It was the third week of March when I made a trip to the Kisoji Valley and its famous Nakasendo trail. I can still feel the winter breeze wrapping around my body. The beauty of nature was what I was really looking forward to seeing, regardless of the weather as, in the words of a famous musical, the cold never bothered me anyway.
The lack of warm weather was not the only notable thing about the trip, but the almost empty streets of Japan which felt like a ghost town. This year Japan has seen its biggest tourism drop since the 2011 tsunami – all due to the coronavirus. This has extended from big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, to small villages in the Kisoji Valley. One of the favorite trails of foreign visitors, the Nakasendo trail has also experienced a huge drop in the number of hikers on its paths. Minshuku-owners, storekeepers and restaurants all expect this to last until the end of the year. Despite the current worries, there was a silver lining as I was able to enjoy the Nakasendo trail in all its untouched glory.
On my journey from Magome to Tsumago, trekking became a natural way of social distancing. This part of the trail lies in the Gifu and Nagano prefectures and there are tons of things to see on your way. Here are my top 10 things to do on the Nakasendo trail, other than taking photos of course!
1. Stay in a minshuku or temple in Magome
To know more about the cultural and natural background of a specific place, we have to know more about the people. Most of the people on Nakasendo trail don’t speak English, but they will help you understand the history of the Nakasendo trail with English brochures and an impressie display of gesturing. It’s a good idea to arrive a day before your trek as this will give you time to explore the post town of Magome. Here you can experience how it felt like to be a traveler during the Edo period when feudal lords and their entourage walked the very same path.
2. Take a snapshot at the watermill shed.
This spot is usually the cover photo for Magome-juku. You cannot miss this as it’s just along the entrance of the post-town. The post town of Magome is an uphill walk but when you see this rare watermill, you can’t help but strike a pose and temporarily forget your weariness.
3. Explore the sights around the trail
The reason why a map is needed to explore a post-town, is to see things other than just the paved road. You should not miss walking through the little streets of the post-towns. For example, right next to Manpukuan Eishoji temple you’ll find the grave of the early Shōwa period poet and novelist, Shimazaki Tōson.
4. Take advantage of the rest areas
The free rest areas along Nakasendo trail are not just your typical table and chair. They also have vending machine, free WiFi, reading materials, and an actual tatami area where you can lie down and literally take a rest. Amazing, right?
5. Take in the beauty of Mt. Ena
Along the path you’ll find an observatory from where you can enjoy the beauty of Mt. Ena. This is also a great resting place after an uphill paved walk from Magome.
6. “Ring the bell hard against bears”
When you enter Magome Pass, the forested trail between Magome and Tsumago, you will sign asking you to ring the bell to notify wild bears of your arrival. You will find these scattered along the path. Luckily I didn’t encounter any bears during my time there; I must have rung the bell hard enough!
7. Have a sip of tea at Ichikokutochi tateba-chaya
The best things in life are free and this teahouse is no exception. It’s hard to miss this place since it’s along the trail and the flashing smile of the owner is a lovely welcome. It used to be a resting place for travelers during the Edo period too. You’re lucky if you happen to be here in spring as the you’ll also encounter a double-weeping cherry bloom tree.
8. Find the union tree
This took a bit of time to find, but the effort was definitely worth it. Planted a whole 300 years ago, the feel of history in the air gave me goosebumps.
9. Never ever miss the waterfalls!
If you’re a nature lover, I’m sure you will love not just the water flowing from the mountains, but also the sound of it. It might be off the trail, but it’s worth seeing. The Otaki and Metaki Falls are featured in the book Miyamoto Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962), which is a fictional account of the life of master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
10. Wear a “sashiko”
Sashiko is a traditional item of clothing used by firefighters during the Edo period. They have plain designs, but quality cloth and ukiyo-e designs – a great souvenir from your trip!
The post towns of Magome and Tsumago are really one of the kind. Not only do you get a glimpse of the Japan of the past, but time here allows you to different aspects of Japanese culture. It’s a surreal feeling as you enjoy nature at its finest and settle into the shoes of a traveler feudal lord of the Edo period.
Itching for an adventure? Check out our Nakasendo Trail sample itinerary!