May 11, 2017

The Ultimate Kiso Valley Guide

In all of Japan, there are few allures that are as authentic as the stretch of the Kiso Valley between the post towns of Magome and Tsumago.

An epic view of the Kiso Valley from Gifu Prefecture's town of Magome

Today’s article is the next installment in my area guide series where I go into great detail on a specific spot. This will be a VERY long post but not without good reason! We’ll be going far off the beaten path to follow in the footsteps of a trade route that ironically very much WAS the beaten path for almost three hundred years. Known as the Nakasendo, this trail wound through the mountains and connected Kyoto with the capital in Edo (modern day Tokyo). In addition to the Tokaido route which followed along the coast, these two twin highways facilitated interconnectivity during the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, a.k.a the Edo period (1603–1868).

While the coastal Tokaido has largely been lost to urban sprawl, the path can still be followed today — albeit at over 300 km/h on the bullet train. The less popular Nakasendo on the other hand has many sections that have been well preserved. Nowhere is this more true than in the remote Kiso Valley. Nestled between imposing mountain cliffs, these lowlands are home to a handful of towns that have come together to preserve their history. In days gone by these hamlets were known as juku or post towns and served as overnight spots for weary travelers.

Chief among the post towns in the Kiso Valley are the towns of Magome and Tsumago. These neighboring communities have put considerable effort into defending the authenticity of the role they served on the Nakasendo. Additionally, the towns are connected by a 7.8 km stretch of the Nakasendo that can still be hiked today. Because of this, I cannot honestly think of a better spot in all of Japan to experience what life would have been like as a merchant or samurai under the rule of the Tokugawas.

Before we continue though, a quick warning! This adventure should not be attempted by either first timers to Japan or the faint of heart. The Kiso Valley is located far away from the inner city which means public transportation is pretty sparse. Furthermore, you’re going to be doing A LOT of walking so have a honest conversation with yourself regarding whether or not you’re up for the physical challenge before making the commitment.

That said however, these hardships only contribute to the genuine sense of place criss-crossing the Kiso Valley. We’ll only be covering a fraction of the whole Nakasendo yet you can imagine what it would have been like to traverse this trade route hundreds of years ago on foot. If you’re an outdoorsy type, I can not more highly recommend this spot! The following suggestions will help you avoid any potential concerns.

Getting to Nakatsugawa & the Kiso Valley

Gifu Prefecture’s Nakatsugawa Station, the entry to the Kiso Valley

As mentioned, the Kiso Valley is located a fair bit away from major cities. The easiest way to get there is via Nagoya which likely means you’re going to have to take the bullet train. Once there you’ll need to transfer to a rapid train bound for Nakatsugawa so keep your eyes peeled for the Chuo Line. The trains aren’t all that difficult but be sure to check with Hyperdia or a similar service first to make sure of connecting times, especially for the Chuo Line.

If you’d like to stretch your legs after the bullet train leg of your trip, I highly suggest hitting up Atsuta Jingu en route. The shrine is mere minutes from Nagoya Station by train but is said to house the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi that is often hailed as Japan’s Excalibur. You can even catch the Chuo Line from neighboring Kanayama Station making this a simple but satisfying add-on to the Kiso Valley.

I recommend you get an early start as the entire trek can easily take up to three to four hours depending on the trains (longer if you visit Atsuta Jingu). You’ll need to overnight in the Kiso Valley and it’s always wise to get to the nearest station when the sun is up and the shops are open. Be mindful of trying to find your way around in the dark. Remember, this isn’t central Tokyo! You’ll need to be particularly prepared as there are few, if any, English speakers around to lend a helping hand.

Accommodations Options in the Kiso Valley

A business hotel in the Kiso Valley

Before we dive in any further, let’s quickly talk about accommodations. There are a handful of traditional ryokan inns scattered about the Kiso Valley. I recommend avoiding these as they complicate the itinerary. While they do offer a more authentic Nakasendo experience, the added challenges are not worth it and especially so for foreign travelers. Instead, I suggest you grab yourself a cozy business hotel in the immediate vicinity of Nakatsugawa Station. The reason why will become apparent later on; trust me on this one…

If you absolutely MUST stay at a ryokan, you can reserve one here but be prepared for a logistical nightmare!

