South of Matsumoto, the Kiso River flows through a densely forested valley that’s home to the 11 juku (post towns) of the Kisoji. This area was once a section of the 550km-long Nakasendo, the feudal-era highway that linked Edo with Kyoto. As Japan industrialized in the 20th century, this ancient transport corridor fell into disuse and the once flourishing towns along it began to decline.
By the ’70s, a movement to preserve what was left of the area’s unique architecture and culture had gathered steam. The best-known results of this are the juku of Tsumago and Magome, which are linked by a two-hour hike following part of the Kisoji through shady forests and over a not very steep mountain pass. Attractive as they are, these two “living museum” villages pedal an idealized, romantic notion of the past. Their success at attracting hordes of camera-touting tourists also partly undermines efforts to banish other modern intrusions such as illuminated signs, cars and utility poles.
In contrast, the far less visited juku of Narai doesn’t ban traffic from its 1km-long architectural heritage area. With the main highway across the river, there’s no need for anyone other than locals to drive along this stretch anyway, and the occasional presence of cars and illuminated signs for things like hairdressers and supermarkets makes Narai a more interesting place. This isn’t so much a potential samurai movie set, but a place where the 17th and 21st centuries coexist in natural harmony.
Hopping off the train from Matsumoto, you can first check out the town’s Kiso no Ohashi, an arched wooden bridge that curves elegantly over the rock-strewn river. There’s a pleasant park here, but the presence of the multilane highway on the opposite bank isn’t a plus, so it’s best to turn your back on modern Japan and return directly to the Edo section of town.
Once known as “Narai of a Thousand Buildings,” this was the most prosperous of the 67 juku along the Nakasendo. Travelers prepared or recovered in the many inns here before and after tackling the steep Torii-toge, the mountain pass south of the village. The streetscape preserves the distinctive architectural features of these buildings with overhanging second floors and eaves, wooden roofs held down by boulders, and renji-goshi latticework.
To see inside one of them, drop by Nakamura House in the Kamimachi area of the village. This handsome building, dating back to the 1830s, was once the home of a merchant who made his fortune in combs—still one of the area’s specialties, along with lacquerware. Opposite the tourist office, in the Nakamachi area of town, look out for the shop selling kashira ningyo: colorfully painted, traditional dolls and toys made of wood and plaster. There’s also a decent local sake brewery, Sugi no Mori.
Side streets lead off to pretty temples and shrines in the foothills. At Daiho-ji, which has a lovely ornamental garden, search out the headless statue reputed to be of the Virgin Mary—it was decapitated at some point during the Tokugawa era, when Christianity was banned. Apparently the figure was identified as Mary when someone noticed that the baby in the woman’s arms was holding a cross.
Once you get hungry, there are several restaurants serving handmade soba, another local specialty. One of the best is Kokoro-ne, where you can admire the soaring wooden-beamed ceiling and irori (central charcoal fire). Their toji-soba — five fat bundles of buckwheat noodles that you cook yourself in a nabe containing chicken, tofu and local veggies—is delicious.
Narai is a 45 minute local train ride from Matsumoto. It will only take you a couple of hours to explore the main street, but there are lots of pleasant hikes in the surrounding hills. If you choose to stay over, an excellent option is the 200-year-old inn Iseya (www.oyado-iseya.jp), run by a welcoming family, where rates start at ¥8,800 including two meals. Nakamura House is open daily 9am-4.30pm (¥200); Kokoro-ne (tel: 0264-34-3345) is open Thu-Tue 11am-3pm. There is a tourist information center (tel: 0264-34-3160) a few hundred meters’ walk from the station, opposite the Echigoya ryokan.