Dawn on the Nakasendo

(Click here to start the series of posts on the Nakasendo from the beginning.)

During Japan’s medieval age, the Nakasendo was the primary northern travel route connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto. The southern end of the Nakasendo tracks the course of an older travel road, the Kisoji, which connected the mountain towns of the Kiso Valley.

A preserved and restored portion of the old Nakasendo/Kisoji runs through the mountains between the southernmost post towns of Magome and Tsumago. The 8.5 km (just over 5 mile) journey takes between 2 and 4 hours, and includes some breathtaking views of the Kiso Valley.

Nakasendo Waterwheel

On the morning I made the hike, I rose before dawn–an easy thing to do when staying in Magome, because the town’s emergency speakers play a lovely, haunting melody at 6:30am. I woke to the sound of music, and although my alarm wasn’t set to go off for another 30 minutes, the sky was light enough to hike so I decided to hit the trail.

Magome at Dawn

I left before breakfast, but carried some snacks–a bottle of tea and some fresh senbei (rice crackers) I’d purchased from a vendor the night before. (Travel tip: if you visit Magome, the senbei shop next door to the inn called Magomechaya has some of the best fresh senbei in all of Japan.) 

The first bus from Nakatsugawa doesn’t arrive in Magome until 8am, and the minshuku (guesthouses) don’t serve breakfast until 7, so most hikers don’t hit the trail until at least 7:30. When I left at 6:30 I was the only person on the street.

Magome dawn

In fact, with one exception, I didn’t see another human being until I was more than halfway to Tsumago.

The air smelled fresh and cold, with a bite that promised frost in the next few days, although I saw none on the ground. Birds chirped in the trees. A chilly wind blew down the mountain, amplified by the narrow road that runs through Magome. I stopped to put on my gloves, and continued walking.

When I reached the uppermost end of the town, I saw the medieval signpost across the road. I stopped for some pictures (removing my gloves), but since the sun hadn’t yet appeared above the mountains my images were either backlit or heavily in shadow.

Old SIgnpost

Passing the signpost, I headed north along the trail past fields of lotus and local vegetables. While tourism makes up a large part of Magome’s economy, much of the Kiso Valley remains agricultural, as it has been for thousands of years.

As I walked, the sky to the east grew increasingly brilliant. A glow appeared at the crest of the mountains, and I paused beside a lotus field to watch the sun appear.

Lotus plants at dawn

Nearby, a crow gave a raucous call. Not far away, a second one answered. The first one took flight, leaving me once again alone with the sun.

I caught myself grinning, despite the chill that stung my ears and fingers. Donning my gloves, I continued up the road . . . and startled at the sight of an elderly Japanese couple just ahead, standing in their field watching the sunrise. They seemed equally startled to see me approaching. (Based on past experiences, most Japanese hikers seem to start a little later than I do.)

We exchanged bows, and I continued on my way.

Signpost on Nakasendo

The start of the Nakasendo trail is easy to find (and well marked throughout) and as soon as I reached it, the gravel path I’d followed out of Magome gave way to the older stones of the historical travel road.

Nakasendo Stones

With the rising sun my only companion, I shouldered my day pack and headed up the trail and back in time.

Nakasendo Dawn

(The Nakasendo adventure will continue next week – but I hope you’ll come back later this week for my dispatches from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference, which kicks off this Thursday in Denver, Colorado!)