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    Tokyo to Kyoto walking tour: The ultimate 10-day Nakasendo Trail itinerary

    By Akira Shimizu

    January 3, 2024

    The ultimate 10-day Nakasendo Trail itinerary

    Greetings, I'm Akira, your guide for an insightful Tokyo to Kyoto walking tour via the Nakasendo Trail. After six years of navigating Tokyo's ins and outs, I'm here to provide you with a genuine perspective to enhance your Tokyo tours (and Kyoto ones).

    Wondering if walking a portion of the route from Tokyo to Kyoto is a rewarding experience? Absolutely. The Nakasendo Way unfolds over a few days, offering panoramic views, quaint villages, and a deep dive into Japan's historical terrain. This isn't your standard travel guide spiel – I'm here to share practical tips and personal insights to elevate your experience.

    As for the Tokaido, while it may not resemble its bustling past, there are still stretches that echo the footsteps of ancient travelers.

    Prepare to lace up your hiking boots as we dissect the intricacies of this 10-day Nakasendo Trail itinerary. From Tokyo's urban pulse to Kyoto's timeless allure, we're not just traversing landscapes but immersing ourselves in the cultural thread connecting these two cities.

    Ready for an authentic Tokyo to Kyoto adventure? Let's make each step meaningful – no embellishments, just genuine exploration. Welcome to your self-guided walking tour. Tokyo to Kyoto is a journey that goes beyond the ordinary!

    • Day 1: Tokyo exploration
    • Day 2: Bullet train to rural Japan
    • Day 3-9: Nakasendo Trail
    • Day 10: Welcome to Kyoto
    • Practical tips and nature exploration
    • Reflecting on your journey

    Day 1: Tokyo exploration

    Embark on your exploration of Japan's capital

    Explore iconic landmarks

    Embark on your exploration of Japan's capital with a visit to the iconic Grand Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, offering a serene escape into Japanese tradition. Admire the shrine's architecture and lush surroundings, setting the tone for your cultural immersion.

    Asakusa Senso-ji Temple and the futuristic Tokyo Skytre

    Transition efficiently to central Tokyo with a short taxi ride, where iconic landmarks like the historic Asakusa Senso-ji Temple and the futuristic Tokyo Skytree await exploration. Stroll through Nakamise Shopping Street leading to Senso-ji, a vibrant market with traditional snacks and craft shops.

    Engage with locals to gain insights into the area's history and community life. For an authentic culinary experience, venture to a local restaurant – my tip? Try the tempura at Tempura Hisago for a local favorite that adds a delightful twist to your taste buds; it's the perfect welcome dinner.

    Visit the Tokyo National Museum

    The  cultural heartbeat at the Tokyo National Museum

    To ensure you have soaked up the energy of Tokyo, dive a bit deeper into its cultural heartbeat at the Tokyo National Museum. This spot is like a treasure trove, holding some of Japan's cultural gems that span from the Edo period to modern-day Tokyo. As you wander through the exhibits, you'll uncover tales of feudal lords, samurais, and the layers that make up Japan's past. The museum isn't just a showcase of history; it's a journey through the evolution of Japanese society and its artistry.

    Consider hopping on a local bus to reach the museum – a practical move that lets you witness Tokyo through the eyes of its local residents. It's a little slice of everyday life, setting the tone for the cultural feast that awaits within the museum walls.

    Tomorrow morning marks the next chapter of your tour, and a visit to the Tokyo National Museum is the perfect preview. Keep an eye out for the small shops and craft boutiques nearby – they often hide unique finds that echo Tokyo's creative vibe.

    Day 2: Bullet train to rural Japan

    Take the express train to the stunning Kiso Valley.

    Take a bullet train

    Ready for a smooth ride on day 2? Jump onto the JR Tokaido Shinkansen, zipping you from Tokyo to Nagoya in a cool 100-110 minutes. Once there, make a hassle-free switch to the JR Shinano limited express train, your ticket into the stunning Kiso Valley.

