[dropcap type=”circle” color=”#COLOR_CODE” background=”#COLOR_CODE”]A[/dropcap]bout 20 minutes in to the hike from Magome Pass to Tsumago, along the old Nakasendo route connecting present-day Tokyo and Kyoto, you’ll find your first bear bell.
“Ring the bell hard against bears,” a sign suggests. And so we rang it. Hard. As we continued down the trail, we were on alert — our eyes darting left and right, scanning for bears and searching the horizon for the next bear bell.
Spoiler alert: There were no bears. Instead, the hike offered a change of pace from Gifu’s Magome-juku, the busy post town where we started the day (Tsumago-juku is across the border in Nagano, but both towns, along with Narai-juku further along the trail, sit in an region called Kisoji).
Magome sits on a hillside, its main street lined with soba restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and a steady stream of tourists. After lunch and another stroll through town, we caught a bus from Magome proper to Magome Pass, following a guidebook suggestion to skip the first hour of the hike because it runs along the highway.
The trail is well maintained and well signed, in English and Japanese, and only one section could be considered anything near steep. Of course, the surroundings are also beautiful.
But beyond the scenery, hiking the small section of the Nakasendou (translated roughly as ‘road through the central mountains’) offers a chance to conjure another era. In the Edo Period, the Nakasendou was one of five major routes, and along with the Tokaido, it served as a key link between Edo and Kyoto. Magome and Tsumago were two of 69 post towns along the Nakasendo. In their peak, the post towns were bustling rest stops for foot travelers. But modernization — specifically the Chuo rail line that was completed in 1911 — led to their decline.
Enter Tsumago, our destination for the day, which in 1968 began a full-scale restoration that has transformed the town into its present form: a realistic rendering of an Edo Period post town.
Power lines and other cables run underground, and vehicles are kept off the main drag until nightfall. The prevalence of tourists is the only big difference viewable on the surface.
But compared with many historical sights in Japan, the restoration work and the relatively low number of tourists makes for a peaceful experience.
We arrived in Tsumago just in time to check in to our guest house, one of many that line the streets. After an early bath and a bit of down time, we headed to the communal dining room. The meal featured a sampling of cuisine famous in the lower Kisoji: soba noodles, rainbow trout and even inago — grilled grasshopper. (The verdict? Tasty but mentally grueling.)
After dinner, we walked to the town center to take in a performance of taiko drumming and other traditional arts. A high school photo club and an army of amateur photographers had taken up the best spots, so we watched from windows behind the stage, a spot scouted by one of the staff members of our guest house.
In the morning, a post-breakfast stroll was a fine way to bid the town farewell. We hitched a bus up the road to Nagiso Station, rode a local train to Matsumoto and spent the afternoon at Matsumoto Castle.
While the castle was a sight to behold, the slow hike through its people-packed chambers was a stark reminder of something more peaceful: that little stretch of road through the central mountains.
By train: From Nagoya Station, take the JR Chuo Line to Nakatsugawa Station (rapid trains take 75 minutes and cost ¥1,280). From there, buses run to Magome. Buses in the area are infrequent, so it’s best to check times in advance.
By road: Route 19 or the Chuo Expressway can take you to Nakatsugawa and Nagiso stations.
Tip: A baggage service at the tourist info center in Magome will deliver bags to Tsumago for ¥500 each, but the deadline to drop bags is 11:30.
This article was originally published in Kansai Scene magazine.