Hiking the Nakasendo Trail, Kiso Valley Japan

For some, Nakasendo may be just another trail that is fairly moderate in terms of difficulty level. Situated in Japan’s Kiso Valley, the trail extends 7 kilometers and connects two postal towns: Magome and Tsumago. But hiking the Nakasendo is also paying homage to an important piece of Japanese history. If you look at the trail today, it would probably be hard to believe that it was once one of the five highways during the Edo period that connected Edo, (now modern Tokyo) to the historic town of Kyoto.  These days, cemented National Roads run adjacent to this old highway, but Nakasendo still appeals to the intrepid traveler.

A look back at Magome en route to Tsumago on the Nakasendo Trail

A look back at Magome en route to Tsumago on the Nakasendo Trail

The Snowy Journey Starts

The 7.8 kilometer Nakasendo trail may not be remotely challenging to seasoned hikers, but the trail becomes a lot harder if it covered with more than 1 foot of snow.  When we reached Magome on a very snowy day, the friendly townspeople had already warned us that the trail was virtually impassable due to continuous snowing.  They told us that if we really wanted to get to Tsumago, we could take a bus that goes there on a regular basis. After spending the night in wonderful Magome, my travel companion insisted that we should still follow the trail.  Knowing that he has a lot of experience with snow; he surmised that the locals were mistaken. Until today, I honestly don’t know why I let him talk me into it; but in the early morning of the next day, I found myself hiking the Nakasendo trail from Magome to Tsumago, carrying my 7-kilo backpack wearing shoes not fit for hiking.

The Nakasendo Trail has English signs that help guide hikers

The Nakasendo Trail has English signs that help guide hikers

Slips on the Road

As anyone would have guessed (except my utterly clueless self), the hike did not go very smoothly.  The first few kilometers of the Nakasendo involves steep climbs and going through thick forest. It did not take long before we were eventually greeted by 1 foot of snow. Of course our shoes and pants were soon soaked, making it an uncomfortable experience.   And that is not even the worse part. The one thing that got my blood boiling was the ice on the road. For some reason, (and I guess it has something to do with not wearing snow boots) I just kept sliding down. The first time it happened — it was funny, as a big chunk of snow on the ground provided cushioning for my poor bum. It felt like a rug was pulled from underneath me!  We were chuckling as we realized that we couldn’t turn back anymore. Then, it happened again, and again, and again. Suddenly, it was not funny anymore. My laugh turned into a pout.  Was it because I was not used to walking on ice-covered ground? Who knows! All I know is that I was at the point of envisioning knocking my companion down for convincing me to agree on this ridiculous idea.

The aged cedar buildings along the Nakasendo will keep your finger on the shutter

The aged cedar buildings along the Nakasendo will keep your finger on the shutter

Serene Atmosphere and the Other Hikers

No, blood was not spluttered on the white grounds of Nakasendo!  I had to admit that I couldn’t be really mad at him as the snow-clad surroundings simply pacified my anger.  I cannot find any other fitting description of the trail other than “breathtakingly beautiful.” I’m sure, that the trail has a more vibrant and colorful appearance during spring and autumn. But there’s something about the winter and the snow that created a serene and enigmatic atmosphere.  It is definitely much more difficult to tackle the trail in the thick of winter, which ironically, is the reason why my hiking experience have become even more special.

Beautiful cedar trees line the Nakasendo

Beautiful cedar trees line the Nakasendo

Continuing on, we saw footprints on the snow that suggested that some other people had gone through the path earlier that day. But it was definitely clear that only a few souls in their right minds would have hiked the trail that day.

It was not just the forest that made Nakasendo especially charming; it was the things that we encountered when we embarked on the trail. Each main trail section had an old rustic pole with a bell hanging to it.  According to the sign on the pole, the bell was rung during the older times, to scare off bears in the area. Luckily, bears are in hibernation during winter. Nevertheless, we felt the urge to ring every bell we chanced upon, as if to proudly announce that we were still very much completing the trail. (I’m sure other hikers would have felt the same way).

