Even in its heyday, the Nakasendo trail was never quite as popular as the Tokaido — never quite so developed, and never quite so wealthy. While the Tokaido road hugged the coast, cutting a wider, flatter path on its 514-kilometer journey between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto, the Nakasendo connected the two cities via Japan’s mountainous interior, rolling over altogether more rugged terrain.
Little about that relationship has changed since the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868). Today, the corridor through which the old Tokaido road ran is the most heavily traveled part of the country, home to the Tokaido Shinkansen line that connects Tokyo to Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka; various expressways between those cities; and the endless sprawl of Japanese suburbia. The Nakasendo, though hardly undeveloped, still remains the Tokaido’s less-accessible and less-explored cousin.
In Nagano Prefecture’s Kiso Valley there is a particularly fine extant portion of the Nakasendo, an easy to walk, well-signposted 8-kilometer route that runs between the two former post towns of Magome and Tsumago. These post towns evolved to cater to the Nakasendo’s travelers, and were made rich by the Edo Period policy of sankin-kōtai, under which feudal lords and their families had to commute regularly between their fiefdom and the capital.
On a guided tour of a cobbled portion of the trail organised by the Zenagi hotel, guide Mamoru Sekiguchi explains the region’s history, fauna (there are bears here, and apparently plenty of them) and flora. Low down we find kumazasa grass, a medicinal plant that takes its name not from the bear (also “kuma“), but from theater — the leaves’ variegated patterns are said to look like the stage makeup worn by kabuki actors. Also hidden among the bushes are weathered jizō, small bodhisattva statues that are said to be guardians for travelers and the weak.
The real treat is not at floor-level, but instead above, where the eye is drawn to the vast trunks of the hinoki cypress trees that stretch high into the forest canopy. The Kiso Valley has historically supplied the fragrant hinoki timber used to rebuild the Grand Shrines of Ise — Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine — every 20 years. To ensure supply, during the Edo Period, hinoki were protected by law, alongside four other species that bore a resemblance to the tree — sawara, nezuko, asunaro (all species of cypress) and koyamaki (Japanese umbrella pine). The punishment for plundering the protected resource? An arm for a branch, a head for a tree. The result today is the Kiso Valley’s pristine forests, and trees that date back centuries.
Entering Tsumago, the eye turns back downward, to the lanes of Edo Period buildings that have been restored and rebuilt en masse. Due to the prescient actions of residents in the 1960s to preserve the post town, the rapid development that robbed much of the rest of the country of its oldest buildings has not made a dent on the hillside village: not a single telegraph pole or wire pollutes the sky, and residents are forbidden to demolish, rent or sell the buildings.
In 1976, the town was named a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site by the Japanese government, the first of its kind, and it boasts many notable Nakasendo-era buildings. One of the finest is Wakihonjin, a guesthouse for feudal lords traveling the road to the capital and back. Formerly owned by the Hayashi family, the building survived the decline of the Nakasendo on the fortunes of the family’s sake business and was then rebuilt in 1877 in its current grandeur. It is now preserved as a museum to the town’s history.
Inside, a cast iron kettle sits above a gently burning log fire, and light streams through the open wooden slats used to provide ventilation. Visible through the sliding shoji screens on the north side of the building is a well-kept moss garden, oriented so that the garden’s flowers grow toward the south and so can be seen from the former guest rooms. These rooms are where the visiting Emperor Meiji took tea at the establishment in 1880 and the wooden table from which he was served is preserved in situ, along with a bath and toilet made for the emperor in case he so felt the desire — still unused to this day.
It is a short drive from Tsumago to Zenagi, a luxury hotel situated in Tadachi, a quiet offshoot valley to the north of the Kiso River. Zenagi opened this April inside a restored and repurposed 300-year-old farmhouse that sits at the top of the valley with its back to the mountains and overlooking the farmland below. Just three rooms lead off the central hall that functions as the hotel’s genkan (entrance hall), dining room and communal area. Each is built on two levels, utilizing the ground floor and the farmhouse’s mezzanine, formerly used to produce and store silk.
