25 Things To Do Around The Kiso Valley / Nakasendo & Where To Stay
Most famous for the historic Nakasendo and its beautifully preserved ‘shukubamachi’ towns, the Kiso Valley is blessed with some of Central Japan’s most beautiful natural landscapes and cultural sites. The region is home to pristine forests, emerald rivers and waterfalls, and an undulating landscape of mountains and ravines rising to the brooding summit of Mount Ontake – Japan’s second tallest volcano. On this page you will find the following information:
Long considered sacred, Ontake is worshipped by adherents of the Shinto sect ‘Ontake Shinko’, with the most devote practitioners walking the ‘Ontake Kodo’ pilgrimage trails that run through the forests and past waterways of the mountain.
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are the region’s No.1 tour and charter operator. We can arrange transport and tours to any destinations in the region, and as a registered travel agent, we can package transport, accommodation and more together so you save and get the most out of your time in the Kiso Valley and Central Japan – scroll to the bottom for details.
WHERE IS THE KISO VALLEY & NAKASENDO?
The Kiso Valley is a beautiful area located between Shiojiri and Nakatsugawa in Nagano Prefecture. The area lies to the west of Tokyo – around 250KM / 3.5 to 4 hours drive. Running north to south, the valley follows the Kiso River and is known for its pristine waterways, forests, waterfalls and hiking trails including the historic Nakasendo. A key route linking Tokyo – then called ‘Edo’ – to Kyoto during the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Nakasendo spanned a distance of more than 500KM with the area of the route that passed through the Kiso Valley, known as the ‘Kiso-ji’, regarded as particularly beautiful. Parts of the route can still be walked today with the ‘shukubamachi’ towns of Magome and Tsumago being the most popular destinations, located in the southern part of Kiso Valley nearby Nakatsugawa Station. Most visitors heading to the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo do so using the Limited Express Shinano service. Running between Nagano and Nagoya, all limited express services on the line stop at Kiso-Fukushima Station and Nakatsugawa Station. As explained below, we recommend staying in the Kiso-Fukushima Station area. For directions about how to get to and move around the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo, see ‘How to Get to Kiso Valley & Nakasendo’ below.
25 THINGS TO DO AROUND KISO VALLEY & NAKASENDO
Most famous for the historic Nakasendo and its beautifully preserved post towns of Narai, Tsumago and Magome, the Kiso Valley is one of Central Japan’s most rewarding destinations. A place of natural beauty, the valley follows the Kiso River leading visitors deep into the heart of Japan, along forested trails leading to emerald rivers and waterfalls and onto the pilgramage trails of the ‘Ontake Kodo’ leading to the summit of Mount Ontake – a sacred mountain and Japan’s second tallest volcano after Mount Fuji. Here’s our suggestion of of some of the best destinations and activities on offer:
1 / MAGOME-JUKU / all year round
This beautiful historic post town was built on a hillside and is lined with a cobblestone path. One of Magome’s most iconic features is its wooden watermill which still operates to this day. You will also find many places to buy souvenirs and a bite to eat. Magome makes a great starting point for the Nakasendo Trail.
2 / TSUMAGO-JUKU / all year round
Tsumago is one of Kiso’s most well-preserved post towns. Here, you can see inns that are up to 300 years old. Other highlights include a former horse stable, a luxurious inn built once used by the daimyo and other high-ranking officials, and a museum that showcases the history of and artifacts from Kiso.
3 / WALK THE NAKASENDO TRAIL: MAGOME TO TSUMAGO / best: April to November
This 7.8km stretch of the Nakasendo Trail is the perfect way to experience both the history and the nature of Japan in one shot. The path that connects Magome and Tsumago is a gentle trail that takes you through a mixed landscape of forest, farmlands and vililages of which Magome and Tsumago book-end the walk – which can be done in either direction. At the halfway point, you can take a break at a traditional Edo Period rest house that offers free green tea to visitors while it’s also a good idea to carry water, drinks and snacks with you especially in July and August when conditions will be hot and humid. The trail is technically open all year round however best-enjoyed from April until November. Anyone attempting to walk during winter – from December until March – needs to be adequately prepared and fit, as the trail can be affected by heavy snow. If you want to walk the trail during winter, you should consider arranging a local guide.
