valley viewed from Magome-juku post town
In March we had a three day weekend for the Vernal Equinox, so Alex and I went to Nagano to hike along the Nakasendo. The Nakasendo is an old post road that connected the old capital of Edo and Kyoto. Peasants were not permitted to ride horses, so travelers walked along the route. This meant that many towns had to be built along the way so that weary travelers could stop for a meal or a night’s rest. Interestingly, the name of each post town ends with the character “juku” as in Tokyo’s “Shinjuku,” which is natural since the character means lodging. In the Kiso Valley in Nagano, some of the old post towns maintain their traditional architecture and sections of the road are preserved in its original fashion making the area popular with trekkers and other tourists.
water-wheels, now purely decorative, could have harnessed the river’s power to do tasks like grinding soba flour in the past
To get there, we took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano city, then rode limited a limited express train to Kiso-Fukushima and finally the local train to Nagiso. The limited express train was quite fun, and the scenery was nice as it climbed out of the valley and up into the mountains. Find more about getting to Kiso Valley at Japan-guide.com. From Nagiso Station it was just a short hike uphill to reach the Nakasendo trail.
After a short hike we arrived in Tsumago, and we were feeling ready for lunch. We stopped at one of the many restaurants along the main street for some Shinshu soba, Nagano’s famous buckwheat noodles. Our lunch set also came with Gohei-mochi, which we learned is the delicious nutty-sauced grilled mochi that is a specialty in the region. Every shop has a unique recipe, so if you can, try a bunch to find your favorite. After lunch we walked around town to enjoy the scenery and traditional architecture. This time of the year, the plum blossoms along the street made a lovely sight. Of course, like any town in Japan that attracts a lot of tourists, there were plenty of souvenir shops to stop in at too. Around 4:00 pm, all of the shops closed up and the day-trippers headed home, leaving the bustling streets almost deserted.
another quiet street in Tsumago-juku
After that, we walked for about an hour to get to our night’s lodging, a cozy minshuku called Koushinzuka which was actually located in just outside the secondary town Otsumago (greater Tsumago). Koushinzuka served breakfast and dinner around the irori, a traditional style fireplace used for cooking and warmth. After dinner the inkeeper told stories and sang old folk songs while sharing photos with us. In the morning we were treated to another fabulous meal before setting out on the day’s hike. The food at Koushinzuka was fabulous. The building and rooms showed some of the wear and tear that comes with age, but I suppose that’s part of the charm of a place like that. I would highly recommend a stay there.
After breakfast we headed out for Magome. Magome has been spruced up a bit more than Tsumago. The main street has been paved with very nice stones and the buildings seem to have a bit more polish. It seems like there are more souvenir shops and restaurants, and the crowds were a bit denser here too. We spent the night at Shinchaya minshuku. Although the location was great, it didn’t measure up compared to the previous night’s stay.
looking down the street in Magome-juku
Although the weekend’s weather was fantastic, by Monday the weather had turned quite rainy. We travelled by bus to Nakatsugawa, where we caught the train. We took a brief stop in Narai to see the Kiso Ohashi, one of the longest wooden bridges in Japan, and to have one last meal of soba and Gohei-mochi before heading home. Finally we ran for the train in the pounding rain and relaxed for the long train ride back to Gunma.
traditional meets modern
More pictures from our Kiso trip at Alex’s photoblog