The Nakasendo and an old post town: a literal trip down memory lane

By Vicki L Beyer

There is a scene in Eiichi Yoshikawa’s classic novel, “Musashi,” in which Musashi is travelling the Nakasendo with the young woman, Otsu, of whom he is enamored. They pause on the road:

All around the ground was covered with wild flowers, still damp with morning dew. Coming to a deserted hut on a cliff overlooking the falls, they stopped. [A] sign read ‘Meoto no Taki’. The reason for the name, “Male and Female Waterfalls,” was easy to understand, for the rocks split the falls into two sections, the larger one looking very virile, the other one small and gentle.

The Nakasendo, literally “road amid the mountains” was, for 2 1/2 centuries, one of two major roads for travelling between Kyoto and Tokyo, and one of the 5 major “highways” (“gokaido”) of the Tokugawa shogunate. Yoshikawa chose the Male and Female Waterfalls for this scene of his novel precisely because it is about the tension between Musashi’s latent sexual desire for Otsu and the need for him to maintain the discipline of his swordsmanship. Musashi winds up taking a cold shower in the falls and goes on to become a legendary swordsman.

This section of the historic Nakasendo, between the post towns of Tsumago and Magome in Nagano Prefecture, has been restored and can easily be walked as part of a weekend in the area (cold shower optional).

I recommend using Tsumago as your base for exploration. It offers a range of overnight accommodation, often in the traditional style and including dinner and breakfast. There is a helpful online reservation service at the Tsumago Tourist Association website:

Tsumago of the post town era is remarkably well preserved, and you almost feel as if you have stepped back in time. Apparently the reason for the state of preservation originates with the poverty of the local people, whose primary industry was logging but who were prohibited to cut down trees for their own use. The town was also fortunate not to have suffered any major fires, unlike neighboring Magome, most of which has been rebuilt. Additionally, Tsumago was bypassed by the railroad, leaving it for many years as a forgotten backwater.

Since the 1970s, however, Tsumago has turned its isolation and inability to modernize to its advantage, capitalizing on its historic buildings for tourism. Yet it doesn’t feel “touristy.”

The main road of historical buildings, actually part of the Nakasendo, is less than two kilometers long, so it’s easy to explore. The historical look has been well preserved, with even power lines kept out of sight (an unusual feat in Japan!).

Beginning at the north end, the first thing to watch for is the notice board. During the Edo Period, every post town had a notice board on which laws and governmental proclamations would be posted for all to see. Nearby, a moss-covered waterwheel is often spinning, operating a mill. As you stroll along examining the houses, you’ll soon come to the first of three buildings of particular interest. These three buildings charge admission. Separate tickets can be purchased for each, but the “kyotsu” ticket, giving you admission to all three for 700 yen, offers the best value.

The first is Wakihonjin-Okuya. This was the family home of a well-to-do transportation businessman and served as the overflow when the official inn, known as Tsumagojuku Honjin, was full. The building dates from 1877 and is open for tours, albeit conducted in Japanese only. The tour begins in the main reception room, with its magnificent timbers, high ceiling and central fireplace. During the tour, several of the fine features of the house are explained. When the Emperor Meiji made his grand tour of Japan in the 1880s, he rested in this house. Several items associated with that visit are on display, including the toilet constructed especially for His Imperial Majesty’s use.

Practically next door is the Rekishi Shiryokan, or Historical Museum. The displays include maps, historical drawings, and an extensive display on the early logging industry (including photographs, tools, and even a diorama). Many of the labels include English translation. The local hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood—actually 5 species of hinoki—is an excellent timber and it is easy to understand why the Tokugawa government was so draconian in commandeering its use.

Across the road is the third building, the Tsumagojuku Honjin, or official inn. This building was reconstructed in the 1990s based on the plans of its early 19th century iteration. Every post town had an official inn, designated as the place where daimyo lords and their retinue would stay when travelling between Edo and their homes. Displays here explain the nature of their travels as well as the facilities made available when travelers stayed.

A little further on, to the left above and behind Tsumago’s helpful Tourist Information Center, atop a huge stone wall sits Kotokuji, a Zen temple more than 500 years old. The 18th century main temple building has Nightingale floors, similar to those found at Nijo Castle in Kyoto, an ancient system of intruder alert. The fortress-like situation of the temple can be attributed to its original construction during the Warring States period, when Tsumago was a castle town. The castle was demolished in the early 17th century, although its site, about a kilometer north of the town on the walking trail to Nagiso, is now a park. Also on display here is a wheeled palanquin designed and used by one of the senior priests of the temple in the late Edo Period.

The part of the town below the temple is called “terashita no machi-nami,” or row houses below the temple. These are now mostly shops and restaurants but were once the inns frequented by ordinary travelers. Some enterprising merchants offer demonstrations of traditional crafts, such as washi paper-making. You might even get to try your hand at it!

When you have finished exploring Tsumago, to walk a bit more of the old Nakasendo, and to see the Male and Female Waterfalls, I have two suggestions.

If you’re up for a long hike, just keep going on the Nakasendo when you reach the edge of Tsumago. It’s about 8 kilometers to Magome, with a fairly steep ascent just before crossing at Magome Pass (elevation 801 meters).

For a shorter, less strenuous, alternative that brings you back to Tsumago at the end of your walk, catch a bus at the end of Tsumago heading in the direction of Magome. Get off at the Ichikoku bus stop, shortly before reaching the pass, and walk back to Tsumago on the old Nakasendo. The walk is less than 5 kilometers and should take about an hour and a half. As the road descends through the woods, you can appreciate why hinoki is so valued as a timber. You will see wild flowers and resting huts as described by Yoshikawa. You’ll also find the Male and Female Waterfalls, stone mile markers, and, as you emerge from the forest, small old farmhouses and rice paddies, giving you ample opportunity to imagine yourself back in time, traveling alongside Musashi or even a great daimyo.


Nov 23 is the date of Tsumago’s annual Bunka-Bunsei Parade, locals dressed up in costumes of travelers of the early 19th century. Although the parade route is only two kilometers, the parade lasts for about 3½ hours. This is an extremely popular event, attracting very large crowds, especially day trippers from Nagoya.

Getting there: From Tokyo: Take the JR Chuo Line Super Azusa (limited express) from Shinjuku to Shiojiri (2 1/2 hours) and then take the JR Chuo Line Shinano (limited express) from Shiojiri to Nagiso (1 hour). From Nagiso Station to Tsumago is 10 minutes by bus or one hour on foot. From Nagoya: Take the JR Chuo Line Shinano (limited express) to Nagiso (1 hour) and then catch the bus or walk to Tsumago.

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Thanks to Miss Beyer for a very informative article.

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I went there a couple of times a few years ago. I asked some yanki looking kid if there was a convenience store around cos I thought if anyone would know where there was one he would, but even he just laughed at me.

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A spectacular spot, indeed !

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