4 / NARAI-JUKU / all year round
Narai was the wealthiest of all the post towns in Kiso and it also has the longest stretch of historic inns that are so well-preserved that the townscape remains almost unchanged since the Edo period. Besides the historic buildings, you will find many excellent restaurants and traditional craftsmanship shops as well. You can access the Nakasendo trail from Narai and walk over Toritoge Pass to the next post town.
5 / WALK THE NAKASENDO: YABUHARA TO NARAI / best: April to November
This section of Nakasendo Trail runs 6 kilometers through the forest and connects the two post towns of Yabuhara and Narai. The path crosses over the Toritoge Pass, which is 1,197 meters at its highest point, and is well-maintained and shaded by plenty of trees. Look for stone haiku monuments featuring Basho’s poems and Buddhist statues along the way.
6 / AKASAWA NATURAL RECREATIONAL FOREST & OTAKI FOREST RAILWAY / best: April to November
The Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest is considered one of the most beautiful in Japan and grows with hinoki cypress trees that are up to 300 years old. The Otaki Forest Railway train was originally built in 1916 to transport lumber as well as people and it still runs today purely for sightseeing. Walking the paths and taking the train through the forest is the perfect way to refresh yourself in nature.
7 / ATERA GORGE / all year round
The road up Atera Gorge runs along a crystal-clear stream that reflects the light in beautiful aquamarine and emerald hues. There are several viewpoints along the road that allow you to see the gorge’s most breathtaking spots such as waterfall, deep cerulean-colored pools, and striking cliff faces. The gorge can be accessed all year round but is at its most spectacular from April to November.
You can camp at the Atera Gorge Campground or walk a short hiking loop that takes through the gorge’s forest.
8 / KAKIZORE GORGE / all year round
With its stunning waterfalls, cerulean-emerald waters, and impressive rock formations, Kakizore Gorge is considered one of Kiso’s most beautiful spots. You can explore the gorge and its incredible sights by taking the nature trail from Junikane Station (pictured at the top of the page).
9 / NEZAME-NO-TOKO GORGE / all year round
Nezamenotoko is characterized by a huge slab of granite that has been carved down into a curious rock formation over thousands of years by the Kiso River. You can explore the gorge by climbing over the formation’s geometric boulders and blocks of stone. If you venture up to the top of the granite slab that sits in the center of the river, you will find a small Shinto shrine. Nezamenotoko is also a setting in the legend of Urashima Taro, one of Japan’s most well-known fairy tales.
10 / ONTAKE ROPEWAY / April to November
The Ontake Ropeway takes you up to the 2,150-meter point of Kiso’s Mt. Ontake, which boasts an elevation of 3,067 meters. From here, you can choose to continue to hike to the summit or simply enjoy the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and highland flowers around the ropeway station. If you time it right, you can even get up above the clouds for an extraordinary scene! Please note, Mount Ontake is an active volcano and your personal safety should be your first priority. The Japan Meteorological Agency provides real-time advice and warnings for the entire country. Prior to visiting Ontake, we recommend checking the following website.
11 / ABURAGIBIRIN FOREST / all year round
This primeval forest, located in the foothills of Mt. Ontake, has been protected for hundreds of years and loved for its natural beauty. Along the nature trail that takes you through the forest, you will find trees that are over three centuries old, misty waterfalls, and beautiful greenery. The trail is also an excellent place to go bird-watching.
12 / KIYOTAKI & SHINTAKI FALLS / all year round
Mount Ontake has long been a spiritual haven and place of worship in the Kiso area. Both Kiyotaki and Shintaki Waterfalls were used by worshippers to purify themselves when making the pilgrimage to the mountain. Some people who are undergoing religious training still wash themselves in the falls to this day. The waterfalls are also sights of natural beauty and, in winter, they partially freeze into humongous ice formations.
