The mountainous area in the central part of the main Honshu Island contains some of the most spectacular and culturally interesting locales in Japan. Various mountain ranges merge together in this area, and are referred to collectively as the Central Alps, or "Chuo Arupusu". From Shirane-san and Yatsuga-take mountains north of Kofu, to the Hakuba ski area near Nagano, to Hotaka-dake and Ontake-san peaks, some of the finest scenery of snowy mountains -- up to 3200 meters (over 10,000 feet), and some great mountain-climbing, as well -- are to be found in Yamanashi, Nagano, and Gifu Prefectures. And there are some great holiday getaways hidden in these high mountain valleys, too. Read on...
There are several places of reasonable (but not spectacular) interest in and around Matsumoto city (population 220,000), including Lake Suwa, Utsukushiga-hara, and Kirigamine. While no one of them may be special enough to warrant an entire 3-day week-end stay, together they make a pretty nice excursion. You can visit them all in a couple of days or less if you have a car, but if you're going by public transport you may want to leave a couple out. Situated near the important Chuo Main Line (railway), Matsumoto is also a 'gateway' to several of the finer destinations in central Honshu (see below); if you are passing through on your way to other places in Nagano, Gifu, or on the Japan Sea Coast, it is worth taking a look around.
Lake Suwa is right on the Chuo Main Line (and the Chuo Expressway), and Matsumoto is a bit north on a main connecting line. Utsukushiga-hara (plateau) is really just a drive through pretty scenery, and Kirigamine is a quiet mountain town reached by bus from the Chuo line.
Lake Suwa ( Suwa-ko) is a large and picturesque lake featured in a number of old woodblock prints, usually showing Mt. Fuji in the background. On a clear day you can see it, but it isn't really that close. Suwa has been a traveler's halt for hundreds of years. There is a large hot-spring by the lake, and not far from the station is a free public hot-spring bathhouse. It's nothing fancy but you can get a hot bath along with lots of other people, and there is a hot-spring swimming pool outside. You can also see people dipping baskets of eggs into the hottest waters to hard boil them; this is an old hot-spring tradition that few people need to do more than once. The lake is also right there in walking distance of the station. There are lots of tourist facilities, boats and souvenirs and such, and plenty of lodgings of all types. It might even be nice to stay there on a quiet low-season night.
Matsumoto () is now a large industrialized center, but is worth a short stopover to visit Matsumoto-jo castle, which is just a kilometer from the station. The original castle was built in 1504 when Matsumoto was a feudal capital. It has been refurbished a number of times over the years but it was never completely destroyed, and enough of the old structure remains to call it one of the few "original" castles in Japan. It's an interesting old wooden building several stories high, complete with moats, several rings of protective walls, gardens, and auxiliary buildings. A Japan Folklore Museum is on the grounds and is included in the admission. The castle itself has always been black, one of a handful of black castles in the country. If you've already visited one too many Japanese castles, then Matsumoto may not interest you, but along with Himeji, Nagoya, and Osaka castles, this is one of the more pleasant ones to visit.
Utsukushi-ga-hara ( 'Beautiful Meadow') is part of the Chushi Highlands National Recreational Area. The drive from Matsumoto takes you gradually up to high sub-alpine meadows, a bit of a rarity in mostly vertical Japan. There are some tour buses that go through there and if you have a car, it's a pleasant drive around with good views, but not spectacular.
Kirigamine ( kiri-GA-me-nay = "misty peak") is a small ski area in a mountain valley that has also attracted summer nature lovers and numerous summer houses. There are flowering meadows, thick forest, and hiking trails. The few ski slopes are moderate and unchallenging. I stayed there a long time ago at a friend's house and as I recall, there was not too much of a town, but several minshukus and pensions. It could be a pleasant place to stay. If you're in a car it is a very nice drive through thick forest, and if you didn't like the town, you could drive on.
The main Chuo rail line is your access to this area. Lake Suwa is just southeast of Shiojiri, the transfer point between the western and eastern legs of the Chuo Main line which takes the mountain route between Tokyo and Nagoya. Matsumoto is just north of Shiojiri, and some Chuo line trains from both Tokyo (3.8 hrs.) and Nagoya (3.5 hrs) go direct to Matsumoto.
