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Written by: Sjaak Mintjens
Date: 2013/06/13

Back to Edo!

A long story that should have been longer.

 

 A daytrip for Magome Tsumago, two places along the Nakasendo that anyone that has an interest in old Japan should visit, no matter what. Nakasendo is the old road going from Kyoto to Edo, which nowadays is sort of worldwide known by the name “Tokyo”, you may have heard of it. The Nakasendo was one of two roads, the other one being Tokaido, that travelers were able to use to get from Kyoto to Edo. The Nakasendo is a favorite for hikers both foreign and domestic, as not only will you be able to walk parts of the old road that travelers and traders used, but you can also find several old post towns along the way that still have their Edo-period buildings standing and experience a stay at one of these old post towns. The Nakasendo is definitely a recommendation for anyone that comes to Japan, and I would especially recommend the part of Magome to Tsumago.

 

The hillside town

 Magome, which is in the Gifu prefecture, can be reached from Nakatsugawa which you can reach from Nagoya or even by Matsumoto, if you would want to go there for a daytrip from Matsumoto. The beauty about Magome for me is that it is a saka-machi(坂町), a hillside town, meaning you will have quite an elevation between the outer ends of town with a great view when looking back when you start climbing this town.

 Magome is mostly one street with a lot of souvenirs, places to eat and places to stay, all which are in buildings from the Edo-period, even the post office. There are a few things I would recommend you to see and taste here.

 

Magome gourmet

Old post towns have some really good eats. If you are looking for your fried chicken or hamburgers, you might be a bit out of place, because almost everything you come across here is extremely healthy. In Magome I treated myself to something which looked good on the picture and thename name had a really nice sound to it “Tori Wappa-meshi”. Tori means chicken, wappa is a round bento box(lunch box) which is actually used in a steaming process and meshi is rice/food. So you get this hot steamed flavored rice with delicious chicken on it, as well as your tsuke-mono (Japanese pickled vegetables) and miso soup. And for a 900 yen, it wasn’t even that expensivfor a touristic location. Also down at the bus stop there is a small food stall outside which sells “warabi-mochi soft”, which is a soft serve ice cream with “warabi mochi” on top, which is a translucent mochi (glutinous rice) as well as what always goes with the mochi, which is kinako (roasted soybean flower) and kuromitsu, a sweet sugar sauce. Trust me, if it’s warabi mochi, you can’t go wrong.

 

Old roads are the best

 The trip was definitely not just for food and Magome. I wanted to slip back in time. So I headed out to find Tsumago, and also Magome-touge, which is the highest point between Magome and Tsumago. (801) . If you have any luggage, you can use the luggage service to transport your luggage over to Tsumago, so you don’t have to carry around the heavy baggage. While walking across the Nakasendo I noticed several things. First off is nature, which you will be simply completely surrounded by almost the whole way with some old houses along the way and an awkward road crossing here and there. There is one part where you will truly notice that you arrived in the outdoor area of Japan and that is the warning sign for bears. Yes, there are bears in the area, as well as wild pigs, deers etc. Along with the warning signs are bells to ward of bears and it is wise to ring them as loud as you can.

 

Slipping back in time

After finally reaching the top, safely, you turn around and see that the mountain where you are standing has been carved out for the road. Now imagine yourself back a few hundred years ago, the place where you would be standing would be several meters higher and you would have a view over the valley that you might not be able to imagine. Now, how can you relive a view that has been removed completely? You can refer to old ukiyo-e (woodblock painting).

For the Nakasendo there was an ukiyo-e series made called “69 Stations of the Nakasendo” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/69_Stations_of_the_Nakasend%C5%8D). You will want to look at number 42, Tsumago-juku (juku meaning post town). File:Kisokaido42 Tsumago.jpgThese days the location where it was drawn is called “Magome-touge” but there is no doubt about it, this ukiyo-e is indeed taken from Magome-touge. The mountain on the left side on the picture is Mount Ena, which can also be viewed from the bus stop at Magome (once you look past the carved out part of the road). If you can find the right spot at the top, you might be able to find almost the same view as the great ukiyo-e painter Hiroshige once looked at a few hundred years ago when drawing the ukiyo-e. I found the place, and it did make me feel connected to the people of the past and I felt as if from this point on I would only slip even more back in time.

 

 

Slight detour

 The trip had to continue, but due to the NHK (Japanese broadcasting company) accompanying me from there forward I was unable to walk the part from Magome-touge to Tsumago. But I will be sure to go there once again on a personal visit because along the way you will find two beautiful waterfalls, and when entering Tsumago you will reach a little rest stop/teahouse which is very popular for travels, and you will be able to chat up with the local owner and other travelers there. This time I was unable to take the actual path, but I will make sure there is a next time!

 

The oldest of post towns

 I may not have been able to experience the above part of the road this time around, but I did experience Tsumago, and what a place it is. Tsumago is also bigger than I expected. You can go up one way to visit a temple, where they have the first ever pulled rickshaw of Japan preserved, and go down again to find more of the town and you could go up on ahead to the ruins of the castle that ones stood and again back down to town to see some more buildings and shops and even chat up with some locals (however, English may be very limited).

 The biggest difference between Tsumago and just about every other post town is that you won’t really find much English. Which may be inconvenient for some, but it will add flavor to a town that has been preserved for a few hundred years. But still, the people are very hospitable and will try their best to communicate. Another interesting thing that might catch your attention is that the rain gutters are made of wood, just like they did a few hundred years ago. The more you look, the more you realize it really is a town preserved with excellence, with an odd one out only so now and then. There may be asphalt, but there are also a few spots that retain their dirt roads and really just pull you back into the Edo period. I also for a moment forgot about the NHK trying to film me and I felt as if I was back in the Edo period with the only difference is that I was taking photos. It was an experience that I will definitely be going for again.

 One more thing I would recommend at Tsumago is to eat gohei-mochi (五平餅), which is a grilled glutinous rice with an amazingly delicious sauce. I ate it at a place where they are using an over 40 year old recipe for the sauce of which you can also buy a bottle to take along your travels or maybe even take back home as you do not have to keep it in the fridge.

 

Much left to be said and done

 The story has been long, but there is still one thing I need to say. This story is short. What I mean to say, I went there for a day trip and eventually felt as if I had way too little time. When I was halfway through Tsumago, the clock already hit 5 and all the shops started to close and I had to hurry to get back home for the last bus. When taking this trip, which I highly recommend as it will be one of your most unique experiences within Japan, you should stay the night at Tsumago. You will not only have more time to experience Tsumago (also in the off-hours), but also the experience to stay at an old post town in an old ryokan. And thus have a true experience of going back in time to the Edo-period.




Access

From Matsumoto you can reach Magome by transfering in Shiojiri to Nakatsugawa with the JR Chuo Line, Shinano limited express, which should take about 1h30m and then transfer to the bus for Magome which takes about 25 minutes.

You can also reach Magome from Nagoya by taking the JR Chuo Line to Nagano and getting off at Nakatsugawa, which takes about 50 minutes and then you can once again transfer to the bus for Magome which takes about 25 minutes.

 

As for Tsumago, you can reach it from both Matsumoto and Nagoya using they same travel method as said above, but instead of getting off at Nakatsugawa, you will want to get off at Nagiso and walk from there or take a bus from there up to Tsumago.

 

 

Official website Magome: http://www.kiso-magome.com/

Official website Tsumago: http://www.tumago.jp/

(Both websites are Japanese only at the point of writing this article)