Japan City Guides: Kiso Valley - Magome & Tsumago
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Kiso Valley: Magome Tsumago 馬籠&妻籠
Magome and Tsumago are two restored and preserved Edo-period way stations on the Nakasendo highway in the Kiso Valley in Gifu Prefecture (Magome) and Nagano Prefecture (Tsumago).
The Nakasendo, like the more well-known Tokaido to the south, was a road connecting Kyoto with Edo (present-day Tokyo). The Nakasendo was favored as the route to Edo by important daimyo (feudal lords) as the coastal Tokaido along the Pacific Coast had to cross many wide rivers and was considered more dangerous.
Magome and Tsumago are within easy reach of Nagoya via Nakatsugawa or Nagiso by both car and public transport and there is a pleasant 2 to 2 and a half hour walk on the historic Nakasendo highway between the two historic, former post towns.
Magome (meaning "horse" + "basket") has the more touristy feel of the two places with more souvenir and food stalls on its steep main street and can get pretty busy on weekends and national holidays.
Both places are best visited, if possible, during the week.
Magome's name derives from the fact that travelers were forced to leave their horses here before tackling the steep climb to Tsumago ("wife" + "basket").
Both towns have closed their main streets to cars and as much as possible electric wires have been hidden out of sight.
Nakasendo Highway, Magome, Gifu Prefecture
Historic wooden buildings, Magome, Gifu Prefecture
Magome's main street is lined with wood and plaster Edo-style buildings, most of which date from the 20th century as the originals fell into disrepair or were burnt down in the frequent fires that affected both towns. Look out for the stones which hold down some of the wooden roofs.
A wooden watch tower guards the entrance to Magome and there is a reproduction of a Tokugawa shogunate notice board (kosatsuba), which lays down the law for approaching visitors. Among the rules and regulations posted on kosatsuba by the Tokugawa authorities were prohibitions against Christianity and rewards for turning in practicising Christians.
The death penalty was enforced for cutting down any of the area's cypress (hinoki) trees which were used for building the regime's castles and are still used for rebuilding Ise shrine every 20 years.
Kosatsuba, Magome, Gifu Prefecture
Magome is also known for its most famous son, novelist Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943), whose works include Yoake Mae (Before The Dawn) and Ie (The Family), novels that chart the history of people in the Kiso region as the area's importance and wealth declined in the Meiji Period.
The Toson Kinenkan is a small museum in the center of Magome dedicated to the author and his life, whose grave can be visited just off the main street along with Eishoji Temple, which is mentioned in the author's novels. Follow the signs in the graveyard to find the author's grave. Eishoji also offers accommodation with an evening meal of shojin ryori - a vegetarian dinner with no animal protein. Guests can also experience Zen meditation at Eihoji. Bookings must be made at least three days in advance.
Tsumago feels the more "authentic" of the two post towns (juku) as it suffered less from fire and began to be protected by the Japanese government in the mid-1970s after restoration efforts by the town's citizens in the 1960s, becoming a model for later preservation schemes in other areas of Japan.
The delightful main street, which is closed to traffic, contains a variety of wooden and plaster Edo-style inns, houses, temples and shrines, with the surrounding, forested mountains as a spectacular back-drop.
Tsumago now has a number of wooden craft shops, noodle restaurants, Japanese confectionary shops and historic inns or hatago. Walking along the main street visitors can see the different ranges of accommodation that were on offer for Edo period way-farers from plain wooden floors, to tatami mats to the grandiose Honjin and Waka-honjin. The uma-ya or stables has also been renovated and restored. Tsumago's main temple is Kotoku-ji, which is believed to date originally from 1500.
Tsumago-juku, Kiso Valley, Nagano Prefecture
Tsumago-juku, Kiso Valley, Nagano Prefecture
Places of historic interest tied to Tsumago's history as a Nakasendo post town include the Waki-honjin - an inn used by the retainers of feudal lords, rebuilt in 1877 and containing a moss garden, a museum (Shiryokan) and a special toilet for imperial use. The building is built in hinoki cypress wood, darkened from the smoke of the irori hearth fire.
The Meiji Emperor visited the inn in 1880 and a western-style table was made for his visit and the tatami covered in carpets so the Emperor could enter in shoes.The adjacent museum has a number of interesting exhibits - tools, weapons, documents and dioramas explaining traditional lifestyles in the Kiso Valley. Some of the photographs show farmers from the Kiso area who moved to Manchuria during the 1930s - a landscape certainly very different from their mountain roots.
