- Walk the roads once traversed by the samurai, Feudal Japan’s powerful military caste
- Watch a jikabuki performance, a form of traditional Japanese theatre
- Brew sake (Japanese rice wine) and explore the town of Nakatsugawa, a former post station during the 17th to early 19th centuries
- Trek from Magome-juku to Tsumago-juku, this is a well-preserved section of a route that connected Kyoto and Tokyo in feudal Japan
- Feel the thrill of trekking from Yabuhara-juku to Narai-juku via one of the most difficult passages along the Nakasendo Trail; the Torii Pass
- Visit the most remarkable post town along Nakasendo: Narai, one of Japan’s Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Sites
- Take in the sights of Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s premier historic castles
- Feel history come to life at Shimosuwa-juku, the junction of Nakasendo and Koshu Kaido, leading to Nihonbashi in Tokyo
- Visit Shimosuwa Shrine, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto Shrines and head of more than 25,000 shrines across Japan
- Explore Karuizawa-juku, an old post town that is now one of Japan’s leading resorts, known for mild summers and winter activities
The Nakasendo Kiso Trail is a compact and popular trail that begins in Nagoya, the intermediate point between Kyoto and Tokyo, and Japan’s third most populous urban area.
Nakasendo is one of five Gokaido, five major routes that led to Edo (the feudal name for Tokyo) – it connected the new capital of Edo with the old capital of Kyoto. The Kiso Trail, the portion of the Nakasendo that goes through the Kiso Valley, was walked by Imperial family members during wedding processions as well as by feudal lords, as they transferred between Edo and their ruling domain.
In all, the Nakasendo is 540 km long and consists of 69 post towns, 11 of which are on the Kiso Trail. The Nakasendo is a route steeped deep in history, going as far back as the 6th century with roots in the Tosando, one of the ancient administrative units of Japan known as gokishichidō (five provinces and seven circuits). The name Tosando means “eastern mountain circuit” and refers to the inland route connecting Kyoto and Tokyo. The Nakasendo was pivotal to the growth of Japan and the movement of people and goods to and from Tokyo. As an inland route that did not require the crossing of any rivers, the Nakasendo was initially used more than the coastal Tokaido route, which needed bridges and ferries. The climate of Japan’s eastern coast was, however, more favourable. As traffic shifted to the Tokaido route, the Nakasendo fell out of favour, resulting in its post towns becoming a window to Japan’s past.
The Nakasendo Kiso Trail remains largely untouched and thus is a remarkable place to take in the history of Japan. It is as though samurai will appear at any moment on this tour.
You can visit both Matsumoto Castle (one of five castles in Japan considered a national treasure) and Shimosuwa, where two of the five major routes leading to Tokyo converge.
Additionally, this tour provides ample opportunity to experience Japanese arts and crafts: there will be a visit to a sake brewery for tasting, as well as a riveting performance of jikabuki. Jikabuki, traditional form of kabuki performed by local thespian tropes. It showcases and preserves its 17th century roots with highly stylised songs and dances, and performed wearing costumes of the period. At present, there are 30 such groups in the Gifu Prefecture: this is the largest concentration in all of Japan, followed by the Kanagawa Prefecture and the Hyogo Prefecture. Kabuki playhouses remain across Japan and continue to serve as a link to the 17th century Japan.
The Nakasando Kiso Trail begins at the South Ticket Gate of Nagoya Station, where all participants will gather before boarding a train to Mizunami Station. From Mizunami Station, transport will be arranged to Mino Kabuki Museum Aiso for a morning performance of jikabuki, followed by a tour of the museum.
There will be a break for lunch at the Clay, a restaurant inside the Museum Nakasendo. After lunch, participants will return to Mizunami Station and head to Nakatsugawa Station to join a locally guided tour of the post town, Nakatsugawa-juku.
After exploring Nakatsugawa-juku, the tour continues on to Hazama Brewery for the opportunity to make Japanese rice wine (sake). After touring the brewery, participants will check in at their respective accommodations and break to enjoy a Japanese hot spring before rejoining for dinner.
After breakfast, participants will transfer to Magome-juku, the 43rd of the 69 post towns on the Nakasendo, and the last post town on the Kiso Trail. After exploring, the hiking portion of the Nakasendo Kiso Trail begins with a leisurely trek to Tsumago-juku. Halfway through the hike, the tour will break for a bento box lunch at a machiya, a thatched wooden rest house. Upon arriving at Tsumago-juku, participants will explore the sites of this historic post town before transferring to Minami Kiso to check-in at their inns, explore, and gather for dinner.
An early start is needed for day three of the Nakasendo Kiso Valley Trail. After taking a train from Minami Kiso Station to Yabuhara Station, the lengthly hike to Narai-juku begins. A traditional bento box lunch will be prepared for this portion of the tour. Once reaching Narai-juku, the second post town on the Kiso Trail, participants will have ample time to walk its historical streets before hiking onto Matsumoto and resting for the evening.
Day four allows for participants to take in the beauty of Japanese architecture, starting with Matsumoto Castle. After exploring its grounds and Nakacho Shopping Street, all participants will meet at Matsumoto Station to board a train for Shimosuwa Station, from which transportation will be arranged to Suwa Taisha, a group of four Shinto Shrines.
From Suwa Taisha Shrine, the tour continues onto Manji No Sekibutsu Stone Buddha via a brief walk, before heading onto the heavily travelled junction of the Nakasendo (the main road to Kyoto) and Koshu (the main road to Yamanashi). Explore this village before checking into accommodations. Look out for ashiyu, a special hot bath used to soothe weary feet.
This portion of the Nakasendo Kiso Valley Trail takes participants to Oiwake-juku, a junction post town that bustles with visitors from two routes. From Oiwake-juku, the tour heads to the resort town of Karuizawa by bus via the Usui Pass, a strategic mountain pass used from the 8th century to connect Nagano and Gunma Prefectures. A brief stop will be made to explore and observe the surroundings at a lookout point.
Upon reaching Karuizawa Ginza, the town’s prominent shopping arcade, participants will break for lunch and explore eastern Japan’s premier resort town at their own leisure before checking into their accommodations for the evening.
On the final day of the Nakasendo Kiso Trail, participants will head to Tokyo Station from Karuizawa Station by means of Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed train. Those who wish to walk to Nihonbashi, the starting point of the Nakasendo, will be provided with maps and additional information about the area before the end of the tour.
Mino Kabuki Museum Aiso: performance of jikabuki followed by a tour of the museum.
Post town and location of Hazama Sake Brewery.
43rd post town on the Nakasendo trail.
Historic post town.
2nd post town on Kiso Valley Trail.
Location of Matsumoto Castle. Japan’s national treasure, the six story high, five layered Matsumoto Castle was built during the Warring States period, and is one of Japan’s oldest standing castles. Particularly impressive is the sight of its black walls contrasted against the Northern Japanese Alps covered in snow.
Location of Suwa Taisha Shrine. Junction of Nakasendo and Koshu kaido.
Junction post town.
Karuizawa, the 18th post town from Tokyo on the Nakasendo route, flourished more than other post towns along the Nakasendo as it was a stage station for exhausted horses.
Karuizawa in its present day form, is a respite from humid Tokyo summers. This began with the Canadian missionary, Alexander Croft Shaw, who invited his friends and family to enjoy the area’s abundant nature. In the 1890s, he built a villa and together with his friend, James Main Dixon, popularised the area. Later, the opening of the Usui Railway contributed to the rapid development of Karuizawa.
As a majority of the first Western visitors to Karuizawa were Christian, Christianity naturally flourished in the area, a sharp contrast to when the religion was banned across Japan in the Edo period.