Japan’s image in the eyes of the west is a contradiction of sorts. Renowned for the bright lights and cutting edge, futuristic, almost comic book stylings of the big cities like Tokyo yet also portrayed as an almost fanatically traditional society – with old style architectural motifs – not limited to the many temples and shrines – and traditional Kimono and Yukata robes a common site on any street. For the most part though these contrasting ideas co-exist on nearly every street and quite often in the same buildings as though flaunting their differences and declaring that just maybe it is possible to be two very different things at one and the same time.
All of which can make it very difficult, sometimes, to separate the traditional from the retro. To get a sense of what old Japan was really like amid the ever-present modernity. Well thankfully the Japanese feel this way too, which is why they have made an effort to preserve some of their heritage an create gateways into a time before Pachinko or neon or the bright, flickering lights and sounds of modern Japan. One such place can be found on the Kisokaido, an ancient trade route that connected Tokyo with Kyoto. In the middle of the stunning Kiso Valley you will find the Edo period towns of Tsumago-juku, Magome and Narai which have all been restored to make the area a virtual time machine and one of the most memorable places to visit in all of Japan.
Tsumago-juku and Magome have been connected by a restored part of the ol
d trade route allowing visitors to re-enact the pilgrimage taken by many during the 1700′s. (Albeit a much shorter version of the journey) The path will take them not only through both meticulously restored and maintained towns, but also through a peaceful forest featuring waterfalls. With shrines dating back to 1180AD and a 500-year-old temple this area is true example of living history and a great place to visit to experience Japanese culture at its most original.
A Kisokaido Print of the Tsumago trade route
Narai, which is only a short distance away, is just as full of old charm and history. As well as being site to the same restored houses and trade route Narai also features the famous Kubinashi No Maria – a statue dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Christianity fame. Though you wouldn’t recognize her at first look as the statue was built during a time of oppression when no religion but the two sanctioned state religions were permitted. Followers of the Christian faith were forced to disguise their beliefs by making their idol appear to be that of the local deity of childcare, Kosodate Jizo. When it was discovered that the statue was in fact Christian the local lord ordered that she be “beheaded”.
Of course this is only a small example of the kind of things you might expect to see on a trip to the Kiso Valley – for more details visit Japan Guide.com where they have much more details and prices for the various places of interest.
To get to any of the 3 towns simply take the Chuo line from Matsumoto station towards Nakastugawa. The Stations have the same names as the towns. It is a good idea to check the timetable for your return journey as they trains can be infrequent compared to some routes.