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Historical Towns of the Nakasendo Trail

Updated: May 13

As part two of my recent roadtrip through Japan, after completing my tour of the Western sea coast and driving inland into the mountains I prepared for a day along the historic Nakasendo trail. My hostel for the previous night was in Nakano, so I decided to add a few stops along the way - the first of them being to sea the snow monkeys of "Hell Valley" or Jigokudani Yaen Koen. There was a famous area along this volcanic valley where the monkeys apparently liked to come bathe in hot waters of the natural hotsprings in the area. An onsen hotel next door to the natural springs even reported monkeys regularly breaking into the outdoor baths to bathe with the guests - much to their excitement, as far as I could tell from the reviews.


I had seen enough videos of monkeys in hotsprings to warrant an investigation. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived we were told that there were no monkeys currently in the baths. So, we continued on to our next stopping point, the town of Nagano. Situated about an hour and a half West of Tokyo, Nagano was the last big city before the long valley of the Nakasendo trail began.


Along the way, we took an impromptu detour for another interesting stopping point we saw along the map - a Wasabi farm. Wasabi doesn't even really exist in the US, as restaurants there use a sort of wasabi-flavored horse radish. The opportunity to try real wasabi straight from the farm piqued our interest. The deal was sealed when we saw from the images that they sold wasabi ice cream at the farm as well. THAT was certainly an experience we would not be able to have elsewhere.


A Picture of the Wasabi Farm and Farmers at Work



The farm itself was shockingly crowded when we arrived. The parking lot must have held several hundred cars, all belonging to Japanese people from what we could see of the crowds. Unusually, there was not a single white person to be seen (and only a few Chinese tourists). The fervor that the Japanese clearly felt towards wasabi was palpable and, possibly even a bit unnerving in its intensity.


The Parking Lot of the Farm


The wasabi themselves looked like tiny, curved roots, and were grown in fields fed with a constant trickle of water and covered so that only a small amount of sunlight touched them. We quickly enough found the line for the icecream, which was thirty people long at least. Unfortunately, the wasabi ice cream turned out to be really a dissappointment - the wasabi flavor was almost impalpable. The only real give away that it was "wasabi" ice cream and not normal ice cream was the green color.


The Line for Wasabi Ice Cream



The Wasabi Farms


The Wasabi Sun Shades


A Japanese Lady travelling with her cat...


There were other wasabi themed things around, such as wasabi croquettes and burgers (and of course, simply jars of wasabi). The croquettes proved equally tasteless. Discouraged, in the end we decided to give things one last go with the wasabi themselves. We purchased a real wasabi root for 800 Yen and stashed it away with the intention to try it later at dinner.


The real deal! Some fresh wasabi


Of course, no wasabi farm would be complete without a massive stone monument


After all these long detours, it was quite late before we arrived in Nagano. We almost decided to head straight to the hotel. Instead, we pushed ourselves a bit and headed to Narai-juku, the first of many of what the Japanese called post-towns or Juku that made up the Nakasendo trail. The idea for people hiking the trail was to walk from post-town to post-town, resting in the night before continuing the next day, until the entire trail was walked (about a 4-5 day hike, if I had to guess).


The valley leading into the Nakasendo trail was more impressive than I'd imagined. Mountaains closely lined the valley on both sides, creating a sort of funnel feeling as you drove along. A large river also appeared to run the entire length of the trail, so that as you progressed along it the two mountains and the river accompanied you every step of the way. It certainly felt like an excursion back into the wild and the natural world, even if, in reality, today the whole trail was little more than a sort of open-air museum.




There was paid parking just outside Narai Juku, so it was easy enough to park and walk into the preserved edo-era village. All of the buildings existed along a single, long street. Just as I'd expected, they were wooden structures in the style of traditional Japanese architecture. Narai juku and the other towns along the trail had been normal villages about a century ago, when the Japanese government decided to single them out for preservation as the rest of the country underwent rapid modernization. These towns were one of the few places in Japan where one could still see the old Japan, before the Meiji restoration wiped it away.



The entry way into Narai Juku old-town


The stree in the afternoon, when most shops were closed


The street the next morning, during opening hours.



The old-town feel was slightly diluted, to be sure, by the theme-park like atmosphere of many of the buildings. At least half of the stores were gift shops selling different varieties of tourist trinkets, such as Nakasendo trail t-shirts and mugs. But, there were also some stores selling traditional crafts - including one chopstick store I walked into where the man behind the counter was actively painting and crafting new chopsticks as I looked. While there was plenty of cafes and modern buildings, there was also a nice mix of traditional soba restaurants and other Japanese fare.



A slight drama ensued when my travel companion spotted a small truck blaring some sort of anthem on repeat over loudspeakers. Assuming it was the Islamic Adhan (call to prayer) and very curious about what that was doing here, he ran over to confront the car's driver. As it turns out, however, the car was simply a portable sweet-potato shop on wheels. What he'd assumed was the Islamic call to prayer was actually an anthem to sweet potatoes, punctuated by occasional entreaties to passerby to come and try a sweet potato.




After exploring the village, we stopped at a small cafe run by an old lady. I ordered a traditional drink made out of ricemilk and soy, which surprised me with how sweet it was, but didn't taste bad. Then, we determined to continue on. On the whole, it was a pleasant experience that left me with a curious mix of satisfaction and regret about the current state of the village. Since Narai Juku was just the first (and a relatively less famous) stop along the trail, however, I decided to refrain from judgement until I'd seen more.


