Head out to Nagano, where tradition and nature exist side by side
A trip to visit Nagano and Gifu this time starts from Nagano Station, about one hour and 40 minutes by Nagano Shinkansen from Tokyo Station. JR Japan Rail Pass, a pass only visitors from overseas are eligible to purchase, provides a reasonable price for travelling by train. However, you are required to purchase an exchange order before entering Japan. Please see the following website for details.
Once you arrive in Nagano, visit Zenko-ji Temple first, which has a proud approximately 1,400 years of history. The main hall of Zenko-ji Temple has been designated as a national treasure and historical buildings including important cultural properties stand in its grounds. Especially during the period of April 5th to May 31st in 2015, an event of Zenko-ji Gokaicho, held once in 7 years, will be held. Gokaicho is an event where the Maedachi Honzon (the copy of the Honzon, a hidden Buddhist statue) at the temple that is usually not open to the public is shown to the public. It takes about 15 minutes by bus from JR Nagano Station to Zenko-ji Temple.
There is a unique spot that you cannot miss when you visit Nagano. Onsen or hot spring is not a place where only human beings soak. In Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, wild monkeys can be found relaxing in the hot spring. A place where you can see monkeys bathing in a hot spring is rare in the world, and you cannot help but smile at such an adorable sight. To get to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, take a limited express train of Nagano Dentetsu or Nagano Electric Railway from Nagano Station to Yudanaka Station (about 45 minutes), take a bus from Yudanaka Station (about 15 minutes) and then walk for 30 minutes.
Be sure to stop by Matsumoto on the way from Nagano to Gifu. The biggest highlight of Matsumoto is the Matsumoto Castle. The main keep of the castle, whose condition has been kept as good as it was 400 years ago, is designated as a national treasure, and the ruins of the castle are designated as a national historic site. You are able to tour around the castle and you can also enjoy the view of the Japan Alps, one of the highest mountain ranges in Japan, from upper floors of the castle.
Travel Kisoji Road where the scenery from 400 years ago still remains
A historic highway called Nakasendo runs from Shiojiri, located in the south of Matsumoto, toward Gifu Prefecture. Nakasendo is one of the highways developed to connect Kyoto and Edo (an old name for Tokyo) more than 400 years ago, and the part of the road that runs through this area is called Kisoji Road. It is about 20 minutes from Matsumoto to Shiojiri by train on JR Shinonoi Line.
Kisoji Road has 11 rest stop towns in total along the road, one at about every 10km (6.2 miles). Among them, Narai-juku is designated as a National Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings where the old townscape still clearly remains. Shops utilizing historic buildings stand along both sides of the road, and there is an arched bridge nearby called Kiso-no-Ohashi, making it an area fun to just walk around. It is about 25 minutes by train on JR Chuo Main Line from Shiojiri to Narai Station, the closest station to Narai-juku.
Tsumago-juku, located near the border between Nagano and Gifu Prefectures, where both sides of the road are surrounded by high mountains, is also a rest stop town designated as a National Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings. Old wooden buildings especially have been preserved in a good condition, so you should stay at an inn where you can appreciate this type of building. You can also enjoy meals made with local products. It is about 50 minutes by limited express on JR Chuo Main Line from Shiojiri to Nagiso Station, the closest station to Tsumago-juku.
If you take a bus for about 35 minutes from Nagiso Station, you can also visit Magome-juku, located in the southernmost tip among the rest stop towns on Kisoji Road. It is characterized by a townscape where a stone-paved hill stretches for about 600m (0.4 miles) and private houses, museums, teahouses and souvenir shops stand in a row on both sides of the hill.
If you have time, try walking from Tsumago-juku to Magome-juku. It is about 8 km (5 miles) and takes about 3 hours to walk. There are plenty of highlights on the way including Male and Female Waterfalls, where Musashi Miyamoto, a famous ancient swordsman who summarized his tactics in “Gorinnosho” or the Book of Five Rings known overseas as well, is said to have trained himself, and the ruin of the guard house where travelers on Kisoji Road were screened. If you finish walking the entire way, you can receive the “Certificate of Completion of Walk” issued for you (100 yen for guests staying in Tsumago-juku or Magome-juku, 200 yen for day-trippers).
Visit ancient and noble Gero Onsen to finish off your trip
You do not want to miss hot springs when you visit Japan. After you finish taking a walk along Kisoji Road, why don’t you relax while soaking in a hot spring in Gero Onsen? From each of the rest stop town on Kisoji Road, take JR Chuo Main Line to get to Tajimi Station, change to the local line there to Minoota Station (30 min), and change to a limited express there to get to Gero (about 1 hour). Gero Onsen has a long history and a literature of more than 700 years ago has Gero Onsen recorded on it. This hot spring town developed along the river is a perfect spot for a walk. If you purchase “Yumeguri Tegata” or a hot spring visiting ticket, you can enjoy 3 hot springs of the inns that are affiliated with this ticket system.
The town of Gero also has about 10 footbaths, most of which are available for 24 hours for free. In addition, there is an open-air bath called Funsenchi on the riverbed of Mashita River that runs through the town of Gero. It is a mixed bath with no partition in either the changing room or bath, but both men and women are required to wear bathing suits, so you can relax and enjoy the bath out in the open air, for free.
To return home, it is about 1 hour and a half by a limited express from Gero to Nagoya, and taking Shinkansen is a convenient option from Nagoya. It takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes to Tokyo, about 40 minutes to Kyoto, and about 1 hour to Osaka.