Cocooned in mighty mountains, interspersed with lush valleys and thick forests- this is the landscape of Japan. Such astounding natural beauty coupled with rich culture is what makes the Land of The Rising Sun a bucket-list destination for globetrotters. If you wish to witness the alluring charm of Japan without circling the entire country, then head on to the Nakasendo Trail in Nagano Prefecture and see the most exquisite blend of nature and history.
The Nakasendo Trail is a 300-year-old walkway that leads to 15th century Japan. Flagged with ishidatami- Japanese for paving stones, the trail runs through dense and aromatic cedar forests that are punctuated with historic towns all along the way. Going on Nakasendo gives tourists an opportunity to trace the history of Japan while enjoying breathtaking views with every view.
The Nakasendo trail stretches along enchanting woodlands, green rolling hills, and gorgeous valleys when not passing by the well-preserved ancient towns. Enthusiastic travelers get to explore the past in the time-honored villages all day long and rest at 200+ year-old inns to experience the native lifestyle.
If you are up for a journey to the heart of Japan, then the following guide on the Nakasendo Trail will help you plan your next adventure.
The 534 km long track in southwestern Nagano Prefecture is one of the five ancient routes of Japan that were used by high-profile dignitaries back in the Edo period. Nakasendo, which loosely translates to middle mountain way, is a walkway between two mountains that connects dreamy Kyoto and technological Tokyo, running through the Kiso valley along the way.
From remodeled prehistoric towns and well-preserved villages to scenic views and many Jizo (guardian) statues, there are endless sights for curious eyes to admire.
Set against the gorgeous backdrop of clear blue skies mottled with cotton-like clouds, the Nakasendo Trail has become a famous hiking track for travelers in recent years.
Get ready to go back in time while moving amidst nature and head to Tokyo or Kyoto to start your adventure.
Begin your Nakasendo adventures by boarding the supersonic bullet train from Tokyo or Kyoto to the village of Magome in Gifu Prefecture. Once you reach the mind-blowing-ly preserved town, you will have to walk 5.2 miles to reach Magome pass to get to another old town, Tsumago. Said villages are the most prominent historic places along the Nakasendo trail as they offer a detailed look into Edo period's Japan. Wander about the streets of Magome and Tsumago on foot (as cars aren't allowed) to satisfy your inner history buff.
You can choose to spend the day discovering Japanese history on the streets of the ancient boroughs or decide to spend the night at a family-run bed and breakfast or minshuku, and eat delicious homemade meals. Once you feel full, step out and enjoy the fresh air by walking around town in the traditional Japanese attire- the kimono-like yukata. Generally, the hosts of the lodge tourists stay at provide the outfits, but if you don't get one, then you can buy it from the local market.
The part of Nakasendo connecting Magome and Tsumago is the most frequented bit of the entire trail as it offers scenic views along with impressive past relics.
Strap on your hiking boots because it’s time for some serious trekking!
Getting to Nojiri from Tsumago is arguably the longest journey travelers take on foot, unless they take a cab or train. The distance between the two post stations is 11.5 miles, so be sure to begin your trek with a full stomach or else pack an abundance of snacks and refreshments for the way.
The Nakasendo Route connecting Tsumago with Nojiri goes through enthralling valleys and dense forests laced with dainty cedar trees supporting lush green growth, resting in all their natural glory. In other words, the unsullied sceneries a traveler gets to witness on their way to Nojiri make up for the otherwise tiring trip.
It approximately takes 6 hours to reach Nojiri without intervals, which can be a bit too tiring. If you find the length difficult, you can hop on an alternative route that leads to another post town, Nasigo. Once there, you can take the train to Kiso-Fukushima, which is a quaint little town where you can stay at a traditional Japanese inn known as ryokan. The ryokan is a small facility yet has a wide range of facilities to offer. You can choose to stay in and laze around or go out and dip in the lodge’s hot spring baths.
If the hike from Tsumago to Nojiri isn't too thrilling and the adventurer in you wants something more exciting, then you can get on the steep, circular track to a local waterfall before heading to the village of Narai.
It takes about 2 to 3 hours to get to Narai from Kiso-Fukushima on foot, which includes a quick train ride to Yabuhara. Hop on the train to Yabuhara and once you reach the said post town, head to Torii pass on a 3-hour long hike through the thick forest into the village of Narai.
