Japan has often been considered as the intersection between the past and the present. The old and new merge so well in this country such that sometimes it just feels like you’ve stumbled upon a movie set. I had that exact feeling when I visited Narai-juku in Nagano Prefecture.
Narai-juku is a quaint post town that is located in present-day Shiojiri City, a mountainous region in southern Nagano. This nationally designated architectural preservation site is part of the Nakasendo Trail which used to be a 534-kilometer-long route connecting Kyoto and Tokyo in Edo Period. These two cities were important economic and political centers, making the Nakasendo Trail a frequently visited route by merchants and officials.
Although the trail is mostly covered by modern establishments, there are some spots that still preserve their original Edo facade.
This whole place looks like a movie set.
One of these spots is Narai-juku, located right in the middle of the trail. There is a one-kilometer-long walking path that takes you around dark brown wooden houses of traditional Japanese design, and local temples that pop up here and there. This spot is only a five-minute walk from its closest train station, and as I turned around to see the beginning of the trail, I had to pinch myself to make sure that I didn’t time travel to the past.
There are neither tall buildings nor modern-looking shopfronts. Structures were all short and sometimes have the Japanese roof with clay tiles. Signs were either hand-written or printed on fabric. Wind chimes dangle from many shopfronts, and big tanuki figurines welcome visitors with big smiles on their faces.
The tanuki figurines are so cute!
The buildings at Narai-juku nowadays are mostly shops selling Japanese crafts. Though, some houses are still inhabited by local families, so you may see families sitting and chatting on tatami mats. If you’d like to see what the houses are like inside, visit the Nakamura Residence which is open for public access for ¥300.
The crafts sold at Narai-juku are of very high quality. Stop by elegant lacquerware shops that sell objects ranging from bowls, plates, cups, trays, soba cups and lunch boxes. When you want to replenish energy from walking the trail, look out for restaurants or food stands selling wild vegetable buns, soba noodles and gohei onigiri, a local specialty type of rice ball seasoned by sesame and miso sauces.
Dried fruits adding charm to the old-fashioned buildings.
Hike the Tsumago Trail
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In fact, I stumbled upon Narai-juku on my hike to Tsumago. It takes about three hours to go from Magome to Tsumago, a smaller post town that looks like a mini Narai-juku. The trail is suitable for beginner hikers as it is mostly paved. There are occasional waterfalls along the way and a rest house with free tea and sweets. As you arrive in Tsumago, you can hop on a loop bus to go back to the main Narai-juku area.
If you’d like to take some Instagram-able pictures of an older looking Japan, visit in the morning before the path gets crowded. Let yourself travel back in time for an hour or two.
Narai-juku is, essentially, a long street, so it doesn’t have closing hours. But of course, shops are the most lively between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
〒399-6303 Nagano Prefecture, Shiojiri, Narai
- By train: Take the JR Chuo Main Line from Matsumoto or Nagoya and get off at the Narai Station for Narai-juku.
- By car: Take the Chuo Expressway and exit at either Shiojiri Interchange or Ina Interchange. Narai-juku is about a 40-minute drive from either interchange exit. There are a few free parking lots near the Kiso Bridge which is near the entrance of Narai-juku. If those are full, there are paid ones near the Narai Station.