The Nakasendo Highway was one of the Gokaido (the five main roads leading to and from Tokyo during the Edo Period of Japanese history - the Tokaido, Nakasendo, Nikko Kaido, Oshu Kaido and Koshu Kaido).
Autumn colors on the Nakasendo, Nagano Prefecture
The Gokaido highways were established by the Tokugawa shogunate as official routes for daimyo (feudal lords) and their families and retainers to travel to the capital (Edo) to perform sankin-kotai - the system of alternate residence in Edo, which allowed the central authorities to keep watch on and control the feudal lords.
This system of well-maintained roads also facilitated the spread of central power to the outlying provinces. Information, troops and dispatches from central government could be speedily sent out along these highways and the passage of people and goods along these roads were checked at various barrier stations or seki along the routes.
The Tokaido, along the Pacific Coast, was the busiest route as it was the most direct and was mainly flat. The present-day Tokaido Shinkansen and National Highway Route 1, between Tokyo and Osaka via Kyoto follows this ancient route.
However, due to the number of river crossings involved on the Tokaido, it was considered dangerous, and many daimyo sent their wives and families on the longer, but safer inland highway, the Nakasendo.
Kosatsuba noticeboard with regulations for travelers on the Nakasendo Highway in Ena
Autumn leaves, Narai-juku on the Nakasendo, Nagano Prefecture
The Nakasendo was originally constructed on the Chinese model in the Nara Period in the 8th century and was called the Tosando - the "highway through the eastern mountains."
Important post-towns along the Nakasendo included Kusatsu, Maibara, Mitake, Ena, Nakatsugawa, Ochiai, Magome & Tsumago, Kiso-Fukushima, Miyanokoshi, Yabuhara, Narai, Shiojiri, Karuizawa, Takasaki and Maebashi.
Sign post to Tsumago on the Nakasendo
Persimmons left to dry on the Nakasendo
These post-towns provided accommodation and lodging for travelers and officials on the old highway and now, after being preserved and renovated since the 1960's, serve a mix of walkers and day trippers on bus tours.
Some of the post-towns, such as Tsumago, have preserved their honjin and waki-honjin, high class ryokan reserved for daimyo (feudal lords) and other high-ranking officials.
Kiso-Fukushima still has its barrier station or seki, where travelers on the Nakasendo had their travel passes checked by the authorities and were searched for firearms.
The Nakasendo trails are well sign-posted and attract a growing number of hikers from Japan and overseas, who wish to seek out something of the ancient, rural and more slow-paced Japan.
Stone Jizo statues, a Buddhist protector of travelers and dosojin, which are Shinto guardians providing the same function can also be seen along the route, along with stretches of trees along the highway, known as namiki, which provide shade and protection from the elements.
A number of ichirizuka have also been recreated - these are distance markers for one ri, about 3.9km, and are mounds with either a tree or stone marking the spot.
Part of the route was also paved with stones - known as ishidatami, to provide a solid footing for porters and pack horses. Little of this original paving remains except for an 800m stretch before the hamlet around Shinchaya Inn just outside Magome.
Stone pavement (ishidatami) on the Nakasendo Highway, Ochiai
The Kiso Valley in Gifu and Nagano prefectures is a particularly popular stretch of the Nakasendo.
The Kiso Valley (Kisoji) has long been treasured for the quality of its timber reserves, especially cypress or hinoki trees, which were used to rebuild the shrines in Ise. Indeed, it was a capital offence to remove trees from the forests during Tokugawa times.
Lacquer was another important product and quality lacquer ware, such as bowls and trays, can be purchased in Kiso-Hirosawa and Kiso-Fukushima along the way.
The Kiso Valley is also known for its excellent cuisine which can include such exotic fare as wild boar, river crabs, ayu sweetfish, crickets and mountain vegetables. A staple of the area found everywhere is soba noodles.
The mountain grown rice is also delicious as is the local sake - with the brand Nanawarai (Seven Smiles) being a popular local brew.
The Kiso Horse a short, sturdy horse, was bred in the region for use both as a mount for samurai warriors and as a pack animal up and down the high passes of the Nakasendo.
Kiso Ohashi, Narai-juku, Nagano Prefecture
Kiso Fukushima, Nagano Prefecture
Hiking The Nakasendo
From here visitors can take a JR train to Ena, Nakatsugawa or up to Kiso-Fukushima or Narai along the Kiso Valley to begin their hikes.
A popular day hike is from Magome to Tsumago or further on to Nagiso. Visitors can take a bus from Nakatsugawa Station to Magome, walk over Magome Pass to Tsumago (about 2 hours) and then walk a further 90 minutes to Nagiso to take the train back to Nagoya. Buses also make the journey between Magome, Tsumago and Nagiso and back. See our Nakatsugawa guide for times.
Daitsuji Temple entrance gate, Kiso-Fukushima, Nagano Prefecture
Accommodation in the Kiso Valley
The Kiso Valley has a number of traditional ryokan inns and minshuku as well as several western-style resort hotels often with onsen.
Recommended is the Iseya Inn (Tel: 0264 34 3051; 伊勢屋) in Narai and the Kisojino-yado Iwaya Inn in Kiso-Fukushima. Magome and Tsumago have a number of places to stay including The Shinchaya minshuku located in a tranquil valley, 2km from Magome.
Shinchaya 5110 Magome, Nakatsugawa-shi, Gifu 508-0502. Tel/Fax 057 369 2619.
Tajimaya is an inn with over 100 years of history in central Magome Tel: 057 369 2048. All the rooms have Wi-Fi access.
In Tsumago, the historic Maruya Inn is right on the Nakasendo and has tatami-style rooms and excellent food.
Maruya Inn, Tsumago, Minami Kiso-machi, Nagano, Tel: 0264 57 3117; Fax: 0264 57 2591.
Narai manhole cover
Narai railway station
Chubu International Airport is the most convenient international airport airport for an onward journey to the Kiso Valley and the Nakasendo. There are direct connecting trains on the Meitetsu Centrair service to Nagoya Station and Kanayama Station for JR trains to Nakatsugawa and then change to a local train for Narai or some direct Shinano Express trains from Nagoya stop at Kiso-Fukushima. If you are traveling from Osaka take the Shinkansen to Nagoya and change.
There are Shinano Express and local trains from Nagoya via Nakatsugawa to Narai taking 117 minutes for the 154km journey. Change at Kiso-Fukushima if traveling from Nagoya or if coming from Nagano change at Shiojiri. The line also connects to Matsumoto to the north, where visitors can change to the Shinano Express to Nagano and then the Azuma Shinkansen to Karuizawa and Tokyo. Journey time from Matsumoto to Nagano is 50 minutes on the Shinano and 33 minutes on the Shinkansen to Karuizawa. From Nagano to Tokyo by Shinkansen is 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Narai-juku main street
Nagano-Nagoya railway line
National Highway 361 passes close to the Kiso Valley. Alternatively take the 153 route or the Chuo Expressway via Nakatsugawa and Iida from Nagoya.
Joyato stone lantern, Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture, central Japan
Nakasendo Highway: read a guide to the historic Nakasendo Highway, a route from Kyoto to Tokyo through the central highlands of Japan. The Nakasendo has 69 post stations or juku along the way.