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Inspiration, Stories, Travel

Exploring Kiso Valley

Taking time out from Tokyo and looking forward to a few days of open spaces and quiet time I take the train south to Nagoya and on to the Kiso Valley. I plan to spend two nights in Tsumago, a post town on the Nakasendo Way from where I will take a day walk to Magome, the next town along the route.

The Nakasendo Way (central mountain route) which links Kyoto with Edo (present-day Tokyo), was one of five highways that were centrally administered routes, or kaido, connecting the capital of Japan, Edo, with the other provinces during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). These official routes were for the use of the Shogun and Daimyo (Feudal Lords).

Much later the Nakasendo highway became a popular pilgrimage route. Today there are still long stretches of the highway that remain much the same as 200 years ago.

Tsumago is the 42nd of 69 post towns (juku) along the Nakasendo Way, that provided food and lodging for travellers. Designated by the Japanese government as a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site in 1976, Tsumago is one of the best-preserved post towns along the trail.

I stay the first night on the edge of Tsumago, less than 5 minutes-walk from the start of the trail to Magome. My accommodation is at a minshuku, a family-run inn. There are only 3 rooms, which is typical at many small inns. My room has shoji screen walls with a sliding door and the floor is tatami. There is a seating area with a low table and cushion on the floor. A flask of hot tea is waiting for me. Opening onto a narrow balcony which overlooks a beautiful pond and garden, the sound of water makes the setting even more peaceful. I arrive in the early afternoon and spend the rest of the day enjoying the sun and talking with guests who have just walked the trail that I plan to set off on, in the morning.

Dinner is served in the main room of the inn. Three low tables are set, with floor cushions. We are served a typical home-cooked dinner with several dishes including tempura, grilled fish, noodles and of course miso, pickles and rice. Many of the ingredients are local, with fish from the nearby river and mountain vegetables. Sake is offered from a large bottle. All of us happily accept.

While dining, my room is quietly transformed into a bedroom with futon and fluffy duvet. I am a little dubious about sleeping on a futon. I have bad memories from the 1980s when futons were very fashionable but also incredibly uncomfortable. I needn’t have worried as this futon was surprisingly snug and comfortable, even the tiny pillow filled with rice.

The following morning, we are served a breakfast of fish, rice, miso and pickles. I feel well fortified for my day of walking. The walk between Tsumago and Magome is 8km. Taking advice from fellow guests, I decide not to head off until after 10am, in the hope that I will be able to enjoy the trail on my own without hordes of other people. This also means I get to linger a little longer, enjoying the peace and quiet of this lovely family inn before saying goodbye to my hosts. Monday is their day off so sadly I cannot spend another night. They have, however, kindly offered to deliver my luggage to my accommodation for this evening.

From Tsumago I follow a cobbled path up through hinoki (Japanese cedar) forest. Sun filters through the trees, it is perfectly quiet. The only person I see is an ancient, wizened old woman, bent double, walking downhill to the village. The first clearing I come to has a couple of dwellings and small terraces of rice, blue sky and clouds are reflected in the water.

At points along the trail there are large bells, mounted on sturdy posts. A sign encourages you to ring the bell to “scare the bears away”. In the distance, I hear the sound of a bell ringing as people pass, the sound becomes familiar along the walk.

There is a tea house, around half-way just before the Magome Pass, where walkers are welcomed to rest and drink tea. Surprisingly there is free wi-fi available. I decide not to stop and continue on to Magome. The approach to Magome weaves down past small-holdings and gardens and onto the town itself. It is June and the gardens are filled with peonies and irises. I stop to admire one garden, filled with hundreds of bearded irises. A tiny lady stands up from her weeding to wave and smile at me.

Magome is a welcome sight, I am starting to feel peckish. I check the menus of places as I pass and settle on a family run soba noodle restaurant. Here I enjoy a simple lunch of zaru soba, cold noodles with dipping sauce. The noodles are delicious, and I finish with tea before heading out to explore the rest of Magome. On the far edge of the town I am somewhat surprised to find Hillbilly Coffee Company, a pocket-size coffee shop with a beautiful espresso machine operated by a Japanese hipster. The espresso is exceptional, and I order a second cup, enjoying it while sitting on a bench outside in the sun.

Hillbilly Espresso in Magome

The walk back to Tsumago will take around two hours and I set off mid-afternoon. I don’t linger as much on the return trip, as dusk is approaching. There have been rare sightings of bears on this trail and I don’t want to meet one in the fading light. After a fairly steep climb out of Magome, the walk is mainly downhill.

I make Tsumago in good time, passing by my host from the minshuku who is stacking firewood near the inn. He waves out and enquires about my walk. I then wind my way down through the town to my lodgings in the main street of Tsumago.

I am greeted warmly by my new host and shown to my room which looks out over a courtyard garden and pond complete with large koi. Dinner is served early and again I am treated to a meal of multiple dishes which go well with a flask of local sake.

By day Tsumago is a busy tourist destination, with buses arriving in the morning and departing at dusk. Very few stay overnight and in the evening the town is quiet, there is only one bar which is closed up by 8pm. After dinner, I go out for a walk. My host gives me a paper lantern to carry, to light my way. He tells me they used to be lit by candles but now have a battery-operated bulb.

I am the only guest at the inn tonight and when I return to my room, sliding doors have been opened to an adjoining room and a futon set up. After a soak in the cedar bathtub I am eager to hit the futon for another blissful sleep.

The next morning, I wake early, to ensure I have time for a walk through Tsumago before catching the train to Kyoto. After another delicious breakfast, I set off exploring the back streets, I find gardens filled with peony roses and small vegetable plots.

All too soon time is up, and I head back to the inn to get my luggage. My host walks me to the bus stop, he bows deeply before waving me off.

Tsumago is a very special place where time moves slowly. After two nights here, I feel completely rested, ready for a different kind of adventure in Kyoto.

Kiso Valley Tips

How to get there

From Tokyo catch the Shinkansen to Nagoya, change here to the JR Shinano limited express train to Nagiso. There is a bus service from Nagiso to Tsumago, tickets for the bus can be purchased at Nagiso train station. The station staff are very helpful and will let you know departure times and where to catch the bus from. They will even store your luggage if you want to have a look around Nagiso while waiting for the bus. A taxi to Tsumago is approximately ¥10000. 

You can walk from Nagiso to Tsumago along the Nakasendo Way, this takes about 1 hour. Ask the station staff for directions.

The trip from Tokyo to Tsumago takes around three hours.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Tsumago and Magome is mainly at ryokan and minshuku and is very limited, with most places only offering 2 – 6 rooms. The best way to find accommodation is through Japanese Guest Housesas very few places have websites or speak English.

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