This trail was one of the most traversed by all sorts of travellers, and therefore ‘shukuba’, i.e. post towns which travellers could rest and rejuvenate, were littered all along the 534-kilometre route to serve and provide accommodation.
Narai Juku was number 34 of the 69 various stations along Nakasendo, and still today marks the mid-way point of the entire route. Whilst majority of the shukuba have been demolished overtime and replaced by modern establishments, there are still a handful which have been beautifully preserved to look and feel as though they’ve been plucked out of the 1600s and brought to the present day, and the quaint town of Narai Juku is one of them.
Located on the mountainside of the ever-popular Kiso Valley, right in the city of Shiojiri, Narai Juku is a slightly lesser known than its southern counterparts, Magome and Tsumago, which also sit on the Nakasendo Trail.
However, it’s the perfect one to visit if you want to explore an entire town on foot leisurely, like to shop for unique hand-crafted ornaments, and really want to feel as though you’ve been transported back into historic Japan. It’s been so well-preserved that many tourists have left feeling as though they’ve just stepped out of a well-crafted movie-set.
How To Get To Narai Juku
From Tokyo or Kyoto, take the Shinkansen to Nagoya. From Nagoya, take the JR Shinano express train to Kiso-Fukushima station, and transfer to the JR Chuo line to Narai Station. The whole trip can be covered by your JR Pass. You can check out the train times on Hyperdia.
By the way, if you are looking for more useful websites to use in Japan, make sure you read this blog post: 10 Useful Websites & Apps Japan.
Where To Stay In Narai Juku
We recommend staying in nearby cities at the following accommodation:
Ryokan in Shiojiri – Asahikan
If you’re exploring Old Japan, you may as well stay in a traditional Japanese inn for the full circle experience! Asahikan, which is a ryokan located in the Shiojiri, is a quaint accommodation offering comfortable, spacious and clean guest rooms for anyone visiting the area. Whilst it’s authentic at its core, it also offers western-style bedding on top of its Japanese-style bedding with futons.
The ryokan is located close to the station, making it a perfect base to explore Narai Juku, and is within walkable distance to various amenities in Shiojiri. For ultimate comfort and convenience, there is free Wi-Fi for all guests, free private parking for those driving, air-conditioning in all rooms and a private bathroom, and you can enjoy a delicious traditional Japanese breakfast there.
Why Guests Love It: The location was definitely the best thing about this place; it’s literally minutes from the station, lots of restaurants, snack bars, and convenience stores. Whilst the staff members don’t speak English, they’re very accommodating. Guest rooms were all spacious and comfortable.
Book It Now: Asahikan
How To Get To Narai Juku: Take the JR Chuo Line to Narai Station. This will take 32-minutes, and cost 420 yen.
Ryokan in Matsumoto – Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu
Boasting the fact that it’s the oldest hotel in Matsumoto, you would expect Hotel Kagetsu to look very traditional, however, in 2016 it underwent major renovation with both its interior and exterior, and now displays a wonderful fusion of heritage and contemporary designs. It’s retained a traditional look, but with touches of modernity to it.
Well-appointed guest rooms all come with air-conditioning for comfort, and free Wi-Fi. There is also a public onsen onsite for all guests to use, and free bike rental for casual exploration of the town. It’s also only 5-minutes by bus from JR Matsumoto Station, and a 5-minute walk from the historic and beautiful Matsumoto Castle (which is part of our top 10 best castles in Japan).
Why Guests Love It: The free bikes were a welcome addition to the hotel, as it made for a fantastic way to explore the surrounding area. The rooms were very spacious, and the overall ambience of the hotel was relaxing comfortable. The rooftop terrace is especially recommended at sunset.
Book It Now: Matsumoto Kagetsu
How To Get To Narai Juku: Take the JR Shinonoi Line from Matsumoto Station to Narai Station. This will take just under an hour, and will cost 590 yen.
Now, let’s discover the best things to Narai Juku.
Hike the Nakasendo Trail from Yabuhara to Narai
Whilst you can easily spend the day exploring Narai Juku on foot (its main strip is only one kilometre, after all), there is one hiking trail to and from Narai Juku that is rather off the beaten path, but will give you an outdoor experience quite unlike any other in Japan. That is the Yabuhara to Narai trail.
