Kiso valley hiking
Steep, green valleys, farm houses of dark timber and an historical hike through the forest
The Kiso valley is magical. Especially when you camp there, after the crowds have left
This article shows you;
why the Kiso valley should be part of your Japan trip
how to enjoy Kiso valley hiking, the famous trail between postal villages
where to park you rental camping car and sleep comfortably
You didn’t yet realise that a camper is the best way to explore Japan independently? Find out in How to.. overnight with a camper in Japan
Walk on the highway from the past
Today, the corners of Japan are well connected by roads and railroads in all sizes. Some of these roads date back to the 17th century and were built to link Edo (present-day Tokyo) with Kyoto. For merchants and for pelgrims. A famous one is the ‘Tokai-do’, running along the coast and now a popular Shinkansen (bullet train) link. Another one is the ‘Nakasen-do.’ Naka means ‘inside’ and this connection is running inland, through the mountains of Gifu and south-western Nagano. The Kiso-ji Road, which is a part of the Nakasen-do, is surrounded by steep mountains and shares the scenery of the old days better than any other part of the highway. Get out of your camper for a breathtaking hike between some of its 11 post stations, located along the route about every 8 to 16 kilometers. A great section is between Tsumago and Magome.
Kiso valley hiking – meet a bear
The hike is only around 7 kilometers between Tsumago and Magome but the track climbs and winds and has many great vistas to admire. So it takes about 3 hours. Old houses, fields and forest. Water wheels, wild flowers and possibly are bear. Or two. No kidding, there are warning signs and even more obvious, it is advised to ring the bear-bells loudly. You will find these big bells every now and then and they make bears aware of human presence, so they will move away into the forest. Because bears do not like to meet people, and especially being surprised by them. So hit those bells!
Up and down or down and up?
Depending where you arrive from, you could start Kiso valley hiking from either side. But there is a (big) difference, which does not always become clear from other resources. Walking up or down. The easy way is to start in Magome, climb up steep but short to the pass and go mostly downhill from there, to reach Tsumago. The other way is perfectly fine too, it just starts to feel like a long climb in the end. A bit after the pass (coming from Magome) sits an old farm with a friendly old man who shares free tea and wifi with all travellers. Courtesy of the local tourism board I guess and a welcome break. Other breaks, for toilets, are well organised too; there are many. Pick up a free map and information at the tourism office in either village.
Getting back to your car is easy; catch the local bus. Time it well as it runs only several times a day. Schedules are published at the stops and at the tourism offices. Or you can hitch a ride, it is short and there are many Japanese tourists happy to help you out. (If there are more than two of you it is better to send only the driver to collect the camper, as one person gets picked up quickly).
Park your camper for the night
Where to stay? We usually park at or close to an onsen, a Japanese hot spring. At least every other day. Why? Note that the Kisoji-kan hot spring, often mentioned in guide books, is not in use at the moment. There are other onsen in the wider area but none of them really close by. Making it far better to forget about hot springs and park along the river, close to town.
By 4pm, ‘closing time’ in the villages, most day trippers have gone and you will have the atmospheric streets largely to yourself. This is also great light for taking photos. And later, around nightfall and in the dark, it is just you and the lantern-lit street-scape. Amazing!
There are several parking areas, most have public toilets, some have great views. Find all details and our suggestions in the Ride Summary at the end.
Local food – roots and fern
Working the fields on the steep slopes, logging timber and transporting goods in these mountains is hard work. You will know what I mean when you reach the end of the hike and feel hungry. As all over Japan, where there are visitors, there are restaurants. Soba, noodles made from buckwheat, are a healthy and tasty local dish. Served with mountain vegetables like mushrooms and fern, tofu and an egg. The salty broth helps getting you energised again. In both villages are several options, also for other types of food.
Combine this region
The Kiso valley is worth a detour, and definitely an overnight stay and the old highway is still a great east-west connection for travellers. Actually there are not so many ways to cross the Japanese Alps east-west, without going all the way to the coast. So when combining Nagoya or the Kansai area with Nagano, Fuji or the Kanto area, this would be a great route. There are good but winding local roads and also a fast tollroad quite near. On a recent trip we combined these and it took around 4.5 hours to get to Tsumago from the west of Tokyo.
Going the other way, towards Nagoya, you can also choose fast and slow although you are out of the mountains and into urbanised areas quickly. Off the beaten track, go to Nagahama on the shore of Lake Biwa. It has old character, you can park on the lake side and the castle of Hikone is just 30 minutes away. Read more about it in a later article.
Like this hike? Japan has many kilometers of historical pelgrim trails. Many of them are in Wakayama, on the Kii -Peninsular and they are called Kumano Kodo. The area is roughly south of Nara and Osaka. It is quite small and brimming with culture, nature and many different types of scenery. If you have 4-5 days it makes a great destination! Read all about it in a later article.
Go to the Kiso valley, hike the historical trails and feel the Japan of the past.
Create your unique trip! Go Camper Japan!
Other useful information:
Kiso valley official website in English
Lonely Planet – section on Tsumago and Magome, including Kiso valley hiking details
Japanese pelgrims trails in Wakayama, the Kumano Kodo. These are listed as Unesco World Heritage
Enjoy Japan on your own, rent a camper car. How? Read our how to..-section
Ride Summary: your details about this trip