    JR Pass your all-access pass for the entire journey

    For those with a Japan Rail Pass, good news – it's your all-access pass for the entire journey, no need to worry about losing train tickets. Keep in mind, though, that you will have to purchase this pass before you enter Japan. It's the practical way to catch the speed and comfort of a bullet train while keeping things pocket-friendly.

    No frills, no fuss – just a smart and efficient way to navigate the local train from Tokyo to the Nakasendo Trail. Get set for a journey that blends convenience with breathtaking landscapes.

    The charm of rural Japan

    Enjoy the simple authenticity of Japanese style

    On day 2, you step into the serene embrace of rural Japan, a welcome respite after the buzz of Tokyo. Here, the charm lies in the simple authenticity of Japanese style, surrounded by the quiet beauty of Japanese cedar and traditional wooden buildings.

    Explore living echoes of Japan's rich history in time-honored inns, each telling its own story. Consider staying in a traditional-style inn or temple lodging before you begin the Nakasendo Trail for a deeper dive into the culture.

    Rural Japan isn't just a visual delight; it's a treat for your taste buds. Dive into authentic Japanese cuisine amidst cherry blossoms and idyllic rice fields. A little insider tip? Check out Chez Shibata for some of the most delicious desserts you'll find on this side of Japan; it's basically inside Nagoya Station.

    As the day winds down, unwind in expansive onsen baths within nature. Wrap up your rural experience with a visit to a local restaurant, a chance to connect with the community. Tomorrow brings onward travel, but for now, relish the authentic charm of Japan – a distinctive stop before your journey.

    Day 3-9: Nakasendo Trail

    Nakasendo Trail unveils layers of Japan's culture


    Kiso Hirasawa to Narai

    Walking distance: 1.6 miles
    Time: 1 hour

    Walk this historic path connecting Kyoto to Tokyo

    Embarking on the Nakasendo Trail unveils layers of Japan's culture. As you walk this historic path connecting Kyoto to Tokyo, discover UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cherry blossom-lined trails, and traditional post towns from the Edo period.

    As Narai approaches, a nearby hamlet offers a glimpse into local life. Traverse Narai's main street, lined with small shops, absorb the religious devotion lingering in the atmosphere, then unwind in a ryokan. I recommend the traditional-style inn established over 100 years ago, BYAKU Narai, where you can relax amidst scenic landscapes.

    Narai, a small town frozen in time, helps you reflect on the profound journey of the Nakasendo Trail. Tomorrow, more of your walking tour begins, but for now, savor the unique blend of history, nature, and cultural richness this segment of the trail offers.

    Narai to Kiso-Fukushima

    Walking distance: 3.9 miles
    Time: 3 hours

    From Narai to Yabuhara via the Torii Pass

    On your second day, the journey leads from Narai to Yabuhara via the Torii Pass. Continue via a scenic train ride to Kiso-Fukushima Station, then find respite in a traditional Japanese-style ryokan, boasting natural hot springs. Immerse yourself in the authentic ambiance in one of the big onsen baths.

    Savor the tranquility and heritage of Kiso-Fukushima; it's more than a Nakasendo Trail segment – it's an authentic journey through the timeless beauty of Japan's countryside, complete with the soothing embrace of a traditional ryokan's hot spring.

    During this leg of my trek, I stayed at Kaido-Roman Onyado-Tsutaya and highly recommend it to friends and family who are interested in a walking tour from Tokyo to Kyoto.

    Kiso-Fukushima to Tsumago

    Walking distance: 8.7 miles
    Time: 4.5 hours

    Explore the post-town Tsumago

    Moving from Kiso-Fukushima to Tsumago is a journey where the past meets the simplicity of rural Japan. Start by taking a train to Nojiri and then a taxi to the Nenoue-Toge Pass.

