Travel | PHOTO ESSAY

The Nagano village that modernity forgot

Venturing off the historic Nakasendo route 
you’ll find a tiny mountain village where time has stopped and the forest is slowly encroaching

by Ben Beech

Special To The Japan Times

There is no hot water in Odairajuku, no gas-powered stoves, no fridges and — most importantly — no internet. The nearest supermarket is an hour away by car, and so is the nearest place to get a signal on your phone. But what this tiny village in southern Nagano Prefecture does offer is something that’s becoming more difficult to find in Japan: a complete escape from modern life.

I first came here almost a decade ago, while living in another small Nagano village. My friends and I would visit in summer to escape the stifling heat and, since moving to Tokyo, I’ve made a point of returning every couple of years.

I come here to unplug from the stresses of life in a big city. There’s something relaxing about preparing food over an open fire, with humming cicadas and a gurgling stream in the background.

But Odairajuku wasn’t always so quiet. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), travelers from all walks of life — samurai, merchants, pilgrims and lords with their clans — passed through this area as they journeyed along the Nakasendo, a 533-kilometer inland route that connected the cities of Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Plants have overtaken the local Shinto shrine.
Plants have overtaken the local Shinto shrine. | BEN BEECH

A total of 69 stations were dotted along the route, providing food and lodging to weary travelers. And although Odairajuku wasn’t officially one of those towns — like the more well-known villages of Tsumago and Magome — it still benefited from its proximity to the old highway.

As Japan modernized in the early 20th century, the village’s distance from cities such as Tokyo, Niigata and Kyoto meant it was slowly forgotten about. Abandoned after World War II, it sat in ruins until the workers at a local NPO, Odaira, began reviving the village’s 12 decaying buildings. Thanks to their efforts the village is open once again to travelers passing through Nagano’s Kiso mountains. Holes in roofs may have been filled, foundations may have been fixed and chimneys replaced, but little has changed here in the past century. Evidence of Odairajuku’s former life can be seen in the disused school and Shinto shrine that is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Each home is lined with tatami mats and weathered wood.
Each home is lined with tatami mats and weathered wood. | BEN BEECH

There is little inside the lodgings except an irori (open hearth) to cook your food over, a traditional kamado rice cooker, which can be heated with a wood fire, and tatami straw mats to sleep on. Electric power cables have been installed for a few overhead lamps.

Since the village is so isolated, preparations and planning for all meals is essential. You’ll need to bring wood, food and drink, and your own pots, plates and cutlery. Other essentials include torches (the existing lamps are dim), insect repellent, and suitable sleeping gear. Even at the height of summer it can get a little chilly in the early hours of the morning, so warm clothes are also recommended.

A sea of green: The forest surrounding Odairajuku is healthy and full of life.
A sea of green: The forest surrounding Odairajuku is healthy and full of life. | BEN BEECH

Although there are few facilities in the village, you quickly learn how to manage without modern conveniences. Food and drinks can be kept cool in the stream outside. Rice can be cooked the traditional way, and you can heat the cold bathwater with a wood-fire stove.

When I’m here, I like to work up a sweat early in the morning by running to the old shrine before making my way down to the river. Crossing from rock to rock I head upstream to shower under a waterfall. The water is ice-cold and clear; there are no buildings and few people in sight. Just the forest on all sides. Tokyo is a distant memory — if only temporarily.

Fire starter: Life in Odairajuku’s houses revolves around the irori (open hearth), which can be used to cook food or boil water.
Fire starter: Life in Odairajuku’s houses revolves around the irori (open hearth), which can be used to cook food or boil water. | BEN BEECH

Odairajuku is open from March to November, while roads are free from snow. To book accommodation, contact Odaira NPO (Japanese) on 0265-53-6060 to check available dates. The key to each house can be picked up from Arus Sports in the nearby city of Iida, Nagano Prefecture. Iida is roughly a three-hour drive from Tokyo, and Odairajuku is another hour from Iida through the Kiso mountains. There is no public transport. For more details, in Japanese, visit www.oodaira.org.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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