Yabuhara is another old post town along the Nakasendo trail that hasn’t been completely demolished and replaced with modern structures.
Whilst it doesn’t boast as many shops and restaurants as Narai Juku does, it’s got a distinctly more Zen ambience, and if you take some time to explore the smaller side streets and alleyways, you’ll find some hidden gems there to take some unique photos.
We recommend starting the trail early in the morning at Yabuhara and ending at Narai Juku, so there are more options to have a well-deserved lunch at.
When you arrive at Yabuhara station, you will see a sign which will indicate where the start of the Yabuhara – Narai trail is. Follow the sign through town and up the mountain. You will know you’re on the right track once you reach the Torii-toge Mountain Pass (1900m into the trail). Continue along the path as it leads you down the mountain and towards the centre of Narai Juku.
Some tips that we recommend you look into before you start your trip:
- Remember to pack some light refreshments and food for the hike, which will most likely take 3-ish hours!
- Start as early as you can, so that you get the best lighting possible and have time to recuperate if you somehow get lost along the way (although we highly doubt it, as the path is quite obvious all along the way)
- Make sure you use Hyperdia to check the train times to and from Yabuhara and Narai Juku, as missing one train might mean you have to wait more than an hour until the next one arrives.
- Keep your eyes peeled for serows (furry Japanese goats) and monkeys in the woods. If you want to be extra cautious, bring bells with you for the trip.
- Starting Point: Yabuhara Station
- Trail Time: 3-hours
- Difficulty Level: Beginner/Easy
Documented as being the longest wooden bridge across the entirety of Japan, it is 33-metres and absolutely stunning at any time of the day. It’s made of cypress trees, and you can just see how well-preserved and quality it is from the moment you lay eyes on it.
The best time to visit this famous bridge is from April until November, as the bridge actually becomes lit up after the sun sets, and present a glorious sight in the middle of the night, like something out of a fantasy movie.
With Japan’s record of how intense and stunning their illuminations are, you can bet this water-side structure will be quite a sight. If you’re visiting during the day, there is a park right near the bridge where you can relax and just take in the tranquil sight.
- Address: Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano 399-6303, Japan
- Access: From the station, it’s only a 10-minute walk.
Eat Your Heart Out In Narai Juku
One of the best things about visiting small towns outside of the city centre is coming across local dishes prepared with fresh produce that’s specific to that region, and that’s exactly what you should be excited about when you visiting Narai Juku.
Along its main strip, there are plenty of restaurants and snack stalls that you can dip into, to try various food items. Dishes to look out for include steamed buns with wild vegetables filling, fresh soba noodles, ‘gohei onigiri’, which is a local specialty rice ball made with sesame and miso sauces, and ‘oyaki’, which are flour buns that are filled with vegetables such as dried radish and nozawana (a Japanese leaf vegetable), and baked.
Each shop flavours and cooks their snacks and dishes differently so if you have the appetite for it, we suggest trying bits and pieces from different stalls!
Narakawa Museum of History and Folklore
For those who are interested in learning a bit of the history of the region, this museum is quaint, yet is bursting with exhibitions and information regarding the life and customers of the people in the Kiso Valley area. Here, you can expect to see such things as preserved locally-painted combs, folk arts and craft, and various forms of wooden furniture. You will also come across articles from the festival of Shizume Jinja (shrine in Narai Juku).
This is a small attraction for those who have a few hours to spare. They also provide English brochures so you won’t be completely in the dark!
- Address: 68 Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano 399-6303, Japan
- Access: It’s located on the southern end of town (Japanese name: 楢川歴史民俗資料館)
- Hours: 9:00am – 5:00pm (Closed from December-March, and every Monday).
- Price: Adults: 300 yen, Students: Free
Narai Juku may be small in size, but it definitely packs a punch. It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto, one that immerses you into the beautiful natural landscape of Japan and transports you back thousands of years into the country’s rich history. For some real off-the-beaten-path food safaris, hiking trails, and historical photo opportunities, add Narai Juku onto your list.
If you are into ancient Japanese post towns, you can also check out the beautiful Ouchi-juku located near Aizu Wakamatsu.
PS: If you want to visit another gorgeous area in Nagano, make sure to check out Karuizawa!