Walking the Nakasendo, an old mountain route between Kyoto and Tokyo, is a great way to sample Japan’s rural scenery. You can walk the most popular section, Magome to Tsumago, as a daytrip from Kyoto. Here’s our full transport, walking guide and map.
Magome-juku in late afternoon © James Faulkner
In recent years, the old mountain route between Kyoto and Tokyo, known as the Nakasendo (literally, “Middle Mountain Way”), has become one of Japan’s most famous hiking routes. The most popular section of the route is the 7.7km section that links Magome and Tsumago, two of the “juku” (rest stations) along the route. These both have many well-preserved and restored traditional buildings.
Despite the fact that this section is about 170km northeast of Kyoto in the mountains of Gifu and Nagano Prefectures, you can actually do this as a long day trip from Kyoto if you use the shinkansen and the Shinano Express trains and plan carefully. Of course, we recommend slowing down a bit and spending one night on the trail, in either Magome or Tsumago (see below for accommodation recommendations).
Please keep in mind that this is a pretty touristy trail. It’s quite scenic, but if you’re looking for unspoiled mountain scenery, you might prefer the northern Japan Alps (near Kamikochi, for example). And, if you want to something a bit less touristy, consider the Kumano-kodo, down in southern Kansai.
How to Get to the Nakasendo from Kyoto
Boarding the shinkansen at Kyoto – image © Chris Rowthorn
The basic route is as follows:
- Kyoto to Nagoya by shinkansen (about 45 minutes)
- Nagoya to Nakatsugawa by Shinano Express (about 48 minutes)
- Nakatsugawa to Magome by bus (about 25 minutes)
- Magome to Tsumago on foot (about 7.7km and 3 hours)
- Tsumago to Nagiso by bus (about 10 minutes)
- Nagiso to Nagoya by Shinano Express (about 48 minutes)
- Nagoya to Kyoto by shinkansen (about 45 minutes)
Here are the details:
You’ll have to get an early start from Kyoto in order to do this as a daytrip. In the following route description, we will assume that you are traveling with a Japan Rail Pass. We list specific train times here, but they might change by the time you read this, so check times at a JR station before setting out (a day in advance, so you aren’t rushing).
First, get to Kyoto Station and board a Hikari or Kodama shinkansen in the direction of Nagoya and Tokyo (you cannot board the fastest Nozomi shinkansen with a rail pass). You want to arrive in Nagoya in time to catch the 9am Shinano Express to Nakatsugawa, so we recommend taking the Hikari #510, which departs Kyoto at 7.42am and arrives in Nagoya at 8.34am. This gives you plenty of time to change trains. Exit the shinkansen station and look for signs for the Chuo Line to Nakatsugawa and Shiojiri. Board the Shinano Express #5, which departs at 9am.
The Shinano Express Train in Nagoya © sodaigomi
The Shinano will take you northeast into the mountains of Gifu Prefecture. You will arrive at Nakatsugawa Station in about 48 minutes. Exit the station and head outside to the Nakatsugawa Tourist Information Office to get some maps. It’s just beyond the bus stops.
Nakatsugawa Tourist Information Office – image © Chris Rowthorn
Board the next bus that departs for Magome. If you’re using the schedule described above, this will probably be the 10.15am departure. Buses for Magome leave from stand #3, which is clearly marked. The trip to Magome costs Y560. You should get some change before boarding and you pay as you get off the bus.
Nakatsugawa Bus Stop 3 for Magome – image © Chris Rowthorn
The trip to Magome takes about 25 minutes. Get off and walk back a few meters in the direction from which you came. You are now at the start of the walk. There are plenty of stores around if you need supplies. Buy a few bottles of water if you don’t have any.
Nakasendo Magome to Tsumago Section Map
This map shows the main train stations, important points and some of the accommodations on this section of the trail. It also shows the Nakasendo Route between Magome and Tsumago. Note, the Nakasendo Route on this map is only approximate: do not rely on this map for route finding.
Walking the Nakasendo from Magome to Tsumago
The walk from Magome to Tsumago is about 7.7km and takes about three hours as a leisurely pace. You can do it in as little as an hour if you rush or it can take half a day if you stop to eat, take pictures and relax. There are signs pointing to the start of the route to Tsumago (often written as “Tsumagojuku” or “Tsumago-juku”). Follow these up and away from the main road.
Magome Trail Sign – image © Chris Rowthorn
At first, the trail heads through Magome along an attractive route paved with stones and blocks.
Trail Heading Out of Magome – image © Chris Rowthorn
There are plenty of shops, restaurants and lodges in Magome.
Trail in Magome – image © Chris Rowthorn
The trail climbs relatively steeply out of Magome and into the countryside. If it’s a hot day, you’ll already be sweating by the time you get out of town. Just keep following the signs as you head out of town.
Trail Sign Above Magome – image © Chris Rowthorn
There are some puzzling signs and a few dead ends above Magome, but route finding isn’t that difficult and there are usually plenty of people coming the other way who can give directions.
Puzzling Trail Sign – image © Chris Rowthorn
The trail is very attractive above Magome, as it winds through small farms and rural houses.
