A quaint stop along the Nakasendo Trail.
Since the Edo Period, time has frozen in this small part of Nagano Prefecture.
A few centuries ago, the main road connecting Kyoto and Tokyo — two important centers of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) — was a 534-kilometer-long route called the Nakasendo Trail. Although the present-day Nakasendo Trail is mostly covered by modern establishments, some main spots remain to this day in their Edo facade.
The quaint and well-preserved post town of Narai-juku is located in the mountainous Kiso Valley and in the present-day city of Shiojiri. It marks the midpoint of Nakasendo trail. Only about a 5-minute walk from its closest train station, Narai-juku isn’t hard to find as there are signs everywhere. As you turn around to see the beginning of the trail of dark brown wooden houses and wind chimes dangling from shopfronts, you might want to pinch yourself to make sure you haven’t time traveled three centuries backward.
The one-kilometer long Narai-juku walking path is flat, so it’s a very good spot for visitors of all ages!
This post town was a popping central hub for merchants and travelers 300 years ago, but is now a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site for groups of historic buildings. Nevertheless, recognized as “Narai of 1,000 buildings,” Narai-juku offers a wide variety of shops that showcase some of Japan’s best intangible heritage today.
Do a little shopping
Traditional crafts are especially popular. Stop by elegant lacquerware shops that sell objects ranging from bowls, plates, cups, trays, soba cups and lunch boxes. When you want to replenish energy from walking the trail, look out for restaurants or food stands selling wild vegetable buns, soba noodles and gohei onigiri, a local specialty type of rice ball seasoned by sesame and miso sauces.
Shops are combined with houses in this town. Many locals still live there, so once in a while you may see families chatting on the tatami floor in the living room. A few bigger houses have transformed into museums and Japanese-style inns.
Hike the Tsumago Trail
Lastly, to engage more with the beautiful nature of Kiso Valley, hike the Tsumago trail. It takes about three hours to go from Magome to Tsumago. The trail is suitable for beginner hikers as it is mostly paved.
The occasional waterfalls along the way and a rest house with free tea and sweets are incentives. As you arrive in Tsumago, you can hop on a loop bus to go back to the main Narai-juku area. To enjoy this post town in tranquility and undisturbed by modern tourism, visit in the morning. As bonuses, the nearby river and parks are also great places to unwind.