Ever since watching ‘Joanna Lumley’s Japan’ a couple of years ago, I have wanted to walk on the Nakasendo Way. This is one of the main roads that went between Kyoto and Tokyo during the Edo period. On it are 69 post towns as messengers would use this road as well as important people travelling between the cities. Just off the train line between Nagoya and Matsumoto lies the two most preserved and restored post towns: Magome and Tsumago.

Shinano Wide View

The Shinano Limited Express train from Nagoya to Matsumoto continues on to Nagano deep in the alps. With wide windows (Shinkansen train windows are more like planes, boo) you have full view of the forests, the mountains and the snaking Kiso River which it follows. It reminded me of Amtrak’s California Zephyr racing the Colorado River on its way from the Rockies to the Grand Canyon. This Japanese version was smaller yes, but much greener and more mysterious in a way given the feudal history of the country. We travelled parts of this line several times in the end, to walk on the Nakasendo Way.


The Nakasendo Way

It was one of the best days of this trip so far. We got off the train at Nakatsugawa and took a bus to Magome. From there it was a steep climb up through the village and beyond for a couple of kilometres, continuously looking over our shoulder at the view.


After a short time, the path headed downwards through woodland and we met a man and his two boys from Denver, Colorado. He had never taken the train through the Rockies, I tried to persuade him while following the paved route. This path took us past a large one storey wooden hut with an old man standing outside. He immediately greeted us and led us inside. For those who have watched ‘Joanna Lumley’s Japan’, this is the same man she met and who invited her into his wooden house. Inside was a long table squeezing in people, mostly westerners and we sat next to an Italian couple. With the Japanese man’s basic English and our even less Japanese he asked us where we are from, how we have walked there and where we are going. He gave us green tea, some pickled vegetables and offers sweets. A donation box sat on the table.


A short downward walk off the main route takes you to the Otaki and Metaki (male and female) waterfalls. I’m not sure which was which. Mischa enjoyed his love of swimming/paddling/being in natural water.


In Tsumago there were many more shops in it’s windy street and many more cafes.


The last stretch had the option of taking the bus from Tsumago to Nagiso where we could catch the train home. We decided to walk it anyway – it was only 3km and in the end we had that stretch to ourselves, and though it was more like following a country road it was still beautiful. It led us to a steam train near Nagiso station, which we would not have seen otherwise.


“Matsumotooo… Matsumotooo…”

This greeted us every time we arrived at train station in the quaint castle town. The place was easily walkable and I had chosen a hostel right next to the castle itself. It was a wonderfully old traditional Japanese house complete with shoji, sliding doors and paper walls. It felt very special.


The castle is old, known as one of the 12 remaining original castles in Japan – the only one which is black. It’s nicknamed the Crow Castle. Five stories are visible from the outside, yet there is a sixth hidden floor where samurai are thought to be hiding. The castle was never necessary however as the region was very peaceful. Tomizo, our 78 year old volunteer guide, led us up all the way to the top giving us lots of additional information.


It was here we treated ourselves to something homely – a vegan curry! Turns out Japan is not the vegetarian friendly place I imagined it to be. With chicken slices on salads and tofu curry containing surprise pork mince, a little curry place (only two tables!) ran by a man from India and his Japanese wife was a wonderful surprise. Delicious food and great conversation.

Complete Photos (Matsumoto)


Complete Photos (Nakasendo Way)


2 thoughts on “All too brief stop in the Japanese Alps

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