Author: Emily-Jane Cave

A guide to Japan’s ancient Nakasendo Trail

There’s something enigmatic about Japan. In a country where centuries of deeply honoured tradition meet ultra-modern advances, the past and the future both seem to collide here and yet exist in perfect harmony.

It’s difficult to appreciate this unique balance without experiencing the country’s hospitality firsthand; while in the cities, Japanese technology is taking huge leaps forward, in the countryside, enormous effort is also being put into conservation and preservation of its treasured history and landscape.

Although a visit to Japan likely conjures images of big cities, bright lights, and towering buildings, that’s only one side of the coin. The flipside is infinitely more serene, with vast horizons, mountains, and primeval forests just waiting to be explored. The countryside is an outdoor-lover’s paradise, perfect for relaxation and quiet reflection.

nakasendo trail

The Nakasendo Trail

The numerous islands of Japan are divided into 47 prefectures, administrative areas that operate much like counties. The stunning prefectures of Nagano and Gifu are located in the centre of the largest island, Honshu, and boast some of the most spectacular scenery the country has to offer. 

Outdoor activities are high on the agenda here. With over 70 percent of Japan being mountainous, hiking and biking go hand in hand as ways to soak up the wonders of this breath-taking region.

To celebrate the prefectures’ outstanding natural beauty and make them more accessible to visitors, tour operator Oku Japan has collaborated with Nagano and Gifu to reinstate the Nakasendo Trail, an ancient postal route that takes adventurers through the heart of Nagano and Gifu. Initiated in 2019, recent developments have focused on taking the trail to lesser-known areas of Nakasendo. If you’re looking for a meditative, cultural outdoor break away from the crowds, this is where to find it.

nakasendo trail cycling

History meets hiking

The original Nakasendo Trail is over 330 miles long and some parts of it can be traced back to the 7th Century. It follows the old postal route through the Nakasendo region, connecting Kyoto and Tokyo, and dates back to the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603-1868.

Nakasendo literally translates as ‘central or inner mountain path’ and it’s easy to see why it was so called. The route cuts through some of the most incredible mountain scenery, taking in forests, rivers, temples, and townships. Hike or cycle these trails and you’ll be retracing the steps of ancient royalty.

Real history buffs will also be keen to check out the The Gifu Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum in Gifu Prefecture. Opened last year, the museum teaches visitors about the historic battle that took place here and led to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, one of the most influential reigns Japan has ever seen.

Much of the history from the Edo Period has been preserved in the settlements that line the trail. As well as its distinctive buildings, with their signature pillars and tiered roofs, the tradition of providing hospitality to those traversing the route has also stood the test of time.

Japan

People and places

The post towns of Tsumago and Magome are two of the most well-known, and for good reason. Their beautifully preserved architecture perfectly illustrates the look and feel of the Edo Period. Here, you’ll find traditional cobbled streets, tea houses, and accommodation, where locally grown seasonal produce is always on the menu.

In contrast to the higgledy-piggledy streets of Magome, Karuizawa, located in Nagano Prefecture at the foot of Mount Asama, is known as an upscale resort town. This is the place to try your hand at outdoor sports and indulge in some shopping, spa experiences and high-end restaurants. In the winter, Karuizawa is a popular ski resort, while in the autumn, the town is famed for its awesome displays of colourful foliage.

One way to make the most of any journey through foreign lands is to spend as much time as possible with its people, soaking up local culture, and opening yourself up to shared experiences. And of course, supporting local businesses and communities is the ideal way to give back on your travels and secure the future of these destinations for generations to come. If you want to get in touch with the real Japan, the Nakasendo is a great place to start.

Walk the Nakasendo Trail

For more information about the Nakasendo region and walking the Nakasendo Trail for yourself, check out more information about the Nagano Prefecture, or discover more about the Nakasendo Trail and guided walks along this historical route.