My Proposed Itinerary for the Kiso Valley

A building in front of Nakatsugawa Station in the Kiso Valley

You will want to get the most out of your time while visiting the Kiso Valley. With that said, I suggest you follow this schedule as closely as possible. The area’s remote location means that you’re limited by public transportation. Unless you plan on making this a two-night stay, you’re not going to have a lot of wiggle room so do yourself a favor and stick to the timetable below!

I’ll walk you through the details of this itinerary in the following sections but for now, take a look at the following…

Day One in the Kiso Valley

  • Arrive in Nakatsugawa Around 3:00 PM
  • Check into Hotel and Deposit Luggage
  • Explore the Nakatsugawa Post Town
  • Visit the Naegi Castle Ruins (optional)
  • Dinner & Early to Bed

Day Two in the Kiso Valley

  • Take the Bus to Magome round 8:00 AM
  • Explore Magome until 11:00 AM
  • Begin Nakasendo Hike to Tsumago
  • Arrive in Tsumago by 2:00 PM
  • Explore Tsumago until 5:00 PM
  • Taxi to Nagiso Station
  • Return to Nagoya Station

This schedule will give you more than enough time to leisurely explore each area while allowing for the smoothest use of public transportation. If you do intend to break with the plan above, be sure to consult the bus schedules! You don’t want to get stuck out here and taxis are both expensive and difficult to hail!

Day One in the Kiso Valley: Nakatsugawa

The Kiso Valley’s Nakatsugawa-shuku in Gifu Prefecture

As mentioned, we’ll be overnighting on Day One in Nakatsugawa. Much like Magome and Tsumago, Nakatsugawa was once a post town on the Nakasendo. Nevertheless, the area has become rather developed for the region due to its position as the terminal station on JR’s Chuo Line. And thus, it does not allow for the same level of immersion. On the other hand, the area is doing a lot to preserve what remains so it’s worth a quick peek if you have the time.

After arriving in Nakatsugawa, the very first thing you want to do is pick up copies of the pamphlets lining the left hand side as you exit the station. The tourism office has done a splendid job of documenting and translating many of the little tidbits of local history. Suffice to say, this document does a far better job of telling the town’s story than I can so refer to it while meandering around.

The Naegi Castle Ruins in the Kiso Valley

One location I do suggest you check out is the Naegi Castle Ruins. The grounds are about a 50 minute walk from the station so it’s a lot easier to take a taxi but the view is more than worth the fare. Along with another former fortress in Hyogo Prefecture, the Naegi Castle Ruins are often referred to as the “Machu Picchu of the East.” You’ll find them located 432 meters above sea level atop Mt. Takamori. As seen below, the fortress’ ruins offer a commanding view of the Nakasendo passing through the Kiso valley.

Note: Since my initial visiting, it seems that there's now a bus that goes all the way up to the Naegi Castle Ruins from Nakatsugawa Station. Since I've yet to take it myself, I cannot comment how easy this is but try inquiring if you don't want to walk!

—Donny Kimball
The view from the top of the Kiso Valley’s Naegi Castle Ruins

The Naegi Castle Ruins make one realize just how strategically important this fortress must have been. Though it’s a bit out of the way, if you have the time I highly recommend you make an effort to visit. Once you’re done checking out the area, you’re probably going to want to turn in for the night.

Unfortunately, for you night owls out there, there’s not much to do in the area once the sun goes down save for having a few brews outside the only 7-Eleven in town. Of course there are also some local snack bars but you would be wise to avoid these. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Day Two in the Kiso Valley: Heading Out

The bus station area in front of Nakatsugawa Station in the Kiso Valley

Given that your movements will be largely limited by the sporadic nature of countryside public transportation, you are going to want to get as early a start as possible. The first bus to Magome from Nakatsugawa is a little before or after 8 AM depending on whether or not it’s a weekend. Be sure to check the bus schedule to see exact timings. Regardless though, to ensure you have enough time, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re on this bus. Taxis are few and far between and the last thing you want is to have to hoof it an extra 5–10 km to the nearest station!

