Destination Countryside: Kiso Valley, Japan

Destination Countryside Kiso Valley, JapanThe Kiso Valley is a geographical area that centers on the valley of the upper portions of the Kiso River in the southwestern part of Nagano Prefecture in Japan. It is a v-shaped valley with length of approximately 36 mi that follows the river as it flows from north by northwest to south by southwest into Gifu Prefecture.

Best Activities to experience Kiso:

  1. Tsumago – The valley’s best preserved post town. The town and its residents go to great lengths to recreate the ambience of the Edo Period. Cars are prohibited on the main street in the day and phone lines and power cables are kept concealed, allowing visitors to imagine they have slipped back to an earlier time.
  2. Nakasendo Hiking – Attractive walk along the old Nakasendo. The trail between Magome and Tsumago is a well maintained section of the former Nakasendo, the route that ran along the Kiso Valley and connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period. The trail is not difficult and is well marked in English and Japanese. It is about 5 miles long and should take two to three hours to complete at a leisurely pace.
  3. Magome – Beautifully preserved post town. The town has been beautifully restored with a broad stone walkway lined with carefully tended foliage. Magome’s embellished preservation contrasts with the rugged authenticity of neighboring Tsumago. The two towns are connected by the Magome-Tsumago Trail, a route which was part of the Nakasendo.
  4. Narai – The richest of the former post towns. It was the most wealthy post town of the Kiso Valley, and was sometimes referred to as “Narai of a Thousand Houses”. Visitors will understand this nickname when comparing Narai to the other former post towns in the area; the preserved houses stretch on much longer in Narai than elsewhere.
  5. Hirasawa – Town famous for lacquer ware. Lacquerware is a particular specialty of Japan, and in Japan it is a particular specialty of the Kiso Valley. The smooth, glazed bowls and dishes are enjoyed for their aesthetic appeal and complement the flavors of a Japanese meal. The most commonly seen lacquerware is the bowl in which miso soup is served.

The Function of Post-towns

Post-towns were spaced out along the old highways of Japan for the convenience of travelers. In the eyes of the Tokugawa government, ‘travelers’ were officials, daimyo and samurai who were moving around on business connected either with their administrative responsibilities or with the system of alternate attendance. The term did not include individuals who were traveling for pleasure or on pilgrimage, merchants moving themselves or goods from place to place, others who were involved in commerce, or commoners moving in search of employment.

Post-towns were the centers of the government’s control over the use of the highway system. Post-towns also supplied the needs of travelers and provided policing of the highway.

The post-towns provided services (food, drink, accommodation and transport) in accordance with rank. Thus, the highest ranking daimyo stayed in the primary inn, the honjin, and a second-level daimyo was put into the second best inn, the waki-honjin.

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