Research for my upcoming Hiro Hattori novels allows me to travel widely in Japan, and whenever possible I try to stay in traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) and guesthouses (minshuku).
People often ask about the difference between ryokan and a minshuku — and although accommodations vary, minshuku are generally more like a family-run bed and breakfast than a full-service inn. For example, guests at a minshuku typically make their own beds, and the bathrooms are often located down the hall (as opposed to having private ones en suite). Minshuku are often (though not always) less expensive, too, though depending on the area and the inn in question, the experience can vary widely.
Last autumn, I spent some time on the old Nakasendo–a historical travel road through the Kiso Valley, in the Japan Alps, that once served as the primary northern travel route between Tokyo (then Edo) and Kyoto. There’s a lovely well-preserved stretch of the road between the medieval post towns of Magome and Tsumago, and I used Magome as my base of operations.
In Magome, I stayed at Magomechaya–a minshuku owned by a third-generation innkeeper whose family has lived in Magome for over 100 years.
(The owners are lovely people, and the owner’s wife speaks English, so if you want to visit Magome–whether or not you speak Japanese–I recommend Magomechaya highly.)
Upon arriving in Magome, I set off up the hill to find the guest house. I’d been warned that the hill was steep, and that the only road (too narrow for cars, and open to pedestrian traffic only) was covered in cobblestones–a challenge for roller bags–so I packed light.
Magomechaya sits about halfway up the hill – a 5-7 minute walk if you’re in decent shape and not dragging a heavy bag. If you’re out of shape or overpacked, 10-15 minutes is more accurate.
The inn is easy to spot; it has a large sign, in English and Japanese, reading MAGOMECHAYA GUESTHOUSE:
Also, the building across the road (Magomechaya’s annex and kitchen/dining area) has a lovely water wheel in front:
Most of the guest rooms are located in the main building:
But since I was writing, the owners offered to let me stay in the annex, directly across the road, which was quieter because I was the only person staying there at the time. (It was amazing at night, when I lay in my silent room and listened to the wind whistling outside the window.)
The ground floor of the annex is also the dining room for the entire minshuku, where guests are served breakfast and dinner. (Room rates include both dinner and breakfast, although guests with special dietary needs or who only want the room can also reserve “room only” at a lower rate.)
Guests leave their shoes at the base of the staircase before going up to the guest rooms.
Upstairs, the rooms branch off of a single hallway, and the bathroom is located at the far end of the hall. (My room was the first door on the left in this photo.)
The guest rooms are furnished in traditional style, with tatami floors, sliding windows and doors, and a tokonoma:
(Note: The futon was new, and does not have a divot in the center – that’s the fault of my shaky hands while taking the panoramic shot.)
The guest rooms were impeccably clean, and had a heater/air conditioning unit with a remote control – as well as a spectacular view of the town and the alps beyond.
As the sun began to set, the day-tripping crowds cleared out, leaving me alone to explore the gorgeous, preserved post town of Magome–and I’ll take you there in the next installment of this series!
To reach Magome for your own adventure: Take a train to Nakatsugawa Station, and then a bus (it runs regularly, but check the schedule) to Magome. The bus lets off at the “downhill” end of the post town, so be prepared for an uphill hike to see the town or to reach your minshuku. No vehicular traffic is allowed within Magome itself, so if you can’t walk uphill, or significant distances, plan to visit Tsumago instead.
To learn more about Magome, and see the sights, click here!