“Come on in. The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone–and to no one”.
-Edward Abbey, from The Journey Home
The name “Japan” may conjur, for many, images of mega-cities crowded with lights, sounds, and people; of karaoke, electronic gadgets, and super-fast trains. However, move away from the cacophonies and vertical jig-saws of the cities and towards the hazy mountains that lay in the distance. In these places you can encounter strikingly different landscapes and ways of living–wholly unique parts of the archipelago where silence and open spaces await.
The Kiso Valley, located in southwestern Nagano, is one such place. Carved by a network of shallow rivers and streams that flow from the snow-packs of Japan’s north and central alps (the Hida and Kiso ranges respectively), the Kiso Valley is deep and narrow. Lust forest covers much of the valley, which is famed for 5 varieties of high quality timber trees: hinoki (Hinoki cypress), sawara (Sawara cypress), nezuko (Japanese thuja), asunaro (Hiba), and koyamaki (Japanese Umbrella-pine). This natural bounty has shaped the socio-political history of the Kiso Valley, which has seen external control of forest resources for hundreds of years. Today, as a result of this history, a majority of forestland in the valley, which includes some of Japan’s finest, is designated as national forest. The famous Japanese author, Shimazaki Toson, a Kiso native, has written about this history in his novel, Before the Dawn.
The Kiso Valley is an area to be walked through. Throughout the Edo Period (1603-1867) the valley was part of the nakasendo 中山道, an inland route connecting Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo), used by merchants, samurai, and others. A section of the path remains today and offers visitors a flavor of a bygone era (see here for details). In addition, Japan’s second largest volcano, Mt. Ontake (ontake-san 御嶽山), is a sacred mountain that has also drawn visitors–in the form of pilgrims–to the Kiso Valley for hundreds of years. Even now, in the summer months, a trail of white dots can be seen on Mt. Ontake’s southeastern slope as pilgrims zig-zag their way up the mountain. Walking in the Kiso Valley offers glimpses into one of Japan’s most beautiful natural regions, which most visitors to the archipelago rarely enjoy. Also, one is in good company; the famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho 松尾芭蕉, who walked the Kiso Valley several times, wrote during one trip:
emulate the heart
of pasania blossoms:
a Kiso journey
Certainly, for those who find comfort in the cities and for whom time spent in the forests lacks appeal, the Kiso Valley if not for you. However, for all those individuals who thrive at heights, upon mountain slopes where azure skies appear just within reach. For those people whose curiosity leads them always around the next bend, or over the next ridge. For those who find pleasure in the drifting of clouds and the flow of sunlight through tree limbs. For those who seek a landscape that invites deep experience and rewards exploration. For those people, the Kiso Valley is a place where something more wonderful and magnificent always lays just ahead, beyond the next rise. Come on in.