When visiting the beautiful country of Japan, it is a wonder how anyone is able to leave the addictive vibes of the city at all.
From the big towering skyscrapers to the hustle and bustle of the crowds, the draw of the concrete jungle that is Tokyo and Osaka (and alike) is absolutely magnetic.
However, the beauty of Japan is that beauty is actually everywhere you look.
Nature actually plays a big role in the stunning sceneries of Japan. Certain cities only look that good because of the mountains in the distance. The cherry blossoms that overtake the streets in spring cannot be replicated anywhere; their charm is unique and irreplaceable.
The list of Japan’s natural beauty is positively endless, but today, we’re focusing on one particularly unique part.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself into the elements of Japan whilst simultaneously enjoy its history and culture, the Nakasendo Trail is the perfect option.
History of the Nakasendo Trail
Centuries ago during the Edo period, the Nakasendo Trail was what connected today’s Tokyo and Kyoto.
It was mainly frequented by business travellers and would take them a few days to traverse the 526km long trail on foot. ‘Post towns’ popped up around main sections of the route to provide travellers with boarding and food whilst on this journey.
Today, parts of the trail have been preserved and you can actually walk and explore sections of the trails on foot yourself. From the well-preserved post-towns to the stunning rural scenery, it makes for quite the trip to immerse yourself into Japan’s nature and history.
Most of the trail is not difficult so it can be done by people of all ages.
The 4 Best Parts of the Nakasendo Trail Today
There are a few sections to explore and whilst you can opt to do them all, it might take a few days and with the condensed itineraries that most people have, it might be best to select a trail that best suits what you’d like to experience.
1. Magome to Tsumago
The most popular section of the trail would have to be an 8km route from Magome to Tsumago. Both of these post-towns are stunning in their own right, and you can start and end at either point.
Magome is the 43rd of the 69 old post-towns. It’s a wonderfully preserved town that sits on a hillside.
Its defining feature is that it is built around a gorgeous winding cobble path that is steeped with a historic feel and look. The path is lined with sprinkles of small family-owned eateries, snack shops, and souvenir stores.
You’ll notice that many of the homes lining this path will have been restored to the look and feel of the olden houses, and it won’t be surprising to see many people stop to take photos with them. There’s something about them that’s just so quintessentially Japanese.
The trail from Magome and Tsumago (and vice versa) is fun and appealing in that it takes you through small farms and rural houses which provide the perfect picturesque photo opportunities.
Tsumago is the 42nd of the 69 old post towns. Similar to Magome, it is a stunning preserved town that’s lined with shops and restaurants, and with the rolling mountains in the distance, is one of the most picturesque places you’ll visit.
- Starting point: You can start at either point, but it is recommended that you start at Magome first as the elevation is gentler heading towards Tsumago.
- Ending point: Tsumago
- Trail time: 3-4 hours – 8km, walking leisurely on foot
- Difficulty level: Easy
- Where to stay: Magome
Magome – Magome Chaya
This stunning minshuku with a friendly, welcoming host is the perfect place to stay if you’re looking for an overnight visit to Magome. It offers simple yet homey rooms with futon bedding and a tatami-mat. You’ll be transported back in history.
If you’re interested in learning more about Magome and Tsumago, check out our in-depth article about these two gorgeous villages located in Kiso Valley: Magome Tsumago Kiso Valley.
2. Tsumago to Nojiri
The trail from Tsumago to Nojiri is considered one of the least popular of the Nakasendo trail, but that’s not telling at all about just how stunning this trail actually is.
Those who have hiked this section believe it may be the most picturesque they’ve ever taken. The path trails through small villages, around hidden valleys and past bamboo forests and Japanese cedar trees.
It offers some of the most breathtaking views of the ‘satoyama’ Japanese countryside along the Nakasendo trail. There have been bear sightings on this trail, so make as much noise as you can when walking through the forests.
There are large bells posted along this path, so if you see it, give it a ring!
- Starting point: Tsumago
- Ending point: Nojiri
- Trail time: 6 hours – 17km
- Difficulty level: Intermediate-difficult. There are sections of this trail that are quite steep and would require proper enclosed shoes to hike.
- Where To Stay: Nojiri – Kofukan
Stay at Kofukan near Lake Nojiri for the ultimate onsen experience. This ryokan offers stunning views of Mount Myoko, Japanese style rooms with tatami flooring and shoji paper screens, and is only a short distance from the town centre.
