Are you looking for a (multi)day hike away from Japan’s busy cities? The historic Nakasendo offers a unique journey through Japan’s fascinating past and picturesque landscapes. Our in-depth travel guide has all the information you may need to create your very own unforgettable hiking adventure. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter Japanese macaques on the trail.
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What is the Nakasendo?
The Nakasendo (meaning Central Mountain Route), is one of five trade routes of the Edo period (1603-1867), and one of two that connected Kyoto (the Imperial capital) and Edo – now Tokyo (the seat of the military ruler of the time, also known as the Shōgun).
Back in its heydays, travellers along the Nakasendo would use the tea houses (chayas) in the 69 postal towns (jukus or shukus) along its route as rest stops on their long and arduous journey. While the Edo period was a time of relative peace (after centuries of civil war), the postal towns had defence structures like right-angled streets that would slow down potential attackers, thus providing a safe haven for tired travellers.
Modern-day visitors to Japan follow in the footsteps of those who travelled the route in centuries past as they hike over dramatic mountain passes and through picturesque river valleys, experience the warm hospitality of traditional inns and sample delicious local cuisine in the historic postal towns.
How long does it take to hike the Nakasendo?
The two endpoints of the Nakasendo are Sanjō-ōhashi (Sanjō Bridge) in Kyoto and Nihon-bashi (Bridge of Japan) in Tokyo. In its entirety, the Nakasendo spans over 530 kilometres and traverses seven prefectures (Kyoto, Shiga, Gifu, Nagano, Gunma, Saitama and Tokyo).
Hiking the entire length of the Nakasendo could be done in 22 days with an average of 25 kilometres per day. However, for most travellers, hiking the complete Nakasendo is not a feasible option due to time constraints nor is it recommended, as many sections of the historic trail have been absorbed by busy highways and ever-growing cities.
Instead, most hikers choose to tackle specific sections of the trail as a (multi)day hike, focusing on the most scenic or historically significant sections. Recognised as a National Historic Site of Japan, the best-preserved sections of the Nakasendo can be found:
- between Wada-tōge and Wada-shaku (Nagano Prefecture),
- between Midono-juku and Shiojiri-juku (Nagano Prefecture), and
- between Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku (Gifu/Nagano Prefecture).
This guide and our itinerary suggestions will focus on the latter two segments – between Nakatsugawa-juku (postal town number 45) and Narai-juku (postal town number 34).
Map of Recommended Accommodations, Points of Interest, Eateries, and Transport
Below is the map of the accommodation, points of interest, eateries. and transport terminals/stops mentioned in this article.
How does the Nakasendo compare with the Kumano Kodo?
The first (and significant) difference between both trails is age: The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage route used for over 1,000 years. The Nakasendo, while historically important as an old trade route, is much younger. As such, infrastructure along the Nakasendo is more developed. Thanks to the preservation of the postal towns which provide accommodation, food and dining options (and even public toilets) at regular intervals, hikers find more amenities on the Nakasendo (than on most of the Kumano Kodo routes).
Both trails are well sign-posted and promoted by their respective tourism bodies.
Terrain and Access
Given its function as an old trade route, the Nakasendo is also easier and more accessible than many of the Kumano Kodo routes. The trail is less steep, and features more paved roads and fewer moss-covered stone paths than most of the Kumano Kodo routes, making it more comfortable to walk (especially if you have knee issues).
While Japanese macaques also live in the Kii Mountains, we only encountered them (twice) on the Nakasendo (on the outskirts of Nagiso coming from Tsumago and between the Torii Pass and Narai).
When is the best time to hike the Nakasendo?
The Nakasendo can be hiked all year round, but the best seasons are Spring (March to May) and Autumn/Fall (mid-September, through October and November, and into early December). In Spring, hikers can witness the blooming of flowers and trees, adding a touch of colour and beauty to the trail. In Autumn/Fall, as the foliage changes, vibrant hues of red, orange and yellow paint the landscape.
Winter (early to mid-December until the middle of March) sees shorter days and the possibility of snow covering the trail, making especially the mountain passes more slippery and difficult to navigate. Summer (June to August) is typhoon season, with hot, humid and rainy days making hiking the Nakasendo less enjoyable. Summer also means some nasty critters are way more active (more on that below).
How to get to the Nakasendo and how to get around?
Getting to the Nakasendo
The best vantage points for our Nakasendo itineraries are Nakatsugawa [Google Maps location] in Gifu Prefecture and Kiso-Fukushima [Google Maps location] in Nagano Prefecture. Both towns are located on the train line between Nagoya and Matsumoto: Chuo local trains stop at all stations along the way, while Shinano Limited Express trains only stop at Nakatsugawa, Nagiso, Agematsu and Kiso-Fukushima. Check out the JR train schedule as it relates to the Nakasendo.
Nakatsugawa will also be a stop on the future Chūō Shinkansen Maglev train line between Tokyo and Nagoya, making the Nakasendo even more accessible when it opens.