There are three buses a day from the Matsumoto bus terminal to the Utsukushi-ga-hara area. You can use them as a tour bus if you like because they take an hour and a half wandering up to the Utsukushiga-hara meadow, then wait there 20 minutes before returning. Or you can make a day of it by hanging around the scenic area for another two or three hours until the next bus.
Kirigamine is reached by regular buses from Kami-Suwa station or from Chino station, which is just southeast of Lake Suwa on the Chuo line. There are a few buses a day -- about one an hour in the middle of the day -- from Chino to Kiragamine, and a few less from Kami-Suwa station (at Lake Suwa). It takes about an hour and a half from Chino, 45 minutes from Kami-Suwa. While there are roads, there is no bus directly to Kirigamine from Matsumoto via Utsukushiga-hara.
From Matsumoto you can head north into the snow and ski country of
northern Nagano prefecture on one of two railway lines. The Oito
line goes up to the
From Utsukushiga-hara or Lake Suwa you could head east to highway 18
and on to
Hida is the old name for a mountainous area in central Honshu Island that is now a part of Gifu and Nagano prefectures. So mountainous is this area that even today it may be isolated for weeks at a time by heavy winter snows. Only recently has a train line been built into Takayama city. When you navigate the winding mountain roads through steep gorges you will understand why they sometimes get closed by landslides, and why Hida was such an isolated enclave, with its own local culture.
The most famous place in the old Hida area is Takayama city (population approaching 100,000). Nowadays, people refer to the name of the modern prefecture, Gifu; but Takayama city is still known as "Hida no Takayama". It gets plenty of tourists in season, but is still quite an interesting place to visit. Two other places I will mention below are Kamikochi, a beautiful mountain valley in a national park, and Shirakawa-go, a small village that preserves its traditional appearance and character. While most Japanese will have heard of these places, they are distant enough not to be deluged with tourists.
Any one of these three destinations alone is worth the trip to the Hida area, and combining them all together would be a great trip that would take a week or more. Bus transportation is available (as long as the roads are open), but it would be even better, and more convenient, to go by car. (I have done it both ways.)
To the east of Hida, you could also stop by the Matsumoto area in Nagano prefecture (see above), and to the north you could continue on to Kanazawa city and the Notto Hanto (peninsula) on the Japan Sea Coast. The third gateway to Hida is Nagoya city in the south. Nagoya, Matsumoto, and Kanazawa are all on major train lines and expressways; from there you take a bus or car far into the mountains.
If you're planning to make a visit in colder months, or anytime for that matter, you may want to check road status by calling the Hida Tourism and Traffic Report Telephone Service at (5077) 33-5566. I don't know if it's a recording or not, but it will certainly be in Japanese.
Takayama, situated in a broad mountain valley, is well known as a traditional old feudal city that has maintained much of its charm and atmosphere. Naturally this brings plenty of tourists in the summer time, and lots of tourist facilities. But it really is a nice place to visit and there is plenty of sightseeing to keep you busy for a couple of days. Its distance and historical isolation from major population centers keep it from being overly spoiled. It has its special foods, drinks, architecture, and of course souvenirs. You can walk around most of the central city without needing a bicycle, but they are for rent, too.
The venerated Kokubun-ji Temple was rebuilt in 1588. The Hachiman Shrine is the biggest and oldest shrine, right in the middle of town. The Hie Shrine is another large old shrine worth visiting.
The Jin-ya (old government building) from feudal times is preserved as an interesting exhibition. Other traditional old houses like Kusabe-san's home and the Specialty Museum of Takayama are open as museums for a fee. There are a couple of very old sake warehouses still in operation; their symbol is a huge ball of twigs hanging high over the door. The specialty sake of Takayama is Oni-goroshi ("devil killer") and you can get it in some interesting ceramic flasks that make nice souvenirs. (This catchy name has been 'borrowed' by several other sake brewers around the country, but Takayama's is the original.)
