Beginning in the 1630’s, feudal lords used these official highways on journeys mandated by the shogun to and from his castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The route was also used by messengers, pilgrims, porters, merchants and, once, by Princess Kazunomiya, whose 10,000-member entourage was so long that it took three days to pass through a town.
For hundreds of years, the post towns along the highway buzzed with activity. But traffic on the route dwindled after the construction of railroads at the end of the 19th century, and the once-prosperous towns slipped into economic doldrums for decades. Now, hiking along that highway is an enjoyable way to spend a weekend escaping from the frenetic pace of Tokyo.
In the 1960’s the post towns, whose traditional wooden buildings were dilapidated but basically unchanged, were recognized as significant historical artifacts. Since then, several have been restored to look more or less as they did 200 years ago, when pilgrims and samurais were passing through (give or take a vending machine or two). Three of the best-restored towns – Magome, Tsumago and Narai – are in the Nagano prefecture’s verdant Kiso Valley.
While a one-day visit is possible, one of the most memorable ways to experience the post towns is to spend a couple of days in the Kiso Valley hiking between them during the day, and dining and sleeping in family-run guesthouses at night. Magome, connected to Tsumago by a well-marked five-mile stretch of the Nakasendo, makes an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the area. Narai, which is at the far northern end of the Kiso Valley, is a multiday walk from Magome, but is easily accessible by train.
Fittingly, the journey from Tokyo to Magome requires riding on a series of successively slower modes of transportation, starting with a bullet train (two hours), then transferring to a limited express (about an hour) and finally catching a bus, which takes about 30 minutes and drops its passengers off on the edge of town.
At this point, initial impressions may be a little disheartening. You don’t have to be a scholar of Japanese history to surmise that neither the convenience store nor the gas station is authentic Edo period establishments. But signs point visitors, now on foot, to the town proper, where it is an entirely different scene.
Instead of a road (no cars are allowed), there is a wide stone-paved path, flanked by rows of two-story wooden buildings. In spring, flowers bloom in pots and planters, swallows dip among the bushes and trees, and gushing water pours down the hill in stone aqueducts that run along either side of the road. Here and there, the water is diverted to create carp ponds, and halfway up the hill, a wooden waterwheel spins slowly. The scene is enchanting, although it can get quite crowded. These atmospheric towns are quite popular with Japanese visitors, but foreign tourists are more rare. Busloads of schoolchildren and retirees on weekends can make the towns feel a bit like the Japanese equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.
The good news, however, is that most visitors are day-trippers. By early evening, people who are staying overnight have the towns almost to themselves. A night in Magome is peaceful once the crowds disappear and the souvenir shops close for the night, and it affords the opportunity to stay in a minshuku, a family-run guesthouse.
Minshukus offer a fairly traditional lodging experience, which is both fun and potentially nerve-racking, because foreigners can unwittingly demonstrate poor etiquette. Travelers should be sure to remove their shoes when entering the guesthouse, and not express alarm when walking into the room and seeing a space that is almost completely devoid of furniture. The bedding – thick futons, comforters and pillows filled with buckwheat husks – is folded in the closet.
In Magome’s minshukus, breakfast and dinner are included in the price of a room, about $75 a night. Both meals are served at a fixed time, 6 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and instead of ordering from a menu, guests enter the tatami-floored dining room to see about a dozen small dishes laid out at each place. A typical dinner might consist of miso soup, tempura, soba noodles, chawan mushi (savory steamed egg custard), wild mountain vegetables, mirin teriyaki river trout, pickled daikon and cabbage, wild boar and perhaps a few thin slices of horsemeat sashimi.
The only suitable end to such an immoderate meal is a postprandial constitutional. For the full effect, borrow a pair of traditional wooden sandals (geta) from the guesthouse before you head out to enjoy the mild mountain air. Strolling among the darkened buildings, listening to the clack of wooden shoes on stone and the chorus of frogs croaking in nearby rice paddies, you might feel as though you’ve accidentally discovered the secret to time travel.
The next morning, after yet another large repast that is nearly identical to the previous evening’s meal but for the addition of a fried egg, the road to Tsumago beckons. For a route that is just five miles long, the trail from Magome to Tsumago offers a remarkable assortment of scenery.
Just outside Magome’s town limits, the first portion of the trail is paved and winds past rice paddies, bamboo groves and farming villages where small fields are planted with green tea, lettuce and leeks. The path, while not horribly taxing, does include a fair number of sweat-inducing hills.