The restored and preserved post towns of Magome and Tsumago link a walk of about 5 miles (variously reported as 8 or 9 kilometers). There are some hilly places, but mostly it's a rolling trail. Since it was a highway when built, original and restored stones still pave much of it. Sometimes it crosses or even follows the modern road. There are often bus stops in those places, in case it starts pouring or riding sounds like a better plan.
Bear bells, like farmhouse dinner bells, dot the trail. There are about a dozen of them. Yes, there are bears, and one sounds the bells in passing to alert the bears to one's passing. There are so many humans using this trail, the bears are probably happy to stay away. Yet, the human population seems huge only because the towns are tiny, the lodging limited and the trail narrow. You pass people on the trail, but not that many of them. It's about a three hour walk, depending on how often one stops to take pictures, or a rest, or stays at the halfway point tea house, where local volunteers continue to maintain fires and serve tea and conversation while hikers take a break.
In fact, that's one of the most Japanese things about this trek: that so much of the preservation and maintenance is done by volunteers who are proud of their area and their history. The charming volunteer we met moved to Tsumago after retiring and hikes up when it's his turn to enjoy the woods and the passers-by. Like everything else in this stretch, the building is either historic, carefully restored, or meticulously crafted to preserve the history and the culture of this amazing place.
Of late years, injuries have kept me from doing a lot of walking, much less hiking. I've managed to ride horses because I was, well, riding; sail because I can do that mostly sitting; and ski, because I could manage without any pressure on my bad hip. Not great form, but you try skiing even a single diamond on one foot! Being in Japan has been good for me in this sense. You will walk. Lots. There are many stairs. You will carry things to and from stations and up and down stairs, always. The best available help isn't much unless you stay in a 4+ star hotel and what's the fun in that?
Intrepid fellow author Susan Spann twisted my arm, and since I'm always game for adventure, I journeyed from Nagano to meet her in Nakatsugawa, where we ended up on the same bus for Magome, with a plan to walk the trail from Magome to Tsumago.
Susan's done this before, so she was able to recommend an inn -- Magomechaya -- where the owner speaks English and foreign guests are welcome. Susan can't eat fish and I don't eat meat, fish or fowl, so we can't speak to the quality of the meals, but they are reportedly delicious. Get meals if you can because the town operates on the bus schedules: things start to open early, when the first buses of day trippers come, and close between 4 and 5, when the last bus leaves. Local grilled rice dumplings (gomei mochi) with a savory (and vegetarian) sauce are delicious, and good thing, too. We ate a lot of them. Magomechaya is a fairly classic minshuku, with tatami rooms, common living areas, toilets and sinks down the hall, and 3 person baths with good deep tubs. The tubs are available during evening hours only. The futons are lovely, the comforters soft, the pillows rice bran. The community announcement speakers will wake you at 6:30 am, and that's good because you want to get on the trail early when it's hot out.
The trail itself is beautiful. It's either groomed or paved, often with original stones. It's not too steep, except right in Magome. The forest surrounds you in peace broken by rushing water, buzzing insects and your own conversation. Ancient monuments periodically mark the trail, honoring Jizo, the Bodhisattva who protects travelers (among other things), or the horses and also the oxen who died on the journey. Kiso horses are honored, and straw figures are available everywhere. Souvenirs tend to be traditional local products, mostly of wood. We mostly took turns ringing the official bear bells. Susan has a couple on her pack, and I now have one on mine -- best souvenir I could have. There is more walking, and maybe even some hiking, in my future. Maps, history and more: Nakasendo