Go back in time, way back, to the Edo Era, and walk the old Nakasendo Road along the scenic, forested Kiso Valley. Nicknamed the “Samurai Trail”, this is one of the two old paths connecting Kyoto with Edo, as Tokyo was called in feudal times. The 70 km section along the Kiso River is known as Kisoji and was regarded as the roughest stretch. Here in the Kiso Valley, you can pass through a sekisho toll station, sleep in inns with (literally) paper-thin walls, sit around a hearth and eat soba noodles, purchase eating utensils or combs made of the local hinoki wood, and walk along cobble-stone pathways just as the samurai did during the time of the Tokugawa Shogun.
Walking the Nakasendo Road
The trail between Tsumago and Magome post towns is generally considered to be the best preserved section of the Nakasendo. The 8 km hike is easier from Magome (elevation 600 m) crossing the pass (801 m) and then descending to Tsumago (420 m). Allow 2-3 hour for the journey, including stopping at the teahouse run by the Friends of Tsumago volunteers, and a pair of waterfalls, masculine O-daki and femine Me-daki. The Tsumago and Magome Information Centers offer baggage-forwarding service between the two points (daily in summer, weekends and holidays in spring and fall).
More ‘off-the-beaten-path’ is the stretch from Narai-juku (post town) to Yabuhara over Torii Pass. Either way, walking the Samurai Trail will feel like a trek back to feudal times.
Stay at a Post Town
The 550 km long Nakasendo is dotted with 69 juku (post towns), 11 of which are located in the Kiso Valley. Of those, Narai-juku, Kiso-Fukushima’s Uenodan district, and especially Tsumago-juku have been carefully preserved to the way they were in feudal times. Narai was the most prosperous juku, with its row of historical homes stretching for 1.2km, giving it the name “Narai of a Thousand Houses”. Kiso-Fukushima is a modern town rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1947. Fortunately its hilltop Uenodan neighborhood escaped the fire and was able to retain much of its original charm. Nearby is the Fukushima Sekisho (toll station). (Be sure to also take a walk along the Kiso River down below. The riverside buildings are precariously perched upon top of a cliff.)
Tsumago faced a different disaster: neglect. In the 1960s, a group of locals banded together to refurbish the historical buildings to their original wooden beauty, sans modern intrusions such as electrical poles and telephone wires. It became Japan’s first designated protected area for preserving traditional buildings and inspired similar conservation projects elsewhere in the county. Visit the Wakihonjin (rest house) to get a sense of what post town life here was like (tours offered in English).
Often times these post towns can feel like museums with more tourists than locals wandering the streets. Spending the night at an inn in one of the post towns lets you feel what it would have been like in samurai times. You may give up a good deal of comfort when staying in an old inn, but it would no doubt be an unparalleled experience. Don’t miss going for a walk at dusk – the scene of the wood buildings as the lanterns are lit is sublime.
Side Trip to Kaida Highland
From Kiso-Fukushima, a 45-minute drive or bus ride will bring you to Kaida Kogen (highland), the 1100-meter elevation plateau at the base of Mt. Ontake. The upper reaches are off-limits following a devastating eruption in the fall of 2014. But the 3,067 m volcano is venerated as a holy site by a sect of Shintoism and is still a popular pilgrimage climb. Kaida Highland is one of Nagano Prefecture’s main buckwheat growing areas, making it soba noodle paradise. It is also home to one of Japan’s domestic breeds of horses, the Kiso-uma.
By Public Transportation
JR’s Ltd. Express “Shinano” provides hourly service on the Chuo Line through the Kiso Valley between Nagoya and Nagano. Tsumago-juku is a 10-minute bus or taxi ride from Nagiso Station (if trekking in from Magome, take a bus from Nakatsugawa Station), Uenodan a 10-minute walk from Kiso-Fukushima Station, and Narai-juku is adjacent to Narai Station. Not all express trains stop at all these stations so changing to a local train may be required. From Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, the Ltd. Express “Azusa” and “Super-Azusa” connect with trains for Kiso at Shiojiri.
Route 19 parallels the Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley connecting with theChuo Expressway at Nakatsugawa Interchange to the south and Shiojiri Interchange to the north.
Tsumago’s Tourist Information Office is likely the most helpful info center.
Tsumago, Kiso-Fukushima and Narai have offered lodging for hundreds of years, and continue to do so today. Capacity and options are more numerous, though, in the Lake Suwa area and Matsumoto City.