02 Oct 20
Discovering the secrets of Kiso-Fukushima
Kiso-Fukushima is the 37th Edo post station and was the most important in the Kiso Valley, flourishing as a wealthy centre of politics, economy and culture. It’s a great location to get a real insight into the fascinating history of the Edo period and the importance of the Nakasendo Way during this time. Possibly as I spent the most time here, Kiso-Fukushima was a favourite on my Nakasendo Way journey.
The town is located around the Kiso River with plenty of lush forest, which is particularly stunning during the height of the autumn colours (generally late October/early November). Kiso-Fukushima is larger than most of the post towns but it is still a quiet and relaxing place with plenty to see, do and explore.
TOP THINGS TO DO
MUSEUMS & TEMPLES
To gain an understanding of the importance of Kiso-Fukushima during the Edo period and to see Asia’s largest ‘dry’ rock garden, the following places are well worth a visit.
During the Edo period, the Yamamura family held immense political power in the area with governor Yamamura overseeing the Fukushima Sekisho barrier checkpoint. He was a very wealthy and powerful figure in the community and the current residence was once part of a larger mansion and gardens. The building has been reconstructed and showcases a number of Edo period relics and views over the garden. Original documents, ceramics, weapons and clothing are on display.
This checkpoint was one of two along the historic Nakasendo highway. (The other being in Usui, which is north-east of Nagano.) This barrier station was in a strategic location and founded 270 years ago to collect taxes and monitor traffic coming from and going to Edo (Tokyo). Travellers coming through here were made to wait, present passes and were often searched before being able to continue. Women belonging to feudal families weren’t supposed to leave Edo but were sometimes found in disguise. Inside the museum, which has been well restored, you can see the instruments used to maintain order, including weapons and wooden travel passes.
Kozen-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple and has the largest dry rock garden in Asia. The ‘dry’ garden here has been raked to resemble clouds over the valley. It’s a lovely place to sit and relax. There’s also a collection of zen ink painting and treasures on display here.
If you’d like to visit all three sites, you can buy a combination ticket at the first place you visit for 900 yen. It’s nice to visit these sites in the morning. Allow about 2.5 hours.
PUBLIC FOOT BATH
This free public footbath is located in the town centre and next to the Kiso River (about a 5-minute walk from Kiso-Fukushima train station). The steaming, natural hot-spring water really is wonderfully soothing for tired legs and is a real treat once you adjust to the heat. I recommend heading straight here following your arrival into Kiso-Fukushima after your day’s hike. There is also a short reflexology path you may like to try after a soak. It’s a good idea to have a small towel handy in your daypack to dry your feet.
KISO-FUKUSHIMA OLD TOWN
This lovely strip, known as Ue-no-dan, is a great place to take a stroll and view the preserved Edo-style wooden buildings. The Daitsuji Temple is located in this area and some buildings have been converted into craft galleries, cafes and restaurants, including Matsushima-Tei, an Italian restaurant in a 160-year-old beautifully restored building. The food here may be Italian but the building itself is very Japanese.
At 3,067m, Mt Ontake is Japan’s second highest volcano and has long been a place of sacred worship and a drawcard for pilgrims. This nature-focused spiritual culture still thrives today with practitioners coming from all across Japan to walk the Ontake Pilgrimage Trail to the summit. The religion practised here is a blend of Shinto and esoteric Buddhism along with ancient shamanic lore.
To get there, take a bus from Kiso-Fukushima (approx. 1 hour) bound for Tanohara to the final stop and you can start hiking from there. There are some great trails to explore around the base of the mountain and you’ll likely find a number of religious monuments along your walk. (Buses run just three times a day, so check the schedule.)
At certain times of the year, you can also take a bus further up to the Ontake Ropeway (gondola), taking you to 2,100m where you’ll be just a couple of hours’ hike from the summit. It’s best to check with the Kiso Ontake Tourism office regarding the bus timetables, for any trail closures and if the Ropeway is open, prior to setting off.
For those wanting to give their legs a rest while still exploring, you might like to book a kayaking activity on nearby Mt Otake. This option is really peaceful and relaxing, with an easy paddle around the lake. It’s suitable for first-time kayakers.
Additionally, if you’d like to explore some more cultural activities, check in with Kiso Ontake Tourism as the nearby Kiso-Fukushima Country Experience Centre offers soba noodle making lessons or you might like to make your own chopsticks.
I experienced some wonderful meals here of such a high quality and so fresh. The region is particularly known for its soba noodles and Oyaki (a regional style of dumpling). While I don’t eat red meat myself, I’m happy to take the word of others that the Kiso beef is outstanding.