Saturday, 23 November 2013

Nakasendo hike from Tsumago to Magome

Explosion of colors along the Nakasendo trail
Absolutely breathtaking! God was truly on our side when we planned our trip to Japan. As early as May, we - Tonyboy, Jun and Bettina - earmarked the first week of November to visit Baby who made Tokyo her home a few years back and to check out the temples in Kyoto.

The trip became a sort of reunion since it was ten years ago that we (sans Bettina) all climbed Mt. Annapurna in Nepal. Of course being mountaineers, we squeezed in a hike in between to Nakasendo.

The timing was perfect! This is the season when the leaves change colors and when the Japanese flock to the mountains and even to Kyoto to see the leaves, particularly the leaves of maple trees, turn red. The practice is called momijgari, which means hunting of red maple leaves.  So, we were lucky that we confirmed early because when we got there everything was fully booked.

Nakasendo or "path through mountains" is the ancient highway used by the shogunate and the samurais during the 8th century to travel from the imperial capital Kyoto to Edo (now called Tokyo). The road is 533 km long and cuts through the central mountains in the Kiso Valley. There are actually 69 stations or posts along the highway.

Since we allocated two days to hike, we chose the popular ancient post towns of Tsumago and Magome which are the 42nd and 43rd stations.

Our entry point was in Nagiso and exit point  in Nakatsugawa (refer to left map). The train ride took about 3 hours, two hours from Tokyo via shinkansen to Nagoya where we changed trains and took the express train to Nagiso in 55 minutes. Note that we purchased the JR Pass in Manila so we could just hop in and out of any JR line.
One of the trail posts to Tsumago

Nakasendo was surprisingly easy to get to and likewise, the path was easy to hike. At first we were afraid that we might get lost with our DIY (do-it-yourself) plan. And considering that I just recuperated from dengue, I was not too sure that I would be able to hike the distance. Tonyboy was kind enough to load my stuff in his backpack as well as load Bettina's and Jun's too (who had some kind of back problem at the start of the trek).

The trail was well marked with sign posts every kilometer or so and trail maps were readily available at the Tourist Information office at each postal town. The first leg was a 4 km hike to Tsumago and the jump off was behind Nagiso train station. The trail led to rice fields and through the forest which was dotted with maple trees.

bumped into Alfonso  
We got to Tsumago in time for lunch. Being one of the smaller postal towns, the restaurant selection was quite limited and after seeing two or three places, we chose the one where there were lots of people. The menu offered three types of ramen - vegetarian, ebi (shrimp) and a very interesting yam concoction. Expect to shell out as much as Y1,200 per bowl.

While we were having lunch, we were interrupted by a Caucasian-looking fellow who asked if we were pinoys. It turned out that he grew up in Manila and coincidentally enough, is a cousin of a friend of mine and attended the same elementary school as TonyBoy. Alfonso. who is now based in Australia, speaks fluent Japanese and guides tourists, specifically bird watchers and photographers around Japan.
Magome trail

After lunch, we headed out for a bit of sightseeing. We spotted a historical museum and several souvenir shops along the road. We then stopped at the tourist information office to get a trail map to Magome, 8 km away.

The first 5 km of the hike was an easy, gentle ascent to the crest of Magome Pass (2,500 feet in elevation). We passed through forests, waterfalls and stopped to rest at a little hut where we were served matcha (green tea). There were some tourists inside who warned us of the steep climb up to our next stop.

True enough the climb was indeed steep. When we got to the peak, we were greeted with a clear blue sky and a fantastic view of the snow capped Mount Ena. Several photographers were there readying their zoom lenses and waiting for the sun to set.
Mt. Ena behind the marker

After a few snaps, we walked to Magome where we spotted more zoom lens-toting photographers along the road. We found out that the town was celebrating its annual lantern festival that week and thus, there were several tourists

Our accommodation in Tajimaya was a typical ryokan (inn) where the rooms were divided by shoji screen sliding doors, futons laid out on tatami mats and the bath and toilet facilities were shared (separate male and female though). The cost of the room comes with a sumptuous kaiseki dinner and breakfast.

Before dinner, I decided to try out for the very first time the piping-hot onsen inside the female bathroom. It was soothing especially after a long hike under the rain. The onsen is supposed to have healing properties. (Tip: best to soak in the onsen, after dinner, before going to bed).

At dinner, we donned the traditional yukata (kimono) and we were served small dishes in small plates - appetizer, sushi, pickled vegetables, tofu, fish, soup and fruits. The gohan (rice) was served in a wooden bowl.
some sake in our Japanese style room before dipping in the onsen
typical Kaiseki dinner
follow the yellow-dotted paved road
The next day, after breakfast, we set off to Nakatsugawa, 10 km away, to catch the train to Kyoto. The hike would take us to the towns of Shinchaya and Ochiai and finally to Nakatsugawa.

Be warned - this section of Nakasendo is not popular among Western tourists. Most of the hikers we met were Japanese and also the trail signs were in Japanese. We would stop and ask the local residents where to go and they would point to the road and say 'follow the yellow-dotted road.' Thank God Bettina who reads hanzi (Chinese) which is also Kanji (Japanese), could make out the characters and led us to the right direction.

The hike was downhill all the way. The first town Shichaya, 2 km distance, consisted mostly of farmlands. We passed several shrines and  gorges along the way to the next town, Ochiai. As we neared Nakatsugawa, it was getting to look more of a city with more cars and flat roads.

one of the Shinto Temples along Nakasendo
Jun posing infront of one of the gorges
If we continued following the yellow-dotted road, we would probably have ended in the next postal town. There were no signs leading to the train station. Jun decided to randomly knock in one of the homes to ask for directions. Luckily, someone came out to help. He even went out of his way to walk with us to the main road, explaining the tourist spots along the way and finally, directed us to the train station.

boarding the shinkansen
We made it to the train station and had time to get some ramen next door. The trip to Kyoto was much shorter, an hour and a half, 55 minutes to Nagoya and 39 minutes via shinkansen to Kyoto.

Note that the best time to go to Nakasendo is when the season starts to change.  However, be warned. From our experience, this is also when the locals take the time out to witness the changing of the leaves (momijgari) and I'm sure Spring will likewise be busy for the hanami when the cherry blossoms from the sakura tree bloom.


Jeyna Lim S. C said...

Hi! I stumbled upon this post and am wondering if you still have your itinerary for your Nakasendo hike. I'm planning to go DIY with my family too and would be more than happy to get more info from someone who've done it :)

Questions I have:
- Did you stay only one night?
- Did you use luggage forwarding or did you carry your own?
- What time did you start your day from Tokyo to Nagiso?

I hope to hear from you soon, and thanks!

Rosan Cruz said...

Hi Jenya,
Thank you for your email. I hope you're using a JR Pass. if you do, book the seats in advance. And yes, we forwarded our luggage to Kyoto and used a backpack for the hike.
Yes we spent one night in Nakasendo. We started from Tokyo, the 8:10am shinkansen train to Nagiso and then walked to Tsumago for lunch, and then hiked to Magome and slept in a ryokan. I suggest you book early since it gets full.
The hike from Magome to Nakatsugawa was VERY TRICKY. As we approach flat land, it was more dificult to find the trail sign. We ended up ask people to help us. We arrived in Kyoto in the evening.
It would be great if you can do a 3-or even a 5-day hike.
Do wear layers, a sturdy walking shoe and wear a hat.

Rosan Cruz said...

P.S. Jenya, you can take your luggage to any convenience store like 7-Eleven, Lawson's. Give them the address where you want to send your luggage in Kyoto. Make sure to give them enough time for your luggage to get to the destination.