On the south side of town you can stroll up a large wooded hill to the sparse ruins of the old Takayama Castle. Just on the west side of town is the Hida Folk Museum ("Hida no Sato"), which is mainly an open-air museum of traditional houses brought in from surrounding rural areas and reconstructed on the site. It is quite worth getting over to visit.
Takayama has a traditional early-morning street market
(asa-ichi) from 7am to noon, featuring
fresh foods and produce; it appears daily along the the Miya-gawa
(river) which bisects the city. Several of the river bridges have
unusual -- and humorous --
bronze statues (images at left and right, clickable
View). The colorful and much celebrated Takayama
comes in two parts: the Sanno Matsuri on April 14
and 15, and the Hachiman Matsuri on October 9 and 10.
They both include a
parade of twenty-three elaborately decorated carts with huge wheels,
and much street dancing and merry-making. But you'd better
have reservations because the city gets very crowded during the
Visit the Hida Takayama English website, with maps, and much tourism information.
Getting to Takayama:
There are direct trains on the Takayama Main Line from Nagoya and Gifu cities to Takayama, but only a few per day, so check schedules for your connection. It takes under three hours. This train line continues another two hours north to the Hokuriku Main Line -- and the Hokuriku (automobile) Expressway -- at Toyama city near the Japan Sea Coast. Nagoya is two hours from Tokyo and one hour from Osaka by "bullet" train.
It is somewhat more interesting and more time-consuming to approach Takayama from Matsumoto to the east. Matsumoto is just north of Shiojiri, the transfer point between the western and eastern legs of the Chuo Main line which takes the mountain route between Tokyo and Nagoya. Some Chuo line trains from both Tokyo (3.8 hrs.) and Nagoya (3.5 hrs) go direct to Matsumoto.
From Matsumoto you can now get a direct bus connection to Takayama, which takes two and a half to three hours, if the roads are clear. There are just a couple of these buses a day from the Matsumoto bus terminal, and you change buses en route. This trip winds through the dramatic scenery of the Hida Mountains. Half way along this route is the turnoff to Kamikochi (see below). In the area of the turnoff are two passable hot-spring villages, Nakanoyu and Shirahone ("white-bone").
Matsumoto is a big industrialized provincial town, but it's not a bad place to break your journey, and is worth stopping over to visit the original (1504) black wooden castle in town.
By car, route 41 follows pretty much the route of the Takayama Main line from Gifu city (near Nagoya) to Takayama and Toyama, where it hits the Hokuriku Expressway to Kanazawa or Niigata. Matsumoto is reached by getting off the Chuo Expressway at Lake Suwa and continuing north. From Matsumoto, you take the same winding route 158 as the bus to Takayama. There is so much beautiful scenery along this route that you should allow a whole day to drive it leisurely, or stop at one of the hot-spring towns in the middle.
Takayama is full of minshukus and ryokans, and also has several tourist hotels. You can wander around, or just book one at the several lodging agencies outside of the station. Upon arrival, I just popped into a minshuku agency and booked a minshuku right beside the Hachiman Shrine, which was also near the river. Another time I stayed at the very nice little Morimoto Minshuku right beside the Hida Folk Museum on the edge of town. It was very quiet, the food was great, and the people friendly. (tel: (0577)-33-4689). No matter where you stay, you should expect to be served 'ho-ba miso' (a concoction of miso paste and assorted goodies cooked on a big leaf at your table) and mountain vegetables, both local specialties.
Kamikochi (kami-KO-chi) is a high mountain valley surrounded by steep and towering peaks. The road in was only blasted through in recent memory, and as part of the Chubu Range National Park, development is strictly limited. It is a very pleasant and picturesque area with many easy trails through the forests and glades of the flat glacier-cut valley, and along the Azusa river. The snow-covered peaks of Hotaka, Yake, Kasumizawa, and Roppyaku Mountains can be seen high above (photo left, clickable) and serious mountain climbers come here to tackle the very steep trails and pointed snow caps up to 12,000 feet. Kamikochi is closed by snow in the winter.
