Little Secrets of Kiso Fukushima

February 12th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing
Latticed wood buildings form a long alleyway to the gate of a buddhist temple.

A picturesque alleyway that leads to Daitsu-ji in Kiso Fukushima.

The Kiso Valley is a very popular destination in Nagano prefecture, especially for backpackers and history buffs who enjoy its beautiful forests and undisturbed post towns. Most visitors head straight for Narai, Tsumago or Magome-juku, but there are eight other historical towns in this forest valley with their own secrets waiting to be uncovered by adventurous travelers.

I visited Kiso Fukushima recently for the Ice Lantern Festival and found a great little town with plenty of history and welcoming locals. Take a look below to see what this particular part of the Nakasendo has to offer:

History and Architecture

A traditional Japanese building's facade captured at an angle. A white curtain with black circle emblems covers the wide entranceway.

There are a number of museums that feature weapons, artworks and everyday items from the Edo period.

During the Edo period, Kiso Fukushima was the most important post town of the Kiso Valley. From here, the prefectural magistrate governed the entire region and oversaw one of the four Nakasendo checkpoints. No traveler could pass without presenting an official border-crossing permit and allowing their goods to be inspected. The checkpoint also served as a defensive measure in case the road was attacked.

Both the Kiso Fukushima checkpoint (sekisho) and the magistrate’s mansion (Yamamura Daikan) are open to visitors. The buildings are beautifully preserved and an array of weapons, clothing and treasures are on display. The town was quite prosperous during the Edo period, and it shows in the magistrate’s collection: beautiful porcelain dolls, samurai armor and lacquer ware adorn the halls.

A large rock garden with views of the mountains in the distance

Kozen-ji has the largest dry rock garden in all of Asia.

In addition to Kiso Fukushima’s old town and museums, there are several Zen Buddhist temples in and around town. The most famous is Kozen-ji, one of the Kiso Valley’s three great temples. It has Asia’s largest dry rock garden, inspired by the sea of clouds that often covers the valley. There is also a collection of zen ink paintings and treasures on display to the public (closed during winter).

It’s very easy to walk around the area, and most of these places can be seen in a morning if you don’t dilly-dally. There are plenty of small parks and places to rest throughout the town, and if your feet get really tired you can relax in the free footbath that overlooks the river.

Emerald Rivers, Deep Forests and White Mountains

The white-capped tips of Mt. Ontake glow pink at the beginning of sunset.

Mt. Ontake offers beautiful scenery, hot springs and adventure for travelers

The whole of Kiso is blessed with clear waters and verdant forests, but near Kiso Fukushima are three of the valley’s most impressive attractions: Mt. Ontake, Kaida kogen and the Akasawa Natural Recreation Park.

Mt. Ontake is the second tallest volcano in Japan and has been venerated for centuries as one of its most spiritual mountains. It is a symbol of the Kiso area, just as Mt. Fuji is a symbol of Japan. Many people hike Mt. Ontake, or trek through the beautiful forests at its foot, rich in natural hot springs and waterfalls. Visitors can also take the Ontake Ropeway to Iimori Kogen station, where a panoramic view of the Northern and Central Alps awaits them at 2,150m above sea level.

Mt. Ontake recently erupted in the Fall of 2014. There have been no adverse effects to any towns or areas around the mountain, but access to the peak has been limited. See below* for more information.

Kiso horses graze among open fields that are half-covered in snow.

Japan's only native breed of horse can be found here.

Kaida Kogen1 is its own natural paradise: an open highland farm with soba fields and grazing horses. Kiso horses (kisouma) have been raised here for centuries, and are Japan’s only native breed. Visitors can enjoy short horse-riding courses, hiking or snowshoeing depending on the season. And as long as the sky is clear, you can enjoy an amazing view of Ontake in the distance.

A red and yellow train travels along the riverside in a verdant forest.

The forest railroad gives visitors a chance to relax and enjoy the fresh, forest breeze.

The Akasawa Natural Recreational Park2 is an 1800 acre plot of forest in the Kiso Valley, as well as the birthplace of forest therapy. There are eight different walking courses that range from 40 minutes to 2 hours in length, as well as a forest railroad that runs from one end of the park to the other. Spending time in areas like the Akasawa Forest are likened to bathing in a hot spring bath, relieving stress and improving body functions. You may hear this therapy called “Forest Bathing.”

Food

Two plates of soba are stacked one on top of the other with sauce and condiments on the side. An iron teapot can be seen hanging above a small hearth in the background.

After tasting this soba, you may be tempted to order a couple more servings.

