When you visit Japan why not take a little detour away from the tourist hot spots of Tokyo and Kyoto. Leave the bright lights behind and slip back into the Edo era for a day?
Visiting Tsumago is the perfect way of doing this, it was once a post town (shukuba) on the Nakasendo route between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo). Visiting Tsumago is like taking a step back in time. The community take great care to preserve and recreate the Edo period feeling.
For those that aren’t quite sure what a post town is, I should explain. Post towns existed during the Edo Period. They were towns where travellers could rest as they journeyed around the country. During the Meiji era, when Japan’s rail infrastructure and larger roads were built, these towns slowly disappeared due to lack of need.
During the day you won’t see a car on the main street of Tsumago, they are prohibited. Traces of modern day living like phone lines and power cables are kept well concealed. This allows visitors to imagine they have truly slipped back in time.
The Honjin was more like a large residence than a commercial inn or place to stay. It is where the samurai and court nobles stayed when they were travelling through town. The Wakihonjin was for those of us further down the food chain.
As well as the Hojin and Wakihonjin you can also explore the Rekishi Shiroyokan, which is a rather extensive museum of Tsumago and the Kiso Valley. It is a really great collection of items on display and there are many English translations as well.
No town would be complete without a temple. It is believed that the Kotokuji Buddhist temple was built in 1500. It’s a simple temple, but worth having a look around. The most interesting thing I found were the cats just past the entrance. I’m really not sure if they were stuffed or old realistic ‘toy’.
You can visit and spend the day in Tsumago, or do what we did and stay in a ryokan over night. Staying in a ryokan is really worth the experience in Tsumago. In fact you have no other option if you want to stay the night.
During the day the little town is filled with tourists, who all vanish by the end of the day. That’s when you really feel like you have stepped back in time. You may get the odd car drive up the main street by a local, but the place really is dead quiet.
We stayed at Fujioto Ryokan, which is situated right in the heart of the main street. Location doesn’t make that much difference, as when night falls as there really isn’t much to do but spend the evening in the ryokan. But that actually is really okay.
It allows you truly immerse yourself in a ryokan experience. After spending the day walking around town, or walking from Magome to Tsumago, you have the opportunity to freshen up and enjoy a hot bath before dinner.
Check in at Fujioto is at 3pm, and management advise you should arrive before 5pm as dinner (included in your accommodation) starts promptly at 6pm. Vegetarians take note, they do not make vegetarian meals. And I must say I applaud them to sticking to their guns. The evening meal is a traditional one comprising of local dishes using local and in season produce. Very much like you would have enjoyed when Tsumago was a functioning post town.
The family that run Fujioto are delightful. You are made to feel right at home from the moment you arrive. They are very helpful in regard to any questions you may have about staying with them as well as Tsumago and the surrounding area.
After a day of travel and exploring Tsumago we did make use of the Hinoki bath that is made from scented Kiso Valley cypress wood. It smelt amazing! It was pure relaxation just sinking into it and chilling for a while.
After dinner the decision was made to go for a walk around the main street of Tsumago and experience it at night. There was not a soul around and the place is very dark. Some light escaped from houses’ shuttered wooden windows and there were a few lights here and there as we walked. It was like a ghost town and a little spooky. I had the feeling a ninja would jump out at any minute, but then again that could have been the effect of the sake. I have a very vivid imagination at the best of times.
Back to our rooms and bedding had been laid out ready for us. Yes, it’s traditional style bedding, mattresses rolled out on the tatami matt covered floor. We were actually very comfortable and had a brilliant night sleep. Be warned though, the walls are thin and you can hear what is happening in the room next to you…………
Up bright and early after a comfortable sleep it was time for breakfast (also included). Breakfast is also traditional Japanese style. And it was just as enjoyable as dinner.
To get to Tsumago you will need to make your way to Nagiso train station from Nagoya or Nagano. Not all trains stop at Nagiso, so make sure yours does. From Nagiso station you will need to catch the local bus Y300 (the service is infrequent), or catch a taxi that costs Y1000, I recommend this.
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