13 / MOUNT ONTAKE KODO NATURE WORSHIP TOUR / April to November
Available from July until November, this immersive day-tour takes you along one of the pilgrimage trails of Ontake, deep into the tradition of Japan’s nature worship including visits to Kiyotaki and Shintaki Falls. Long considered sacred, Mount Ontake is Japan’s second tallest volcano – after Mount Fuji – and worshipped by adherents of the Shinto sect ‘Ontake Shinko’,with the most devote practitioners walking the ‘Ontake Kodo’ pilgrimage trails that run through the forests and past waterways and waterfalls of the mountain. Accompanied by an experienced local guide, the walk takes around 3 hours and is mostly downhill over mixed terrain and some raised walkways, suitable for anyone of reasonable fitness.
14 / MOUNT ONTAKE ROPEWAY & FOREST HIKING TOUR / April to November
Also available from July until November, this tour first ascends the Ontake Ropeway to the Iimori Kogen / 7th Station, 2180 metres above sea level. In the shadow of the summit, your guide will introduce you to the principles of Ontake Shinko and Japan’s long history of mountain worship before beginning your ascent down the mountain through the Aburai Birin forest trails and past shrines, stelae and natural features of devotion. Enjoying a traditional ‘bento’ (packed lunch along the way), the walk takes around 4 to 4.5 hours, is mostly downhill and is suitable for anyone of reasonable fitness.
15 / SHIRAKAWA ICE PILLARS / winter: late-December to late-February
This striking 250-meter-wide and 50-meter-high curtain of ice pillars forms as water precipitating from the rock face gradually freezes over the winter. The gigantic ice formation glows in a cool blue hue when the sun shines on it during the day and it is also illuminated at night, making for a mystically beautiful spectacle.
16 / MOMOSUKE BRIDGE / all year round
At 247 meters long, Momose Bridge is one of Japan’s longest wooden suspension bridges. This impressive structure was built in 1922 and reaches over the Kiso River near Nagiso Station. Strolling across the bridge offers you a wonderful view of the Kiso Valley and is a great way to use up the time as you wait for the next train.
17 / NARAI-JUKU ICE CANDLE FESTIVAL / February
This warming winters festival lights up the cold night in Narai Post Town. The historic townscape of Narai is lined with hundreds of candles set in ice, giving the streets a magical glow. You can enjoy sake, mulled wine, and hot soups as you stroll around. The festival is topped off with a round of fireworks!
18 / ENJOY KISO ‘SOBA’ / all year round
With a climate well-suited for growing the buckwheat, ‘soba’ noodles have been eaten in the Kiso Valley for hundreds of years. In fact, Kiso is considered the origin of soba noodles in Japan and one of the best places to enjoy the dish to this day. You will find scores of delectable soba shops throughout the area, so make sure you try some during your visit.
19 / KOZEN-JI ROCK GARDEN / all year round
Kozenji Temple’s beautiful Zen-style rock garden, which spreads out before the backdrop of Kiso’s impressive mountains, is one of the largest in Asia. With its traditional architecture, peaceful gardens, and stunning seasonal views, the entire temple complex itself is an impressive conglomeration of Japanese aesthetics.
20 / LAKE SHIZENKO & OTAKI VILLAGE / best: April to November
Lake Shizenko was formed in the deep forests of Mt. Ontake after an earthquake in 1984 caused a landslide that dammed up the Otaki River. You can enjoy this uncanny yet beautiful scenery with canoe tours offered by Ontake Adventure.
21 / ENJOY KISO’S WARMING ‘SAKE’ / all year round
With an abundant supply of natural water, the Kiso Valley has a long history of sake brewing. It boasts some of the oldest breweries in Nagano Prefecture like Yukawa Sake Brewery and Nishio Sake Brewery which have both been brewing since the 1600s. Try some sake while you’re in Kiso or grab a bottle as a souvenir!