The next day we drove the the rest of the trail. The process was surprisingly swift by car. It only took a little over an hour to drive the whole thing, if you did it in a straight shot. Along the way there were so many stops and interesting things to see however that the same road could easily have been done in three or four days even by car. I felt somewhat regretful to be speeding along it in the way I was. But, a short visit was better than no visit at all.


The next post-town I visited was Fukushima juku. If there was a historic quarter of this tiny town, I struggled to find it - it must have been quite small. Nonetheless, the town felt the most natural of all the ones I saw that day in the sense that people clearly were still living there. There were at least a dozen people fishing in the river, and we stopped to have soba at a traditional soba restaurant just next to the bridge running over it. The soba was fantastic, and the atmosphere extremely traditional and pleasant. It was regretful we had to rush through lunch so quickly to meet our itinerary. The owners of the restaurant seemed quite offended by our sudden departure, even more regretfully.



Locals fishing in the river, Fukushima Juku


Another view of the river and town. Very few historic buildings were visible


The soba restaurant we ate at, near the bridge



After that, we passed through some more towns which were minor stops along the trail, before finally arriving at the most famous village of the whole Nakasendo - Tsumego Juku. Located in something of a side trail out of the valley, on the side of a different face of the mountains which had ran the length of the trail, Tsumego proved everything I had been looking for in this edo-era experience. The town was much larger than the others and every single building in it was a preserved heritage building (unlike the other post towns, which had a preserved quarter and a modern quarter). The buildings were stunningly beautiful, and there was clearly more of an effort here to put traditional arts, crafts, and cuisine on display. We spent nearly two hours simply walking along the town, enjoying the atmosphere and enjoying different treats.



Parking lot, surrounded by bamboo forests, a creek, and lots of trees.


Wisteria plan at the entrance to the village


Winding road into the village.


Shopkeep cleaning up before closing


Here you can see the buildings framed by the mountains


A perfectly preserved edo-era village! All wooden buildings


People dressing up like samurai. Maybe archery practice too?


A larger historic building


A grandma making traditional redbean paste buns


Coffee and...pinecones?


Local artisans and their craft


Narrow roads lined the village, many of them still dirt.


A traditional farm-house interior, with kettle over a fireplace.


Mountains again


Some of the more touristic gift-shops, selling trinkeys like bamboo bento boxes


A Japanese tourist enjoying the views



After Tsumego, we stopped briefly to check out a nice waterfall along the trail. The experience was extremely pleasant, and we could see that the hiking trail passed right along the waterfall. I could only imagine how beautiful of an experience it must be to walk the whole thing, with its forests, rivers, and myriad waterfalls.



Lower pool


Waterfall


After the waterfall, it was nearly sundown. We broke through the valley after about another twenty minutes driving and stopped to enjoy the stunning view of the mountains all around that the valley opened up to.



The mountains on the other side of the valley


The last major post town connected to the valley, Magome, was on the way to town, so we decided to stop there briefly as well. This town had a different flavor than the others as it was build along a steep incline. Our appetites to explore Magome were certainly whet by this brief visit, and we resolved to come back and explore it properly the next day. For now, we continued on into the city and checked into the business hotel we'd reserved for the night.


The following morning we returned to complete our final itinerary points along the trail. Magome was beautiful and compared very favorably to Tsumego, though the latter remained, I think, the most impressive stop along the way. Magome had just perhaps a little too much of a touristic feeling, and many of the more historic buildings were actually Ryokan (traditional hotels) that somewhat aggressively chased away people who weren't actually staying there overnight. Still, the walk down the incline was a very pleasant one. On the way out, we stopped at a cafe overlooking the mountains and sat for a long time. I personally ordered the matcha tea set and enjoyed an extremely pleasant cup of tea, set to one of the better views I'd enjoyed since coming to Japan.




Magome Juku


Magome Juku, downhill view


Before leaving the trail, we resolved altogether to pay one last visit to a place we'd wanted to see the previous day but which had been closed by the time we arrived. Along the hiking trail itself was a traditional teahouse with nearly perfect reviews. We were very curious to see what made it so esteemed. So, we drove back into the valley about fifteen minutes to explore for ourselves.


Turns out, the teahouse was more of a resting point along the hiking trail than an actual traditional teahouse or restaurant. The building itself seemed old and traditional in style, and there was a large cherry trea blooming outfront that gave the whole seen a beautiful atmosphere. There was indeed seats inside, and tea being served. But the tea was all very simple green tea in a thermos, given away for free by a friendly middle-aged gentleman whose job it was to care for hikers and tend to the small fire burning inside the building, as far as I could see. We were the only ones there when we first arrived. But in time, hikers showed up, coming out of the woods to stop, rest, and take videos of the fire. There was a chalkboard on the entrance where visitors were encouraged to write which country they were coming in from. The results were spectacular. By the time we left some fourtyfive minutes later, the board was full with country names ranging from the US to Singapore, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and of course, Japan itself.




Picture of the actual hiking trail, leading to the teahouse


A signpost of the Nakasendo trail


The teahouse and its cherry tree


Nakasendo trail teahouse with fireplace burning
Nakasendo trail teahouse

The fireplace inside



End.

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