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Apart from the usual Magome-Tsumago route I found little info on how to enjoy a longer experience of the Nakasendo Trail. I managed to glean a few details from tour operators offering expensive self-guided trips but only when I was on the trail was I able to connect the dots. I hope this is handy for travellers looking to explore the best bits of the trail on their own.  This is a tried and tested itinerary. I travelled in October 2018.

Tokyo – Magome – Tsumago – Kiso Fukushima – Narai

Tokyo to Magome

I decided to take a bus instead of train from Tokyo to Magome, the first of the “Post towns” on my route. The bus was a much cheaper and simpler option. Otherwise I would need to change trains a few times and catch a local bus to get to Magome. I asked my Tokyo hotel to forward my luggage to my Kyoto hotel so that I could travel light on my Nakasendo adventure.  A great service offered by almost all Japanese hotels. I paid around $15 for a large suitcase.

I caught the bus at the Shinjuku bus station (you can also embark at Tokyo main bus station) at 10:40 am and reached Chuodo Magome at 15:22. The distance covered was 288 km and it was one of the most pleasant coach rides I ever had.

 

From the bus stop you need to cross the road via an overhead bridge. It is around a 1.7 km walk to Magome village. My Nakasendo adventure had begun!

 

 

 

The tourist coaches had left and I had the village to myself. I checked in to the Magome Chaya Minshuku or guest house. It was the only place I could book online. It had a bit of a backpacker hostel feel with no Japanese guests in sight. My room was clean though and the food was really good.

 

Magome village has several shops selling souvenirs as well as snacks for hungry travellers. Its elevation offers some nice views of the countryside.

 

 

Magome to Tsumago

This is the most popular section of the Nakasendo Trail. After a hearty breakfast we set out to walk the 6 km to Tsumago. The trail is well marked. I took the signs warning of the presence of bears and the bells to scare them off with a pinch of salt.

 

 

A nice pit stop on the way is tea house overseen by an elderly man. The tea is free in return for filling a questionnaire about your visit. The tea house has featured in many travel documentaries.

 

 

I reached Tsumago in the early afternoon. It is a lovely village with more shops than Magome. Lots of things to see and buy.

 

I stayed at the Maruya guest house located a kilometre or so from the village. The only other guests were a Japanese family who were staying in a completely separate wing. My stay was more peaceful and the room was about twice the size as the one I had in Magome. Highly recommend the place even if I somehow forgot to take pictures.

Tsumago to Kiso Fukushima via Nojiri

This was the longest leg of my trip: around 19 km. Most travel logs recommend walking 3 km from Tsumago village to the Nagiso railway station and take a train to Kiso Fukushima. I wanted more and was intrigued by the idea of a six hour walk mentioned by some tour operators through bamboo forests and over the Nenoue-Toge pass. There was one problem: the tour operators did not share details of the route for obvious reasons. A map from the tourism office showed that I would need to bypass a shrine and the Nagiso railway station and head to higher ground.

 

 

I avoided the road going down to the station and headed up a mountain road instead. It didn’t feel right as it was a large road for vehicles. With misgivings, I kept going keeping my fingers crossed for a Nakasendo Trail sign. To my great relief, I finally came across the first sign. It lifted my spirits to finally know I was on the right path.

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The path was mostly on a road for a few kilometres, passing houses.

 

 

After half-an-hour of walking uphill, houses gave way to fields and open country. A diversion from the road took me through forest paths and roads. Typhoon Trami had left its mark, with fallen trees a common sight.

 

I eventually crossed the Nenoue-Toge pass, and the terrain became less steep.

 

 

While I didn’t see any bears I did come across some wildlife.

 

I reached the enchanting-looking bamboo forest path that was advertised by the tour operators.

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Towards the end, I came to a large road with pine forest all around. It was the least picturesque part of this stage and we had to rush a little bit as wanted to catch our train from Nojiri to Kiso Fukushima. There are very few trains going that direction (around one every two or three hours).

 

Around six hours after I had set out from Tsumago, I finally reached Nojiri. The town is not spectacular and I was too tired to explore anyway. I raided the vending machines at the train station for refreshments. Worth noting that I saw no shops selling food on this route. I had set aside some power bars for fuel.

IMG_2372The ticket counter at the station was closed. You can buy your ticket from the train driver (yes the train driver) when the train arrives at your destination. Or if he is in a rush, you can also buy it while exiting the station.

Kiso Fukushima is not as pretty as other post towns. It is larger and more urban. It does offer decent shopping though. I stayed at the Kiso Mikawaya which was more a hotel than a guest house. While it lacked in charm, it had large rooms with an attached toilet (most guest houses have shared toilets and showers). The hotel also had an onsen (hot bath) big enough for 20 people. The other guest houses or Minshukus only had single-person onsens. The icing on the cake were the massage chairs for guests in the laundry room.

 

Kiso Fukushima was also the place where travellers obtained authorization to continue along the Nakasendo Way.  I visited a museum that documents the role of the town as an important controlling station. I got to role play as an official that was responsible for stamping the travel papers of voyagers.

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Kiso Fukushima to Narai via Yabuhara

To get to a nice section of the Nakasendo trail I had to catch a train from Kiso Fukushima to Yabuhara. I approached the ticket counter to buy my train ticket but was told it was not possible. The ticket vendor didn’t speak English so he connected me to a remote assistant via a tablet. She explained that the train was not running and they had no idea when the next to train to Yabuhara would arrive. Rather than waste  time waiting at the station I took a taxi to Yabuhara which cost around $30. The driver couldn’t believe I was going to cross the Tori pass on foot.

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The trail was well signposted at the Yabuhara station and I soon found myself in a forest.

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After sweating buckets in the humidity, I reached the Torii gate and shrine.

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It was almost all the way downhill from there. The hills were lush and the trail was perfect for brisk walking.  Only power lines marred the view.

 

 

The path suddenly ended on the outskirts of Narai village. It took me 1.5 hours to cover the 6 km. It was over too soon.

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Narai was quite pretty. It seemed like a lot of effort had been made to restore and preserve the buildings.

 

 

The tourism office was keen to show off its robot but it was not cooperating. The lady apologized profusely of course.

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I had some time to kill before I could check into my Minshuku. So I decided to have a coffee at an interesting café which had two poodles Chopin and Piano milling around.

 

I stayed at the Iseya guest house and was given a room in the annexe overlooking the garden. Nice place even if it was the most expensive Minshuku of my trip.

 

My Nakasendo adventure had come to an end. I left next morning for Kyoto but not before checking out the only concrete building in town.

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