Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of Japan. The futuristic city-oriented lifestyle may overwhelm you at times whether you reside here or are just travelling through. If you are like me then every so often you require returning to nature for some quality Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing (isn’t the Japanese language beautiful).
Needing a recharge from city life I asked around and found a trail that linked two historical cities on the border of Gifu and Nagano Prefecture in Kiso Valley. The hike begins in the historical post town of Magome (Gifu Prefecture) and follows a 7.8 kilometer trail up through Kiso Valley to the next post town of Tsumago (Nagano Prefecture).
The JR Chuo line was the easiest way to get there. The Shinano Express left from Nagoya Station and arrived to Nakatsugawa Station about an hour and twenty minutes later. The train ride was very scenic, offering some good views of the outskirts of the city and foothills of the Gifu mountain range.
After arriving at Nakatsugawa Station my girlfriend and I quickly realized how hungry we were. We trotted past the konbini (convenience store) to the left of the ticket gates and found a small standing room only udon shop. It was perfect for the cooler weather of the mountains and had a very traditional feel.
The gift shop and information center near the station provided some helpful information on how to get from here to Magome. There are taxis available at all times, but a well marked bus comes almost hourly costing ¥540 for the 25 minute trip up the mountain.
Upon arrival to Magome Station we were asked if we wanted to transfer any baggage to the next town for a price of ¥500 ($5). Due to our lack of baggage we declined this gracious offer and started up the hill stepping further and further back into time with each step.
Magome City was a little more touristy than Tsumago yet still kept the traditional Edo period feel. The steep main street offered views of water mills and the sound of rushing water reverberated off the wooden buildings. The harsh incline is also part of where Magome derives it’s name (Magome meaning 'horse' and 'basket') because the street is too steep for the horses to climb, forcing riders to walk the distance from here to Tsumago to deliver their post. Traditionally this was used as a post route linking the ancient cities of Kyoto and Tokyo.
There are a lot of historical museums and temples along the way. Lots of people dressed up in beautiful traditional clothing walked the main street along side us. Keep your eyes out and you may even be able to make some new furry friends.
At the top of Magome sits a scenic lookout where you can see Kiso Valley, and from here the hike begins. The trail winds through the forest, around and alongside streets, following and crossing rivers. Hikers ring bells along the trail to scare off or alert any bears that may be in the area.
The well marked signs in both English and Japanese were easy to follow. The trail is paved with old cobblestone, and switches to natural compacted soil and at times stairs for steeper sections. Man-made bridges help cross streams and rivers along the way.
About a little more than halfway through the hike sits the Otaki and Metaki (male and female) waterfalls. They are a little detour from the main trail but well worth the effort. The falls are a big tourist attraction in Magome. They are mentioned in the fictionalized book about Japan's most famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962) in which Musashi and his sweetheart (whom was also engaged to his friend) needed to cool off their passions for each other by sitting under their own waterfalls.
After returning to the trail we passed through some rice fields and a small fish hatchery just before reaching Tsumago. In total the hike took about 2 hours, but it could take more like 2.5 if you wanted to rest, picnic, or just enjoy the scenery.
Tsumago felt like it was preserved in time. After further research I learned the Edo period buildings in Tsumago were less affected by fires, and were also rebuilt and preserved in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s the Japanese government protected this city and used it as a model for preservation in other areas of Japan.
The main street offered loads to places to snack, drink and shop. Walking up and down the streets made it feel like I was transported back in time, with the sight of the occasional car park snapping me back into reality.
After the sunset I caught the bus back down to Nakatsugawa Station and hopped on the JR train back to Nagoya. I was fully recharged, and ready to take on the city life once again.