Escape the bustling, high-tech cities of Japan and experience true Zen in the lush valley of Nakatsugawa
Historical Nakatsugawa is a small town that sits right in the middle between Tokyo and Kyoto, nestled among the mountains in a lush green valley in Gifu Prefecture. The nearest mega-city is Nagoya which lies 80km (50 miles) southwest, an easy 50-minute journey by Shinano express train.
Against a backdrop of lovingly restored houses from the Edo period (a time between 1603 and 1868 when Japanese arts and culture flourished), Nakatsugawa invites you to step back in time and immerse yourself in its tranquillity, nature and tradition.
The Nakatsugawa-Tsumago Trail
Nakatsugawa has long served as a springboard to the 16km (10 miles) Nakatsugawa-Tsumago hiking trail, which is part of the renowned 530km (332 miles) Nakasendo Trail, aka the ‘Road through the Central Mountains’ that snakes its way from Tokyo to Kyoto.
While most people tackle the entire Nakasendo Trail over five days, the section from Nakatsugawa to Tsumago only takes about six hours. Start your journey from JR Nakatsugawa Station and let the route take you to Magome, a charming cobbled-street town lined with Edo-period buildings. Keep a look out for a wooden watch-tower guarding the entrance to Magome and the kosatsuba nearby. The kosatsuba is a wooden bulletin board sharing political news in ancient times, today it is a popular selfie spot.
Other things to do in Nakatsugawa
Temple Rituals – tea ceremony, calligraphy and Zazen
Experience the transcending feeling of ‘Zen’ by participating in three main temple rituals that Nakatsugawa has to offer.
Firstly, lose yourself in the reverence of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at Iou-ji Temple, a sacred place dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the ‘Medicine Buddha’ who oversees one’s wellbeing. Then express your artistic side with a calligraphy shuuji course at Kofuku-ji Temple. Good calligraphy requires you to understand the art of patience and control, as each exquisite brush stroke demands your undivided attention.
After a tea ceremony and a calligraphy course, walk a few steps from Kofuku-ji to Zensho-ji Temple for a pure, spiritual experience – Zazen, a sitting meditation discipline that focuses on mindfulness.
While bigger Japanese cities are known for their bright lights and long lines, Nakatsugawa lets you experience the quainter origins of Japanese nightlife with local restaurants and izakayas (traditional Japanese bars). Dodonpa, a lively izakaya near the train station, is a great little haunt that allows you to eat and drink with the locals – deciphering the Japanese menu is also half the fun.
Naegi Castle ruins
A 10-minute drive from Nakatsugawa train station lies the Naegi Castle ruins, a National Historic site nicknamed the ‘Machu Picchu of the east’. There is also an observation tower which gives you incredible views of the town and Kiso river.
Escape to Tsukechi Gorge, an unspoiled pocket of Nakatsugawa. Enjoy a picnic, relax, or take a leisurely walk amid a lush landscape complete with rivers and waterfalls.
Where to stay in Nakatsugawa
After a long walk along the Nakasendo Trail, you may just want to put your feet up and enjoy a fine omotenashi (Japanese hospitality). For a luxury stay, Nagataki (Komanba 1649) is a traditional ryokan with all the touches of comfort. The price of 22,360 Yen (US$210) per person includes accommodation plus a fabulous dinner and breakfast.
For a good mid-range venue, choose Iwasu-so (Hirukawa 4467-4), a ryokan with a hot spring bath and free shuttle service. A night of accommodation, including dinner and breakfast, is 11,880 Yen (US$110) per person. And for those counting pennies, Nedoko (Magome 4315-1) is a modern, sleek guesthouse convenient for those hiking the Nakasendo Trail. A night in the dormitory with breakfast is 4,000 Yen (US$37) per person.
Where to eat in Nakatsugawa
Haginoya (Magome 4572) is a lovely restaurant giving you an authentic experience of dining on tatami floors with shoji (thin paper) dividing walls. If you’re looking to test your taste buds with local cuisine, Unagi Yamashina (Shimmachi 1-1) specialises in eel donburi dishes.
Getting to Nakatsugawa from Tokyo
Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nakatsugawa, changing at Nagoya. The journey takes about 2.5 hours. Alternatively, you can also drive from Tokyo to Nakatsugawa via the Chuo highway in approximately 3.5 hours.
Getting to Nakatsugawa from Kyoto
The JR Tokaido Shinkansen also takes visitors from Kyoto to Nakatsugawa in just 1.5 hours via Nagoya. If you’re driving, the journey will take about 2.5 hours via the Meishin Highway.