    The walk along the Nakasendo Trail is calm, passing through small settlements and serene rice fields, leading to the post-town Tsumago or the nearby hamlet, O-Tsumago.

    Tsumago's story is about resilience and local effort. Just a few decades ago, the town faced neglect, but the determined residents stepped up, saving and restoring its historic houses with strict rules against their sale, rental, or demolition.

    Today, Tsumago is more than a historic site; it's a living community where locals continue their daily lives, preserving the town's heritage. It's a genuine connection between people and history, a testament to the strength of community spirit. While here, consider checking out the Tsumago Castle Ruins; it was one of the highlights of my trip!

    Tsumago to Magome

    Walking distance: 5.2 miles
    Time: 3 hours

    Soak in the local ambiance and relish a laid-back lunch

    Today's journey takes you from Tsumago to Magome, marking the conclusion of your exploration in the Kiso Valley. This segment, stretching from Tsumago to Magome, stands out as the Nakasendo Trail's remarkably well-preserved piece.

    Upon reaching Magome, soak in the local ambiance and relish a laid-back lunch. Explore the assortment of small shops that line the main street, each offering its unique touch to the town's character.

    Magome isn't just about the scenery; it's a chance to dive into local flavors. Consider trying gohei-mochi—a delightful combination of skewered sticky rice covered in a sweet paste made from miso, walnuts, and sesame. It's a simple yet flavorsome taste of the region's culinary heritage.

    Post-lunch, your mode of travel shifts gears. From the calm of the Kiso Valley, you'll transition to the dynamic pace of Nara. A blend of local trains and the high-speed shinkansen (bullet train) propels you toward your next adventure.

    This shift isn't just a change of scenery; it's an anticipation of the diverse experiences that await you in Nara. As you bid adieu to the Kiso Valley, look ahead to the unique blend of history, tradition, and modern life that defines Nara.

    Nara to Yoshino

    From the Kiso Valley, to Nara

    Start your day with a guided walk through Nara, a city filled with Japan's greatest cultural treasures. Nara boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and many of them are conveniently located in or near Nara Park, where you'll encounter the charming sight of free-roaming deer.

    During your walk, you'll explore two of these World Heritage Sites—Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Todai-ji Temple. The Todai-ji Daibutsu-den, known as the "Great Buddha Hall," holds the title of the world's largest wooden building and shelters an impressive 53-foot (16-meter) bronze and gold statue of the Rushana Buddha.

    After this insightful exploration, take some free time to unwind. Whether you opt for relaxation, a visit to a garden, or a stroll through the old town, the laid-back atmosphere lets you absorb Nara's unique charm at your own pace.

    Next on your journey is the peaceful village of Yoshino, perched atop a ridge. Your accommodation in a traditional ryokan ensures a comfortable stay. Yoshino recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is renowned as one of Japan's top spots for experiencing the serene beauty of cherry blossoms in spring.

    Visit Yoshimizu Shrine, entwined with the stories of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Emperor Godaigo, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which adds a cultural dimension to your time in Yoshino. As you explore, let the tranquility and cultural richness of the area leave a lasting impression.

    Moving from Nara to Yoshino isn't just a change of location; it's an immersion into the historical and natural wonders of Japan. Yoshino, with its UNESCO heritage and iconic cherry blossoms, offers a serene retreat, seamlessly blending cultural exploration with the quiet beauty of the natural surroundings.

    Mount Koya to Kyoto

    Take a visit to Kongobu-ji Temple

    Embark on a scenic train journey leading you to the heights of Mount Koya, nestled in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Since the ninth century, this sacred haven has been a focal point for religious devotion and ceremonial practices. Today, over 100 monasteries grace the landscape, many offering shukubo (temple lodgings) for a unique and immersive experience.

    Visit Kongobu-ji Temple, a place where ancient rituals intertwine with the present. Absorb the serene atmosphere that has drawn pilgrims to Mount Koya for centuries. A stroll through the Okunoin Cemetery, Japan's largest, will give you the opportunity to be covered by a giant cedar tree as you experience quiet reflection in this sacred space.

