Japan is big on concrete and overhead power lines thanks to postwar rebuilding and a propensity for earthquakes. I have to say, nothing makes you appreciate nature like the absence of it.
So when I read about the Kiso Valley, where way stops on the ancient road that connected Kyoto and Tokyo in the Edo period have been restored and preserved (no cars or power lines to be seen), I was sold.
Getting to the Kiso Valley
The best preserved stretch of the Nakasendo, the ancient Edo trail, is between the post towns of Magome and Tsumago. We stopped off in Nagoya en route from Okayama, visiting the castle and trying the local Cochin chicken in sashimi form as well as the much more agreeable tebasaki (fried chicken wings). Eating raw chicken does go against everything you’ve ever been taught, but once you get over the squeamishness it really is pretty good.
To get to Magome from Nagoya, you take a morning limited express train to Nakatsugawa (50 minutes) and can change there for the bus (30 minutes). The journey becomes prettier and prettier as you wind your way up into the Japanese Alps.
In Magome, the tourist office can arrange bags to be forwarded on to Tsumago, where we’d be spending the night. Well worth the 500 yen per case, even if you only have an overnight bag!
Walking the Nakasendo
Magome is beautiful and has been well restored. But as we followed a steady stream of other tourists up through the hillside town’s pristine main street, I worried that it was a little too perfect. I had come to the Kiso Valley to allow my historical imagination to run riot. But instead I felt a bit like I was in Disneyland.
Still, the little shopfronts were charming and, as the road wends steeply uphill there are great views of the surrounding green mountains. As we followed the Nakasendo out of town the crowds thinned and soon we were alone on the path, surrounded by small farm holdings.
We spent the next couple of hours hiking along cobblestones worn by hundreds of years of footfall through incredibly beautiful countryside. We barely saw another soul on our walk, and the timeless trail made it possible to imagine the ancient travellers who had passed this way before us. The path from Magome to Tsumago is almost entirely downhill so it wasn’t a taxing walk, and there is a rest house along the way where you are invited to stop for tea.
When we walked the Nakasendo, we were lucky enough to catch a few cherry blossom trees still in bloom. The last blossoms had fallen in Okayama a week or two earlier, but being further north and in the mountains, sakura season comes later to the Kiso Valley. I can imagine in the full swing of sakura season, or with the fiery autumn leaves, the valley is even more spectacular.
A night to remember
Tsumago didn’t disappoint. A little more rustic than Magome, and a lot less crowded. As we walked down into the town past a water wheel, I was instantly charmed.
Tsumago’s museums are well worth a visit and, as the afternoon was creeping on, we had the place almost to ourselves and so were free to continue to let our historical imaginations run wild, speculating about the lives that had been led in the quiet, empty rooms of these old buildings.
We spent the evening at Fujioto ryokan, run by a friendly family with excellent English. The traditional inn only has communal bathrooms, but you are welcome to lock the door and so have the luxury of soaking in a cedar tub that could fit two or three people.
Fujioto’s kaiseki dinner was one of the best meals I ate in two years in Japan. The sweet hostess provided a full explanation of each dish as she laid out the multiple courses. Dishes included sweet bee larvae, local trout, mountain vegetables and miso beef slow cooked over a flame at the table. Everything was either interesting in a good way (I’m looking at you bee larvae!) or just plain delicious.
We headed out into the quiet, dark streets after the meal. It was very still and evocative taking a post-prandial walk along the softly lit ancient streets.
After an early night, and another delicious meal at Fujioto the next morning, I was sorry to head to Nagiso train station to begin the long trek back to Okayama.
We lingered a little, stopping at a cafe that also sold handmade pottery. After finishing our coffee, the cups were washed and given to us as a souvenir of our stay. But there’s no chance of me forgetting my wonderful journey back into old Japan.