This post is part 3 of 3 on hiking destinations in the Japanese Alps.
Compared to our last two entries about hiking in the Japanese Alps, this one is probably the easiest hike, and includes a strong cultural/ historical component. The Nakasendo trail is a well-known mountain route developed during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) to connect the important cities of Tokyo with Kyoto. The Tokugawa shogunate – the last feudal military government of Japan – used this route to maintain control and communication over their territory. The route passes by 69 post towns where travellers, including messengers, samurai and monks, could rest along their journey. Some parts of the trail can still be hiked today, either as multiday journeys or one day trips from nearby cities, and provide the opportunity to enjoy Japan’s beautiful forest trails and traditional mountain villages.
From Matsumoto, were we live, the most accesible part of this trail by train is the stretch from Yabuhara to Narai. Both towns have a train station with direct links to Matsumoto, so you can get off in one town and get back on the train at the next.
Get an early train to Yabuhara to enjoy a morning hike and then lunch in Narai at the end. From Yabuhara train station, get a map of the route, and head off to the start the trail. You’ll soon find that the town gradually disappears until all you can see are the trees that surround you. We have now done this trail twice, once in June and a second time in September. Both times we’ve had the whole trail almost to ourselves, so it’s easy to enjoy the sounds and sights of nature. In summer the noise of the cycads is almost deafening! The hike takes about 2 hours to complete. You’ll start off heading up hill and will have some beautiful views over the mountains when the trees open up at different points. When you reach the highest point, you’ll see some picnic tables and a side option to go up some steps. Take this option. It isn’t far and it leads through a massive torii gate to a beautiful isolated temple in the forest. You can retake the original trail from the other side of the temple, so no need to backtrack down the steps. At other points you will find other short side trails that lead to seating areas or view points. It’s worth spending a bit of time in these to really get a feel for the calmness of the forest. When you’re heading down towards Narai, the forest will open up to give you some views of where you are, so you can hear the river below and see the streams you are crossing.
Once you get to Narai, you will be at the half way point along the trail between Tokyo and Kyoto. Narai comprises one long, main street where the traditional buildings have been preserved. Here you will find gift shops, tea houses, traditional accommodation and restaurants. There are a number of temples worth a visit in the area too – try exploring some of the side streets shooting out from the main street. For lunch, you have a number of places to chose from. Try some soba noodles in one of the traditional restaurants, a delicacy in the Nagano region. Or, if you want to save some money, or just prefer a picnic, it’s worth picking up some food before you leave in the morning as there aren’t any shops in Narai where you can get food to go. If you are looking for somewhere nice to have a picnic, continue to the end of the main road and then turn right. You’ll cross the train lines and will come out at a park close to the river with a beautiful wooden bridge. This is a nice quiet spot for a picnic. We’d recommend going to one of the tea rooms whilst you’re here. Trying a matcha and sweet in this traditional setting takes you back in time.
Throughout the trail you’ll see bells hanging from trees – ring these a few times to warn off any bears that could be in the area. Bear attacks are rare in this part of Japan, but they do appen. The best way to avoid them is to not come as a surprise to any bear – which could then feel threatened and attack. Make noise – talk to your travel companion, ring these bells, but dont worry too much about it, very few people encounter bears.
Direct trains from Matsumoto to Yabuhara take about an hour, or there are trains with changes in Shiojiri and a single ticket currently costs 760 Yen (January 2018). The return from Narai takes 50 minutes and costs 580 Yen. Look at time table on Hyperdia.