When we first started planning our trip to Japan, visiting the Kiso Valley was at the top of the list. My intent for our time in Japan was to experience slow travel, to not rush through each destination trying to cram it all in. With sixteen days, we took our time. Savoring each destination along the way, visiting the Kiso Valley was everything I had hoped it would be.
The Kiso Valley was first brought to my attention when I had read Local Milk’s blog post on the region — I was completely mesmerized. A sleepy town nestled in fog draped mountains, where time was slow and meant to be savored is the best way to describe the Kiso Valley. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. So much of travel, for me, is fast. The past years the goal has often been to see as many places as possible in a short amount of time. This year, Travis and I decided that instead of quantity, we wanted quality. We wanted to feel like locals, where we would recognize coffee shop owners, eat at the same place not once, but twice. My “do it all” personality has come to love the slowness and stillness of being deliberate in traveling slow. It’s refreshing and so contrary to my work in the travel industry. The Kiso Valley was the perfect place to do exactly this.
For context, the Kiso Valley is in the Nagano Prefecture, set along the Central Alps of Japan. I think when we think of Japan, places like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka come to mind. There is so much more to be discovered in Japan. The main “post” towns that are visited in the Kiso Valley are Tsumago and Magome along the historic Nakasendo Route. The Nakasendo route (means path through the mountains) connected the 67 post towns in the Edo period of Japan, playing a crucial role in connecting commerce. The post towns came to be as the route could only be taken on foot, and existed as a resting place for travelers. Now, you can feel the spiritualness that comes through passing these sacred mountains that served as a way to be connected for generations before. Through preservation, the post towns of Tsumago and Magome can be visited and many people hike the Nakasendo trail between the two. This connection in the valley played a major role in keeping Japan’s culture connected at a time that depended on it.
We took the first train from Tokyo. I was giddy at the thought that I would soon be in Tsumago. I knew what to expect from Tokyo. I knew what to expect from Kyoto. But Tsumago and the Kiso Valley, I had not a clue what I was about to experience. It was the first time I had felt this way in a long time about travel. An excitement, a childlike wonder for the journey that was about to unfold.
I had booked a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) in Tsumago. I had heard Magome was busier with tour buses passing by, and Tsumago was quieter. My first choice of Fujioto Ryokan had been sold out almost 7 months in advance, so our second choice of Shimosagaya would have to do. The small inns of only 7-9 rooms are still maintained as they were in the Edo Period. You could nearly feel the presence of previous travelers who had sojourned after a long journey. A taxi took us to our ryokan after the journey to Nagiso Station, dropping us off with our luggage and excitement.
Passing through the short doors, we removed our shoes and entered into the two-story ryokan. Our communication was as such: my fumbled Japanese, his minimal English, a bit of pointing, a warm smile, and small giggles from both of us realizing we wouldn’t be able to communicate much more than just that. The innkeeper showed us to our room, a simple room with a table in the middle, a television and AC unit that required money to operate, two mats with linens, and two bath towels that were long enough to cover my leg. Welcome to a Japanese ryokan. It’s a place to rest, a place to refuel, and it’s exactly all you need.
Dinner was sharply served at 6:30 pm and if you were a minute late, you would know. A set course set in front of us portrayed the region’s local cuisine. River fish, miso soup, an assortment of pickled vegetables, fried crickets, and other proteins cured in miso would be tonight’s dinner. Showers were strictly from 4:30-9p, so with a quick rinse, we settled in for the night. The table was moved to the corner, we laid out our mats and slept on the floor to the sound of the rushing river. It was magical.
We woke up to the fog over the mountains, whipping over the wintery pines. Breakfast was served strictly at 7:30 am, and your plate was there whether or not you were. It was an assortment of the evening before, this time with an omelet and a salad. It would be the right amount of fuel for our hike.
Tsumago was quiet — in the kind of way where you almost didn’t see another person for minutes at a time. The shops slowly started to open up around 9:30 am, preparing for hikers looking for a soft cream or bowl of soba. We grabbed an umbrella, our bells for the local bears (which we later found out only appear around once a year), and started our journey on the Nakasendo Trail bound for Magome.
It was dense. I can still remember the smell of the damp forest, thick with foliage starting to dress in fall colors. We ascended the mountain, twisting and turning through creeks and bamboo groves. We didn’t pass anyone for the first hour — we had it all to ourselves. Halfway through, we stopped at the resting post, a small shelter attended by a local man who serves tea to hikers. His English was remarkable, and we sat by his fire while he poured us tea and I played with his Shiba Inu. A small break and we continued on to Magome.
Our final stretch, the clouds separated to give way to the peaks of the mountain. A perfect ending to the 8-kilometer hike, we descended into Magome. Arriving in Magome meant we could refuel. Street stalls sold an assortment of treats, like charred chestnuts, grilled rice, pork buns, and the classic shaved ice. Naturally, we tried one of each. At the end of the street, we spotted a coffee shop named Hillbilly and were surprised to find a beautiful space in such a small town. Entering in, we noticed a postcard from our favorite coffee shop in San Francisco and were thrilled to find the owner’s brother lived in SF. It was serendipitous — to travel across the world only to find how small our world really is.
There couldn’t have been a sweeter way to end our day in the Kiso Valley.
(Read this post for more photos to inspire you to visit Japan).