22 / KISO WOODCRAFT / all year round
The rich supply of high-quality wood from Kiso’s vast forests has cultivated a long tradition of fine wood craftsmanship in the area. Fine handcrafted products such as lacquerware, wooden combs, and bent-wood boxes can be found in family-run workshops in Narai and other places in the Kiso Valley. Many of the producers have been in business for multiple generations.
23 / WOODWORKING ACTIVITIES / all year round
Visitors wanting to try their hand a traditional woodcraft can do so at the Furusato Experience Center near Kiso-Fukushima, where you can join a short workshop to craft your own ‘hashi’ (chopsticks) using a hand-plane and guided by an instructor. Simple, great fun and you walk away with a nice memento of your time in Kiso and Japan.
24 / GOHEI MOCHI, HOBA LEAF CUISINE & OTHER TRADITIONAL FOOD / all year round
While you are exploring Kiso, keep an eye out for the region’s unique, traditional foods. Gohei Mochi is a snack made by grilling sticky rice slathered with a sweet soy-miso sauce on a skewer. You may also find a variety of snacks and dishes that use leaves called “hoba” from the Japanese bigleaf magnolia tree. The leaves impart a subtly sweet and floral aroma on the food when used to wrap ingredients such as rice and mochi or when ingredients are grilled upon the leaves.
25 / MIKOSHI MAKURI FESTIVAL / July
Many festivals in Japan involve carrying a ‘mikoshi’, a heavy, portable wooden shrine; throughout the town but the Mikoshi Makuri Festival has a unique twist; the mikoshi is tumbled across the ground (sometimes with people standing on it!), dropped from the air, and eventually destroyed. This exciting festival is held every year on July 22nd and 23rd in Kiso-Fukushima. There are also fireworks on the night of the 22nd. For accommodation listings in the town, see our ‘Kiso-Fukushima & Narai Area’ hotel page.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN VISITING KISO VALLEY & NAKASENDO
The Kiso Valley runs north to south from the area around Shiojiri down to Nakatsugawa. Following the Kiso River and Limited Express Shinano line, the valley covers quite a large area with its many attractions spread-out over distance. Choosing the right area to stay is an important step to getting the most out of your time in the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo, and with that in mind, our ‘Where To Stay In The Kiso Valley & Nakasendo’ page breakdowns your options including the most convenient accommodation areas on offer.
HOW TO GET TO KISO VALLEY & NAKASENDO
Most visitors heading to the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo will do so using the train network. Running from Nagoya to Nagano, the Limited Express Shinano stops at Nakatsugawa Station and Kiso-Fukushima Station, making the area easy to access along one of Japan’s most scenic railway lines. For more information including detailed directions, see our ‘How To Get To The Kiso Valley & Nakasendo’ page.
BOOK WITH US! NAGANO’S NO.1 TOUR & CHARTER OPERATOR
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are a No.1-rated tour and charter operator, offering a range of services including accommodation, transport and tours throughout the region. We have the local knowledge of where and when to go, to help you discover and enjoy the Kiso Valley in comfort. For guests wanting to access the resorts in the comfort of their own transport, we can arrange a private tour or charter customised to fit your needs, starting and ending at any destination in the region.
Our drivers and vehicles are fully certified, allowing us to transport you to and from your preferred destinations, in combination with any activity that suits your interests and schedule including transport to and from any ski resort in the region.
All vehicles are fitted with a protective screen – separating the driver from passenger and luggage area – and our drivers wear protective masks, allowing you to move between your destinations in comfort and safety.
We can arrange both private tours with an English-speaking guide or a private charter, including a private vehicle and driver but without a guide. We’d love to be part of that experience and help you discover even more!
Why choose us?
Awarded a 2019 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award for our 1-Day Snow Monkeys, Zenko-ji Temple & Sake Tour – recognised as one of the Top 10 Experiences in Japan – we have the local knowledge and experience to help you get the most out of your time in Central Japan.
Got a question about visiting the Kiso Valley and Central Japan? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s get planning together!