3. Yabuhara to Narai-Juku
The section connecting Yabuhara to Narai-juku contains the highest point of the entire Nakasendo trail – it’s a whooping 1197 m above sea floor!
Whilst this trail is definitely not as popular as the Magome to Tsumago trail, it’s still just as gorgeous.
Starting at Yabuhara, you will witness a wonderfully preserved town that is surrounded by greenery and rolling mountains. The narrow valley is sprinkled with small older houses and rice fields.
As you move along the path towards the forest where the trail begins, you will witness the buildings get ever older, crowds thinning out, and the original surface shine of the trail will wear out as you bare witness to the hidden beauty of the town.
Here, you can drop into the smaller souvenir shops to purchase ‘orokugushi’ combs, which is this town’s specialty and something preserved from the Edo period.
Once you get to the edge of the forest, the trail towards Narai-juku begins.
When heading towards Torii Pass, which is the name given to the highest point on the Nakasendo Trail, the path can get quite steep. Once you’ve reached it, the path will begin to slope down again.
Don’t forget to look up occasionally because the views along this path, whether it be the surrounding luscious green trees or the quaint town below, are simply breathtaking.
At the end of this path, you will be rewarded with a stunning view overlooking Narai-juku.
Narai-juku is actually the longest town on the Nakasendo trail. Back during the Edo period, because of the energy exerted whilst walking the trail between Yabuhara and Narai-juku, many travellers required lodging after completing it, and so Narai-juku grew to accommodate.
These days, you will witness local craftsmen at work selling beautiful wooden pieces, lots of small eateries, and souvenir stores.
- Starting point: Yabuhara
- Ending point: Narai-juku
- Trail time: 3.3 hours – 6km
- Difficulty level: Easy-intermediate (with some steep parts)
- Where To Stay: Narai-juku – Asahikan
Asahikan is a stunning ryokan that’s got everything going for it: located right near the station, large guest rooms (both Japanese and Western-style rooms), and free Wi-Fi.
4. Karuizawa to Yokokawa
Karuizawa is located at the foot of Mount Asama, and marks the beginning of the end of the Nakasendo trail.
Karuizawa is a bit more modern than most towns mentioned, and really does cater for the tourist market. During various seasons of the month, activities are in abundance here. From hiking, golfing, and skiing, it’s quite the town.
One of its biggest highlights is, in fact, the various art galleries that have popped up here over time.
To get to Yokokawa from Karuizawa, you will need to walk over the high plateaus of the Usui-toge Pass. Once you arrive at the top, though, the hard-earned stunning views as well as the descent afterwards will be totally worth it.
The beautiful surrounding mountain and forest views along this path are considered by some to be the best of the Nakasendo trail, albeit the least developed.
- Starting point: Karuizawa
- Ending point: Yokokawa
- Trail time: 5-6 hours – 16.7km
- Difficulty level: Easy-intermediate (with some relatively steep sections)
- Where to stay: Karuizawa – Ikoisanso
Just because Karuizawa is more established does not mean it’s not without the distinct nostalgic Japanese charm! The popular Ikoisanso ryokan is the perfect place to stay if you’re looking to stay overnight in Karuizawa.
It’s a humble yet comfortable ryokan which offers free Wi-FI, a great location close to the station and konbini, and friendly staff. Guest services include bike rentals, in-room massages, and taxi reservations can be made at the front desk.
Additional Tips to Hike the Nakasendo trail
Whilst some of these trails are described as being ‘easy’ it is still recommended that you wear enclosed, comfortable shoes, as even the easiest trail will take a few hours.
For certain parts of the trail, such as from Magome to Tsumago, you can leave your luggage at the information centre in Magome in the morning, and it will be delivered to the information centre at Tsumago by the afternoon. Check in at the information centre of the town you’re staying to see if this service is available.
When you hike past bells set up along the forested paths of this rail, give them a ring. Bears are known to frequent parts of this trail, so it would be good to make as much noise as you can to warn them that you’re around.
If you’re looking for the perfect souvenir, check out the wooden combs sold at many of the post-towns. Made from cypress, they’re said to last for centuries!
The Nakasendo trail is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we highly recommend you try and do at least once! Choose one trail or do them all – the beauty that you witness of Japan’s well-preserved history is definitely a story you can talk about when you get back home.
There is simply no match for the nostalgic beauty of Japan’s post-towns, rural landscape, and beautiful hospitality of the people there.