On the mezzanine level, the interior wall is made of glass, allowing guests to look from their bedrooms into the rafters of the main hall, positioning them within the structure of the building. At the other end of the room, beds sit snugly beneath sloping rafters that give the rooms a cozy if slightly claustrophobic feel. Light floods the room through the long windows, under which there is a vast chaise lounge. The ground floor complements the upper level with a spacious bathroom complete with hinoki bathtub, rainforest shower and views across the hotel’s stone garden to the mountains. In the city all this glass would afford little privacy, but here in the Japanese countryside with few neighbors, it creates a feeling of immersion within the nature that surrounds the hotel.
Though Zenagi is sublimely comfortable, it is not just a countryside retreat. It styles itself as an “expedition hotel” and offers a broad program of guided adventure activities to its guests in both English and Japanese. These range from the aforementioned historical tour of Tsumago and the Nakasendo trail, moving through to e-mountain biking — the “e” is for electric, which seems like a gimmick at first, but turns out to be fantastic fun — to river canyoning and paragliding above the Kiso Valley. The activities continue year-round, with winter sports on offer once it begins to snow. Zenagi provides all the gear, and the necessary expertise to conduct the activities safely.
The focus on extreme sports is unsurprising when you look toward Zenagi’s team of directors, which includes past Olympic athlete Taro Ando, who now coaches Japan’s canoeing national team, and former world champions in sports including paragliding, snowboarding and mountain biking. The team first assembled to compete in Austria’s Dolomitenmann, an extreme sports relay that combines trail running, paragliding, mountain biking and kayaking, before turning their efforts to the Zenagi project under the leadership of TV documentarian Muneyuki Okabe.
The group is well-respected and connected in the extreme sports world, and this affords Zenagi and its guests access to some of the Kiso Valley’s most remote areas, including to a restricted area of protected forest within the nearby Kakizore Valley. There guests can experience canyoning and other water-sports along the Kakizore River, an emerald tributary that races down to meet the Kiso River via a series of dramatic waterfalls.
Regional revitalization is Zenagi’s second focus. On its culture-based excursions, guests can visit local craftsmen such as woodworker Kijiya Yamato of Wood Crafts Yamato Studio, whose family has occupied the same spot in the Kiso Valley for four generations and has been collectively working wood for the best part of a millennium. Yamato leads woodworking workshops and guides visitors through the studio, which specializes in wood-turned lacquerware. In Tsumago, a must-visit is Obarajun, a speciality shirt and suit shop owned and run by Jun Obara, who hand-stitches indigo-dyed fabrics into intricate Edo Period-influenced designs. Obara is brusque, but welcomes anyone with curiosity into his musty little shop; the clothing is expensive but one of a kind.
The menu at Zenagi is similarly based on the local, and relies heavily on seasonal ingredients from the Kiso Valley and greater Nagano Prefecture. The restaurant serves three meals at counter or table seating (choose the counter to see the chefs at work), but the main affair is dinner. There are only two choices to be had here: Japanese or Western, and both have been designed by Michelin-starred chefs — Hidehito Uchiyama of Ginza Uchiyama for the Japanese course and Patrizia Di Benedetto from Bye Bye Blues in Sicily for the Western.
Though the presentation differs, the constituent ingredients for the two menus are largely the same, and include a selection of regional produce such as wild plants and vegetables, wild boar, snow trout, venison and, occasionally, as a byproduct of local population control measures, bear. Dietary requirements are catered to, and the vegetarian alternatives allow for a deeper exploration of the region’s edible plantlife. The drinks menu also focuses on the local, with regional sake, craft beer and wines, although there is also a strong selection of European wines for those wanting something more continental. The food stands up to some of Tokyo’s finest establishments, but to find it in deepest Nagano Prefecture after a hard day’s exploring is special indeed.
Post-dinner and with nothing on the mind but a full belly, thoughts turn to Zenagi’s final asset: true quiet. Out in the Kiso Valley, there is little to hear but the chirp of crickets and cicadas, and the wind rustling through the trees. Up in the rafters all is calm — it would be nice to stay awake to enjoy the comfort, but sleep beckons too quickly.
The Kiso Valley and Nakasendo trail can be accessed by limited express train from Nagoya. Rooms at Zenagi are from ¥120,000 per person per night, including full board and chosen adventure program. The author received assistance from the Zenagi hotel while researching this article.