Rail-Bus Report: Travelling to and around the Kiso Valley from Nagoya, Japan

In this report, I’ll describe how I travelled to – and between – the wonderfully scenic Edo-period post towns of the Kiso Valley using public transportation, with Nagoya (the nearest major urban centre) as my base.

Note: The information and photographs presented here are drawn from rail/bus journeys taken on 27 November 2018. Fares, timetables, equipment type and other details are subject to change without notice.

I should stress that the optimal route for one person might not be the best choice for another. After all, the famous post towns of the Kiso-ji (木曽路) – the old trade route that was eventually absorbed by the Edo-period Nakasendō – are fairly spread out across the Kiso Valley (木曽谷, Kiso-dani). Which travel option makes the most sense will depend on a lot of things: where one wishes to start, where one plans to finish, how many places one desires to visit, whether one intends to sleep somewhere in the valley or return to Nagoya/elsewhere for the evening, the preferred timing of one’s departure and arrival … amongst many, many others.

There’s a very helpful summary of the available options on Japan Guide; just use the drop-down list on that page to change your departure point.

Now then, with this cautionary preface out of the way…

…I’m about to describe a journey that worked well for the itinerary I’d sketched out. An early departure from Nagoya with Tsumago as my starting point, continuing down the valley to Magome, then back to Nagoya. (Click here to read a separate post documenting my visit to the Kiso Valley.) Even if your own plans differ in certain details – for example, if Narai is part of the checklist or if you intend to hike along the old Nakasendō – I hope my experience will yield some nuggets of useful information for your travel research.

Let’s begin.

FIRST LEG: FROM NAGOYA TO THE KISO VALLEY (TSUMAGO)

The Chūō Main Line serves a number of stations in/near the Kiso Valley. JR Central’s Shinano limited express service is the fastest way of accessing the area; however, it only stops at a small number of stations.

Fortunately, Nagiso Station – the JR stop closest to Tsumago – is served by some (but not all!) Shinano services, including the very first departure from Nagoya Station (名古屋駅, Nagoya-eki). Use HyperDia to research train schedules and fares.

The journey by Shinano between Nagoya and Nagiso takes about 60-70 minutes and costs 2,840 yen for an Ordinary Car non-reserved seat. An Ordinary Car reserved seat will bump the price up to 3,160 yen (plus a few hundred yen in high season), whilst a Green Car (First Class) reserved seat tops the list at 4,120 yen.

Shinano services employ 383 series EMU trains. Here’s the one I rode in for the return journey to Nagoya.

Green and Ordinary Cars both feature the same 2+2 seat configuration, although Green Car seats do have greater pitch. Here’s the Green compartment I rode in for the outbound journey to Nagiso.

My early departure meant skipping the hotel breakfast buffet. That, of course, necessitated a pre-departure convenience store raid.

Don’t let the picture confuse you: Green Car passengers aren’t served complimentary snacks or beverages! I had to buy all of these treats before boarding. (^_^)

After arriving at Nagiso Station (南木曽駅, Nagiso-eki)

…I walked to the nearby bus terminal – just a small parking lot, really – and boarded the earliest available service with a stop at Tsumago. The Ontake bus shown here was doing the first run of the day: departs from Nagiso at 0815, stops briefly at Tsumago 0822 before continuing on to its final destination (Hogami). There are simplified timetables available on Japan Guide.

Word of advice: get used to the Japanese/kanji name of the stops you’d like to disembark at. It’ll help with identifying places on a map or – as in this case – deciding whether one is about to board the correct bus. At this stage of the journey, I was keeping my eyes peeled for Tsumago-juku (妻籠宿) or Tsumago (妻籠)

…which, fortunately enough, was included in the route map of this particular vehicle.

The fare from Nagiso Station to Tsumago is 300 yen. If memory serves, the bus wasn’t equipped with an IC card reader, so get some loose change ready in advance.

Right, away we go!

I usually aim for the seat just aft of the front door. This position makes disembarking easier, gives quick access to the change-making machine attached to the farebox…

…and comes with great views through the windshield.

The bus stop that serves Tsumago is located in a parking lot just off the main road, a short walk from the old Nakasendō that runs through the preserved section of the former post town.

On the following map – click to enlarge – the parking lot is marked with a red sign that reads 現在地 (“You Are Here”); I was standing right there after all. (Haha.) The thin dashed line just to the right of that mark is the walking path that leads to Tsumago proper.

There’s also an on-site wooden sign that reads 妻籠宿入口 (“Tsumago-juku Entrance”), with an arrow pointing to the start of the path.

After spending some time in this beautifully preserved Edo-period post town, I returned to the parking lot and waited at the bus stop for my connection to Magome.

SECOND LEG: FROM TSUMAGO TO MAGOME

Visitors eager for a spot of exercise might wish to attempt the popular 8-kilometre, 2-to-3-hour hike between Tsumago and Magome. I, on the other hand, was looking to conserve my energy (read: feeling dreadfully lazy) and chose the easier, faster way: a bus ride.

These were the timetables posted at the Tsumago bus stop on the day of my visit (27 November 2018). A simplified schedule is available on Japan Guide.

As I mentioned earlier, it pays to memorise the kanji version of one’s destination. This time, I was keeping an eye out for Magome-juku (馬籠宿) or Magome (馬籠).

Here’s the fare matrix posted inside the bus. 600 yen for the Tsumago-Magome interval.

And away we go!

Seat near the front door, as usual.

The main bus stop that serves Magome is near the shop marked in the following map. It’s a bit more centrally located than the one in Tsumago: just turn the corner and you’re on the old Nakasendō.

Click on the following image to enlarge.

More sightseeing followed, and then a reluctant farewell as I prepared for the homeward journey. Well, “home” to my Nagoya hotel anyway.

THIRD LEG: FROM THE KISO VALLEY (MAGOME) TO NAGOYA

Nakatsugawa Station (JR Chūō Main Line) is the nearest railway stop to Magome.

Here’s the timetable of Nakatsugawa-bound bus services that was posted at Magome on the day of my visit (27 November 2018). A simplified schedule is available on Japan Guide.

All aboard! As usual, I zeroed in on the seat near the front door.

The fare for the Magome-Nakatsugawa route is 560 yen.

After arriving at Nakatsugawa Station (中津川駅, Nakatsugawa-eki), I approached a ticket window and reserved a seat on the next available Shinano limited express service bound for Nagoya.

Nakatsugawa is a little closer to Nagoya than Nagiso, so it takes slightly less time to travel between the two – about 55 minutes on a Shinano train. Fares are also a bit lower: 2,500 yen for an Ordinary Car non-reserved seat; 2,820 for Ordinary Car reserved (plus a few hundred yen in high season); 3,780 for a seat in the Green Car. Use HyperDia to research train schedules and fares.

And there we have it!

Whether you plan to use the same route I employed, or some variation thereof – in reverse, with different stops, etc. – or something else entirely, I wish you a safe and memorable holiday in the Kiso Valley.

Cheerio.

One response to “Rail-Bus Report: Travelling to and around the Kiso Valley from Nagoya, Japan

  1. Pingback: Field Report:  Tsumago and Magome, Kiso Valley, Japan (27 November 2018) | Within striking distance·

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