There are just a couple of rustic-looking lodgings in various price ranges and a large public lodge that serves as a climbing center, information desk, store, cafe, and lounge, but not as a hotel. These are set among the old larch trees that cover much of the valley floor. The broad Azusa river plain and serene Taisho Pond are lined with birch, ash, maples, and flowering fruit trees.
The high altitude -- almost 5,000 feet -- provides crisp cool mountain air even in the summer, and in winter Kamikochi is completely closed off by snow from early November to late May. Late spring sees the blossoming of many flowering trees, and late autumn is a splendor of fall colors. In either of these seasons you may find patches of snow on the ground, and even the odd sprinkling of snow. You will also find fewer visitors than in July and August, although it doesn't seem to get crowded, especially when you go out for a walk. But just about everybody walks out to the Kappabashi bridge for the nice views.
Kamikochi is not paradise, but it is about as pristinely beautiful a place as you can get to in Japan by public transport -- or even by car, for that matter (I've done it both ways).
Getting to Kamikochi is half the fun. It is about half way between Matsumoto and Takayama, and a bit north of the mountain route 158 between them. It is just barely across the line from Gifu, in Nagano prefecture.
If you thought route 158 was a wild ride through the Hida Mountains, you ain't seen nothin' yet! The apparently short spur road north to Kamikochi has been grudgingly carved out of (and tunneled through) hard rock all the way. Much of it is one lane, and there are constant road crews clearing away landslides. As mentioned before, the road is closed by snow from approximately the first of November through May, depending on the weather; call ahead to a hotel at Kamikochi (or the Hida information number listed above) to verify.
The roads have constantly been improved so that it now only takes about an hour and a half from Matsumoto to Kamikochi, and similar time from Takayama. From Matsumoto, you normally take the short cog-rail trip up to Shin Shima-jima, and catch the Kamikochi bus from there. When the roads are open this bus leaves about every hour or 45 minutes from 8am to 5pm.
By car, you follow the same route 158 and navigate the same rough road in. It does not require four-wheel drive, but it would feel safer. There are plenty of long rock and gravel stretches on the road. In reasonable weather, ordinary cars make it all the time, or at least most of them do.
Back on route 158, there are a couple of small hot-springs areas not
far from the Kamikochi turnoff.
Nakanoyu Hot-Springs () is built just below the main road (158), just west of the Kamikochi turnoff and beside a river, so it's convenient but not as secluded. I think it is just one lodge. These are perhaps not the most luxurious of hot-springs experiences, but if you need a good hot-spring fix, they are in the neighborhood, and the surroundings are beautiful.
See the "Getting There" section for Takayama (above) for getting to Takayama and Matsumoto.
We once stayed at the best place in Kamikochi, and it is
very nice indeed. The Kamikochi Teikoku Hotel
left, clickable) is run by the Imperial (Teikoku in
Japanese) Hotel, one of the best and oldest hotels in Tokyo. The
Kamikochi Teikoku Hotel is really a big wooden lodge in the finest
Western tradition of rustic, but very comfortable mountain lodges. It
is four stories and covered in split logs. Inside, everything is huge
open beams and dark wooden walls and floors. (click for websites
of the Imperial
Hotel and Kamikochi Teikoku Hotel --
including phone numbers of overseas sales offices).
There is a large lounge area with a big fireplace, and of course a nice restaurant serving continental cuisine. Like the Imperial in Tokyo, it is mostly western-style rooms. It's not cheap, but not as high as their Tokyo hotel, and it's a good place to splurge. The hotel stands alone in a grove of large trees about a kilometer from the public building at the end of the road; you can ask the bus driver to let you off there. Local Tel (026395) - 2001. Reservations are recommended here.
There are a couple of more economical lodgings around the public lodge, and I think one of these was fairly basic looking. They also run a cafe or snack bar for day-trippers, in addition to the facilities in the public lodge.
Many people just drive in to Kamikochi for a few hours and drive off to their final destination. If you are coming by bus you will naturally want to spend a couple of nights to relax and enjoy the place; it's worth it in any case. There is a campground about 2 kilometers north of the public lodge, but it is a bit pricy, especially if you need to hire a tent.
