Japan’s Nakasendō is an ancient route that leads inland between Tokyo and Kyoto, used during the Edo period (17th-19th C.). 中山道 in Japanese, the three symbols literally say central mountain route, and when I first read about this route, and in particular the section between the mountain villages of Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku, I knew that this was a must-do for me during my time in Japan. Away from city hubs, nestled quite far inland, I had originally planned on tackling this from Tokyo, but with research realised that it was much easier to get to from Nagoya. So having jumped off the Shinkansen there on route to Kyoto, I arose early to retrace my steps back to Nagoya train station and negotiate the rabbit warren that all major Japanese train stations are, to find a baggage locker to dump by backpack, and then the correct platform to take the train to Nakutsagawa in the Gifu prefecture.
It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and for a large part of the nearly 1hr train trip I was riding through a mix of Japanese countryside and small settlements. Passing arable land and crossing rivers, eventually it pulled in to the small city of Nakatsugawa and outside the train station was the bus stand to catch the mountain bus to Magome and the start of the hike. A decent crowd waited for the bus and once on board it was a half an hour trip out the back of the city and up a winding mountain road. Eventually, I was at the beginning of what transpired to be my favourite hike and one of my favourite days in Japan. Magome was a cute little settlement full of traditional buildings and looking down over arable fields. The Nakasendō was originally serviced by sixty-nine stations or post-towns of which Magome is the 43rd and Tsumago the 42nd. Out here I felt so far away from the hubbub of city life and walking around the main streets I felt like I was in a classic Japanese story.
Up the initial slope and round the first corner I found a water wheel and a continuation of beautiful wooden buildings at the side of a brick pathway. With a little height I could start to see the surrounding mountain tops which were partially hidden by swirling clouds. Further along the road were little eateries and the local post office and as I passed the tourist information kiosk I was surprised to see a warning sign for bears. During my research for hikes in Japan, everything had suggested that bears were much further north and at no point had I expected to have to give them a thought on my trip, but suddenly it twigged why many of the locals I’d seen hiking on my previous hikes had had little bells attached to their backpacks. I’ve had such a sheltered hiking life. I have hiked in bear country before in the Rocky Mountains of Canada many moons ago, and I do keep a side eye out for snakes whenever I hike in Australia, but the vast majority of my hiking has been in New Zealand where nothing there wants to kill you and eat you, or in Scotland where all you have to do is a tick check at the end of the day. I felt a little unprepared to be in bear country but it was such a busy trail that I doubt there was ever one even close to me.
The trail through Magome led higher and higher past more and more cute little businesses until finally it reached a lookout. The post-town disappeared down the slope below me and I had a nice view across to the cloud-covered mountain tops, and from here at last, I was heading out into the relative wilderness for the nearly 8km walk to Tsumago over the mountain. Past arable fields and giant spiders, the stone trail led down then up and into the forest. When it broke out at a main road I saw a bell on a post which I soon discovered was a bear bell. There were enough people on the trail to make the use of it unnecessary and despite how much it would have been great to actually see a bear in the wild (safely), I took great enjoyment out of ringing every single bear bell on the trail (which considering there was one every half km or so, was a lot).
After a brief forest section, the trail again crossed the mountain road further along and I chuckled as I came across a sign welcoming walkers into somebody’s garden whilst also suggesting it wasn’t much to look at. I opted to skip the garden like everyone else that passed at the same time, and from here the trail cut through a small mountain village, with scattered homes across the hillside. At the far end was a small shrine, the entrance marked by a stone torii gate. Deeper into the forest and once more across the mountain road where the highest point on the trail was passed, a clearing in the forest revealed a large traditional building that on closer inspection was a tea house. The sign outside said it was free and I, like several other walkers, popped inside. It was dim and smoky and made me think of historic movies I’d seen. Over an open fireplace hung a large cauldron and a lovely man served us all green tea with the biggest smile and welcome.
The long forested section that followed was lovely, deep among tall trees and a babbling water course nearby. I continued to ring every bear bell I came across, but aside from the loud dong when I did so, there was only the occasional chatter from other people to break the silence. Eventually a side trail led downhill to a pair of waterfalls. Only a handful of people took the side trail, probably because it involved a climb back uphill to rejoin the main track, but whilst they weren’t the biggest or grandest falls I’d ever seen, they were a welcome change of scenery. Back on the Nakasendō a small group of traditional houses passed by, followed by a large arable field before the path suddenly took a decent drop down in altitude, winding through the forest towards the road again. There was a brief spell of relative civilisation as the trail cut through another settlement with more traditional buildings and a water wheel turning as a stream flowed through to the main river nearby. A noodle shop where the road and trail came together was a popular snack stop but I pressed on.
Before I knew it I was in Tsumago-juku. Initially it didn’t amount to much, but after following the trail a little while and crossing the now larger river, more and more people appeared as I reached a car park where buses had dumped coachloads of tourists. Suddenly I was in the hub of Tsumago and the street was bustling. The buildings were very similar to Magome and likewise it focused around one long main street, but the crowds here made it feel very different. I stopped for some ice cream and watched the World go by briefly, resting my feet as I did so before the last stage of the hike. Continuing onwards, there were so many pretty buildings and bonsai trees to look at and a few temples and shrines also. The background was dominated by a green covered mountain as I strolled through the street.
I’m not entirely sure where Tsumago ended, it just seemed to stretch on forever, the houses eventually petering out before the mountain road was crossed again. In order to get back to Nagoya, I had a train to catch, this time from Nagiso, the next town over. The trail cut back into the forest where I came across a side trail leading to the ruins of Tsumago castle. Immediately on taking it, I found myself on a raised path with bamboo canes sprouting up on one side and the main forest sloping off either side. My attention was suddenly caught by a crashing sound in the bushes to my left. I assumed it might be boar but hoped I might get a glimpse of a bear though no matter where or how I craned my neck to look, I saw nothing. When I reached the ruins on the mound at the far end of the earthen bridge, they weren’t much to look at but there was an area with a break in the trees that afforded a view down onto Nagiso at the bottom of the hill. I continued to search the undergrowth as I followed the path back to the main trail and shortly after returning to the Nakasendō once more, I was suddenly alerted to something in the undergrowth and out popped a group of macaques. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photograph as they disappeared into the trees almost as soon as they had come out of them.
The path gradually worked its way down the hill towards the back streets of Nagiso. The houses grew tighter and tighter together, until I reached a point where the remaining elevation offered a view across the rooftops of the main stretch of the town. A train engine stood on display nearby as the road cut down to follow the train line and lead me to the train station. It began to rain whilst I waited for the train to take me back to Nagoya but I even here there was a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. Eventually I saw the train come down the hill and finally I was on my way, arriving at length to pick up my luggage at the station and board the train to Kyoto.