Kiso Valley: Nakasendo Trail (Magome - Tsumago)

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November 16th 2019
Published: February 28th 2020
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Our visit to Magome and Tsumago, and the hike between them along the Nakasendo Trail in Kiso Valley, was probably the highlight of Japan for Clement. It did make for an excellent, if long, day trip, but the long travel times from Kyoto means that it would really be better to explore as a long weekend. There are various cultural events during the year, including some Kabuki performances, that would be worthwhile to plan your trip around. And staying in one of the beautiful inns in Magome would undoubtedly be a highlight of your trip to Japan.

Magome and Tsumago are two post towns along the old Nakasendō, a foot highway that connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the feudal period. The two towns are amazingly (and lovingly) well-preserved and atmospheric, with narrow lanes and low-slung dark wooden buildings that function as inns, restaurants and craft shops. Magome is the furthest south of the Kiso Valley post villages. Its buildings line a steep, cobblestone pedestrian road with rustic shopfronts and mountain views, along with lots of daytime tourists. Tsumago is extremely well preserved and a lot of fun to visit, if a bit less developed that Magome. Both towns have an impressive array of shops and some great souvenirs that you might not find elsewhere.

In between lies an impressive 5 mile section of the Nakasendō, one of the five highways of the Edo period, and one of the two connecting Tokyo with Kyoto. The old path remains and the hike brings you through sleepy mountain villages and cedar forests, past waterwheels and rice paddies. You might even spot a bear! There is sustenance at either end and in between, including buckwheat noodles, tea and sake, and you should try to seek out the local specialty Go Hei Mochi, coarse sticky rice balls with a savory sauce of chestnut, sesame, peanut and sake. And the black sesame ice cream in Tsumago is delicious!

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