This is a small farming village in the narrow Shogawa river valley deep in the heart of Gifu prefecture and mountainous Hida country. Although there are a few reasonably modern buildings, the village is notable for having preserved dozens of the old wooden farmhouses (photo left and click) that were built one and two hundred years ago. People still live and work in these old houses, and you will sleep in one if you stay here. Visit the Shirakawa-go English web site!
We're not just talking 'farmhouse' here, these are huge three-to-five-story buildings made with gigantic beams and pillars -- all held together with ropes. The thatched roofs are built so high and so steep that it is said to look like putting your hands together to pray. That's what the name "gassho-zukuri" style means. In the old days, multiple extended families of up to 40 people would live in one house. The main floor has very big open great-rooms with fire pits in the middle of tatami mats, over which hang kettles and drying food.
The village with the best houses is actually named Ogi-machi (), sometimes referred to as Shirakawa-mura (village), and the general area around Shirakawa and Sho-kawa villages is properly called Shirakawa-go (the '-go' can mean district or village). However, the main village itself (Ogimachi) is usually promoted and recognized as 'Shirakawa-go'.
Well, just look around your inn. It should be a couple hundred years old, with a huge thatched roof that is replaced every five years. Then wander around and look at all the other great farmhouses in the town. Locals are used to this and, although they are not museums, you may be invited to walk in and look around several buildings. They are proud of their heritage and welcome the modest tourism revenues it brings in. One of the largest houses (near the road, photo, left) has been turned into an interesting open-air museum. If you're here in the springtime you may get to watch a communal effort of re-thatching a house or two (Rethatching photo: click here).
One of the best houses was removed years ago to Takayama to become the nucleus of the Hida Folk Museum. By the way, the "gassho" praying posture used in Asia ('wai', in Thailand) has the fingertips together, but the palms held apart by touching thumb tips; this gives you a better idea of the "steeple" shape that the houses resemble.
On the south side of the village is a nice local shrine, in traditional (un-sinocized) Japanese style, and its pleasant grounds. Just north of town is a hill that you can climb or drive to for a very nice overview of the village, surrounded by green fields, green forests, and the Shogawa River. Other than that, there is not much else to see in the town, but it is still a nice place to just stroll around leisurely, or wander off into the hills or countryside. It took long enough to get here, so why not just kick back for a couple of days?
About 25 kilometers south of Shirakawa, you can turn west at Hirase and drive several more kilometers up a road to see the Shimizu-no-taki waterfall. It falls over 200 feet and the pictures of it look pretty good, anyway. If you have a car, you could stop by there on your way.
Very near Hirase, but off a different road to the west, is
a solitary hot-spring inn with traditional wooden tubs.
I know because I saw the photo in the brochure (left); and there are also
pretty young women in these wooden tubs happily pouring sake for each other,
and they have "delicious mountain vegetable and river fish cuisine". Is it
really a nice place, or just another roadside attraction? Who knows (this
isn't a professional guide), but if you have a car, you could drive
down and ask if you can pay just to take a bath. Then you could check
the place out, and see if it might be nice to stay there later. I
think it's just called
Route 156 from Kanazawa to Nagoya passes through Shirakawa-go, which is only about 4 hours north from Nagoya and over 3.5 hours from Kanazawa (via Jo-hana) on the MeiKan (Nagoya-Kanazawa) Express bus line. There is one express bus leaving Nagoya for Shirakawa-go at 8:20 am. You can also take a train from Nagoya and change to the bus at Shirotori, and this is often necessary because more buses leave Shirotori (several a day) north to Shirakawa-go, but it's not easy to lay out the route and make connections. As you can see, it's not a day trip from anywhere, and as a result sees fewer tourists. There is no train service.
From Takayama there is bus service (only 3 per day!) on route 158 west to Sho-kawa at the junction with route 156, where you change to the northbound bus from Nagoya -- they are scheduled to meet; total bus time is about 2.5 hours, but check that connection ahead of time. At the time I was there, route 158 was closed for repairs and there appeared to be no bus service from Takayama; but this must have been a fluke.
