japan: nakasendo trail five day hiking guide
Quick note about the hiking guides:
Many of you who know me, or have followed along for a while, know that I like hiking. Any kind of hiking! The longer the better, really. Tyler and I have a goal to make one long hike a year (we’re defining *long* here as five or more days) We are now three years strong in this goal! Can I get a woot woot!!!
Year one: (before we were married): Camino de Santiago, Norther Spain
Year two: Machu Picchu trek, Peruvian Andes mountains (wrote about the first part of the trip here… I should really get around to finishing that huh?!?)
Year three: Nakasendo Trail, Japan Kiso Valley Portion
I’m really hoping to have more comprehensive hiking guides to the last two up on the blog soon! I not only want to keep a journal of these amazing treks we take and places we see, but share the plans with you, to make it easier for you to plan and prep! Maybe you have qualms or misgivings about making treks like these: having kids in tow, being a little older in years, or fear of traveling through the back roads foreign countries is holding you back. But, let me assure you we have crossed paths with every shape and size of hiker! Treks like these are unforgettable ways to travel through another country, and in my own experience, provide more real and lasting experiences than just sticking to cities and headliner sites.
I've organized this by days of the hike, including distances traveled and places stayed. I also included things we learned in Japan, budgeting for this hike, best foods, and mistakes we made at the end of this post. Enjoy!
Buckle up, this will be quite the ride. Without further ado....
THE NAKASENDO HIKING GUIDE
DAY ONE: Train from Kyoto to Nakatsugawa, Nagoya Prefecture, hike to Magomejuku
We started this hike from Kyoto, really. We wanted to "follow" the true path from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). One quick train ride later and we were in Nakasagawa that afternoon (one of the first post towns in the Kiso Valley) We found out too late that Nakatsugawa is home to some of the best Sumo in the country! Shoulda coulda!
The hike from Nakatsugawa to Magome wasn't too long, although it was some of the steepest! Most of this route was marked by a paved trail of yellow and black rock pavement. Yeah, you better believe we sang "follow the yellow rock road" the whole time! This portion was very well marked, with signs every quarter km and even some schematic maps about how to safely cross highways. We curved through small towns and into more and more rural areas. A highlight was a gorgeous valley with bright red bridge spanning across, where we flew the drone for a bit! (movie to come soon!) There was about a 5 km section that was the most ancient feeling part of the trek we encountered. The stones were rough hewn and clearly hand laid, covered in years of travel and fresh moss. It was a beautiful secluded hike for the most part (since we were started so late). We made good time, but still ended up in Magome barely in time for dinner!
Magome was uniquely situated high in the mountains and provided the best views across the valley of the whole trek! We stayed at Magomechaya Minshuku that night and had an incredible spread of a dinner and breakfast. This was probably my favorite stay of the whole trip. Magome has an other worldly charm, and as we walked through the streets in the almost raining fog, I was so happy to be in that spot of the world.
Distance Hiked: 12 km, 8.5 miles
Stay: Magomechaya Minshuku
DAY TWO: Hike from Magome to Tsumago
After a multi-dish breakfast in Magome, we leisurely set out in the morning rain. Our kind minshuku host gave us two umbrellas to take on our trek! (Just one of the many moments the locals helped us out!) This was a shorter day, so we kept our pace slow. We stopped and smelled the *flowers* and even jumped in a waterfall!
The trail was very clearly marked along this portion. The hike wasn't too strenuous. If you think you may want to do a shorter section of this hike - I suggest taking the Magome to Tsumago (or backwards) section. We got into the Hanaya Ryokan early and hiked into Tsumagojuku to explore. Tsumago had lots of afternoon shops open - matcha ice cream, steamed rice buns, soba noodles, MMMM! We wandered for a few hours and took a detour up to the Tsumago castle (fun hike, but don't expect to see an actual structure like I did!) Our minshuku was a great deal this night and they had another beautiful dinner spread!
Distance Hiked: 10 km, 6.2 miles
Stay: Hanaya Ryokan
DAY THREE: hike from Tsumago to Noijiri and train to Kiso Fukishima
We set out this morning with the wide eyed hope that we might make it to Kiso Fukishima without needing to take a train in-between towns. This was supposed to be a mammoth of a hiking day - with our sights set at a 20 mile day (almost all flat roads). If you think that sounds crazy, well, you're right. It was.
We left at the crack of dawn and put 4 miles in before stopping to get breakfast around 7:30am. After meandering around a town, and speaking to a few locals, we realized there were no cafes or shops open at that time of morning! We walked by a supermarket with employees just showing up to open, and basically begged to come in and grab some food. Suprisingly, they let us in early, and we filled our packs with random breakfast foods and snacks for the day.
After breakfast we got lost about 6 miles in and ended up on the mountain pass called Yogawa. As you may guess, the road during this section was particularly poorly marked! We did have a detailed guide and yet, even with that, somehow derailed our marathon dreams by hiking vertical, rather than horizontal miles.
BUT, we turned our frowns upside down, and clicked into full on hiking mode. If you are interested in more of a vertical challenge in your Nakasendo trek, this is certainly the path for you! We didn't regret it in the end at all, and in fact, it was nice to leave the towns and head into forests and meadows for a day. We passed by farms and rang bells warding off bears (or so the sign said). No bears were spotted and we picnicked at the top of Nenoue Pass.
We made it to Nojirijuku just in time to miss a train, but with plenty of time to eat a leisurely lunch and grab the late afternoon train into Kiso Fukishima.
