The Sekisho checkpoint in Kiso Fukushima, one of four along the Nakasendo
Many remnants of Kiso Fukushima’s past as an important checkpoint of the Nakasendo Trail remain to this day. In the middle of town, you’ll find part of its old post town at Uenodan. The exteriors of the buildings here remain as they did during the Edo Period while the interiors have been remodeled into elegant dining spaces. The view of Daitsuji Temple’s Shoromon Gate through the small alleyway is especially elegant during the Ice Lantern Festival, when the town is illuminated by flickering candlelight.
At the northern entrance of the post town is Kiso Fukushima’s Sekisho checkpoint, one of four along the Nakasendo. These checkpoints controlled the flow of goods and people between the many regions of Japan. The interior of the checkpoint showcases many of the weapons and tools that were used there during its heyday.
Kiso Fukushima is a great base location to access many of Kiso’s natural wonders. Kaida Kogen, at the foot of Mt. Ontake, is home to the Kisouma horse as well as fields of soba and blueberries. Tucked away in the mountains is the Akasawa Forest Therapy Park, where you can ride the logging railroad along the river and see crystal-clear waterfalls and enjoy trekking through the woods.
Kiso Fukushima’s Uenodan historical district
Kaida Kogen at the base of Mt. Ontake, obscured by clouds
Nakanori-san and Nanawarai
The Nakanorisan brewery located just across the river in Kiso Fukushima
For sake enthusiasts, there are two sake breweries in town that you can visit: Narawarai and Nakanorisan. Both make excellent sake. Nanawarai has a larger brewery and also exports their sake globally. Nakanorisan operates on a much smaller scale, but is a big hit among locals. With advance notice (and a Japanese speaker in tow), you can even take a tour of their breweries.
We had the chance to visit Nakanorisan and speak with one of the brewers, Minami-san, who explained the brewery’s careful attention to detail. They grow all of the rice for their sake themselves in order to ensure the best flavors. Because of the brewery’s small scale, you won’t be able to find their sake in many places outside of Nagano, so be sure to try them while you’re here.
Minami-san pours a sample of the Nakanorisan nama genshu sake, a full-bodied, aromatic wine only available during winter.
On the outskirts of town, Kozenji Temple is about a 15-minute walk from Uenodan. Many monuments and Buddhist statues decorate the temple grounds, speaking to its long history. The temple is most famous for its large rock garden—four times as large as that of the famous Ryoanji in Kyoto. Unlike most rock gardens, whose sand and rocks represent water and islands, the garden at Kozenji takes inspiration from the surrounding mountains, imagining seas of clouds and precipitous peaks.
Kozenji’s rock garden was inspired by the Japanese Alps, representing mountain peaks poking through the clouds.
The Yabuhara-Narai Trail
From Kiso Fukushima, the Kisoji continues north through Miyanokoshi, Yabuhara, and Narai post towns. Between Yabuhara and Narai is another well-maintained portion of the Nakasendo that climbs over Torii Pass (1,197m). A shrine to Mt. Ontake is located near the top of the pass, and on a clear day you can see the summit peaking over the mountains in the distance. The trail is 6.15km long and takes about 3 hours to complete.
If you choose to do the Yabuhara-Narai trail in winter, bring
shoes with good tread!
Narai-juku stands at the northern entrance of the Kiso Valley, south of Matsumoto and Shiojiri. Because it is located at the base of Torii Pass, one of the most difficult sections of the Nakasendo, travelers often stopped here for the night. At one kilometer in length, the post town is often called “Narai of a Thousand Houses.”
Surrounded by forests rich in hinoki cypress and along major trade routes, the post towns along the Kiso Valley were perfectly located for the crafting and selling of lacquerware products. In Narai-juku and nearby Kiso Hirasawa, you’ll find many lacquerware stores selling goods crafted in Kiso’s workshops.
Half-finished lacquerware bowls sit in a workshop in Kiso
Hirasawa. The boards below show how different types and
amounts of lacquer affect the wood’s appearance.
The Chikiriya Laquerware shop in Kiso Hirasawa
You can even try woodworking for yourself by making your own chopsticks at the tourist information center in town. Using a traditional wooden plane and specially crafted jig, you shave two hinoki dowels into the shape of chopsticks. As you work, you can smell the warm aroma of cypress wafting in the air, and you can even take the wood shavings home with you in a nioibukuro, or scented pouch.
Carve your own chopsticks out of hinoki using traditional woodworking tools.
My finished pair of chopsticks
From Kiso Onward
The Kisoji portion of the Nakasendo ends at the town of Niekawa. From there, the Nakasendo leaves Kiso, traveling through Shiojiri, Suwa, and Karuizawa on the way the Tokyo.
While only one part of the Nakasendo, the Kisoji is home to some of its most well-preserved post towns and is surrounded by picturesque mountains and forest. From the rustic townscape of Narai to the plains of Kaida Kogen, you can gaze on the same scenery that travelers saw and immortalized in ukiyo-e prints hundreds of years ago.