By car from Nagoya or Kyoto, it's about 3.5 hours north from the Ichinomiya exit on the Tomei Expressway -- or the Ogaki exit on the Meishin Express way -- via Gifu city and up route 156 to Shirakawa-go. From Kanazawa, on the Japan Sea coast, it's only about 2 hours if you drive south via route 157 and come across on the Shirayama Super Rin-do, a toll road paved over the mountains. It takes almost 3 hours on the winding route 304 from Kanazawa to Jo-hana and on down route 156 to Shirakawa.
By car from Takayama, you can follow the bus route along route 158 to the 156, then north to Shirakawa-go in about 2 hours. An alternative route is to head north on route 41 to Furukawa, then west on route 360 across Amasei(?) Toge pass, and passing by a few waterfalls before hitting route 156 near Shirakawa in about an hour and 45 minutes. See the "Getting There" section for Takayama (above) on how to get there.
If you're leaving Shirakawa by car, why not just follow route 156 all the way north to Takaoka, then drive around the entire Notto Hanto (peninsula), which brings you right down to Kanazawa. You might be able to do that in one day, but why not stay out somewhere on the peninsula?
There are no big towns in this area, and few stores of any size. So stock up on whatever snacks or provisions you think you might want before leaving the city. The roads to Shirakawa-go are sometimes snowed in for a while in the winter, but they try to keep the main route 156 open most of the time. It would certainly be a quiet and cozy place in winter, but call ahead to see if any body's home and check on road conditions.
At least a dozen of the special old farm houses are set up for taking in lodgers, and operate like minshukus. Since all the houses take one or two days off per week and some don't do business in the low seasons, the best thing to do is to ask at the Shirakawa-go Association right on the main road, which acts as a tourist information office, lodging agent, and external liaison. In fact, the families prefer that you deal with the association, who will set you up with the right place. But you can bet it will be a very old "gassho-zukuri" farmhouse -- that's all they have. Their phone number is just below.
The prices are reasonable minshuku rates, and the facilities are basic-to-crude, befitting such historical buildings -- but always very clean. They have small bath and toilet facilities (down the stairs), and there is electricity and maybe even a space heater in your room. The few rooms are small and distributed up steep stairs on various floors. In the morning and evening, you eat your meal in the communal dining room, which is the same as the communal living room, which is the big open "hearth" room on the bottom floor. Here you sit on the tatami mats around the old fire pit and your meal is served on trays before you.
Part of the service is for someone in the family of the house to spend a little time after dinner talking about the town, history, house construction and what life was like here 50 or 100 years ago. This can easily become an interesting round-table discussion (in Japanese) where the guests also get to know each other, and it is not unheard of to order a few bottles of beer or sake before the questions trail off. Well, that's how I remember it, anyway. As I recall, some of the inns have video tape machines where they also show an informative video created by the Shirakawa-go Association.
To reserve ahead of time, or for other tourism information call the Shirakawa-go Kanko Kyokai (Tourism Association) at (05769) 6-1013 or 6-1751; don't expect any English, but you never know.
One of the quaintly unusual events in Shirakawa is the Doburoku Matsuri, or "Grog Festival" (my translation). DobuROku is the rawest form of sake, probably not far removed from what that first person to ever 'make' sake accidentally discovered in a misplaced rice bowl a millennium or two ago. (English Web Site)
Doburoku is white and thick and it has chunks of rice and bits of
chaff in it; it also smells and tastes like your rice has gone really
bad. (The next step beyond this would be some straining and minor
filtering and diluting, which would produce niGOri sake --
still white and weird-tasting, but approaching civilization.) Doburoku
is rarely sold in bottles; it is occasionally dispensed in very
obscure drinking houses to people who should know better.
But in isolated Shirakawa-go, the locals have poured their hearts and souls (not to mention their livers) into making doburoku for centuries. After all, they never got anything from the outside world. The festival takes place for a week in October and the doburoku flows until no one is left standing. (Or so I am told by friends who have attended.)
