Travel Back in Time in the Kiso Valley
Right in the centre of Japan is an old highway spanning over 500km: Nakasendo. Between bustling villages, the road winds through misty woodlands, farmlands and valleys full of mossy rocks and waterfalls.
Nakasendo used to serve as the main mountain route connecting Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), samurai, government officials and farmers would frequent this road. There were 69 post towns between the two cities – 11 of these in the Kiso Valley. Many of the towns no longer exist, but since WWII a number have been restored to their original state as part of a preservation project. My friend and I did an 8-kilometre hike that stretches between Tsumago in Nagano prefecture and Magome in Gifu prefecture.
Walking down the streets of Tsumago, you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal. Everything from the traditional wooden buildings to the lamp posts are a reminder of how things used to be. They even went as far as concealing all electricity wires, TV antennas and satellite dishes. And although the town looks like an open-air museum, the buildings are actually fully functional! Some are used as inns, souvenir shops and cafés.
After soaking up all that history in Tsumago, it was time to hit the road. Once we passed through the township, we followed a road towards the forest. The shops disappeared and were quickly replaced by agricultural fields and quaint country houses.
I imagine this road was once a lively, busy place. There are actually many famous ukiyo prints that depict farmers herding their ox along the path, or peasants carrying woven baskets as they make their way between the towns.
But now, it’s a very different story. In many sections of the trail, you literally feel like you’re the only person in the world. The woods are so peaceful; all you can hear are birds chirping, trees rustling in the winds, streams bubbling, and the occasional waterfall. The trail twists and turns through the valley, alternating between gravel, bitumen, concrete, grasslands and forest floors.
It is a very well marked hike and took us about 3.5 hours with a few rest stops due to the rain. The thing I love most was how the trail passes through so many different types of landscape, rather than just going up and down a mountain. The scenery was always changing, but always beautiful!
Your starting point can be either Tsumago or Magome. From Nagoya, take the JR Shinano limited express train and alight at Nakatsugawa Station. From there, a 30-minute bus trip will get you to Magome. Otherwise, continue on the train to Nagiso Station, then take the 7-minute bus ride to Tsumago.
If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities and spend some time in nature, make sure this hike is on your list!
All photos by Celia Knox.