VIDEO| An autumn drive to Japan’s Kiso Valley

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

VIDEO| An autumn drive to Japan’s Kiso Valley

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

For nearly six months, my wife and I have stuck close to home to avoid COVID-19. As the number of infections slowly starts to decline and restrictions on travel are lifted, we embarked on a daytrip to nearby Nagano Prefecture for a change of scenery, to stretch our legs, take a fresh breath of air and recharge.

Kiso Valley is about a 3.5-hour drive from our home in Yokosuka City, near the U.S. naval base. Here, you will find beautiful landscapes, including the majestic Japanese Alps, clean rivers and impressive villages where old traditional buildings, homes, temples and shrines await.

Seeking to take advantage of a full day in Nagano, we hit the road at around 3 a.m. to avoid traffic and enjoy a pleasant, stress-free drive.

Our first peek at Kiso Valley was of the crystal-clear Kiso River, impressive mountains and bright greenery illuminated by the early morning sun. We could not contain our excitement and opened the car windows to take in the fresh mountain air.

Our first stop was Kisomura, a rest stop with a sizeable shopping area, for a quick break. Here, visitors can buy virtually any local product Kiso Valley is known for. Pick up local vegetables, honey, sweets, sake and noodles, or even wooden and ceramic crafts. We left Kisomura with fresh vegetables and honey before heading to a local tourist attraction, Naraijuku.

Naraijuku is an old station town on the old Nakasendo Highway which connected Tokyo and Kyoto in the Edo Era (1603-1867). This town offers many elegant wooden houses and roads in their original condition perfect for photos and a trip to “old Japan.”

With our car parked safely at a public parking lot near JR Narai Station, my wife and I took in this quaint village. Though many of the shops and restaurants were still closed, we enjoyed the quiet walk with no crowds. At the edge of town, we reached Shizume Jinja, a Shinto shrine that enshrines a god of warding off evil and epidemic, a fitting place to go pray for the end of the current global pandemic.

The next location on our list was Nezame no Toko, known as one of the five most beautiful valleys in Japan. There, from Rinsenzenji, a Buddhist temple, we were given a breathtaking view of the valley with its countless white rock formations, the deep turquoise water of the Kiso River and the thick green forest.

We walked from the temple to the bottom of the valley down a long rock stairway. Along the way, we saw a small temple on one of the large white rocks and enjoyed the view from the river for a while.

It was already 2 p.m. and time for lunch, so we made our way to Kisofukushima Town for the region’s favorite soba noodles. Nagano Prefecture is famous for buckwheat production, which also means tasty soba!

Among numerous soba joints scattered in the Kiso area, Kurumaya is known as one of the best, and its unique flavor and texture of well-grounded buckwheat noodles attracts soba noodle enthusiasts from all over.

Upon entering Kurumaya, we disinfected our hands, then were seated at a tatami floor table away from other patrons as the restaurant followed social distancing measures. We ordered zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodle) for 1,220 yen (about $11.50) and tempura soba for 1,880 yen.

The soba noodle at Kurumaya literally charmed me with the pleasant aroma, perfect chew, and sweet and smooth flavor. The shrimp and vegetable tempura were hot and crispy and went well with the high-grade buckwheat noodles and broth. Even my wife was impressed. “It was one of the most delicious soba noodles I’ve ever sampled,” she said.

After lunch, we walked within the small town of Kisofukushima along the Kiso River. The town had a sort of 1970s nostalgic feel to it and, again, no crowds so we could breathe comfortably and enjoy our stroll.

We breathed in the mountain air as much as we could, thankful to be out after six months of staying in. Then, we hopped in our car for the long trip home at around 4 p.m.

Though the drive back was a little longer, there was no traffic and the mountain air kept us feeling refreshed and energized until we got home.

Kiso Valley is beautiful and the perfect place to shake the cabin fever, even for a few hours. It’s definitely a place you’ll enjoy as the leaves start to turn and the fall season picks up in Japan. Add it to your list, you won’t regret it!

* Though Nagano Prefecture lifted its COVID-19 warning, the local government still encourages the residents and visitors to follow the basic prevention guidelines, such as keeping social distancing, wearing facemasks in crowded locations and washing hands.


Michinoeki (Road Station) Kisomura
Location: 163-1 Yabuhara, Kisomura, Kiso-gun, Nagano Prefecture (a 3.5-hour drive from Yokosuka Naval Base)
Tel: 0264-36-1050

Location (Naraijuku Tourist Center): 497-3 Narai, Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture (a 10-minute drive from Road Station Kisomura)
Tel: 0264-24-0024

Location: 1704 Agematsu, Agematsu Town, Kiso-gun, Nagano Prefecture (a 40-minute drive from Naraijuku)
Tel: 0264-52-1133

Kurumaya (Japanese noodle joint)
Location: 5367-2 Fukushima, Kiso Town, Kiso-gun, Nagano Prefecture (a 15-minute drive from Nezame-no-toko)
Hours: 11 a.m. – (close when noodles run out)
Tel: 0264-22-2200

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