There are also parades, dance performances, and religious rites. Naturally it's fun and interesting, but Shirakawa is so small that it quickly gets overrun with tourists, not to mention news crews looking for an interest story (every year). Getting a room is something you arrange very, very far in advance. And of course the town is not at all its quiet self during the crush of festivities. The Shirakawa-go Doburoku Festival is held from Oct 14 to Oct 19 each year.
Tsumago-Juku and Magome are well-preserved historical towns in the
mountains of southern Nagano Prefecture, used for centuries by
travelers on the Nakasendo route. This general area was then known as
Kiso; Kiso-Ji means 'Kiso route'. The
Between these two small towns is the Magome Toge (pass), backdrop for several historical novels, movies, and TV dramas. Dueling samurai always seem to have had their show-downs in the romanticized misty isolation of such natural settings.
Tsumago-Juku (tsu-MAgo-juku) has been used as a location of many such films, since the entire town is restored to its old image, with no power lines, TV aerials, or outside lighting. The only signs you see are wooden name-boards over doors, and shop curtains. While the main street through town is now paved, vehicles are not allowed during the daytime. Parking lots below the town serve tour buses and private cars; you walk from there. Magome (ma-GO-me) town is a little more modernized, but also has a long pedestrian street of very old buildings and is interesting to visit. There are more tourist shops here, more night life, and more lodgings than in Tsumago.
This is a lovely and very picturesque area to visit for a couple of days, with lots of old history and fine mountain walks. The small towns could as well be called villages and are easily explored on foot. They are not just museums, village people still live and work in the old buildings. Because of its isolation from major population areas, you don't get the heavy tourist traffic. The pace is slow and the tourism subdued, especially in Tsumago between 5pm and 9am, when it is downright asleep! Spending the night (or two) here in one of the ancient inns is to be highly recommended.
Since 1601, Tsumago-Juku and Magome were two of the 67 official post towns, or "stations", on the Nakasendo road, ('juku' means lodging). Don't think of it as a "road" because, here in the mountains, the Nakasendo was often just a rugged mountain trail, where important people and goods were carried by human bearers on foot.
As a post town, government representatives checked everyone and everything that passed through. They checked for bandits, commoners without permission to leave their district, guns and contraband, and could levy tariffs on certain goods. In fact, Tsumago and Magome were only minor post towns, with the nearest major checkpoint on the route being at Kiso-Fukushima, to the north. The main concerns locally were the illegal cutting or export of trees; even if trees were on your land, you were not allowed to cut down most varieties. As a result, the forests of Kiso are old and (dare I say) majestic.
Tsumago maintained its post town functions right up until 1911, when the Chuo Railway was constructed through the area. Then the village fell into disuse and disrepair. During the 1960's and 70's Tsumago was restored and designated as a "Protected Area for the Preservation of Traditional Buildings". This has kept Tsumago very small and quiet; no new buildings can be constructed. There is a Tourist Office (in an old building, of course) on the corner in the middle of town with maps and information, including "A Short Guide to Tsumago", in English, which is very thorough.
If you walk in from Nagiso station, you can enjoy an overview of Tsumago from the cleared site of the old Tsumago Castle, which was torn down by order of the Tokugawa government in 1615. You will pass several quaint farm houses along the way, as well as a water-wheel and, as you enter the town, the huge old public notice board.
Just walking the streets of Tsumago is an experience. In the old-town Terashita section, all buildings are completely of wood and two stories high. Some are houses, inns, and shops, but from the outside they all look the same when closed up at night. The street is faintly lighted with electric bulbs inside of wood and paper lanterns. The old post office is also of some interest, and several old houses have become shops where you can stop in for traditional snacks in an historical setting (photo left, clickable). Yes, there are souvenir and ice cream shops too; woodcarvings using various local woods are a specialty. Also in town is the large Kotokuji Temple, founded in 1500, and famous for its ancient cherry trees.
The most important building in Tsumago-Juku during the Tokugawa and Meiji Periods was Okuya, a "waki-honjin" or officially appointed inn for nobility and court officials. There were actually thousands of local houses that would take in travelers along the long routes through the mountains, but only a few were officially sanctioned to properly tend to and protect important officials. Okuya was also a toiya -- an agency for hiring transportation -- as well as being a traditional sake brewery.