Narai marks the center point of the Nakasendo Trail. Back in the Edo Period, the center-town was one of the wealthiest villages along the ancient mountain track. It was even called Narai of a Thousand Houses- a nickname underlining the never-ending stretch of traditional Japanese houses in town.
The main road in Narai offers a feast for the eyes, especially for those interested in history. The long strip of ancient buildings restored as restaurants, and quaint inns paint a vivid picture of ancient Japan, although they are not in their original state. While most past edifices are still alive and well, the two oldest inns, Honjin and Wakihonjin, no longer exist, depriving people of the opportunity to see the lodges of the Edo period. But despite that, there is sufficient history and culture to witness in Narai.
Since Narai marks the first half of a traveler’s Nakasendo journey, many people choose to stay there for the night and recharge. If you wish to do that, too, you can check into any of the minshukus and enjoy the heartwarming hospitality of the hosts.
The next morning, have a hearty breakfast and head on to the nearby town of Kiso-Hirasawa. It’s a small town with many shops selling creatively designed furniture and décor items. Spend a few hours strolling around the streets of Hirasawa and buy souvenirs if you wish to or just bask in the town’s beauty.
Once you are done wandering around the rustic post station, board the train to Karuizawa or Komoro, which are both brimming with Japanese history and culture. So, you can choose to go to either location to round off your trip. But before heading to the last stop of your journey, stop at the fascinating Matsumoto Castle, which dates back to the late 16th century. You can choose to skip the age-old architectural wonder, but we'd suggest you check out the magnificent structure.
Matsumoto Castle, initially known as Fukashi, is among Japan's time-honored buildings, holding much of Japan's history and culture. One interesting feature of Masumoto Castle is its nickname- the Crow Castle because of the building's black exterior. The Japanese refer to the grand edifice as Hijiro, as it is built on plains rather than a mountain or hill.
The magnificent historic building has a stunning interior, primarily made of wood, while the exterior is wainscoted in black paneling. The sleek concrete structure is juxtaposed with enchanting cherry blossoms that envelope it, making for a breathtaking sight. For this reason, Matsumoto Castle becomes a hotspot for tourists in spring when the cherry trees are in full bloom.
After admiring the exotic construction in Matsumoto, you can continue your journey towards the last stop of your trip and get to Karuizawa or Komoro. Once you reach your chosen destination, you can find a historical inn with Japanese baths, to stay the night. You will not only get to soak in a Japanese bath but also feast on delicious homemade food served at your ryokan.
After spending the night at your last stop, you will take on the final stretch of the Nakasendo Trail to get to Yokokawa. Trek to the rugged plateaus of Usui-toge Pass and take in the mesmerizing scenes all around you on this 10-mile-long hike. It generally takes travelers up to six hours to finish the last trek of the trip, but that depends on how fast a person walks.
If you want to absorb the enthralling beauty around the high plateaus, you should hike at a controlled pace. Besides, Usui Toge leads hikers to the end of their Nakasendo walk, so you must make the most of it and enjoy your last strides to the fullest.
However, if you are too tired from your multiple-day journey and don’t wish to hike anymore, you can hire a cab to get to Yokokawa to catch a train to Tokyo.
Typically, the itinerary mentioned in this guide takes five days to complete, but that depends on your pace while travelling the Nakasendo Trail. If you are someone who likes to appreciate each and every bit of their excursions into foreign lands, you can extend your trip and stay for more than one night at the various jukus-post station villages.
We covered the most famous sections of the trail, but there is plenty more to explore along this fantastic route. Walking along the Nakasendo Trail is undoubtedly a delight for nature babies and history enthusiasts alike. Head along the mesmerizing walkway, basking in the surreal beauty between Japan's old and new capitals. From rustic Japanese houses on each side to dainty trees supporting luscious green growth, there are abundant scenes for you to enjoy along the way. With birds cooing musically over the cascading greenery on the sides, you will have a memorable time strolling through the ancient Japanese trail.
Exploring authentic Japan is a truly blissful experience, full of unforgettable sights for both nature babies and history enthusiasts. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to see Japan like a local and plan your next hike to the dreamy Nakasendo Trail.