The Kiso Valley trail is part of the longer Nakasendo trail leading from Kyoto to Tokyo. It dips between romantic towns and luscious woodland, sporting bamboo and the occasional waterfall. Ornate mossy watermills and manicured pink bushes are the iconic features of Magome, at the trail's head. Delicate wooden townhouses perch either side of the stone-paved streets. Sliding paper doors, exotic Asian plants and the occasional pregnant-man-bear decorate the front porches. What is a pregnant-man-bear you ask? Why a Tanuki of course.
Tanuki are actually racoon dogs. They're supposed to bring good fortune. How do they do that? With the help of their huge genitals, obviously. Tanuki scrotum is said to have been used to wrap and carry gold in the past, because of the strength of the skin. And the Japanese for 'small ball of gold' (kin-no-tama) resembles the slang word for testicles (kintama). Thus the stretchy testicles are supposed to stretch and ultimately enlarge your wallet. They're definitely an amusing addition to the town.
Most of the houses along the Kiso Valley trail have traditional Japanese style roofs and a mountain backdrop. Dogs and cats lounge about in the sun and if you're lucky you might bump into someone practising a traditional craft. We spotted an elderly lady busy at work, expertly carving a wood figurine. We also met a man who had been backpacking through Asia for the last 6 months on the Nakasendo Way. He was on the last leg of his journey and planned to walk all the way to Tokyo (over a hundred miles). He'd already been through India, Nepal, Korea and more. I'd love to undertake a trip like that. He said that strangers had been more than helpful; he had slept in houses more often than not, often being offered food as well as a bed. All it took, he said, was to be able to speak English. He was looking for a place to camp when we met.
Another highlight was an encounter with a stranger whilst resting. "Presento!" she exclaimed, rushing over to us, brandishing two ice lollies. People in Japan really are lovely. The gift came out of absolutely nowhere. Maybe the racoon-dog balls really work? We reached the end of the Kiso Valley in Tsumago just in time to shelter from a downpour. I watched the flying fish banners strewn throughout the town flapping in the wind as if brought back to life by the rain. We took the bus to Magome and cooked up some delicious ramen back home in our camper van feeling like we knew Japan a little better and wishing we could stay for much, much longer.
Words & Photography: Scott Norris (@_scott_norris) // spring 2015
Please note: the map of the Kiso Valley walk is wildly innacurate and is only for display purposes. It should not be followed. However, the trail head and car park are accurate pointers.
Bus: from Shinjuku/Nagoya to Chuodo Magome bus stop (on map). Walk to trailhead.
Train: Jr Azusa from Shinjuku Station to Shiojiri Station. Then get another train to Nakatsugawa. From here board a bus to Magome.