Lanterns on the Nakasendō

During my autumn 2016 research trip to Japan, I spent three nights on the Nakasendo–the “Central Mountain Route” that once connected Kyoto with Edo (now Tokyo) via the Japan Alps.

Since the southernmost part of the Nakasendo overlays the even older Kisoji–a travel road that will feature in an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery novel, I focused my time on Magome, the southernmost post town, which has been restored to its Edo Period condition and preserved as a slice of living history.

Most visitors leave Magome at 5pm, on the final bus for Nakatsugawa (the closest railway station, and major town, about 30 minutes away). In autumn, this occurs just as the sun disappears below the Western horizon, leaving the sky alight with evening fire.

Magome Sunset

The mountains surrounding Magome turn purple and grey, the temperature drops, and on the night I visited, the moon shone brightly over the silent town.

Moon Over Magomechaya

The shops and restaurants close around 5 pm, when the final buses leave. About 30 minutes later, lanterns appeared on the street that runs the length of Magome. I didn’t see who set them out–I’d gone to my room for a jacket, because the temperature dropped fast and the wind picked up when the sun went down.

Lanterns in Magomechaya

The scents of grilling fish and vegetables danced lightly through the evening air, mingling with the stronger smell of wood smoke and the chilly mountain breezes–fresh but biting–that swept down the hill as evening darkened into night. Although the day tourists had gone home, the residents and overnight visitors prepared for dinner or walked the streets, enjoying the sunset and the mountains’ silent beauty.

South lanterns evening

I returned to my room for dinner (my fish allergy prevented me from joining the other guests in Magomechaya’s dining room, but I didn’t mind) and afterward returned to the darkened street for a second evening walk. 

Magome at night

It was only 7:30 pm, but the streets had grown completely dark except for the lanterns running away in both directions, up and down the hill. The winds had grown stronger, making me glad I’d thought to wear my gloves as well as my jacket.

The memorial outside the home of novelist Shimazaki Tōson was lit up by night: 

Toson Home at Night


As were a number of other trees, which seemed eager to display their brilliant foliage even in the dark of night: 

Magome Lantern Road

The wood and paper lanterns read “Nakasendo” (big surprise…) and flickered gently as if lit by tapers, though the lights inside were actually battery-powered LEDs.

Nakasendo Lantern

I would have loved to stay out longer, but I had an early start the following morning, hiking the preserved portion of the Nakasendo between Magome and neighboring Tsumago. Also, my hands were freezing even through my gloves, and although my jacket cut the chill somewhat, I was eager to return to the warmth of my guest room and the bottle of local apple wine I’d bought to toast my first night in the alps.

I returned to Magomechaya’s welcoming glow:

Magomechaya Night

…and found my bottle of apple wine waiting and nicely chilled from sitting on the windowsill (where I’d left it during my evening walk for just that purpose).

Apple Wine - Kiso

Magome in daylight can be busy, exciting, and filled with things to do and taste and see, allowing visitors to walk backwards in time to Japan’s medieval age. But in the evening, after dark, the town remembers its history even more clearly. The streets grow silent, the lanterns glow, and you can almost hear the whispered voices of samurai in the wind.