Magome and Tsumago, two post towns on the old mountain road linking Tokyo and Kyoto, are still great places to rest for the weary traveler.
So there we were, shacked up in Magome at the local Tajimaya Inn, sitting down to a scrumptious meal of fresh mountain vegetables, sweet-fish, and some of the best rice and tofu into which I have ever laid my teeth. Still feeling a buzz from the hinoki (cypress) bath I had taken earlier, and washing down the meal with a cold ale, I felt life was good.
Suddenly, in walks an old man (the owner), and he asks if we wouldn’t mind taking a break from eating to join him in a sing-along. In a flash, song sheets with words to a centuries-old tune are handed out and hasty instructions are given. He then begins to croon an old woodcutter’s song at the top of his lungs, while the audience claps along.
At what I can only guess was the appropriate time, a rather boisterous chap from Osaka lets loose a hearty “woi, woi, woi!” before finally settling down under his wife’s watchful eye. With the song completed, the old man bows, murmurs an apology and beats a hasty retreat.
After dinner, guests are encouraged to don a pair of wooden geta (sandals) provided by the minshuku (inn), and walk the stone path that winds its way up the steep hill, past the dozens of blackened traditional inns, ateliers and restaurants that make up the small village.
In the evening, the town is devoid of the multitudes of day tourists, and there is nothing to be heard but the "click, clack" of wooden sandals on sill, and a chorus of frog-songs from nearby rice paddies. This is when Magome really shines. As cliché as it may sound, real life is a world away.
Earlier that day we had hiked the walking trail that criss-crosses the border between Nagano and Gifu, and runs from Magome to nearby Tsumago. The 7.5-kilometer path was once part of the old Nakasendo highway, a major mountain thoroughfare between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Built during the eighth century, the route hosted merchants, pilgrims and even the shogun themselves. Legend has it that one royal procession utilizing the road was so long, it took three days to pass through a town. The introduction of the railway in the early 19th century saw traffic dwindle to almost nothing. Nowadays the only people you are apt to see are other like-minded hikers.
Set off on the trail early in the morning, and you will probably have it all to yourself. Walking past the old guest houses and farms scattered along the way, you soon feel as though you have managed to find a hole in time. While not all buildings are true to their original form, an interest shown in their historical value during the 1960s ensures a great many of them are.
While the hike is not too taxing, there are a couple of hills likely to see you break a sweat. Take a few minutes to cool off at the waterfall about midway along. With plenty of shade provided by leaf-ladened trees, the falls provide a nice reprieve. Not a bad way to spend a morning with your family.
Both burgs at either end of the track were once post towns. During their heyday they provided accommodation and meals to weary travelers. Dignitaries, on official business, were accommodated in large guest houses called honjin. The honjin in both Tsumago and Magome now serve as museums. Both have been restored to their former glory and enjoy the status of cultural treasures.
The locals take the historical value of their towns very seriously, and the rule is that buildings which front the main streets are not to be sold, demolished or modified.
The local area known as Nagiso is famed for its skill at turning out hinoki (Japanese cypress) crafts. The wood is famed for its scent. and it is used in everything from buildings to baths to kitchen utensils. Local delicacies include mochi (rice cakes) and soba (buckwheat noodles) with a large choice of restaurants available.
There are plenty of places to stay in either town with accommodation ranging in price from ¥7,500 to ¥20,000. I had the good folks at Japanese guest houses arrange accommodation for me. Their service is fast, friendly and free.
They have a great choice of places to stay listed on their Website and, during July and August, backpackers can have their luggage transported between the towns at a cost of ¥500. Just drop into the local information office to arrange it. Buses run regularly for the trip back to either starting point.
To get there take the Shinano Limited Express from Nagoya to Nagiso (¥1,620 / ¥3,480 unreserved / reserved seat) which takes about an hour. From Nagiso take a bus to either town. If you are traveling by car it is best to take the Chuo Expressway. From Tokyo exit at the Shiojiri I.C. and take Route 19 to Nagiso. From Nagoya or Osaka exit at the Nakatsugawa I.C. and then take the Route 19 to Nagiso.
Japanese Guesthouses: www.japaneseguesthouses.com
Nagiso Town: www.nagiso-town.ne.jp/english/engtop.htm