One of the draw cards to the Kiso Valley is the opportunity to walk the old Edo period road that links the pretty Edo period villages of Magome and Tsumago. It’s a lovely walk indeed, leading through elevated farmlands, past a few remote houses and through a small stand of cedar forest.
The smell of spring foliage hangs heavy in the air, a moist rich smell full of promise that changes as I reach the moss covered trunks of the forest. This damp smell is heady and aromatic reminiscent of many thick forests, the sound of birdsong is audible anytime I choose to pause and listen to the sounds around me. The Kiso trail is not exactly isolated, the road curves nearby and the sound of an occasional truck or poorly driven car shatters the serenity.
The rattling clang of the path side bells interrupt the birdsong also, reminding me that there are more walkers on the trail, they too are ringing these bells as they walk, in what I hope is not a vain attempt to startle and scare off any bears that may be present.
It’s quite a short walk and in just over two hours I have arrived at Tsumago, refreshed and invigorated by the walk, I didn’t find it particularly challenging, it was after all predominantly downhill for me since I left Magome. The handy luggage transfer service between the two villages taking care of my luggage for me.
The villages of Tsumago and Magome are similar, both featuring an Edo period design, but also quite dissimilar due to their locations and positioning. In Magome the pedestrian main street cascades down the hillside with the sounds of tumultuous water flowing downhill in channels that duck and weave amongst the buildings creating a white noise that provides a soundtrack to the town. This constant cacophony of cascading water essentially wipes out the scant traffic from the edges of town enabling the imagination to wander to a time long ago when the water wheels currently adorning the buildings would have served a practical purpose, the split bamboo poles diverting water to the enormous carp looking content in their tiny pools may have been more plentiful. Staying in Magome has its benefits, the small crowds of day trippers and busloads of package tourists have all gone by the time it reaches 5pm and the entire town has closed for business. Those that are lucky enough to remain here for the night are left with the village to themselves, the steep cobbled street, the wooden houses, the bonsai’d trees, the small shrines and the fish in their ponds are all ours under the dwindling daylight. It’s an easy place to find peacefulness.
The Tsumago Edo village is built on the banks of a cascading river, a river I am certain would be quite ferocious when heavy with snow melt, it hasn’t the elevation, and views, of Magome, and is a little less pretty for it. The lack of elevation in Tsumago pays off in other ways, with the Edo period buildings obscuring the small modern developments nearby, so while I sit on one of the plentiful seats provided around town it seems more immersive, the back drop to the houses are the wooded hills and sakura blooms as it would have been years before. An occasional gust of wind blows through the town, capturing the branches of the few flowering cherry trees, these gusts send a cascade of loose blossoms down the street, the delicate pink petals fluttering through the air, catching in the sunlight like warm springtime snowflakes, eventually these delicate blooms flutter no more, lining the footpaths and grass verges of the ancient streets with sun kissed colours. Tsumago like Magome closes completely at 5pm with the day trippers gone the village is once again here for those who remain.