As the holiday of Culture Day draws near, every year without fail, I’m planning a road trip. And every year, without fail, the planning is going to be so last minute that the most accessible destination from Tokyo is going to be the same: Nagano prefecture. Starting backward, I’m going to describe my latest trip, to the picturesque village of Narai-juku (奈良井宿). People in the west tend to know Nagano for the Winter Olympics of 1998. Domestically, it is famous for its huge production of juicy apples.
Narai-juku used to be a prosperous merchant town at the border between Nagano and Yamanashi, laying on the valley against the west side of the Kiso mountains. Today, it is one of the many small villages with wooden structures that get to be described as ‘Little Kyoto’. Most importantly, its main shopping street is known as one of the most Instagrammable locations for aspiring photographers who need a viral post for the autumn.
Traditionally, Japan had specified travel routes that connected Edo – modern-day Tokyo – to Kyoto and other key locations in Honshu. While the most famous route is the coastal Tokaido, Narai-juku (elevation 900m) was one of the stations on the mountain road, the Nakasendo. The famous poet Matsuo Basho and the painters Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen (he contributed this view of the town) were among the people who travelled along this route.
Due to its importance as a post-town, a lot of shops and services were established along the main street. The buildings on that street retain the traditional architecture and the feeling of the Edo period until the present, under the status of ‘Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site’. The elongated eaves in between the base and the first floor are a characteristic trait of the local architecture. Upon entering the village, you are greeted by the Kiso bridge against a yellow background. The bridge is made of wood with delicate carvings on the side, but the arch is quite difficult to walk on since it has no steps. Barks from 300-old cypress trees have been used for its construction. The design is reminiscent of a Japanese drum.
Walking next to the many shops and restaurants, you might come across groups of tour guides able to provide English tours, which is nice. Too bad no tourists are allowed at the moment, the main street seemed surprisingly empty. Judging from the available facilities, it looks like a place that used to host numerous visitors simultaneously. Be warned, though, most shops close by 4pm and there’s hardly any hotel in the area. It’s a town that comes alive only during the day.
The main temple of the area, Chosenji (長泉寺), is a bit further down the street. Apparently, this temple played an important role in the transport of tea from the city of Uji near Kyoto to Tokyo. There’s a teapot left from that era, which is carried during a parade every June. The interior of the temple is decorated with a 20m long mural of a dragon, nicknamed ‘The singing dragon’. It is said that if you clapped your hands directly under the eyes of the dragon, he would sing in response. It was all thanks to a trick mechanism, which unfortunately is not functional anymore. However, the highlight of the temple is none other than its gorgeous cat master, a Birman blue-eyed cat.
There is another temple nearby, the Daihoji (大宝寺) with a large graveyard to bury those who have fallen during the trip along Nakasendo. Inside the temple grounds sits a statue of a figure holding a baby. It was presumed to be a depiction of the Virgin Mary and was therefore decapitated by the Tokugawa authorities. This may be a sign that some Christians survived prosecution, as it was common during that time, and found refuge in the area. I wonder if the statue was the only fatality.
As I said, Narai becomes a ghost town in the evening, so we opted to stay in the nearby city of Matsumoto instead. The castle there is famous because it is black, a beaming contrast among all the white Japanese castles. This is the crow castle (Karasu-jo 烏城) illuminated at night. Oh my, I forgot. The Matsumoto castle association issued a statement prohibiting the use of Karasu-jo as a descriptor for their castle. The original 烏城 is that of Okayama prefecture, pronounced as Ujo. The word Karasu-jo has never appeared in literature in reference to Matsumoto castle, therefore its use is wrong. Good luck making all the travel guides (including a previous article of my own) of ditching the nickname. Let’s just call it Castle Black, then. Oops, that’s a castle in another universe, bummer.
Despite being a bustling city, Matsumoto is considered the ‘most boring place ever’ by many of my friends. While that might be true, there are a lot of traditional houses that function as besso (別荘), i.e. holiday homes for people who live in Tokyo. When the owners do not indulge themselves, they tend to put them up as rentals in Airbnb. This is how we managed to stay in a 100-year-old renovated house, equipped with a traditional living room, a Japanese garden, and all associated paraphernalia. The owners spent the week there and greeted us as they headed back to Tokyo, planning to return again a week or so after we left. As expected, every room in the house was pretty cold, apart from the kitchen. A friend of mine decided that the kotatsu (a low table with an incorporated heater and a blanket) in the kitchen was a better alternative to the tatami of the living room.
On the following day, we tried to scout for a location with good autumn views. The first option was a large temple near a lake and a dam. Gofukuji Temple (牛伏寺) is located on the hills of Mt. Hachibuse at 1000 m elevation and extends vertically upwards. Legend has it that in 756, Buddha dropped two cows, a red and a black cow, simultaneously on the ground. The locals made the temple to revere the miracle. Despite the temple being destroyed by fire multiple times, the monks managed to save two dozen wooden statues, which are designated as important Buddhist culture. The temple has its own crest but displays also a crest similar to the Sasa Rindō of the Minamoto clan.
Several structures catch the eye inside the temple grounds. There are some buildings with thatched roofs, an almost-derelict red wooden gate, and a hall where the holy fire always burns. Two real-size cow statues are standing guard next to the gate. It’s a quiet place, with an excellent wooden bench at the top, where you can relax and listen to the sound of a nearby waterfall. It was nice up there.
As for souvenirs, the Kiso area is famous for dried fruits, lacquerware and wooden carvings. On the way to Narai-juku there is a big shop/exhibition hall with anything from apples to wooden furniture. Although the prices are ridiculously expensive, the craftsmanship is indeed wonderful. One building caught my eyes; alas, the classical architecture of Greece and Europe has infiltrated backcountry Kiso.
Finally, it’s time to get back home. Although we were planning to stop at lake Suwa and learn more about the local myth of gods walking on the iced lake and the peculiar ice formations, we didn’t have time to do so. Every time I look at the highway exit to Suwa and every time “we’re not going to be back on time to beat incoming weekend traffic”. At least we caught a glimpse of a non-clouded Mt. Fuji and a cute lenticular cloud. In autumn, even the trees behind the trucks at the highway rest area are pretty!
To wrap up this post, I am adding a map of the locations we visited and a few more pictures. Next time, remind me to tell you about the other beauty of Nagano, Nozawa-onsen as well as Joetsu in Niigata.