The Nakasendo Way, or Nakasendo Trail, is a road through the interior of Japan’s Honshu island. In feudal times, this trail—which passes through the Japanese Alps—served to connect Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto. In Japanese, it is literally the ‘middle mountain way’.
In the 17th century, under the Edo regime, the Nakasendo Way was one of five routes established by the ruling Tokugawa family. It was the basis of the infrastructure that enabled the government to send messages, personnel, and important goods from Edo across the empire, thus helping consolidate the nation after the battle of unification at Sekigahara.
Five hundred kilometers long in total, the Nakasendo trail would never have functioned without its post towns. These were the places where travelers could stop and rest, but they also fulfilled many functions, both administrative and logistic.
There are 69 post towns along the Nakasendo trail, each of which was immortalized by the artist Hiroshige, the very same who pictorially documented the Tokaido—another of the five routes between Edo and Kyoto, and still the most famous.
During the Edo period, post towns were the centers of the government’s control over its highways and, in the eyes of the Tokugawa rulers, the role of these towns was strictly official. The services they provided—food, shelter and transport—were for the benefit of dignitaries, samurai, members of the Tokugawa household and others traveling on legitimate government affairs. Any person not somehow connected to officialdom had little or no business on the trail at all.
At the height of its development in the Edo period, the growth of commerce and trade meant the Nakasendo was crowded with feudal lords, samurai, merchants, itinerant labourers, pilgrims and commoners. While the post towns all still exist today, a few (think Magome, Tsumago, Narai and Karuizawa) are particularly sought out by visitors because they remain relatively unchanged since the trail’s heyday.
The Kiso Valley Hike
Any experience of hiking in Japan would be incomplete without walking the section of the Nakasendo way that passes through the Kiso valley in Nagano prefecture—also known as the Magome Tsumago trail for its path through these eponymous towns. For about 43 miles (70 kilometers), this stretch is home to some of the best preserved sections of the Nakasendo Way.
The trail is often walked from west to east, heading towards Tokyo from Magome, the 43rd station on the Nakasendo Way. If you’re looking for a quicker route in, you can take the train to Nakatsugawa Station and then get a bus to Magome. Once here, you can follow the trail out of town as it winds through a rural landscape, between small farms and traditional houses.
But it’s easy to get stuck in Magome before you’ve made any real ground. The main street through the town is lined with restored houses and souvenir shops, with enticing restaurants all around, not to mention a museum dedicated to the town’s most famous son, the author Shimazaki Toson.
Exiting Magome, the old highway heads for Magome Pass, the final gateway to the Kiso Valley. Tsumago, the 42nd station, is just five miles (9 kilometers) on, but don’t let the distance overwhelm you: the path soon takes you to a 300-year-old tea house whose owner offers refreshments in the form of fresh tea and small sweets to passing hikers.
With the pleasant warmth of tea radiating through your body, the descent to Tsumago is made ever more tranquil. Paths lead through ancient woodland, with the sound of birdsong and mountain brooks babbling in the background. Then, approaching Tsumago and its familiar townscape, there’s a strange sense of being back in civilization after this immersion in nature.
Again, if you’re planning a shorter trip to explore the post towns, Tsumago is easily accessible by train and bus. The Chuo Main Line will take you to Minami-Kiso in about an hour, following which a 10-minute bus ride will take you to Tsumago.
It is possible—and easy—to arrange a multi-day walk along the Nakasendo trail whether you’re in a group or traveling solo. And the area is so well-documented and sign-posted that you likely won’t need much assistance when planning.
But such is the rich historical and cultural heritage of the areas and towns the route passes through that the experience is only enhanced when followed with a guide. A number of companies organize guided walks, offering routes that cover everything from a small portion of the trail to half or even its entire length. For the complete trail, I’d recommend Walk Japan’s 11-day, 10-night Nakasendo Way tour.
Unexpected Delights of the Nakasendo Trail: Kiso Horses and Matsumoto Castle
Long before the Nakasendo, indeed, long before any government roads, the Kiso valley and mountain range were the birthplace of the Kiso horse. Most likely derived from stock brought from the Asian mainland, the Kiso horse is one of eight indigenous Japanese breeds, and the only one native to Honshu.
Small in stature, the Kiso horse is sometimes called the Kiso pony, and is gentle in manner, even though it was originally bred primarily as a war horse. The best place to see the few remaining horses of this endangered species is the Kisouma no Sato, or Kiso Horse Village, in the Kaida highlands of Nagano prefecture.
Not far from here on horseback—more likely by car or bus nowadays—is Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s three foremost historic castles, listed as a National Treasure of Japan. Although visiting Matsumoto castle requires straying a little from the Nakasendo, the grandeur of its main keep and turret, and the splendor of the grounds, make it well worth the detour.
Japan is a nation primed for domestic travel. To this day, the Japanese love to take holiday breaks to tourist destinations at home. For the outsider, attractive destinations are innumerable and any town can potentially become a personal ‘post town’: a stopover, an unforgettable interlude in a journey of discovery.
Whether you want to know more about the Land of the Rising Sun’s great outdoors or life in its big cities, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.