Coin lockers at Nakatsugawa Station in the Kiso Valley

Adventurers with luggage will want to use one of the coin lockers pictured above for sure. You’ll find these on the right side of the station near the spot for hailing taxis. Keep in mind, should your baggage not fit, you’re going to have a problem. One option is to ask the front desk staff at your hotel if you can leave your bags with them after checking out. Alternatively, you could overnight your larger bag in Nagoya at one of the bigger coin lockers and then take along a smaller bag. Either way, you’re not going to want to bring it with you on this trek!

Once you have rid yourself of any unnecessary items, proceed over to the bus stop. There are four lanes and you’re going to want to keep an eye out for the one marked Magome. This will be our first stop for the day and it’s located about 30 minutes up into the mountains form Nakatsugawa. While you CAN make the journey on foot by following the Nakasendo, I advise holding off for the segment between Magome and Tsumago.

Day Two in the Kiso Valley: Magome

Old buildings at the Kiso Valley’s town of Magome

Magome sits high up in the hills of the Kiso Valley where the Nakasendo crosses over into the lower Nakatsugawa area. You can probably guess from the photo that the view from here is absolutely stunning and almost worth the trip itself. It’s easy to imagine how impressive this must have been hundreds of years ago when traversing the Nakasendo on foot. I mean, is it any surprise there are entire series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints dedicated to this historic trade route?

As with most Nakasendo post towns, Magome’s buildings are oriented on either side of the the trail. You can either go forward or backward which makes it next to impossible to get lost. Despite the relatively straightforward nature of these towns though, you should make a point to take your time and appreciate Magome’s unique architecture. The locals have gone to great lengths to recreate the ambiance of the Edo period (1603–1868) and it would behoove you to enjoy it to the fullest.

A coffee shop at the Kiso Valley town of Magome

That said, the early call (coupled with possible jet lag) will certainly have some readers feeling groggy. Luckily for you there’s a gourmet coffee shop called Hillbilly Coffee waiting for you just a few minutes trek from your bus stop. If you’re at all like me and need your caffeine fix, I suggest you put your suspicions aside and stop asking, “What the hell is a place with that name doing here?” Go ahead and just order up a good ol’ cup of joe. Their coffee is surprisingly delicious and will deliver the kick you need.

A historical museum in the Kiso Valley town of Magome

The two things you want to keep an eye out for in Magome (and any post town) are the honjin and wakihonji. These structures functioned as inns along the Nakasendo with the former serving only top warlords and their officials while the later was available for the rest of their entourage. Though reconstructions, both of Magome’s facilities today have been transformed into museums. The honjin is dedicated to a literary figure that will only likely be relevant to Japanese; the wakihonji is home to a museum featuring the town’s legacy (pictured above).

Other than these two buildings, there is little else in Magome that ranks a MUST see. As I alluded to before, a leisurely stroll amongst the meticulously recreated landscape serves as the charm for this segment of the Nakasendo. Yet, please by all means do take your time checking out all the little shops and eateries. These venues capture an authentic sense of what it would have been like to travel this route hundreds of years ago.

A historical sign board in the Kiso Valley town of Magome

After spending some time in Magome and stocking up on any needed snacks for the road, head up the hill towards the message board pictured above. Standing at the entrance to the Magome post town, this served as a primitive form of the modern newspaper during the Edo period (1603–1868) and displayed important edicts from the Tokugawa shogunate. Given that the entire village is centered around the Nakasendo, it’s almost impossible to get lost but here’s a map in case.

A rest area somewhere in the middle of the Kiso Valley’s Magome

The 8 km trail to Tsumago picks up just beyond the message board. While there are buses that service the next post town, I highly suggest — no I outright demand that as a reader of this blog, you make the journey on foot. Doing so will result in a far more immersive experience and will allow you to sample the challenges of travel during a long-ago era.

That said, you might want to backtrack to the small rest center that is pictured above before heading out. There you will find power outlets for a quick recharge as well as free Wi-Fi for tourists. Take a minute to send any last messages as you’ll likely have no service for much of the next several hours!

Day Two in the Kiso Valley: The Nakasendo

A sign pointing the way along the Nakasendo

Though only around 8 km away, Tsumago can often feel as far away as Tokyo at times. At the start, you’re going to have to make your make your way up hill for some time. Lucky for you, Magome sits higher in the mountain range meaning the vast majority of the hike will be downhill. You will further realize this luck yourself when actually hiking the path. One of the major reasons I suggest staying in Nakatsugawa is that it better facilitates this Magome to Tsumago route. In other words, unless you’re a seasoned outdoorsman, be sure to heed my advice!

