okuya, the town's secondary inn, used by court nobles or by daimyo when the honjin was already occupied. The present house, a lovely traditional structure with a garden, dates from 1877 and was rebuilt with hinoki cypress trees, a fact that has a special significance for this region. For centuries, all the way through the Edo Period, wood in the Kiso Valley was as good as gold and was used instead of rice to pay taxes. Commoners, therefore, were prohibited from cutting down trees, and those who did so literally lost their heads. When the Meiji Period dawned and the ban was finally lifted, wealthy landowners were quick to rebuild in a statelier manner. Emperor Meiji himself visited the inn in 1880, and though a special tub and toilet were built just for the occasion, he stayed only 30 minutes. Upstairs is a secret room, used for important discussions.

Next door is the Rekishi Shiryokan, which serves as a local history museum with displays of lacquerware, porcelain, a model of how the Waki-honjin looked during the Edo Period, diagrams showing how trees were felled and transported from the steep mountainsides, and photographs of buildings in Tsumago before and after they were renovated.

Magome -- The southernmost post town, Magome has old inns, restaurants, and shops selling beautiful basket work and wooden articles that line both sides of a steeply sloping, cobblestone road. It takes about 20 minutes to stroll through the town.

Daimyo Paranoia -- Daimyo (feudal lords) almost never ate meals prepared by local innkeepers. Rather, feudal lords traveled with their own cooks, who shopped for provisions in the village and then prepared meals in the inn's kitchen. Even then the food was first tested by a taster before the daimyo himself ate, to make sure it wasn't poisoned.

Where To Stay & Dine

Both Tsumago and Magome have simple minshuku and ryokan (tourist offices in both towns can make reservations). I love staying at Ryokan Fujioto, Tsumago, Nagiso-machi 399-5302 (tel. 0264/57-3009; fax 0264/57-2239; www.takenet.or.jp/~fujioto), set back from the main road of Tsumago and buffered from foot traffic by a nice Japanese garden. The 100-year-old inn offers nine tatami rooms (none with bathroom) for ¥11,050 per person, including two delicious meals but excluding tax (no credit cards accepted). What makes this place a standout is innkeeper Fujihara-san and his daughter Sayaka-san, both of whom speak excellent English, can provide information on the area, and visit with guests in the dining room, explaining all the unique dishes they serve. Even if you don't spend the night, you can sample the inn's local specialties for lunch, served from 10am to 2:30pm daily. An English-language menu with pictures offers broiled trout, carp sashimi, Shinshu beef cooked on magnolia leaf, noodles, and other fare, as well as set meals for ¥1,050 to ¥1,650. Both the inn and restaurant are closed mid-December through February.

In Magome, on the main street through town, Magome-Chaya, Magome, Nakatsugawa-shi 4296 (tel. 0265/59-2038), offers 13 simple Japanese-style rooms (none with bathroom) for ¥5,250 for a single and ¥8,190 for a double, without meals (MasterCard and Visa accepted but with a 5% surcharge). The inn's restaurant across the street offers noodles (¥800-¥1,000) and set meals (¥1,600-¥1,800) daily 11am to 3pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.