The famed Nakasendo road, the 17th-Century route linking Kyoto with Edo (present-day Tokyo), stretches for over 500 kilometers. Along the way several of the old post towns (called ‘shukuba’) still exist, alluring pockets of a bygone age, visited by those looking to spend some time walking through a living chapter of Japan’s storied past.
Some of the best-preserved and most attractive of these shukuba are located right here in Nagano, and are doable as a day trip from Matsumoto. Tsumago and Magome (just over the border in Gifu Prefecture) and the 8-kilometer trail that connects them are generally considered the twin crown jewels of the Nakasendo. But Narai-juku, considerably closer to Matsumoto and eminently more accessible, ranks just as high as the heavily-traveled Tsumago-Magome road.
If you’re looking to incorporate a hike along the Nakasendo into your visit to Narai, a great option is to start in Yabuhara, one stop south of Narai, and hike over the Torii-toge Pass, the highest point along the entire way from Kyoto to Tokyo. It’s a moderate trek and a terrific choice when the weather is agreeable.
Another option, one that is much shorter and flatter (albeit less dramatic), is to walk north from Narai to the post town of Hirasawa, just 2.5 kilometers up the Narai-gawa River.
The long, narrow Kiso Valley, centuries-old home to Narai, Tsumago, Magome and a host of other Nakasendo post towns, is also where you’ll find one of the finest forms of the Japanese art of Shikki, known to the rest of the world as lacquerware. The high quality of available wood, a favorable climate, and the relatively recent discovery of an abundance of iron-rich clay all contribute to the Kiso Valley’s value as a center of shikki production. And some of the finest lacquerware in the entire Kiso Valley can be found right here in the quiet village of Hirasawa – considered the very center of the long shikki tradition.
The artistry of these handcrafted products is certainly impressive, as are the price tags you’ll find attached to them. What may be surprising is the manner of the labor that goes into the making of these smooth and shiny treasures. Once wood has been selected, cut and properly dried, artisans apply up to a dozen layers of lacquer, sanding and polishing each piece by hand along the way.
To be sure, you can find lacquerware all up and down the Kiso Valley. And while you may not be interested in spending a couple hundred dollars on a top-quality box for your bento lunch, passing through Hirasawa to see up close the richness and beauty of the artful traditions being carried on is a memorable experience.
To get to Hirasawa jump on a local Nakatsugawa/Nagoya-bound train out of Matsumoto Station. It’s about a forty-minute ride to Kiso-Hirasawa (the full name of the station), and just a few minutes more to Narai.