The Nakasendo winds along the wooded hillside passing a handful of small hamlets and local shrines. While putting one foot in front of the other, try to envision what it would have been like to traverse these mountains on foot during the Edo period (1603–1868). Once you hit your stride, the consistency of your steps should give way to what could almost be described as a meditative state that is interrupted only by the greetings of fellow travelers on the path.

A bell in the Kiso Valley to scare away bears

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! En route, you’ll occasionally encounter some brass bells on the side of the trail that seem out of place. Local legend holds these bells scare away the bears who have inhabited these hills for thousands of years. While I am of the opinion that this will bearly (get it?) help should an actual one appear, I witnessed several Japanese hikers ring aloud every bell they passed. Despite my skepticism, it might be wise to follow suit unless you want to end up in Yogi’s picnic basket!

Anyway, back to the Nakasendo. After about 20–30 minutes you’ll reach the highest point for this segment of the trail. Thankfully, from here on out, it’s all downhill but you will need to watch your step as the path becomes a bit more rugged. The last thing you need to do is hurt yourself way out here! Minding your footsteps, continue down the trail as it snakes around the tall trees lining either side of the Nakasendo. This area was one of my favorite parts of the hike as the surroundings are likely identical to what one would have experienced during the Edo period (1603–1868).

A tea house along the Nakasendo in between the Kiso Valley towns of Magome and Tsumago

After an hour or so of walking you’ll eventually stumble upon the rest-hut pictured above. Inside, you’ll find an old man and his (overly) friendly assistant who will offer you a free and well earned cup of tea. From what I can gather, the old man and his ancestors have been tending to this house for years and offer assistance to many a traveler along the Nakasendo. If you’re lucky, you may even get to hear the elder recite an ancient song that has serenaded countless wayfarers.

A sign post on the Nakasendo pointing the way to Tsumago

Once you’ve recovered and had your fill of Kiso Valley hospitality, it’s time to hit the road again. Return to the path and keep making your ways towards Tsumago. While I am not sure precisely when and where, but at some point along this stretch you’ll pass the halfway point (not marked) and before you know it, you’ll be seeing hints and signs like the one above.

An old building in the Kiso Valley portion of the Nakasendo

Soon thereafter, you’re going to reach a few points where the Nakasendo intersects with the highway. The local government typically stations staff at these junctions to ensure a safe crossing. Anyway, once you see the hovel picture above, you’re going to want to make your way down the stairs to the right. It can seem tricky and should you lose your way just ask the local representative for directions; even I made a mistake here (hard to imagine, I know).

A waterfall near Tsumago along the Kiso Valley portion of the Nakasendo

After reaching the bottom of the staircase, you’ll come across the Otaki-Mentaki waterfalls pictured above. Though enchanting still today, I couldn’t help but think that these falls likely served as pre-modern showers to overheated travelers during Japan’s humid summer months. If you are on the hunt for a good selfie locale, the falls provide a pretty picturesque background. Once done enjoying the falls, continue onward down the Nakasendo.

The Nakasendo trail as it leads towards the Kiso Valley town of Tsumago

One thing for sure, you should keep an eye out for any placards lining the trail. These hint at some of the obscure historical tidbits that go a long way promoting an appreciation for the area’s legacy. You’ll find my favorite placard after the waterfall which provides some deep insights into the construction of the highway. Here, you will learn that the stones lining much of the Nakasendo were hauled up the mountainside by a horde of thankless cattle (most of the animal homages along the path belong to the horse).

From here on out, the trail passes through a series of hovels that seem to have been forgotten by time. As I wandered through these tiny mountainside communities, I couldn’t help but hear my mother’s voice inquiring about where the villagers did their grocery shopping. Honestly, I have no answer for her. These remote, mountainside hamlets are such a stark comparison to modern-day Tokyo. The thought really makes one think that there’s a good chance many of the residents’ roots originate from this area and date back well before the Nakasendo.

