The Kiso River is one of the longest rivers in central Japan. Rising on the flanks of Japan’s Northern Alps, the river cuts a deep valley between the densely forested foothills of the Northern and Central Alps, popularly known as the Kiso Valley. The valley has been an overland transport and trade route possibly since the Jōmon Period (14th–4th centuries BC), however, it became historically significant from the 8th century onward, when it became a section of the main inland route connecting the imperial capital of Kyōto with northern Japan. In the early 17th century (early Edo Period), the Nakasendō Road was established through the Kiso Valley, connecting Kyoto with the Togugawa Shogunate’s administrative seat of Edo (Tokyo). Along the strategically important route, a dense network of checkpoints and lodging towns (e.g. Tsumago, Magome and Narai) were set up, many of which still survive and have been restored to their original form. This has made the Kiso Valley a popular destination for international tourists in recent times, particularly for walking the historical Nakasendō trail.
So here I was last October, taking a break from guiding tours, walking a section of the Nakasendō trail from the picturesque town of Narai. Arriving in the early morning, the main street was deserted apart from a few locals sweeping their shopfronts, allowing me to immerse myself the old-world charm of the former lodging town. Once out of town and treading the forest trail toward Torii Pass (1197 m)—regarded as one of the most difficult sections of the Nakasendō in the olden days—I was truly on my own. The forests were aglow with the last of the autumn colours, and the only noise was that of the occasional breeze whistling through the forest canopy, followed by a flurry of golden leaves falling to the forest floor. As I trod the narrow, climbing path muddied by recent rain, I imagined how it must have been for those countless travellers over the centuries, making their journeys entirely on foot for tens (or hundreds) of kilometres, be it in the stifling humidity of summer or the blizzards of winter.
Arriving at Torii Pass, I was taking a short break when the silence was suddenly broken: “Which way d’ya think we need to go from ‘ere?” For a second, hearing the all too familiar Aussie twang in the middle of a forest in the Japanese countryside got me confused (“Where am I, where am I?!?”). Soon, the forest was echoing with Australian, British, American and French voices, as more groups of self-guided Nakasendō trail walkers arrived at the Pass and took a break after the climb. And then, as abruptly as they had appeared, they all vanished, keen to push onward to Narai for a look at the historical town, then perhaps heading to the major regional tourist centre of Matsumoto for the night.
Just on the other side of Torii Pass, heading downhill toward the town of Yabuhara, is a short side-track that leads to the Mitake-Jinja shrine. The shrine itself is tiny and seems just like any of the thousands of such shrines scattered throughout Japan. However, it stands on a hill with a view to the Mt Ontake volcano (3067 m), surrounded by a fascinating cluster of ancient stone monuments. The shrine, in fact, is not just ‘any’ shrine, but one of the four gateways for the pilgrims climbing the volcano, which has been the subject of Shugendō (Japanese ascetic religion based on nature worship, Shintoism and Buddhism) practices since at least the 8th century. The gateways symbolise the four stages of the Buddhist path, namely awakening, practice, enlightenment and nirvana. The stone monuments represent Buddhist deities, as wells as the ‘gods’ of sacred mountains throughout Japan—reflecting the ‘fusion’ nature of the religion. The custom of worshipping Mt Ontake predates the history of the Nakasendō Road by nearly a thousand years and had a strong influence on the culture of the Kiso region we see today. For example, the renowned herbal medicine tradition of the region developed as worshippers made use of the abundant medicinal herbs growing wild in the forests and alpine meadows—it is interesting to note that the worship of Mt Ontake has origins in an attempt to quell an epidemic in the year 774 AD.
As I lingered at the Mitake-Jinja shrine, looking across to the snowcapped summit of Mt Ontake, I heard another two groups of self-guided tourists coming up the trail from Yabuhara.I never saw them though, as they must have gone past the side-track to the shrine and continued their climb to Torii Pass. It may just be my impression, but many international tourists I have come across in the Kiso Valley seem to focus on walking the Nakasendō trail and to explore the well-known historical towns along the way, but do not take the side-tracks, or visit the ‘ordinary’ towns and villages, to fully experience the range of experiences that the Kiso Valley has to offer. As the owner of a tiny eatery in Yabuhara lamented, “We see groups of international tourists walking through our town every morning, but they are all in such a hurry to get to Torii Pass and Narai that no-one stops at any of our shops…”. Admittedly, there is little of the historical architecture remaining at Yabuhara, but it is arguably a far better place to observe life of normal people in rural Japan than in the tourist towns.
Kiso-Fukushima, a popular overnighting location for Nakasendō trail walkers, is one such ‘ordinary’ town in the Kiso Valley. On my previous visits to Kiso Valley, the train I was on would stop at the town, but I never had bothered to hop off for a look—perhaps put off by the townscape dominated by 1960s and 70s architecture. This time, I made the point of staying in Kiso-Fukushima to explore its nooks and crannies, and I was glad to have done so. The town does have a small historical quarter with restored architecture, but the main attraction in my view were those ‘hidden’ gems—the ‘Hōraiya’ confectionery shop, popular with the locals since 1688, where you can feast your eyes and tastebuds on a variety of traditional Kiso Valley sweets; the Kōzenji Buddhist temple, with its exquisite gardens including the largest ‘karesansui’ (raked gravel and sand) in Japan; the quirky ‘gakeya-zukuri’ houses precariously built on top of the steep riverbank, resembling something out of an anime movie; or the cosy ‘Kazusaya’, a local eatery where you can discover how tofu needn’t be boring or tasteless, with their five-course dinner prepared using freshly made tofu. It was nice to experience the Kiso Valley without feeling like you were in a tourist area. And did I see any of the international visitors (and there were plenty in town) enjoying these sights and experiences? (No…)
The Kiso Valley has a rainy climate (up to 4,500 mm/year), contributing to the region’s renown for producing high-quality timber. The ‘hinoki’ cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) from the Kiso Valley has an almost legendary standing among the Japanese timbers, and has been sought after for the ‘hinoki-buro’ or Japanese cypress-wood bathtubs—with their remarkable antiseptic, anti-anxiety, and deodorising qualities. The forests also nurtured the age-old craft traditions of Kiso, namely lacquerware, woodwork, ‘menpa’ (wood-bending) and ‘oroku-gushi’ (fine wooden combs), that are sold in towns along the Nakasendō trail. The heavy rain and snowmelt that nourish the forests have carved deep gorges into the steep mountain slopes. Among those who know it, the Kiso region is home to some of the most beautiful streams and waterfalls in Japan. Many are in remote locations and difficult to access, but there are a few that can easily be visited as a day side-trip from the Nakasendō trail. During my visit to one such gorge, I was struck by how few people there were to take in the beautiful scenery—in fact, one small group of Japanese students (?) were the only folks I came across all day. These gorges are, by no means, a locally kept secret—there is information on regional tourism websites, if you look for it—but poor signposting (practically none in some cases) would probably prevent most non-Japanese visitors from getting to many of them.