I was thinking about Narai today. It sprang to mind, unbidden, while I was driving somewhere else, and all day visions of the little streets and old buildings haunted me. Memories double-exposed over the place I was really in.
Like so many other places I’ve been to, and been back to, that little Nagano Prefecture town is caught up in memories. It’s a place on the map that I pin things to: old dreams and experiences, the way I felt at the time, so that they don’t vaporize and I can remember who I was then, and when I was there.
Tucked in the deep, green cut where the Kiso River finds its way between the Kiso and the Hida ranges, Narai was the 34th of 69 post stations on the Nakasendo Road, which formed a cross-country link from the Imperial capital of Kyoto to the political capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) during the period when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan (1603-1867).
To this day, Narai’s slat-clad, weather-worn buildings are identical to those in hand-tinted images from the dawn of photography in the succeeding Meiji Era (1868-1912). In many ways, Narai is simultaneously what Japan was, and how it remembers what it used to be.
It was late November the first time I visited, years ago now. We pulled off the National Route 19 that loosely follows the Edo Period highway, crossed the rushing babble of the Kiso River, and parked in the public lot at the north end of town. The four of us together on that day unfolded from the car, and set out down the road.
A chill wind blew down the Nakasendo, chasing a scattering of dry leaves before it. Flat gray skies held the promise of snow further up, and the air in town was bitter. My sister, along on that late-autumn visit, slipped her gloved hand into her boyfriend’s hand, and I remember how happy she was, and how happy I was for her. I tucked my own hand into my guy’s as we walked delightedly on.
Narai is the heart of the Kiso lacquer-making industry, and the shops lining the street that was the old roadway are thriving businesses selling lacquerware and all kinds of touristy knickknacks; restaurants specializing, like so many others in Nagano Prefecture, in the area’s buckwheat soba noodles; and more surprisingly, a handful of trendy cafes.
We split up into couples, and went our separate ways, exploring the little shops and backstreets. My guy and I walked to where the old road turned into an unpaved track that wound up the hillside.
Turning back, we found ourselves climbing the leaf-carpeted steps of a tiny shrine that hugged the side of the hill where houses gave way to fir-scented forests, and looking out over the roofs of the town to the river beyond.
Memory can fade a place to its outlines. Though I’ve been back since, for the life of me I’ve been unable to recall the name of the coffee shop where we four met again for tea and apple cake and warmed ourselves in the radiant heat of the cast-iron stove, laughing about the salty cherry blossom tea we’d all been given in one of the little shops — an acquired taste, it seemed.
In early summer, the town remembers the traffic of the old post road with a festival, and visitors come by train and car, and stand, lining the narrow road, as the procession goes by. My guy and I had just come back to Japan after a couple of years away, and we took a slow train down the Chuo Line, excited to be out exploring again.
The hillsides were so brightly green with new leaves that it almost hurt to look at them. Under clear skies, the mountains rose up steeply from the sides of the valley, and the old post-town buildings drew our eyes along the storied highway where locals were setting up food and drinks stalls.
The procession hadn’t yet started, and we stopped to watch the fascinating process of a craftsman bending wood for curved lunchboxes, strong hands rolling and shaping the heated strips of wood deftly and with a practiced grace.
The festival celebrates the Edo Period custom of bringing Kyoto tea along the old highway, bound for the Tokugawa Shogun in Edo. Tea came with as much pomp and circumstance as any of the daimyo lords who traveled the road with their splendid retinues, and the event was not unlike the yakko-buri processions staged in a festive spirit around the country to reenact an ancient lord’s passage through the district with his entourage.
In the shady afternoon, we wandered to the far end of town and paid our respects to the 200 Buddhist Jizo statues which once punctuated the old Nakasendo, but were moved to a quiet, leafy glade at Narai’s edge, pushed out to make room for a new highway. It’s a peaceful spot, and we stayed a while, talking of our plans and dreams for the year to come.
Winter comes down early from the high mountains, the peaks white against the blue of the early winter sky, the hillsides snowy beneath evergreen forests of sugi (Japanese cedar; Cryptomeria japonica) and hinoki (Japanese cypress; Chamaecyparis obtusa) for which the area was long famed. And, once down, the season of longest nights lingers there, cold and severe, in the narrow, shaded valley.
February in Narai is bone-chilling. One time I went there then to take photographs, to explore the town — and to exorcise that part of myself that loathes traveling without a companion, ever-frustrated at having no one with whom to share and discuss experiences, and wanting a friend to read the signs while I take photographs, or to point out something I might have missed.
I arrived again at the station on the local train, prying open the doors by hand, stepping breathless onto the deserted platform, and made my way along the street from the station. Overhead, clouds hung low across the mountain slopes. Snow clung to the sides of the hills, dark green with fir trees; a biting wind howled down the valley. Sudden squalls of snow hazed the road ahead of me, hiding pines and old roof-lines behind sideways-driven flurries.
After an hour or so visiting the little shops, browsing the smooth, lacquered wood bowls, vases and utensils, and taking photographs of the deserted streets, the public wells too cold for drinking from, I took refuge in a cafe and warmed myself with hot coffee and cake.
Back out on the streets I wandered through snow flurries and sunny periods, working my way slowly towards the Jizo statues. In the clearing, everything was white with snow, the red-aproned statues blanketed in for winter. I stood for a while, taking photographs and thinking about my other visits, and about the town. In a sense, I wasn’t alone at all: The past was there, close beside me.
In Narai, as in many places in Japan, past and present and then and now aren’t really all that separate. And it’s comforting to know that there’s a place, tucked away in a cool valley among green hills, where I can go and visit those old memories.
Getting there: Narai is easily accessed on the JR Chuo Line from Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture or from Nagano City. However, Limited Express trains between those cities do not stop there, so it’s necessary to change to a local train at Shiojiri or Kiso-Fukushima in Nagano Prefecture. From Tokyo, take the JR Azusa Limited Express from Shinjuku Station and change at Shiojiri, or take the Tokaido shinkansen to Nagoya and go on from there. Narai can be visited as an easy day trip, but there’s plenty of accommodation for those wanting to stay overnight. There are also colorful festivals held on the first weekend in June and again on Aug. 12 each year.