The current Okuya is a traditional three-story house built of cypress in 1877, and today is an important historical site, open to the public (for a charge); English pamphlets are provided. It is a beautiful house and gardens, with numerous exhibits and a small museum.
There is a toilet beside one of the verandahs that was never used. It was built specifically for a visit by the Emperor Meiji in 1880, since an emperor could not use facilities used by lesser beings, and vice versa. The Meiji Emperor stopped here for tea, but did not use the toilet, so it waits unused, for another emperor.
Along the walking path over Magome Pass and south toward Magome town you pass shrines, some restored farmhouses open to the public, and the waterfalls -- Odaki and Medaki -- where the swordsman Musashi wooed his sweetheart in the historical novel that bears his name. Like American Western heroes, Musashi Miyamoto really lived, but many of the stories of him are purely legendary.
Check out the Tsumago Home Page on the net!
Magome was also called Magome-Juku because it too was one of the post towns on the Nakasendo, although only a few hours walk from Tsumago. Today, it is a little larger and livelier town than Tsumago. There are a number of lodgings here and more of the bustle of tourist shops, restaurants, and bicycle rentals. There are also art galleries and some interesting pottery to be found, but it is still small and retains it charm and historical feeling. The main street is for pedestrians only and the postman (photo left, clickable), in his traditional costume, makes his rounds on foot with his wooden box of mail, taking time to pose for photos with tourists.
The site of the old Magome Honjin (official inn) has been turned into a memorial to the author Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943) who was the son of the master of the Magome Honjin. Toson's famous historical novels, including "Before the Dawn" and "Ie", were set in Magome and Tsumago. The memorial buildings are open to the public and include libraries and a reading room. The Tourist Office is across the street. The Eisho-ji Temple and Kumano Shrine are within easy walking distance.
Getting there and around:
By train, get off at
station on the Chuo Main Line. This is
the Western leg of the Chuo Line and, coming from Tokyo, you will
normally have to change trains at Shiojiri, near Matsumoto. Nagiso is
about half way between Shiojiri and Nagoya. The nearest city is
Tsumago-Juku is not far from Nagiso, and you can take a 10-minute public bus ride, or make the one hour walk over the hill from the station and down into Tsumago. It is a pleasant walk and a very good entry into the town, for you pass several historical sites, not to mention lovely mountain scenery, on the way. The bus from Nagiso only runs about once an hour, with a few extra in the summer.
You can walk over the Magome Toge (pass) from Tsumago-Juku to Magome town in 2.5 to 3 hours, or you can get there by bus in about half an hour. The same bus goes from Nagiso to Tsumago, then Magome and back. Since the trail meets the road at six bus stops along the way, you can walk as far as you want, then grab a bus; but this bus only runs about once an hour. The elevation gain to the Magome Pass is about 1100 feet in 2 hours, then drops again 600 feet to Magome town; the trail is not difficult.
By car, get off the Chuo Expressway (toll) at Iida city, and go north on route 256 which passes near Tsumago and Nagiso. Local route 19 goes between Nagiso, Tsumago, and Magome.
There are a few inns in Tsumago, and all are old, completely wooden buildings, definitely traditional, and priced as ryokans. The Ikoma-ya is on the lower end of the scale; it has been an inn for over 200 years.
The venerable Matsushiro-ya, where we stayed,
is over 300 years old.
Inside this inn are pools of carp, which are not only served for
dinner, but can be heard splashing under your window at night. The
wooden cedar bathhouse shows no signs of modern renovation,
but it is very nice with a large wooden tub and windows out to
the garden. This ryokan is really quite affordable and
a great experience!
[Picture (clickable): 'Matsushiro-ya'; charcoal by Akira Sato (1911-1985)]
Matsushiro-Ya (Matsuda family)
tel (02645) 7-3022
My tourist map shows 30 minshukus and 2 ryokans in Magome, most of them along the main pedestrian street; there are no modern hotels. I expect there is a minshuku referral office in the bus terminal building in Magome. You can find some cheaper lodgings here than in Tsumago.