One of the aged towns on the way to Tsumago

One of the aged towns on the way to Tsumago

The Nakasendo Madness

Nakasendo brought us not only to snow-covered trees, old wooden bridges and random shrines, but also to small groups of wooden houses with aged residents shoveling the snow. It really amazed me how the elderly Japanese, most probably in their 60’s and 70’s, were strong enough to shovel big piles of snow off their lawns and driveways. This image was just one of the things that I loved about Nakasendo. With roughly two kilometers remaining in our hike from Magome to Tsumago on the Nakasendo trail, we finally found two gorgeous medium-sized waterfalls, which were described as the “he” and “she” cascades.

The Falls, roughly 2 km from Tsumago

The Falls, roughly 2 km from Tsumago

Remember the expression: “It is not the destination but the journey that’s important.”  Well this really does not apply to Nakasendo. Although the journey is incredible, almost magical, the destination and even the departure point are also highlights of the whole trail.

The Kiso Valley as we approach Tsumago

The Kiso Valley as we approach Tsumago

I would have to say this, without any bias, that Magome and Tsumago are two of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen in my entire life. The photos we took of these two communities will probably not give enough justice to how truly amazing they really are.  And even if I slipped and hurt my bum more than 10 times, I don’t regret doing this incredible journey.  In a way, I felt a sense of pride of retracing history and reaching Tsumago the way the Edo period folks had done it – the “Nakasendo” way.

Tsumago.-Both Magome and Tsumago are filled with buildings with atmospheric aged cedar siding

Tsumago.-Both Magome and Tsumago are filled with buildings with atmospheric aged cedar siding

How to find the cheapest rooms before/after walking the Nakasendo Trail?

Technically, the two most convenient places to stay before/after you walk the Nakasendo are Magome or Tsumago. Both spectacular towns. Ultimately, it depends on which direction you are walking the trail. We stayed in Magome and then walked to Tsumago.  It was quite challenging to find rooms in this area – especially during the winter. During the warmer months we have been told that rooms sell out early – therefore book well in advance. We used two different sites for our bookings in this area of Japan: www.hotelscombined.com and www.booking.com. Both of these are very reputable, so ultimately choose whichever one suits your taste!

By | 2017-06-07T16:31:00+00:00 April 4th, 2015|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. TMack August 12, 2016 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    I come across your blog when searching magome-tsumago hiking in winter as I was worried that it will be imposible. After reading your story, I’m quite confident that I will definitely do it. At least that what I kept telling myself.. LOL

    • Steph August 30, 2016 at 5:23 pm - Reply

      Hi TMack, did you do the walk in winter in the end?

      PA, I’m thinking of doing the same around the end of December, but hoping for multi-day hikes and not just between Magome and Tsumago. Yes, ridiculous, but in any case, any tips? It has been difficult trying to find resources for Nakasendo in winter!

      • P.A. Cybulskie October 19, 2016 at 9:16 am - Reply

        Hello Steph, sorry for the late reply. It is hard to find resources for Nakasendo hiking in winter because it is not advisable. The snow level can be really high in this area, an snow storms are common. You can definitely go there during winter, but it is not a guarantee that you can hike unless you come with proper snow shoes and winter gear. Having said that, hiking the Nakasendo Trail is still doable as long as the snow is not severe. You may have to dedicate a couple of days in the area as a buffer just in case one or two of the days have severe weather. Nakasendo Trail is beautiful, and you will encounter waterfalls during the hike. I don’t know if you want to this hike alone, I would rather have someone with me. There are areas that were icy and you can easily slide. I slid several times during the hike. And although it was sort of funny, I could have potentially hit my head. Inform someone that you are doing the trail, and take your time. I suggest you start early in the morning to get to the next town in the afternoon. I wish you all the best. If you find my travel guide useful, please like my page of Facebook! Wishing you epic travels!

    • P.A. Cybulskie October 19, 2016 at 9:19 am - Reply

      I wish you all the best. But the weather in the area is unpredictable. If you really want to do the hike, dedicate a night in Magome as buffer in case there’s severe weather on the day you arrive.

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