Across the street is the Tsumago Honjin, where the feudal lords (daimyo) spent the night. Both places are preserved as museums and can be visited separately or together by purchasing a combined ticket.
Just off the main street, Kotokuji Temple dates from 1500 and has an ancient cherry tree and a singing floorboard.
Tsumago's festivals include a parade on November 23 with participants in Edo period dress including monks and samurai warriors carrying palaquins and others recreating a wedding procession. The Wachino Shrine Festival takes place July 23-24 and the Taimatsu Torch Festival on the fourth Saturday of August in the ruins of Tsumago Castle.
Magome-Tsumago-Nagiso Walking Trail
It is possible to walk the old Nakasendo on a walking trail (7.8 km) from Magome (420m above sea level) to Tsumago (600m) and on to Nagiso (3.2 km) or in the reverse direction.
The walk takes about 2 hours to 2 and a half hours and passes through forest and farmland as well as on the road connecting Magome to Tsumago. The walk passes from Gifu to Nagano prefectures over the Magome Pass (Magome-toge) where a memorial stone is inscribed with a haiku poem by Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902):
These white clouds evoke
On the whole, the trail is well signposted (in English and Japanese) and passes a couple of pleasant waterfalls on the way: Otaki and Metaki (Male and Female) Falls. If you are coming from Tsumago, after these falls continue on the road for a couple of hundred meters before the trail turns right into woodland.
The Otaki and Metaki Falls are featured in the book Miyamoto Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962) a fictional account of the life of master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. In the book Miyamoto was traveling to Edo (Tokyo) with his sweetheart, Otsu, a woman who was betrothed to his friend. Their passion for each other grew on the journey and to cool off their ardor they stood under their respective waterfall.
Just before the historic power station in Tsumago coming from Magome is the Iida-kaido on your right - another Edo period highway leading to the town of Iida in Nagano Prefecture.
The trail from Tsumago to Nagiso JR Station is another hour and passes through some pleasant farmland and small hamlets.
Look out for SL Park just before Nagiso, which is a charming spot with a view of the valley below and a rusting steam locomotive for company. There is a very small temple to Kannon nearby with three-colored plum trees in the tiny garden.
There is also a baggage forwarding service available at either Tourist Office in Magome or Tsumago. For 500 yen per piece your bags will be delivered between the tourist offices to arrive at 1pm if you drop them off between 8.30am - 11.30am.
Otaki and Metaki (Male and Female) Falls
Kiso Valley Festivals
Tsumago and Magome play host to a number of festivals through the year.
In Tsumago on November 23 there is a parade of local people dressed in traditional costume re-creating a procession from the Edo Period: samurai warriors, monks and palaquin bearers.
July 23/24 sees the Wachino Shrine festival in Tsumago when locals parade a portable shrine through the town.
The fourth Saturday of August is a fire festival held at the ruins of Tsumago Castle and performances of Kiso dancing.
Magome Tourist Office
Tsumago Tourist Office
Nagiso Tourist Office
Accommodation in Tsumago & Magome
It is possible to stay in a variety of ryokan or minshuku in both Magome or Tsumago and details can be obtained from either tourist office or in Nagoya.
The Shinchaya minshuku is located in a tranquil valley, 2km from Magome.
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.
Other ryokan are Hanaya Tel: 0264 57 3106, Tsutamuraya Tel: 0264 57 3235, Shinomura Tel: 0264 57 3158 and Koshinzuka Tel: 0264 57 3029. Next door to Hanaya is the noodle restaurant Kongoya Tel: 0264 57 3116.
From Nagoya Station take the Shinano Express on the JR Chuo Line to Nagano and get off at Nakatsugawa. From there take a local train (futsu) to Nagiso or an hourly bus to Magome.
There are buses from Nagiso to Tsumago and an infrequent bus runs between Magome and Tsumago. (The last bus leaves Magome at 3pm for Tsumago).
Taxis can be hired for the journey between Magome and Tsumago or to Nakatsugawa if you miss the bus. Call Nankiso Kanko Taxi: 57 3133 or Ontake Kotsu 57 2616. You can also send your luggage ahead by taxi to your accommodation and walk with a day pack.
There are Meitestu Highway buses from Nagoya Station to Magome (90 mins) and from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station (4 and a half hours).
By car take Route 19 to Nakatsugawa and Nagiso or by Chuo Expressway the journey is about 1 hour 15 mins (toll charge 1950 yen) when the traffic is flowing normally. The Chuo Expressway is also a quick way to visit Iida, Hirugami Onsen and Tenryukyo.
The journey back to Nagoya on the Chuo can be crowded on public holidays and weekends.
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