Near Tsumago, the Nakasendo passes by a number of small Kiso Valley hamlets

Eventually these little settlements bleed into the back-end of Tsumago. It can be surprising how fast the post town can creep up on you but know that once you pass the bridge pictured above, you’re in the home stretch. After catching your breath, be sure to give yourself a pat on the back but never forget that this stretch was only ONE of SIXTY-NINE posts along the Nakasendo. Luckily for you however, you’ve earned the train ride back.

Day Two in the Kiso Valley: Tsumago

Tsumago, a town in the Kiso Valley along the Nakasendo

After arriving in Tsumago I suggest you catch your breath and then make a beeline straight for the shogunate’s notice board pictured above. This location marks the far end of the town and given that you’re entering from the backside of Tsumago, you’re going to want to get your bearings. A visual point of reference is a most welcoming cue. Your legs will no doubt protest more walking but it’s worth it to power on through. At most, the distance requires a five minute jaunt and you’ll have a chance to rest and grab a some food soon after!

Gohei mochi and soba, local favorites in the Kiso Valley

Once you’ve reached the notice board, it’s time to find a place to eat. I suggest you do an immediate about face and look for a soba noodle shop that will be located a minute or so back on the right. While there are a lot of options around Tsumago to grab a much needed bite, this one gets my recommendation. You’re likely in desperate need of some glucose after the walk so go ahead and order the soba noodles & gohei mochi pictured above. The later is the meibutsu (local favorite) of this area and has for centuries provided the calories needed to walk the Nakasendo.

With food in belly, it’s time to hit the town! Like Magome, the real charm of Tsumago lies in the locals’ thorough reproduction of the Nakasendo post town. If you’re following the itinerary that I’ve planned out, you’ll have upwards of three hours to meander about the town. When compared with Magome, I find Tsumago to be the better of the two post towns. That said, Tsumago’s lower location in the mountain range means it lacks Magome’s majestic views.

A heart in one of the old buildings in the Kiso Valley town of Tsumago

In any case, you definitely want to check out the honjin and wakihonji. The former is pictured above and is a reconstruction based on original blueprints from the town’s archive. Completed in the 1990’s, great efforts have been made to ensure that the honjin retains the look and feel of its medieval counterpart. There’s an entrance fee but if you pay a tad more (700 yen) you can purchase a combination ticket that allows entry to both the honjin and wakihonji.

One of the former inns in Tsumago for people traveling through the Kiso Valley

While the reproduction of the Honjin is quite nice in its own right, the crowning jewel of Tsumago is its original waki-honjin building. The structure dates back to the 19th century and unlike the honjin is entirely genuine. While inside, it’s easy to imagine how these inns were a much needed reprieve from the road for many a weary traveler. Because of this, I highly suggest you take your time exploring the interior of this building while pondering on the countless guests that have likely sought refuge under its roof.

Behind the waki-honjin, you’ll also find a small museum dedicated to the history of the Kiso Valley. Much of the museum has been thoroughly translated into English. If you are into the trivial details like me, the signage provides an informative context. For example, I discovered this area has survived for centuries without being able to cultivate white rice, a staple for Japan. While this fact makes perfect sense it remains a historical detail that can easily overlooked if you don’t pop in the museum.

Day Two in the Kiso Valley: Return Home

Signs pointing towards the return bus from the Kiso Valley town of Tsumago

While I’d encourage you to spend as much time in Tsumago as you can, you’re still going to need to make your way back. Unless you’re planning on overnighting in Nagoya, this means you must make the final bullet train to your next metropolitan destination. Unlike the local trains, the bullet trains sometimes run surprisingly early so commit in advance to a 5:00 PM return time.

Although the last bus does depart around this time, it would behoove you to just pay for a taxi. If you’re in a group, it will amount to about the same anyway so heed my advice here. You’re going to need to make your way to Nagiso Station which is about a five to ten minute ride away. From there, you’ll be taking one of the infrequent trains back to Nakatsugawa to pick up your bag.

The final leg of the journey is pretty simple and involves taking the Chuo Line back to civilization where you’ll catch the bullet train from Nagoya Station. The return trip takes about ninety minutes so be sure to hit up the convenience store in the Nakatsugawa for some more needed calories. As you wait for train, try to be thankful for modern-day transportation and the fact that you don’t have to walk the rest of the way.

Until next time travelers…