    As you bid farewell to the spiritual haven of Mount Koya, hop on the train bound for Kyoto. This city, with its centuries-old history, continues to be celebrated as the country's cultural heart. Arriving in Kyoto, you'll find echoes of its imperial past woven into the very fabric of the city.

    Day 10: Welcome to Kyoto

    From the trails of the Kiso Valley to the heart of Japa

    Arrival in Kyoto

    Your arrival in Kyoto marks a pivotal moment after the Nakasendo Trail, a journey that's brought you from the trails of the Kiso Valley to the heart of Japan's culture. Stepping off the train, you're met with the blend of history and modernity that defines Kyoto.

    The blend of history and modernity that defines Kyoto

    As you settle into your hotel (I recommend Cartahotel Kyotobettei), you can feel the weight of centuries in the air. Kyoto's status as Japan's former capital is evident in the architecture, the streets, and the very essence of the city. It's a living testament to the enduring culture of this remarkable country.

    Come evening, a stroll through Gion unveils a different side of Kyoto. Kyoto's geisha district, with its quaint lanes and traditional structures, offers a glimpse into Japan's past. The chance of an encounter with geiko or maiko (what locals call geishas and their apprentices) adds a touch of authenticity to your exploration.

    Transitioning from the Nakasendo Trail to Kyoto isn't just a change of location; it's an introduction to the beating heart of Japanese culture. Kyoto, with its layers of history and charm, invites you to explore without pretense. Each step reveals a facet of a city that is both rooted in tradition and thriving in the present.

    Explore Kyoto's UNESCO sites

    UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered across Kyoto

    Welcome to Kyoto, a city where history whispers from every stone and cultural treasures await your discovery. As you navigate the UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered across Kyoto, let me share some places you have to visit to ensure your exploration is as enriching as it can be.

    Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion): Kick off your day early at Kinkaku-ji, the iconic Golden Pavilion. The morning sun casts a magical glow on this Zen Buddhist temple, especially if you catch it just right. Take a leisurely stroll around the surrounding pond to fully absorb the tranquil ambiance.

    Ryoan-ji Temple: Find solace at Ryoan-ji, renowned for its rock garden. The simplicity of its design invites contemplation. Don't rush; spend some quiet moments in the surrounding gardens. The temple's serene atmosphere offers a welcome break from the city's hustle.

    Nijo Castle: Transport yourself to the past at Nijo Castle, where "nightingale floors" serenade your steps. Explore at your own pace, taking in the intricate details of Ninomaru Palace and the meticulously crafted gardens.

    Practical pointers:

    - Early exploration: To savor these sites without the crowds, plan your visits early in the morning.

    - Local wisdom: Strike up conversations with on-site guides or locals; their insights can add layers to your understanding of the historical and cultural significance.

    - Cultural courtesies: Respect the rules at temples and shrines, like maintaining a hushed tone and following specific customs.

    In every corner of Kyoto, a piece of Japan's profound heritage awaits. May your exploration be filled with quiet revelations and moments of cultural connection. Enjoy every step of this journey through Kyoto's UNESCO treasures.

    Culinary discoveries

    Embark on a culinary adventure through Kyoto

    Embark on a culinary adventure through Kyoto, where each bite tells a story of tradition, flavor, and local expertise. Let's dive into some authentic culinary experiences that promise to tantalize your taste buds.

    Yudofu (Tofu Hot Pot): Kyoto's chilly climate makes yudofu a comforting delight. Tousuiro in Gion offers a genuine experience of this hot pot, showcasing the delicate flavors of Kyoto tofu in a serene setting.

    Matcha delights: Kyoto takes its matcha seriously, and Gion Tsujiri, with a legacy dating back to 1860, is the place to sample matcha-infused treats. Dive into matcha ice cream or savor the unique flavor in a dorayaki—a perfect blend of tradition and sweetness.

