After four nights and three days in Tokyo, we continued our trip by travelling to the Kiso Valley Japan. We took off via the Limited Express Super Asuza 5 from Shinjuku station to Shiojiri, then transferred to the JR Chuo Line bound for the Kiso Valley.
This valley follows the Kiso River (the strongest in Japan, a kindly man told me on the train) through the Nagano prefecture in the Japan Alps. It’s a relatively quiet area with several small farming towns and a few preserved Edo period towns like the Narai, Magome, and Tsumago. We visited all three and the latter two being ones where we stayed the night in ryokan (traditional inns) with tatami mat floors, futon beds, delicious food and intensely hot baths.
The three towns were all beautiful, quiet, and like stepping into a Japanese time warp. It was a great way to escape from Tokyo and I think some city slickers felt the same way as the area drew large crowds of Japanese tourists on the weekend as we were leaving.
There isn’t much to do but eat soba, buy souvenirs, and generally ‘get away from it all’, but that didn’t stop the Kiso Valley from being my favourite region that we visited.
Narai was just a lunch break on our way to Magome. We hopped off the train in Narai at about 11am to stretch our legs and take a couple hours to explore the town and eat. The main road in the town is mostly made up of shops peddling sweets, sake, laquerware, wooden combs (they’re known for combs, historically) or other souvenirs.
We visited all the shops and stopped for lunch at Kokoro-ne for a soba noodle lunch which, for just noodles, was borderline pricey (something I noticed to be common in Japan).
We then headed back to the train station to get back on the 1:30pm JR Chuo to Nakatsugawa where we caught a bus for Magome.
By the time we made it to Magome and checked into our ryokan, Magomechaya, it was 5pm and all the shops were closing and there wasn’t much left to do so we relaxed in our room until dinner time.
Dinner in the ryokan (in both Magome and Tsumago, and later in Koyasan) was a treat. They serve a kaiseki-ryori or multiple course meal with a variety of locally sourced foods and Kiso Valley specialties. We sampled some interesting foods like raw horsemeat in Magome and wasp larvae in Tsumago. (Both of which I enjoyed, by the way).
The ryokan dinners (and even breakfasts) are part of what I loved so much about the Kiso Valley.
After tucking into our tempura, and salted fish, and omelette, and mochi, and pickles, and raw horsemeat(!) we donned our yukata robes, bathed, and read until lights out.
The next morning, after a solid breakfast of fish and rice, we left on foot for our next destination:
We took advantage of the 500yen luggage forwarding service (even though we each only brought a backpack with us to Japan) between Magome and Tsumago so we could hike without the extra weight.
The best part of our visit to the Kiso Valley was the 8km Magome to Tsumago “hike” (more like a moderate intensity walk) that Matt and I tackled along the Nakasendo Road, a route that connected Kyoto and Tokyo in the Edo period.
The hike takes you through rice patties, woodlands of cedar and bamboo, and very (very!) tiny towns. The forests are home to bear and there are bells dispersed at regular intervals to ring loudly and warn bears away.
About halfway through the hike an elderly man in a conical straw hat stopped us and asked us where we were from and invited us inside for tea and watermelon and pickles.
He was the official rest stop on the Nakasendo road. Literally. He offered us a few pamphlets about Tsumago and told us to write our name in his guestbook and sit as long as we would like before moving on. It was adorable.
If I were to do the hike again (and I would love to do it again) I would start in Nakatsugawa then hike to Magome and Tsumago from there. There seemed to be a lot of historic sights to see near Nakatsugawa that we missed by going straight to Magome. That, and it would have been nice to spend more time hiking.
Tsumago was our last stop in the Kiso Valley.
We arrived on foot a just past noon and spent the afternoon visiting the souvenir shops which were not unlike those in Narai. I bought myself a wooden canister for tea.
We tried to kill time by stopping for a drink in a small coffee shop in town where the owner who spoke decent English was surprised that I wanted my coffee hot (this wasn’t the first time I got that reaction in Japan) and didn’t want, say, a beer instead. After we told him that we thought his town was beautiful he also told us that he hated it. He was easily the only outwardly disgruntled person we met in Japan, but over course he was disgruntled with a smile.
We checked into our ryokan, Fujioto, where the proprietor gave us their best room (maybe because I booked, like, 5 months in advance?). We sat drinking tea on our balcony overlooking a manicured garden, a koi pond, and the main street in Tsumago while we waited for dinner.
Dinner at Fujioto was slightly better that Magomechaya because there were more courses and the servers went to lengths to give you great detail about everything that you were eating, where it came from, and why it’s relevant to the region.
The whole dinner reminded me of our experience at Grant Achatz’s Next in Chicago, but cheaper and more authentic.
I was a bit sad to leave the Kiso Valley the next day but we had more sightseeing to do. .
. . . this time in Kyoto. Stay tuned!