Are you looking to go off the beaten path and join Japan’s local tourists in search of the atmosphere in old Japan? Walking a part of the Nakasendo Trail in Gifu is a great way to do so! Littered with traditional well-preserved old post towns like Magome, Tsumago, and Narai, it is a beautiful route to walk. The rural way of life is still around everywhere, and untouched nature can be seen in the distance. Let our travel guide help you plan your trip to the Nakasendo Trail!
History of Nakasendo
Nakasendo is an old trail constructed 400 years ago by the Tokugawa Shogunate as one of the major routes between Edo (Tokyo now) and Kyoto. When Tokugawa placed the shogunate in Edo, they started a new policy called Sankin-kotai, which meant that all the 250 daimyo (feudal lords) had to come to Edo every other year to show loyalty to the shogun. The real reason was to keep any of their vassals from becoming too wealthy and thus powerful. To operate this policy, the shogunate needed to construct roads from all over Japan to Edo.
The busiest road was between Edo and Kyoto where the Emperor lived. They made two routes to connect these two most important cities. One is called Tokaido which follows the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. The total length was about 490 km with 53 post towns in between. But there were big rivers without bridges on the road, so they sometimes had to wait for the river to go down for a week or more. The Nakasendo was longer than the Tokaido at about 530km in length, with 69 post towns. Though walkers needed to pass mountain roads, they were at least not bothered by any rivers.
Post towns were very important to the travelers, especially for the daimyo groups. Daimyo with large territories brought 4,000 people with them on the way to Edo. The most important role of the post town was to offer enough accommodations for all of them.
Each town had one Honjin, the accommodation for the most important person, who was of course the daimyo. The Waki-honjin was for the second-rank officers. Lower ranked vassals needed to share small accommodations with many people. Sometimes the big groups had to divide into small groups and used two or three post towns on the same night.
There was a post town after every 8km of road. Fast-walking groups walked more than 30km per day, passing 3 post towns per day. The slower walkers did only about 20km per day. Another important role of the post town was to offer horses to transport baggage, so they didn’t have to prepare many horses at the start of their trip. They could rent horses and transporters in each town.
Unfortunately, because of the modernization of the highways all over Japan, not many post towns have been preserved. Thankfully, however, you can see some of the most well-preserved ones in Nagano and Gifu because these towns are in the mountains. The land here is not so valuable, so project and city developers didn’t have much interest in these areas. Let’s learn a bit more about the most popular and mostly intact post towns.
Tsumago was the 42nd post town counting from Edo. It is the best-preserved post town in Japan. It was here that they started the townscape preservation movement of Japan. Tsumago has been designated as a preservation district containing important traditional structures.
This means that today you can still feel the authentic atmosphere of the old post roads from the Edo Period here. Electrical wires, TV antennas, and telephone poles were hidden from sight along the main road and as a result, Tsumago looks much like it did in the 18th century.
Magome is the next post town from Tsumago, so the distance between them is about 8 km. This town is a part of Gifu Prefecture. It is well-preserved, too. The difference is that Tsumago town is flat while Magome town spreads on a slope. So they have a very different atmosphere.
Magome has become very popular because of author Toson Shimazaki, who was born in Magome. He wrote the very popular novel ‘Yoakemae’, meaning ‘before dawn’. Shimazaki was born into the family who exploited the Honjin (main accommodation) right after the Meiji Restoration, so he experienced the changing of history. He vividly described these drastic changes in his book.
Narai is very easy to access. Only a 3-minute walk from JR Narai Station, you are already in the middle of the old post town. This town is very well-preserved, too. There are several inns where you can stay overnight. The town becomes very quiet and dark, so you will truly feel as if you have been transported back in time to the Edo period.
Hiking on Nakasendo Trail
You can walk a part of the Nakasendo trail in Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. The most popular walk is the trail between Tsumago and Magome. You can enjoy these two most well-preserved towns. The distance is about 8 km and the total elevation gain is about 400 meters. It takes about three hours in total. On the way, you will pass through the cedar forest, rice and vegetable fields, small villages, and waterfalls. You will get a feel for how the local people live. If you walk from Tsumago, just before arriving at Magome, there is a viewpoint to see beautiful Mt Ena (2,191m).
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