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Getting around the Nakasendo
The exceptions are Magome [Google Maps location] and Tsumago [Google Maps location], which (unless you are hiking to and between them) require taking a bus from their respective nearest train station:
- Bus from Nagiso to Tsumago and Magome: Route map, Timetable
- Bus from Nakatsugawa (中津川) to Magome (馬籠): Timetable
Check the timetable as trains and buses are not as frequent as you may be used to from where you live.
Train tickets can be purchased at the stations (either in person or via a machine) and in cash on the train (don’t forget to pull a ticket when you get on). You can also use your JR Pass on the trains – just show it to the station staff/train driver as needed.
To use the bus, simply pull a ticket as you enter the bus. Then pay the (correct) fare based on the number on your ticket when you exit. If you don’t have the correct fare, use the change machine by the driver before you pay.
Where to stay and how to book accommodation on the Nakasendo?
Where to stay on the Nakasendo will depend on
- whether you hike (sections of) the Nakasendo point-to-point or from a central base,
- what time of the year you visit, as well as
- your budget.
Accommodation options along the Nakasendo range from traditional Japanese inns to modern business hotels.
It is recommended to book your accommodation in advance, especially if you plan to stay in popular towns like Magome, Tsumago or Narai. Availability in these postal towns is limited, and spots fill up quickly, especially during busier periods. So, securing your reservation well ahead of time is important. Do note however: some Japanese accommodations only accept bookings three months in advance.
As most accommodation options in those historic postal towns are traditional, family-owned guesthouses, you won’t find a lot of English being spoken. If you don’t speak Japanese, we recommend to
- Check our recommendations below (and other options offered on popular booking websites like Agoda and Booking.com);
- If they don’t suit, browse Google Maps and contact inns using the email address listed (leveraging Google Translate to make your booking inquiry in Japanese); and
- If all else fails, reach out to the local tourism office ([email protected]) for assistance in making a booking (this is how we secured our accommodation in Tsumago). Do note though that they are NOT a booking agency, so ask kindly.
For easy reference, here are our accommodation recommendations on the Nakasendo (# where we stayed):
What about food (and water) on the Nakasendo?
With postal towns (and thus shops and restaurants) dotted in regular intervals, there is no need to carry more food and water than what is required for the day. Between Magome and Tsumago, there is also a tea house, offering freshly brewed tea and lollies free of charge (though a small donation is appreciated).
Is it worth getting a meal plan on the Nakasendo?
We opted for the meal plan when staying in Magome (at Magome Chaya) and in Tsumago (at Shimosagaya), as we had heard that all eateries close between 1600h and 1700h. This may be true for Tsumago. However, in Magome and Narai, there are dining options that are open longer, including:
- Soba Restaurant Mikazukian [Google Maps location], a soba restaurant two doors down from Magome Chaya is open at night (except Tuesdays).
- Haginoya [Google Maps location], a Kaiseki restaurant at the entrance of Magome coming from Nakatsugawa, is also open at night.
- Kanameya [Google Maps location] in Narai opposite the Kami-Toiya Museum is open daily for dinner.
Nakatsugawa and Kiso-Fukushima are larger towns with a number of dining options.
That said, meal plans are a great choice even when other dining options are available. They are always substantial – great after a long day of hiking – and allow hikers to experience local specialities and flavours in a relaxed atmosphere. And so far, all meal plans we’ve had in Japan were a feast for the eyes and our taste buds.
Where to eat along the Nakasendo (if you don't have a meal plan)?
You won't go hungry on the Nakasendo, even without a meal plan. Here are some of the places we checked out and can recommend:
- Nakatsugawa: Tocoro Burger [Google Maps location] for lunch/dinner
- Magome: Marujiya [Google Maps location] for lunch
- Tsumago: Café Shirokiya [Google Maps location] for lunch OR coffee and cake
- Nagiso: Café Izumiya [Google Maps location] (for coffee and cake) - opposite the train station
- Nojiri: Café Yamazato (for coffee and cake - their baked cheesecake is divine) - look out for the narrow set of stairs in between the buildings opposite the train station
- Kiso-Fukushima: Café SOMA [Google Maps location] for lunch | Izakaya Chikara for dinner (the food and drinks are delicious, Masa speaks excellent English and Yoko showers you with love)
- Narai: Café Matsuyasabō [Google Maps location] for coffee and cake
What else is there to see and do on the Nakasendo?
While hiking the Nakasendo is a highlight of any visit to the region, there are also several other activities and attractions to enjoy along the way. Here are our suggestions.
Miso and/or Sake Tasting
Nagano Prefecture produces almost 50% of Japan’s miso, so why not try some miso while in the region? Koike Koji [Google Maps location] in Kiso-Fukushima was recommended to us by a local (open daily from 0900h to 1800h).
While in Kiso-Fukushima, we also tasted sake from a local brewery, Nakazen Sake Brewery [Official website, Google Maps location], which was delicious. Make sure you visit them (open daily from 0900h to 1700h).
If you are after locally produced souvenirs, apart from sake or miso, here are some other suggestions:
- Narai is known for Magemono, lightweight wooden containers made from thin sheets of various local types of wood. Magemono have been made in Narai for over 400 years and make great lunchboxes for hikes. Check out Hananoya [Official website, Google Maps location], a family-owned business with two stores in Narai.
