Given the number of tourists it now attracts, it’s hard to believe that, back in the 1960s, Tsumago (妻籠), 80km south of Matsumoto, was virtually a ghost town, with most of its traditional Edo-era houses on the point of collapse. That’s when locals banded together to restore the village’s buildings, eventually earning Tsumago protected status and helping to spark the idea of cultural preservation across Japan. Telegraph poles and TV aerials have been banished from sight, so that the scene that greets you on the pedestrian-only street is probably very similar to that encountered by lords and their retinues passing through the village hundreds of years ago.
The walk from one end of Tsumago to the other will take you less than thirty minutes. Along the way you should drop by the Nagiso-machi Museum (daily 9am–4.45pm) which consists of two sections, the main one of which is the Waki Honjin Okuya (脇本陣奥谷; ¥600), a finely constructed two-storey mansion dating from 1877 and once one of the village’s designated post inns for government officials. Attached is the Historical Museum, with exhibits on the history of the Nakasendō and the village, including photographs showing just how dilapidated Tsumago once was. Across the street is the Tsumago-juku Honjin (妻籠宿本陣; ¥300), the former home of the village headman. A combined ticket for ¥700 gains you access to both properties, but if you’re staying overnight in the village check in with your accommodation first as you should qualify for a twenty percent discount.
The former site of Tsumago castle, destroyed sometime in the late sixteenth century, provides a bird’s-eye view of the village. To get here, follow the path that heads north out the village on the hiking route to Nagiso. A good way to relax after the Magome to Tsumago hike is to hop on the free shuttle bus from the village’s northern car park to the onsen and tourist complex Kisojikan (木曽路館; daily 10am–8pm; ¥700); there are fine views of the valley from its rotemburo. While here, you can also participate in soba-making classes (¥1050/30min, ¥2100/hr).
The closest train station to Tsumago is Nagiso (南木曽), from where the village is an hour’s walk south or a ten-minute bus ride. Tsumago’s helpful tourist information office (daily 8.30am–5pm) is in the centre of the village; here you can arrange to have your bag forwarded if you’re planning to hike to Magome. One of the best places to stay is Fujioto (藤乙; ¥20,001−30,000), a charming traditional inn with friendly English-speaking owners. Other options include the minshuku Daikichi (大吉; ¥10,001−15,000), at the northern end of the village, and the more upmarket, 140-year-old ryokan, Matsushiro-ya (松代屋; ¥20,001−30,000). All rates include two meals.
There’s no shortage of lunchtime restaurants and cafés in Tsumago. Most places serve sansai soba (buckwheat noodles topped with mountain vegetables) and gohei-mochi (balls of pounded rice coated with a sweet nut sauce). A good place to sample these is Yamagiri (やまぎり) at the north end of the village near the water wheel.