Venture a bit further south of Matsumoto and you will find the wonderful Kiso (木曽) Valley. There are many small post towns here that were originally part of the Nakasendo (中山道), a historical road that connected Kyoto and Tokyo. In Kiso, the atmosphere is generally slower paced and it is not uncommon to see a kamoshika (Japanese serow) or monkey along the highway. Many people are farmers in this area.
Here is the low down on some of the villages in the area. To get to any of them, take the JR Chuo Line towards Nakastugawa and get off at the particular station you want. It is a good idea to check the return train schedule before you go since trains in this area run less frequently. You could also drive south on Route 19 to reach any of these post towns.
First along the route is the lacquerware town of Kiso Hirasawa. Many people here work in making traditional Japanese lacquerware and there are many lacquerware shops that line the main road of the town. If you follow the main road north, you will come to a large building which has an interesting display on how the medals for the Nagano Olympics were made. It also has an assortment of local crafts and unique gifts. The U Life Cafe, run by a Swedish woman, is highly recommended for a quick cup of coffee or cake before continuing your day. Early every June there is a festival where artisans sell their crafts in the streets.
The next town along the highway is Narai-juku. Narai has a small museum and a historic home that can be toured. The information center in this town has an English map of the area. There are many shops lining the main street and some nice tea and coffee shops. A nice and interesting way to get to Narai-juku is by hiking. Get off at Yabuhara Station and follow the signs to Torii Pass (this pass was the highest point on the historic Nakasendo highway). This hike takes about two hours and ends in Narai where you can catch a train back to Matsumoto or further up the valley. It is a moderate hike but gives you a feel of the nature of the area. It is nice to stroll along the streets of Narai after the hike. There are festivals in June and August of every year.
Kiso Fukushima and Nezame-no-toko
The largest town in the area is Kiso Fukushima. Kiso Fukushima is famous for its foot hot spring. It hosts a wonderful snow festival in early February every year. For the last few years, there has also been a music festival in September called Kiso Kodo where musicians come from all over Japan to play at a weekend outdoor music and camping festival.
A way further down the highway, just past Agematsu is the Nezame-no-toko Natural Beauty Site. You can eat soba while looking over unique rock formations or take a stroll down to the cliffs near the river. This destination is difficult to reach by train and is better explored by car. It is about a 1½ hour drive on Route 19 from Matsumoto.
Magome and Tsumago
The most famous post towns of the Kiso Valley are Tsumago and Magome. To reach these towns, get off at Nagiso Station and transfer to a bus bound for Tsumago. In the fall, there is a festival in Tsumago were residents dress in traditional clothing and parade down the main streets. There are many small restaurants, museums, and gift shops and you can get a feel for what Japan was like when the samurai used to travel these roads. An English map is available at the area tourist information. If you so desire, you can also take a stroll on the 8-km trail from Tsumago to Magome. It is a peaceful hike with some waterfalls along the way and there is a bus you can take 4 times daily to return to Tsumago (or vice-versa).
Any of these towns make for a nice day excursion from Matsumoto and give you a chance to see a bit of rural Japan.