    Kiyomizu-yaki pottery: Explore Kiyomizu-dera and seize the opportunity to admire and acquire Kiyomizuyaki pottery. Local teahouses and shops offer beautifully crafted pieces, adding a touch of Kyoto's artistic heritage to your collection.

    Nishiki Market: Immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere of Nishiki Market, Kyoto's culinary hub. Navigate through narrow lanes filled with stalls offering an array of delights, from fresh seafood to pickles and sweets.

    Practical tips and nature exploration

    Embarking on the Nakasendo Trail and exploring Kyoto

    Insider travel tips

    Embarking on the Nakasendo Trail and exploring Kyoto brings a mix of history, nature, and cultural immersion that I've found incredibly enriching. Here are some practical tips based on my experiences to make your journey smoother and more enjoyable.

    Immerse yourself in Kyoto's culture

    Comfort is key when wandering the Nakasendo Trail, so opt for comfortable footwear suitable for both pavement and nature trails. Having a light backpack with essentials like water, snacks, and a jacket ensures you're well-prepared for the diverse terrain. In Kyoto, this backpack becomes your trusty companion for stowing away souvenirs from local markets and treasures found along the way.

    Immerse yourself in Kyoto's culture by joining a serene Buddhist morning service; these are held in the city's temples. It's not only a unique cultural experience but also a tranquil start to your day. As you traverse the Nakasendo Trail, strike up conversations with locals in the post-towns to unearth hidden narratives, adding depth to your historical exploration.

    Kyoto's culinary scene is a journey in itself. Move beyond the tourist spots by seeking local recommendations for an authentic taste of Kyoto. After dinner, take leisurely nighttime strolls in the Gion district, where lantern-lit streets unveil the area's magical charm.

    Practically, make the most of Kyoto's well-connected public transport system for seamless navigation between attractions. Check the weather forecast for your Kyoto visit, as the city's climate varies; dress accordingly and be prepared for sudden rain, especially during certain seasons.

    In both Kyoto and along the Nakasendo Trail, respect local customs regarding photography, particularly in sacred or residential areas. A polite inquiry can enhance your cultural experience and foster positive interactions with the local community.

    Appreciate scenic beauty

    Let the beauty of nature unfold before you

    As you embark on the Nakasendo Trail, let the beauty of nature unfold before you. Along the way, make a stop at Nara Park, nestled on the trail, where nature and history seamlessly blend. The park's greenery and the free-roaming deer create a unique and tranquil atmosphere, offering a peaceful retreat.

    Kiso Fukushima, with its Edo-period structures and bowl-shaped valley filled with cedar trees, adds a touch of timeless charm to your journey.

    Throughout the trail, take a moment to soak in the natural wonders that surround you. Every step is an opportunity to connect with Japan, making this journey not just a travel experience but a meaningful exploration of the Nakasendo Trail's scenic beauty.

    Reflecting on your journey

    Wrap up your journey before going from Kyoto to Tokyo

    As you wrap up your Nakasendo Trail adventure, take a moment to absorb the incredible journey you've just experienced. The trail is more than just a route; it's a deep dive into Japan's cultural core.

    In the post towns, each with its distinct vibe, you've encountered the echoes of the Edo period and felt the genuine warmth of local hospitality. From the serene Nara Park to the historically rich Kiso Fukushima, every stop has unfolded a unique story.

    As the trail meanders through ancient capitals, offering a glimpse into Japan's intricate history, you've not only traced the footsteps of bygone eras but also etched your own memories. The scenic vistas, the simple charm, and the cultural gems discovered along the way have become lasting imprints on your travel journey.

    So, carry these experiences with you, akin to cherished souvenirs, and let them serve as your future inspiration. The Nakasendo Trail isn't just a physical trek; it's an immersive exploration lingering in your thoughts, and wishing you safe travels until the next adventure!

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