Magome (馬籠) and Tsumago (妻籠) — possibly the two most popular villages on the Nakasendō (中山道). My first visit was way back in 2000 if memory serves me well and I’ve been back on numerous occasions ever since. As the years passed, however, both villages began to lose their charm — the steady influx of tourists, from both Japan and abroad became too much. In later years I just used the nearby carparks as a base for bike rides across the mountains between Nataksugawa and Iida and avoided walking in them completely.
You used to be able to take a pleasant stroll up the steep hill in Magome or meander along the main street of Tsumago and feel like you had the place to yourself. You never did of course, there was always a few tourists around. But gradually it got busier and busier until it felt like too much — more live navigating the congestion of Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, than quaint rural villages in the mountains.
But we recently went back. With Japan’s borders still firmly closed to international tourists we knew it would be quieter but what we saw shocked us — for a while we really did have the place to ourselves. So much so that I felt worried for all the local businesses. It’s not hard to imagine their income dropping close to zero. Throughout the day the number of visitors gradually increased but it was nowhere near to the extent that it would have been a few years ago.
The selfish part of me welcomed the quietness — for the first time in years I actually enjoyed being on the tourist trail. Usually I’d stick around just long enough until the throngs of people became unbearable and scurrying back to the car became the only sane option. It was similar in Kyoto last year.
But the unselfish part of me worries for the villages’ future. It would be a tragedy to see Magome and Tsumago decline in the same way that other towns and villages in the countryside have. I can only hope that recent times have kick-started a return to a more balanced future — somewhere around the year 2000 when the locals were making money and visitors could actually walk around and enjoy the surroundings.
Just for the record, we didn’t walk the 7km between the two villages because we had our young daughter with us (and I didn’t bring the fancy kid-carrying backpack), and because I already did the walk a few years ago.