The historic Nakasendo Trail runs through the Japan Alps and is one of a network of five roads, used to travel to and from Tokyo, known collectively as the Gokaido. The Nakasendo, which translates to ‘central mountain route’, is a 534km trail connecting Kyoto and Tokyo, and many parts of this legendary route have remained largely unchanged thanks to local conservation efforts. Warlords and porters alike travelled this long road for centuries and juku post towns sprung up along the route to provide accommodation for weary travellers. Much of the preservation of the area’s history and culture takes place in these historic towns, where inns are run by generations of the same family and local delicacies such as gohei mochi (skewered rice cakes with miso sauce) are still enjoyed by visitors just as they were hundreds of years ago.
The Kisoji is a very important section of the Nakasendo Trail as it served an integral role in the region’s commerce, with eleven of the sixty-nine post towns being on this portion of the trail. Being located in the remote Kiso Valley, many of these towns avoided modernisation and are subsequently a wonderful way for the modern traveller to experience old Japan.
One of the most popular sections of this trail is the path from Magome to Tsumago. Starting in Magome serves as a wonderful introduction to the atmospheric towns visited along the Nakasendo, filled with rustic storefronts, inns and tea houses. And the hike itself isn’t difficult, with well-maintained stone paths complemented by the beautiful natural scenery of the forests and surrounding mountains. Once you leave Magome, the trail eventually leads to Tsumago after about two or three hours of leisurely hiking.
Tsumago, the 42nd of 69 post towns along the Nakasendo, is one of the best-preserved in all of Japan due to the local people going to great lengths to sustain an edo period atmosphere. Cars are prohibited from driving through the town and modern aspects of urban life and infrastructure such as vending machines and telephone poles are not permitted. Stepping into Tsumago feels like slipping back into old Japan and offers a starkly contrasted experience to the bright lights and busy life of Tokyo or Osaka.
Further along the Nakasendo is Kiso-Fukushima – located roughly halfway between Kyoto and Tokyo, this post town was once an important checkpoint. Travellers in the past would go through an inspection process here as the Tokugawa shogunate were on the lookout for illegal goods and women in disguise trying to sneak through. The building where these inspections occurred has been reconstructed and displays some of the confiscated weapons, instruments of torture and the passes that were required to continue traveling along the trail.
With a short train journey to Yabuhara and an approximate three hour hike, travellers will arrive at Narai, which was one of the most prosperous post towns. Located at the foot of the Torii Pass (one of the more strenuous parts of the Nakasendo), Narai was also referred to as ‘Narai of a thousand inns’. Its long main street is lined with ryokan and minshuku, along with shops selling local souvenirs selling wood carvings and dried fruits. Similar to Magome and Tsumago, the local community has preserved the history and culture of this post town with the help of the government, and this is most evident in the restored buildings in which these businesses operate.
While there are other notable towns along this legendary route, one of the most memorable aspects of a visit to this area is the human connection made with the local residents. Whether they are innkeepers of a minshuku or a friendly shopkeeper, guests of Oku Japan consistently comment on the positive experiences shared with the locals encountered along the way. The post towns along the Kiso road are so passionately well preserved because the community holds such a deep affection for the culture and heritage passed down for generations.
With the immense cultural and social impact this trail has had on the country, a visit to this area would make an unforgettable experience for any traveller wishing to learn more about Japan’s heritage and history. Following in the ancient footsteps of samurai, travellers can immerse themselves in the evocative atmosphere of the post towns and experience the stunning natural beauty that has inspired art and literature for centuries. Most visitors to Japan will visit major cities such as Tokyo or Kyoto but a well-rounded itinerary would surely include walking along a portion of this legendary route, getting away from the busy streets and neon lights to walk along the historic Nakasendo trail.