There’s so much to see and do in Japan. The popular destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto are great, but there is so much more to Japan. “Off The Beaten Path” is a series that explores some of the lesser known yet amazing places in Japan. Our first stop was Nakasu (中洲), the hidden foodie mecca of Japan. Our second stop was Matsumoto（松本), a small and tranquil castle town at the base of the Japanese alps. For our third stop, we explore the ancient highway that was used by the samurais: Kiso-ji（木曽谷).
Everywhere you go in Japan, you see how the country preserves its ancient culture and history. As you travel the country, you start wondering what life would have been like back in the days of the samurai. How did they travel? What kind of places did they live in? What did they eat? Luckily, you can still get a feel for what life would have been like hundreds of years ago in the Kiso Valley.
Nakasendo depiction in ancient Japanese art
Japan had two ancient transportation routes to connect the major cities of Kyoto and Tokyo. The Tokaido, which ran along the southern sea line, and the Nakasendo (中山道), which ran through the mountains in central Japan. The Kiso Valley (70km) is part of the Nakasendo (500km), and is located in central Japan in the snowy Nagano Prefecture. The valley runs along the Japanese alps at the foot of Mt. Ontake, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful woodlands in Japan. But more importantly, the Kiso-ji road retains the scenery of the old days better than any place else in Japan.
Nakasendo path ©Mandala Travel
The Kiso-ji road first opened in 702 A.D. and later merged the larger Nakasendo Highway during the Edo period (1600s). Due to restrictions set by the ruling Shogunate, travelers were forced to make their trips on foot. As a result, many “post towns” developed along the highway to provide travelers a place to rest, eat, and stay. Among the 11 post towns situated on the Kiso-ji road, Tsumago, Magome and Narai are the best preserved and worth visiting.
Tsumago during the spring
Snow in Tsumago ©Yoshi Shimamura
Tsumago notice board - used to show proclamation from the shogunate ©David Esteban
Tsumago at dusk ©Adam Brill
Tsumago (妻籠) is the smallest of the post-towns, but arguably the most beautiful. It was relatively prosperous as a small trading town, but fell into obscurity and poverty after the completion of the national railway system. In 1968, the local residents began restoring and preserving the historical structures. Due to their efforts, the town is now considered a national treasure, and the townscape has been restored to that of the Edo Period (1600s). Walking around this town definitely brings you back to the days of the samurai with its unmatched serenity and beauty.
Magome at night
Magome's many traditional inn where samurais would have stayed
Magome store front
Old water wheel that still works in Magome ©Colin_C
View from the top of Magome
Magome (馬籠), situated on Mt. Ena, is the southernmost post town. The whole town is on the side of the mountain, and old-fashioned houses line the 600-m curving slope. Like Tsumago, the town fell into decay after the completion of the railway, but was revitalized in the 1960s.
Along the Nakasendo path ©Bong Grit
Local resident's house along the Kiso-ji path. He invites you in for free tea and Japanese snacks ©Anaguma
Connecting Tsumago and Magome is a hiking trail, which is part of the original Kiso-ji/Nakasendo. It is 8km long and takes about 2-3 hours to complete but highly enjoyable, since it leads through the quiet countryside and gives you a sense of what traveling in old Japan was like. Watch out though, since there are bears in the area!
Narai during the winter
Delicacy around the Kiso Valley. Miso glazed sticky rice.
Local resident of the area
Inside one of the traditional inns where the shogun would have stayed ©raysII
Narai (奈良井), also known as “Narai of a Thousand Houses,” was the most prosperous post town in the valley. It is located exactly halfway between Kyoto and Tokyo and its historical houses are considerably larger than those in Tsumago and Magome.
Entrance to Fujioto Inn
Looking for a place to stay and experience the ancient hospitality of Japan? We recommend staying at the Fujioto Inn in Tsumago. They have amazing hospitality, a beautiful Japanese garden, delicious meals offering local delicacies, and a traditional Japanese wooden bath.
Inside the Fujioto Inn
One of Fujioto's rooms
Meal at Fujioto
If you liked this post, be sure to check out these other great articles about Japan!
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Nagano is not often spoken of as a primary tourist destination in Japan. But a couple of notable claims-to-fame make Nagano a very interesting place to visit indeed.