Kiso’s cool, high-altitude climate and fresh mountain water have helped cultivated some of Nagano’s most delicious sake and soba. Kiso also has a number of specialties that can’t be found anywhere else in the prefecture, like sunki and akakabu pickles, gohei-mochi, and hoba-maki rice cakes. Kiso Fukushima has plenty of restaurants and bars to enjoy all of the area’s local food and drink.

For soba, try Kurumaya Honten3, a restaurant operating out of Kiso Fukushima for hundreds of years. Their soba has a distinctive black color due to the buckwheat husk they grind into the flour, and their tsuyu dipping sauce is a masterpiece 300 years in the making. All in all, one of the most delicious soba experiences I’ve had. (For more about soba, see here.)

If you’d like a lively evening, head to Chikara4 near Kiso Fukushima’s old town. The owner, Masa, is really friendly and accommodating to foreign visitors. He spent seven years living in Seattle, so he speaks English well and sometimes offers American craft beer on the menu. If you’re unsure about what to order, just ask and he’ll set you up with some great food and drink. Another popular restaurant and bar nearby is Matsushima-tei5, which makes western fare from local ingredients.

Four bottles of sake sit in front of a sign that reads, "Nanawarai" in Japanese characters.

A selection of Nanawarai tasters from left to right: Junmai sake, Namazake, Daiginjo and Amazake.

To take a closer look at Kiso’s spirits, visit the Nanawarai6 and Nakanorisan7 breweries. Nanawarai is one of Nagano’s most famous sake brands, and will soon be on shelves in sushi shops in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Nakanorisan is on a much smaller scale, but if you ask any local they’ll tell you it’s their favorite. Do a tasting at their shops to learn more about the flavor and brewing of sake, I guarantee you’ll find something you like. (Interested in sake? Visit breweries along the Higashi Nakasendo)

Your Base Camp to the Kiso Valley

Kiso Fukushima may not be the most famous post town of the Nakasendo, but it has a lot to offer for overnight travelers. Hiking, horse-riding and plenty of seasonal activities are within arm’s reach and the town itself has plenty of restaurants, onsen and hotels to keep people entertained. Narai-juku and Tsumago-juku are under 30 minutes away by train, making access to all of Kiso’s history and sights a breeze.

Why don’t you check it out for yourself and find some more of Kiso’s secrets?

Notes and Additional Information

*Mt. Ontake has not erupted since September of 2014 and volcanic activity has been decreasing, but it is still under level 2 alert. Mountain climbers may not enter within a radius of 1km of the crater peak. For more information about current alert levels, see the JMA website. For more information about volcanic alert levels in general, see this page. (Back to text)

1. Kaida Kogen (Back to text)

Hours: Until nightfall
Holidays: Open year round
Address: 5596-1 Kaidakogen Suekawa, Kiso-gun, Nagano pref. 397-0301
Contact: 0264-42-3225
Access: Kaida Kogen line bus from Kiso Fukushima Station, get off at Kisouma no Sato

2. Akasawa Natural Recreation Park (Back to text)

Hours: 9:00-16:00 (park facilities)
Holidays: Closed from November through April
Address: Ogawa, Agematsu-machi, Kiso-gun, Nagano pref.
Contact:
Access: Akasawa Line bus from Kiso Fukushima Station (or Agematsu Station)

3. Kurumaya Honten (Back to text)

Hours: 10:30 to 16:00 (or until sold out)
Holidays: Closed on Wednesdays
Address: 5367-2 Fukushima, Kiso-machi, Kiso-gun, Nagano Pref.
Contact: 0264-22-2200
Access: 5 min. walk from Kiso Fukushima station

4. Chikara (Back to text)

Hours: 17:00 – 0:00
Holidays: Closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays
Address: 1788-11 Fukushima, Kiso-machi, Kiso-gun, Nagano pref. 397-0001
Contact: http://english.chikara-kiso.com/
Access: 7 minute walk from Kiso Fukushima station.

5. Matsushima-tei (Back to text)

Hours: Lunch: 11:30~14:00, Dinner: 17:00~20:30
Holidays: Irregular
Address: 5084 Fukushima, Kiso-machi, Kiso-gun, Nagano pref.
Contact: 0264-22-2766
Access: 7 minute walk from Kiso Fukushima station.

6. Nanawarai Brewery (Back to text)

Hours: not listed
Holidays: not listed
Address: 5135 Fukushima, Kiso-machi, Kiso-gun, Nagano pref. 397-0001
Contact: 0264-22-2073
Access: a 12 minute walk from Kiso Fukushima station

7. Nakanorisan Brewery (Back to text)

Hours: not listed
Holidays: not listed
Address: 5990 Fukushima, Kiso-machi, Kiso-gun, Nagano pref.
Contact: 0264-22-2112
Access: a 12 minute walk from Kiso Fukushima station

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