Magome – Tsumago trail: a journey through old Japan

The sun warms my back as I walk through lush green forest, far removed from the concrete jungle I left behind. As I journey towards the horizon, the traditional wooden buildings of another time beckon me to journey further. Explore more.

I first travelled to Japan in 2012. Excited to see the popular tourist spots in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I didn’t quite know what to expect from the Kiso Valley. What I quickly learnt was that this place, and its famous walking trail, was unlike anything else I saw during my time in Japan.

Magome to Tsumago_Site
Just one of the sites on the journey from Magome to Tsumago

Located approximately 300km from Tokyo is Kiso Valley’s Nakasendo highway, or ‘path through the mountains’. Made up of five roadways, the Nakasendo connected the imperial capital of Kyoto with the Shogun capital, Edo, or modern day Tokyo. At its height, the 530km trail was the principal transportation route between the two imperial capitals, allowing for the safe movement of travellers and trade.

Due to restrictions by the shogunate, many travellers were forced to make their journeys on foot. In turn, this lead to the development of 69 post towns along the route, providing travellers with places to eat and rest during their trip. Sadly, with the introduction of rail and modern roads, the Nakasendo and many of the post towns faded into obscurity. While many of the towns faded into history, Magome and Tsumago remained relatively untouched by the passage of time thanks to the efforts of governments and local residents.

The start of the Magome trail
The start of the Magome – Tsumago trail

Upon arriving in picture-perfect Magome in the late afternoon, I am greeted by a quiet town with a main street devoid of cars. The town’s wooden and plaster buildings are well preserved showcasing a small part of the region’s history.  Staying at the Tajimaya Ryokan, located in the centre of town, we were treated to a lavish meal of traditional dishes, followed by a lesson on the history of the Nakasendo from the ryokan owner. The lesson also featured a traditional dance lesson which resulted in my husband and I featuring in the holiday video of an extremely amused Japanese guest.

The next day we are up early to start our journey on the Magome to Tsumago trail. Dropping our bags off at the Magome Tourist Information Centre for transport to Tsumago (a must if you are looking to do a day hike) we begin our journey. An easy walk of 8 kilometres, the trail offered a glimpse into a Japan barely untouched by the passage of time.

Magome to Tsumago Tea House
A tea house provides walkers with a chance to talk to locals

Travelling past the homes of the area’s residents, we pass a local tea house where we take a short rest. While we relax with our cups of green tea a local volunteer, dressed in traditional Edo costume, gives us his insights about the area’s history and traditions. Painting a picture of an area which is still a vibrant and dynamic place, he provided us with a better more history of the region than we could have ever learnt from a guide book.

By lunchtime we arrive in Tsumago. Not as picturesque as Magome, but just as enchanting. We dine on sushi at one of the town’s many restaurants and watch the mix of residents and tourists pass by. Busier than the quite early morning streets of Magome, Tsumago offered us a chance to meander through the local streets for some souvenir shopping, before picking up our bags and making our way to the local train station for our next stop.

As I leave Tsumago and begin my train journey south to Kyoto, I think back to the experience on the short section of the Nakasendo. From the beautiful forest scenery along the trail, coupled with the beautifully preserved history and culture of Magome and Tsumago, I know I have experienced something unlike anything else. An experience which I will forever hold in my memory.

Whether you arrive into Magome or Tsumago, the journey from Tokyo involves a number of train and bus trips and can take some time. So, just remember to allow enough travelling time, the final destination is well worth the trip!

If you are seeking a place with gives you an insight into historic Japan, away from the popular Kyoto, the Magome to Tsumago trail is a good option for you. Those willing to make the journey will be rewarded not only with an insight into Japan’s Edo period, but will see some of the best views, traditional architecture and landscapes the country has to offer.

If you want to find out more about walking the Magome to Tsumago trail, visit japan-guide.com or the Japan National Tourism Organisation.