After spending ten days in Tokyo, we moved down south to Nagoya. Using a JR Pass basically granted us unlimited train travel around Japan, so we figured it was best to spend the nights in some of the big cities while exploring the surrounding towns during the day, and avoid all unnecessary luggage hassle. We quickly found out that though Nagoya is the forth most populous urban area in Japan, it is not really all that interesting from a tourist point of view, which gave us more time to explore the towns in the nearby vicinity. We took several day trips from Nagoya and one of them was to Magome.
Magome wasn't on our list of places to visit in Japan in the first place. We literally knew nothing about it till the evening before we visited, when a friend told us about these two interestingpost towns restored to their Edo Period beauty that made for a great day trip outside Nagoya - Magome and Tsumago.
We left relatively early in the morning, taking the train from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa. But we made the mistake of getting on a local train, which are the slowest trains in Japan (yes, they have those too), so instead of 40-60 minutes, it took us almost tow hours to get to Nakatsugawa. Nevertheless, we can't complain about it, because most of the journey was through the Japanese Alps, and the views were absolutely breathtaking. Going slower really gave us time to let it all sink in.
TIP 1: Start your day earlier than we did (leaving from Nagoya Station between 7AM and 8AM would be best) and take the fastest train to Nakatsugawa, not the first one. It's always good to check the time a train arrives at your destination to avoid wasting precious time when traveling through Japan. We found out the hard way that the getting on a train 5-10 minutes earlier can mean reaching the destination 1 hour later.
Once in Nakatsugawa, we took the local bus to Magome (ticket not included in the JR Pass). That added another 30 minutes to our journey. So by the time we finally made it to our destination it was lunch time and preparing to rain. We decided to make the most of our trip though, and after spotting some absolutely normal looking apples at €30/kilo, we decided it was best not to waist any more time looking for a reasonable priced restaurant but instead to rely on the shacks we had in our bag and start exploring the town.
Magome-juku was the forty-third of the sixty-nine stations of the ancient road that connected Kyoto and Edo (today's Tokyo) during the Edo period. Nowadays it consists of a beautifully restored row of wooden houses along the former post road. I'm not sure the town was ever larger than it is today, which is really not that large. The difficult part coming from Nakatsugawa is that you have to go up hill, which can be a bit steep at times. Most houses were built in the mid-18th century by common people and therefore are nothing grant, just extremely interesting for the European eye. Most houses host shops, restaurants, and little museums. The whole town is built around tourism and it didn't seem to us that people lived here after work. Magome is a cute open air museum stripped of the joys of daily life, lined along a pedestrian only cobblestone street, which makes it quite unusual and unique.
TIP 2: A baggage forwarding service between the two towns is available at the tourist information center.
One of the many funny English signs we spotted in Japan
As it was past 2PM, and knowing we had less than four hours of daylight left, we walked the slope in a hurry. At half-way, there was a tourist office renting bells for the people hiking to Tsumago, the next post town. Apparently bears are not uncommon in this area and having a bell with you can save your life. We didn't bother with the bell, not really believing in its 'magical' powers, so we continued our journey determined to rush though Magome and follow the original highway to Tsumago-juku. This well preserved road through the woods is supposed to be of an unparalleled beauty, passing waterfalls and streams of water. We actually adventured ourselves out of Magome, ready to embark on a 3-hour, 9-kilometer walk through the forest. And then we decided to give it up for 5 reasons:
1. Clouds were closing in. We were not prepared for rain, had no raincoats, nor umbrella.
2. We weren't in the mood to be 'bear aware' for the next 3 hours.
3. Though Magome was packed with people, no one seemed to be heading to Tsumago at that hour anymore.
4. By the time we got to Tsumago it would have been already dark.
5. We encountered a snake on the path and that put an end to my courage. We are city people. We don't know how to avoid stepping on snakes while also staying away from bears and hike though mud while it's pouring down rain.
So after canceling our appointment with the bear we turned back to civilization, this time actually paying attention to the charms and details of Magome. We went down the hill slowly, taking nicer photos than when coming up, as the angle was better. We relaxed and had fun and by the time the sun went down, we realized the crowds had vanished and we were between the last people left in town. Shops started closing and when we got back to the bus stop, which happened to be right next to the car park, there were only a couple of cars left and a handful of tourists waiting for the bus. We were surprised to see people disappearing from Magome at sunset. Crowded during the day, Magome became a ghost town after night fall, like all life was drained out of it. It also got chilly. And pretty dark.
TIP 3: An infrequent bus service also runs between Magome and Tsumago.
At the end of the day, I think we took the right decision. Though the rain was nothing more than a few drops in Magome, there's no way of knowing what would have happened if we continued hiking to Tsumago. The two post towns are supposed to be pretty similar and we can always visit the latest next time we are in Japan. Plus getting to Tsumago at the end of the day would have been disappointing. We saw what darkness did to Magome and it was desolating.
TIP 4: Whenever you have too many choices, stop for a moment and prioritize. Take it easy and enjoy. There's no point in rushing from one attraction to another without enjoying any of them. Traveling is not a race. You don't travel to score, nor to tick off items from a list. Living in the present has an infinity of advantages.