Tsumago: An Introduction

Somewhat surreal but undeniably beautiful, Tsumago is a small Edo-era post town that was all but falling apart by the 1970s, when its occupants got together and painstakingly restored the town’s 300 year old buildings to their former glory. All signs of modern life are hidden, new builds are prohibited, and the town looks for all the world as it would have done in the early 19th century, when it thrived as a stopping point on the main road between Tokyo (then Edo) and Kyoto.

Tsumago’s Buddhist temple is 500 years old, and has ‘nightingale floors’, designed to chirp when anyone walks on them. The town has preserved its original noticeboard, complete with decrepit decrees from the shogunate, and a Shinto shrine that was built in the late 1100s. Later buildings include government lodgings, an extensive museum, and several authentic ryokan – traditional guesthouses – which make for an atmospheric overnight stay.

The rural landscape around Tsumago and out into Kiso Valley is stunning, its scenic mountainside covered in fragrant woodland, waterfalls, and well maintained paths. Those wishing to spend some time in the Japanese countryside will find pleasant camping here, and good climbing up to the summit of nearby Mt Ontake-san. The Magome-Tsumago walking trail is particularly visitor-friendly, since it is well marked in English and can be completed in less than three hours. If you’d rather not stray far from Tsumago, a walk up to the old ruined castle above the town will reward you with a superb vista of the town, snug in its valley of trees.

Some might consider Tsumago artificial – its economy is certainly dependent on tourism, rather than functioning as a town in its own right – but the restoration is extremely well done, and anyone interested in Japanese history, or even just its elegant aesthetic, should enjoy some time here, especially if travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Visitors in November can enjoy the cumbersomely titled Bunka-Bunsei-Fuzoku-Emaki-Gyoretsu parade, when people dressed in late Edo costume fill the little wooden town with authentic historic characters.

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