Walk untouched rural Japan
The rugged and forested Kiso Valley in southwestern Nagano is a fascinating step back in time. The area is home to the best-preserved section of the old Nakasendo merchant trail, charming historic towns, and sacred Mt Ontake .
- The beautifully preserved Nakasendo post towns of Magome, Tsumago, and Narai
- Sipping sake in Kiso Fukushima
- Mt Ontake's sacred waterfalls in remote Otaki Village
- Getting up close to Kiso's gorgeous lakes and rivers
How to Get There
The Shinano Express runs the full length of the Kiso Valley, connecting the area to the rest of Japan. The views from the train give a tantalizing taste of what's in store.
If you're traveling from Tokyo, board a JR Super Azusa train at Shinjuku Station bound for Matsumoto and transfer to the Shinano Express in Shiojiri. Or take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen from Tokyo Station, transferring in Nagoya.
From northern Nagano, Kiso Fukushima is a straight shot on the Shinano Express from Nagano City or Matsumoto. Starting your trip at the post town of Magome in Gifu Prefecture is also an option, combined with a walk on the Nakasendo to Tsumago in Nagano.
The Kiso Valley is bordered by the Central Alps to the east and Mt Ontake to the west
The wooden products you find for sale around Kiso are made from top quality hinoki cypress; prized by emperors, it will last for centuries
The Ontake faith is a blend of Shinto, esoteric Buddhism, and ancient shamanic practices
At 3,067 meters, Mt Ontake is Japan's second highest volcano after Mt Fuji
Hike the Nakasendo trail for a taste of old Japan
From the early 1600s until the late 1800s, the Nakasendo Highway served as a vital travel artery, connecting Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). Seventy kilometers of it ran through Kiso; its 11 post towns, stretching from Magome in the south to Niekawa in the north, provided rest and entertainment for merchants and weary travelers.
Frozen in time
Portions of Kiso's Nakasendo are still incredibly well preserved, like a vision drawn from one of Hiroshige's classic Ukiyoe prints. This is especially true of Magome and Tsumago , two iconic post towns with old wooden streetscapes at the southern entrance to the Kiso Valley.
In the northern part of the valley, the town of Narai is remarkably well preserved. It's larger than other towns in the area, with the main street stretching over a kilometer. It is best in the evening, when the old buildings are lit with glowing lanterns.
Explore Kiso Fukushima, the halfway point on the Nakasendo
Kiso's largest town is a relaxed community on the Kiso River. Formerly, it functioned as one of the checkpoints along the Nakasendo, used by the Tokugawa Shoguns in Edo to keep tight control over the movement of people, goods, and especially, guns. Today, Kiso Fukushima is a delightful town to wander around, with houses huddled above the Kiso River, several well-preserved neighborhoods, and souvenir shops.
Follow the pilgrim's way
One of Japan's most sacred mountains, Mt Ontake , has been a pilgrimage destination for over a thousand years. The faithful still come from all across Japan to walk the Ontake Pilgrimage Trail up to the summit, performing ceremonies at holy sites along the way.
Kiso's spectacular waterways
The Kiso Valley has a seemingly endless flow of incredibly pure water. Depending on lighting and other factors, its lakes, rivers, and streams vary from crystal clear to turquoise to emerald green.
Plenty of water-based activities are available throughout Kiso. Go fishing in the hills and catch Japanese trout, known as iwana. Then, find the perfect cove for a barbeque beside the turquoise waters that flow through the Atera Ravine.
Kayak along Lake Ontake
To see more of the area, get out on the water and try kayaking on Lake Ontake for spectacular volcano views. Kayaking Lake Shizenko in Otaki Village will take you through a remote canyon towering above as you paddle along. Rafting on the Kiso River is another option for a day out on Kiso's waterways.