Trail Above Magome – image © Chris Rowthorn
You will soon come to your first road crossing, where you cross rural route #7. Keep a close eye on children here.
Road Crossing – image © Chris Rowthorn
About 2.2km after leaving Magome and climbing most of the way, you will arrive at Magome-toge Pass, which is the highpoint of the trail. You can relax now – it’s all downhill from here! The pass is on the border of Gifu and Nagano prefectures.
Entering Nagano Prefecture – image © Chris Rowthorn
The pass is 801 meters above sea level.
Magome-toge Pass Sign – image © Chris Rowthorn
From Magome-toge Pass it’s 5.5km down to Tsumago.
Distance Signs at Magome-toge Pass – image © Chris Rowthorn
As you walk down from Magome-toge, you will see bells mounted on posts. You are supposed to ring these as you walk by to scare of any bears that might be around. For what it’s worth, I didn’t see any when I walked this route.
Bear Bell – image © Chris Rowthorn
The trail below Magome-toge passes through mixed forest, including a fair bit of planted sugi (cryptomeria).
Trail Below Magome-toge Pass – image © Chris Rowthorn
You will cross a few bridges between the pass and Tsumago.
Bridge Above Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
A few minutes after starting down from the pass, you will come to the Tateba-jaya Tea House and rest stop.
Tateba-jaya Tea House Sign – image © Chris Rowthorn
It’s free to enter the tea house and you can buy tea and snacks and, if it’s cold, warm up by the fire.
Tateba-jaya Interior – image © Chris Rowthorn
You will catch glimpses of rivers and creeks as you descend toward Tsumago.
River Above Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
Not long after leaving Tateba-jaya, you will come to a sign that points off to Odaki and Medaki Falls (Male and Female Falls). This is a nice side trip if you have the time.
Sign for Odaki and Medaki Falls – image © Chris Rowthorn
From the turnoff to the falls, it’s 3.1km to Tsumago.
Sign Near Falls – image © Chris Rowthorn
The section between the falls and Tsumago is one of the most picturesque sections of the trail, as you pass through several small hamlets with farmhouses and fields.
Descending Toward Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
On this section of the trail, you are literally walking through the middle of people’s daily lives.
Hamlet Above Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
As you get closer to Tsumago, the trail descends steeply down some sections paved with stones.
Descending Steeply to Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
You come out of the forest and cross route #7 again above Tsumago.
Just Above Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
Just as you enter Tsumago, there’s a bridge with a nice running river below it.
Bridge Into Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
The waters are mighty tempting on a hot summer day, but beware of fast currents, especially with children.
River at Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
The trail now takes you into the heart of Tsumago, where the road is lined with lovely old traditional buildings.
Main Road in Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
There are several shops and small restaurants here, as well as some lodges.
Two Roads in Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
Where two roads meet, there is a lovely little shrine.
Shrine in Tsumago – image © Chris Rowthorn
After exploring Tsumago, and perhaps eating lunch in one of the restaurants, walk out to the main road (route #7) and find the bus stop. The nearest bus stop of the center of Tsumago is the Tsumagbashi bus stop. This is where you catch the bus to Nagiso, where you can catch a train back to Nagoya and on to Kyoto.
Getting From Tsumago Back to Kyoto
From the Tsumagobashi bus stop, board a bus to Nagiso (10 minutes, Y300). At Nagiso, you can catch trains south to Nakatsugawa and Nagoya. The best train for this itinerary is the Shinano #16, which departs Nagiso at 3.54pm and arrives in Nagoya at 5.01pm. If you miss this train, you can catch the Shinano #18, which departs Nagiso at 4.55pm and arrives in Nagoya at 6.05pm. If you miss these, your best bet is to catch the next local train south to Nakatsugawa, and then switch to another train there that will take you onward to Nagoya. Consult with the stationmaster about the best times and trains.
From Nagoya, catch any Kodama or Hikari shinkansen heading west to Kyoto and Osaka.
Recommended Accommodation in Magome and Tsumago
Needless to say, doing the Nakasendo as a daytrip from Kyoto makes for a long and busy day. It’s much better to slow down and spend one night in Magome or Tsumago. This allows you to enjoy the rural atmosphere and relax back in Kyoto rested and refreshed. Here are a few recommended lodges in Magome:
This inn, which is located in the heart of Magome, is a lovely place to stay. The rooms and food are Japanese style and the owners are very welcoming. It’s highly recommended!
- Magome Chaya
Also in Magome, this is a decent choice if Tajimaya is booked out.
Hints for Enjoying the Nakasendo
- It can be very hot and humid in summer. Dress appropriately, wear a wide-brim hat, and consider bringing a dry shirt for the return trip.
- Bring plenty of water, especially on hot days.
- Food is available en route at the Tateba-jaya Tea House, but you should consider buying snacks before you start hiking in Nakatsugawa, Magome or Tsumago.
- Check the local weather before you go. If necessary, call the Natatsugawa Tourist Information Center on +81-(0)573-62-2277 to check if there is snow on the trail, which is possible between October and April.
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