Photo/IllutrationThe old post station of Tsumago-juku in Nagiso, Nagano Prefecture, bustles with foreign tourists. (Yasushi Sato)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGISO, Nagano Prefecture--In an instant, the secret of the ancient trail was out.

More than 30,000 backpackers from around the globe trekked the slopes in a depopulated area here in fiscal 2018, the highest number ever, after a BBC TV show ignited a buzz about the Magome-toge mountain pass.

The route that links the old post stations Tsumago-juku in Nagano Prefecture, and Magome-juku in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture, caught on quickly as a destination where visitors could experience the centuries-old journey.

The hordes of foreign tourists have been a boon to local businesses hurt by disastrous torrential rain in 2014, followed by Mount Ontakesan’s deadly eruption the same year.

The rise in visitors from overseas has partially offset the decrease in the overall number of tourists to Tsumago-juku. But if foreign guests continue to increase at this pace, there won't be enough places available for all of them to stay.

“All we can do about the accommodation problem is try and improve the situation little by little because this is a depopulated area near the prefectural border,” said Yoshinori Fujiwara, 71, managing director of the Association of Tsumago Lovers.

“These days, local residents can have simple conversations with foreigners and greet them. We want to continue with these efforts so that more of them visit,” Fujiwara said.

The association, a public interest foundation comprising local residents and others that keeps track of the number of hikers on the ancient trail, said visitors from 65 countries and regions, including 33 European countries such as Britain, France, Spain and Germany, arrived at the pass in fiscal 2018, to walk the trail that retains the ambience of the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867).

Foreign nationals accounted for 63 percent of all visitors in fiscal 2018, and the number looks likely to keep climbing.

Foreign hikers crossing the Magome-toge pass numbered 31,426 in fiscal 2018, a five-fold increase from 5,848 in fiscal 2009, according to the association.

Though the trail, part of the old Nakasendo route, now bustles with foreign trekkers, Japanese hikers have been decreasing each year, accounting for less than 40 percent of all visitors in fiscal 2018.

Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku are about 9 kilometers apart, a trip of about 3 hours on foot.

Foreign hikers seem to favor getting to Magome-juku from JR Nakatsugawa Station and then walking from there to Tsumago-juku.

Though its inclines can be perilous, that hasn't hurt the trail's popularity as hikers can opt to pay for a service to have their baggage forwarded, and thereby travel light.

The association founded the Ichikokutochi Tateba-chaya teahouse almost at the halfway point between the two post stations. Its staff, tasked with keeping track of how many hikers pass through the point and what countries they are from, serve visitors free tea and chat with them.

The teahouse was remodeled from a private residence originally built in the late Edo Period, equipped with an “irori” sunken hearth and a tatami-floored rest space. Many hikers drop by to enjoy the ambience of old Japan.

In April, a 31-year-old man from Britain, who stopped by the teahouse, said he was amazed at the beauty of the post station and the mountain pass and that it made him feel like he had been hurled back in time.