- Kiso-Hiragawa is synonymous with Kiso Shikki (Japanese lacquerware made in the Kiso Valley). Even the medals of the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano were made from Kiso Shikki. There are 150 Shikki companies in and around Kiso-Hiragawa employing over 700 people. The products are sold in small shops all over town.
- Or buy a wooden comb (Orokugushi) hand-made in Yabuhara from Japanese Green Alder, a 300-year-old tradition. There is a small workshop beside the railway line, about 400 metres past the Nakasendo turn-off that takes you below the railway line and into the mountains.
What to pack for the Nakasendo?
Hiking through the forests and over mountain passes on the Nakasendo means you will want to pack as light as possible (if you carry your gear yourself). Japanese Inns generally provide shower gel, shampoo, towels, slippers and many even a yukata (a traditional robe worn around the house) – so you do not need to carry any of those items.
Before we headed to the Nakasendo, we reduced our two carry-on travel packs down to one:
- We hiked with Sandra’s half-full travel pack and our daypack.
- We forwarded Paul’s travel pack with the items we did not need for the hike, paying JPY1,620 to send it from Daikoku Locker [Official website, Google Maps location] in Osaka to Yamato Shinshudaigaku-Mae Center [Google Maps location] in Matsumoto.
Whether you carry a full pack or a daypack, and no matter when you do your hike, here are some essentials we always recommend packing:
- Hiking gear: Bring sturdy and comfortable hiking boots or trail shoes, moisture-wicking socks and breathable clothing suitable for layering.
- Rain gear: Pack a lightweight and waterproof jacket or poncho.
- Water and snacks: Bring a water bottle to stay hydrated and snacks for sustenance during your hike.
- First aid kit: Include basic items like band-aids, pain relievers and prescription medications.
- Other: Bring a power bank for your phone or other electronic devices.
Is there same-day luggage forwarding on the Nakasendo?
Yes, there is - but (only) between Magome and Tsumago. The service is provided by the Tourism Offices of the two postal towns. You must drop off your luggage between 0830h and 1130h and collect it between 1300h and 1700h. Drop-off/collection points are the Tourism Offices of either town. The service costs JPY1,000 per bag.
What else to know before hiking the Nakasendo?
Take plenty of cash as not all businesses (including accommodation providers and restaurants/cafés) accept credit cards.
If you’d like to use a hiking stick but don’t want to bring your own, you can borrow (wooden) hiking sticks
- between Magome [Google Maps location] and Tsumago [Google Maps location] – they are kept next to the Tourism Office in each town.
- between Yabuhara and Narai (over the Torii Pass) – there are holders by the trail heads on either side of the mountain.
Just make sure you return them after your hike for the next hiker to use.
How to hike the Nakasendo safely?
- Do not attempt to hike in the dark.
- Especially on sunny days, apply sunscreen and wear a head covering (and in summer, insect repellent).
- While not as many as on the Kumano Kodo, some sections on the Nakasendo comprise moss-covered stones or wooden planks, which can get slippery even when not wet. Take your time and watch your steps, especially on downhill sections.
- Bear encounters are possible but not frequent. Carry a bear bell if you wish (we didn't and are still alive).
- You may encounter Japanese macaques (especially if you don't scare them off with bear bells). If you do, be quiet and observe them from a distance. It's a magical experience (we had the pleasure twice).
As for (other, potentially dangerous) animals, be aware of
- the venomous Mamushi snake, a small pit viper 50-80cm long (if you get bitten call 119, the local emergency helpline, immediately);
- the Mukade, a scary-looking giant black centipede with orange legs, whose bite can be very painful; and
- the Suzumebachi, a giant hornet with a nasty sting. The hornets are most aggressive during mating season (September/October). Wear light-coloured clothing with long sleeves/pants, and avoid perfume. If you encounter one, leave it alone - don't try and get closer to take a (better) picture. If you encounter a hornet's nest, move away slowly and quietly - never run away, scream or hit around like a maniac (that will just make them more aggressive). If you get stung, cleanse the sting with running water, squeeze out the poison and take some antihistamines. If you have a severe allergic reaction or multiple bites call 119 immediately.
If you hike the Nakasendo during the summer months: Do not hike if there is a typhoon warning. Typhoons bring very strong winds that can down trees and high rainfalls that can cause flash flooding and landslides. Check the weather forecast daily before and on the hike.
Where to find more information about the Nakasendo?
Each of the postal towns featured in our itineraries has a Tourism Association / Office:
with brochures and staff eager to help – just pop in during opening hours. Here are just a few examples (also) available online:
If you have hiked the Nakasendo Trail, what was your experience like?
What was your experience? And if you are planning to hike the Nakasendo: What other questions do you have?
I wrote this Nakasendo guide based on our own experience. If you have hiked the Nakasendo Trail and you have something to add, please feel free to contact me. If you liked my tips and found them helpful, I would appreciate it if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.