Nakasendo Hiking Adventures: Your Ultimate Travel Guide for Japan’s Historic Postal Trail

paul and sandra in magome

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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.

tsumago street in the early morning

The Nakasendo is a historic trade route with 69 postal towns between Kyoto and Tokyo | Photo by Jennie Ryken

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.

kono sekibutsugun

The Nakasendo spans over 530 kilometres but only the best preserved sections are recognized as National Historic Sites of Japan | Photo by Jennie Ryken

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How does the Nakasendo compare with the Kumano Kodo?

If you’re wondering whether to hike the Nakasendo OR the Kumano Kodo (or both), here are some points that might help you make the decision.

Infrastructure

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.

nakasendo sign

Like the Kumano Kodo, the Nakasendo trails are well sign-posted and promoted by the local Tourism Boards

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).

Public transport access is similarly well established for both, however, the Nakasendo is less remote than most of the Kumano Kodo routes (more on that below).

Wildlife

Bear encounters are possible on both the Nakasendo and Kumano Kodo, though they are more likely on the remote Kumano Kodo mountain routes than on the Nakasendo.

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).

japanese macaques near nagiso

Keep an eye out for Japanese macaques - we encountered them twice on the Nakasendo | Photo by Jennie Ryken

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).

cherry blossoms on nakasendo

Spring is an excellent time to hike the Nakasendo - you might even experience the cherry trees blooming

How to get to the Nakasendo and how to get around?

Getting to the Nakasendo

Getting to the Nakasendo is relatively easy, thanks to Japan’s convenient public transportation network.

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.

travellers at nakasendo train station

Nakatsugawa (in Gifu Prefecture) and Kiso-Fukushima (in Nagano Prefecture) are the best vantage points on the train line between Nagoya and Matsumoto

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Getting around the Nakasendo

Most postal towns on our itineraries are located along the train line and thus can be reached by taking the train.

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:

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.

magome tourist information board

Magome and Tsumago can only be reached on foot or by taking the bus from Nakatsugawa or Nagiso train stations

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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.

bedroom in tsumago guesthouse

Accommodation options in Magome, Tsumago or Narai are very limited and advance booking is highly recommended

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):

DestinationAccommodation Name
NakatsugawaGuesthouse Tenman-ya #
NakatsugawaGuesthouse Shigi
MagomeMagome Chaya #
MagomeGuesthouse Nedoko
TsumagoShimosagaya #
Nagiso3 min Nagiso Street
KisoKiso Mikawaya
Short term rental accommodation for Nakasendo

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).

tea house between magome and tsumago

A tea house between Magome and Tsumago offers freshly brewed tea and lollies for tired travellers | Photo by Jennie Ryken

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.

meal plan dinner at magome chaya

Meal plans are a great choice on the Nakasendo - they are always substantial and a wonderful way to experience local specialties and flavours

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
cafe soma kiso fukushima

Café SOMA in Kiso-Fukushima doesn't only serve delicious food, it is also a gallery showcasing local craftsmenship | Photo by Jennie Ryken

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).

Traditional Handicraft

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.
1998 nagano winter olympics medals

Did you know that the medals of the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano were made from Kiso Shikki (Japanese lacquerware made in the Kiso Valley)?

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:

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:

backpacks on nakasendo

When hiking the Nakasendo, you’ll want to pack as light as possible but still have all the essentials on you

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.

magome tourist office

The local Tourist Information Centers provide same day luggage forwarding between Magome and Tsumago (in either direction)

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.

map and walking sticks near torii toge pass

If you didn't bring your own, you can borrow (wooden) hiking sticks between Magome and Tsumago, and between Yabuhara and Narai

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.

bear bell and sign on nakasendo near torii toge pass

Bear encounters are possible on the Nakasendo but not common

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.

Author: <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandrarosenau/" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.