In Kiso, we stayed at a very nice Ryokan (not family run, more of a hotel). The Onyado Tsuyana Ryokan had the best hot spring baths of our whole trip. Bathing in traditional Japanese style was one of my favorite moments! I really had to watch to see what others were doing before attempting myself. We had dinner at a local pub type place with great beer and yakisoba. As we walked around town late that night we heard a large group singing and dancing a beautiful celebration song. Not sure what it meant, but hearing the chords and words descend over the dark homes touched that special tingly part of my heart.
Distance *attempted: 21.2 miles
Distance actually hiked: 13.4 miles or 21 km
Stay: Onyado Tsuyana Ryokan
DAY FOUR: hike from Kiso Fukishima to Naraijuku
We set out for a solid day of hiking towards our final post town Narai. We had a great time strolling through small towns, eating peaches *which by the way are way better in Japan* and getting drinks from everyone of the vending machines we passed (which were many). At about noon we had to take shelter under a car port from mega huge rain drops for about 30 minutes. Luckily a nice man and woman came out to bring us tea and give us towels to dry off. We even took pictures with their baby (to say thank you I suppose?)
We had a time crunch to make it into Narai to meet up with our Airbnb host. Narai was the largest post town we stayed in, and had the most tourism action (although mostly Japanese tourist). We met up with Midori, our Airbnb host, who had arranged to take us out to a nearby city for some local music and food! Midori was amazing - fluent in English (finally someone to talk to!) and super kind to spend a whole evening showing us around!
We rode the train with her to Matsumoto (a side trip I HIGHLY recommend). To think we wouldn't have seen this city without her help! There was a local festival happening in the main square next to the Matsumoto Castle - a stunning Japanese castle with a huge moat around it (makes for some pretty amazing photos!) She took us to a nearby temple and helped read our fortunes, then showed us a great restaurant before taking us to a little hole in the wall bar. Her friend was playing that night, and we got front row seats (okay, i'll be real, there were like 3 rows total haha) to see this guys set. Such a great add on to our experience. Her conversation was invaluable, because we were finally able to get a good Japanese perspective on so much: tourism, Americans, Trump, economics, industry... we covered a lot of bases!
Distance hiked: 21.7 km or 13.4 miles
DAY FIVE: tour Naraijuku, train to Tokyo
We made our last day a super light weight day to compensate for the long train ride to Tokyo. We spent a few hours exploring Narai in the morning with Midori (our host from the day before).
If you were interested in extending your trip a bit, you could walk to the next post town up (Kiso Hirawasa) and check out the markets and pottery wares. We unfortunately ran out of time! The train from Narai area to Tokyo was about 3 hours long. It's a doozy so be prepared. You do get stellar views of Mt. Fuji (the only time I saw it)! When we stepped of the train in Tokyo we had completed the ancient Nakasendo route! THREE CHEERS!
Distance hiked: less that 5 km
GENERAL NAKASENDO TRAIL TIPS:
- pack light! This trek is totally a doable hike on your own- we carried our own packs the whole way. You really don’t need more than three outfits and a good pair of boots
- japanese translations written out. Have all your destinations in Japanese (memorize what Nakasendo looks like in Japanese)
- get a map. the trails are quite well marked, but pick up a map at a local tourist information office - super helpful and the local print outs are the best materials we could find. Not nearly as much posted on the internet. I’m sharing photographs of maps we found along the way (below). I’m not sure what we would have done without these local resources!
- get to Minshukus and Ryokans early. Preferably by 4pm. We got to one of them late, and unfortunately they gave away one of our meals because they didn’t if know we were still coming.
- baths at the minshuku every night. Proper Japanese style baths - they’re good naked fun! ;)
- learn some basic Japanese. DO NOT assume anyone will speak English (because, in fact, 9 out of 10 people in the Kiso Valley don't!) The little bit of Japanese we learned came in handy again and again. Arigatogozaimashita! ありがとうございました
FOOD TO TRY:
Gohei Mochi - little rice balls with sweet sauce
Soba Noodles - buckwheat noodles served in a cold or hot soup
Hobamaki - sweet bean paste in rice buns
Yakisoba - fried noodles with veggies and sometimes chicken
Beers - Sapporo, Baird
In the interest of helping you plan for your own Nakasendo Trek, I want to share our basic budget of hotels, food, and travel for this five day hike. It’s definitely not as cheap as the Camino de Santiago (which I should probably write a post about, huh?) But this hike is totally doable without hiring a guide or a trip planning service, both of which will cost you double!
Train from Kyoto - Nakasagawa: $70 per person
Local train trips: $5-10
Train from Narai - Tokyo: $60 per person
Minshuku: $80-$100 per person per night
*Three of our four nights included room AND dinner + breakfast! So though that price may seem high… factor in two HUGE meals! Staying in these family run inns was a huge highlight of the trek!
We only had to buy lunch and snacks mostly, since the Minshukus covered breakfast and dinner
$15 a day per person
$570 per person
Try to book this tour with even a self-guided agency and it will easily be $1,500 or more! Moral of the story: You can do this on your own!
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY:
-The Ryokan we stayed at our third night was way fancy, but not worth the price (we didn’t even have wifi in the room!) However, they did have the best bathhouse! win some, loose some
-We would have booked ONLY dinner and breakfast included places - the food was a major highlight, and the night we didn't have dinner was so sad :(
-If there are two bed pads per person… use them both. I had a few nights spent tossing and turning and waking up with neck pain. Also… some of the inns had really bad pillows… think rice bean bags. If you have neck issues, I’d suggest finding a way to pack your own pillow!
-If you don't have yearly schedule restraints, I would plan the trek a different time of year: July was REALLY HOT and muggy. I'd go in April or May (and hit the cherry blossoms!)