Looking for a tourists’ destination in Japan where you can learn the authentic Japanese culture, history, and tradition, all by actually stepping into that world hundreds of years ago? If so, Narai-juku will be highly recommended! Let’s check out what you can expect from visiting Narai-juku.
What is Narai-juku?
Narai-juku (奈良井宿) is one of the traveling spots that give visitors a nostalgic feel. It is the second post-town from the North out of the 11 post-towns on Kisoji. Kisoji is one of the 69 sections that constitutes Nakasendo, which was the main road that connected Kyoto and Edo.
Narai-juku, which consists of the uptown, midtown and downtown, has adjoining buildings preserved from hundreds of years ago in Edo and Meiji periods Japan and it expands for over 1 kilometer long along the Nakasendo. Narai-juku was designated as an Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings in 1978. Even to this day, the communities around the area passionately pour out their efforts in maintaining and preserving the best of this post-town.
What to see in Narai-juku
#1. Kamidonya Museum
Kamidonya Museum in Narai features over 400 artifacts on display such as ancient manuscripts or historical documents, potteries, and Japanese lacquerwares. It is appointed as an Important Cultural Property in Japan. Starting from 1602 and for the next 270 years, Kamidonya in Narai-juku functioned as a Tonya. A Tonya is a place where travelers could hire guides and horses. Each inn town is usually equipped with 25 people and 25 horses. The Kamidonya Museum, therefore, displays the cultural and historical items collected here over a few hundred years.
#2. Kiso Ohashi
Kiso Ohashi (Kiso Bridge) is built from Japanese cypress trees. Kiso Ohashi is one of the biggest arched bridges without using any bridge piers. This bridge leads to Mizube Park, a vast grass field park. From April to November, the park is illuminated by lights at night, creating a magical view.
Nakamuratei is a Tangible Cultural Property Designated by the city of Shiojiri. Nakamuratei was a lacquer comb wholesale dealer and its building is a very typical house from that era. Today it is preserved as how it was during that time period and it is opened to the public as a museum.
#4. Shizume Shrine
Shizume Shrine was built to eliminate the plague that hit Narai-juku. There is a festival on August 11th and 12th every year.
#5. Daihoji Temple
Daihoji Temple was built in 1582 and is known as the spiritual home of Jyuronin, the god of wisdom and life. There is also a Japanese Jizo statue of Maria with the Child. It was disguised to be a guardian deity of pregnancy and childcare; however, after being recognized as Maria with the Child during the Edo period when Christianity was banned in Japan, the head of the statue was destroyed. Taiho Temple is also known for its beautiful garden where beautiful flowers blossom in summer and colorful leaves paint a whole different picture in fall.
#6. Nakasendo Sugi Namiki
Nakasendo Sugi Namiki is a hiking path with a very long history. Many people over hundreds of years have passed by here to get to their destinations. The path has rows of hundred years old Japanese cedar trees that line both sides of the path. Walking through the path, one can experience what travellers might have experienced hundreds of years ago.
#1. Narai-jukuba Festival
Narai-jukuba Festival is the largest festival in Narai-juku that takes place on the first weekend (Fri., Sat., Sun.) of June. The origin of this festival is dated back to a custom of transporting tea leaves as a gift to Tokugawa Clan from Kyoto. This parade of feudal lords called “Ochatsubo Dochu” takes place on the first Sunday of June. It is a feudal lords parade that is rare to see else where. During the festival weekend, souvenir stores and gift shops in Narai-juku have sales, offering discount prices on their products. Make sure you reserve your inn earlier as Narai-juku will be packed with visitors during the festival.
#2. Natsumatsuri (Summer Festival)
Narai-juku is proud to host the annual Shizume Shrine Summer Festival. This festival has a long history in this town. It takes place on August 12th every year when only the young men from uptown, midtown, and downtown gather to be on a parade. As they play traditional Japanese music with Japanese flutes, drums, and Shamisen (Japanese three stringed guitar), they march slowly through the main street in Narai-juku.
As the whole Japan spend a few days getting together with family, remembering their loved ones who have passed away, it is the same here in Narai-juku. The whole town will be full of life because of visitors and people visiting families. The celebration usually last until very late at night.
#4. Narai Ice Candle Festival
Winter in this post town is very severe. Recently, some volunteers started the Narai Ice Candle Festival in the middle of the winter to cheer up the whole town. On February 3rd every year, each resident light up a candle that is placed in a container made of ice. The soft and gentle light from the candle, reflected through the ice container, creates an atmosphere of a surreal world. Hot miso soup with pork and vegetables and sake will are served to warm up the guests.
#1. Kiso Shikki (Kiso Lacquerware)
Narai-juku is located right at the home of Japanese lacquerwares. Located 900 meters above sea level, this location is cool in the summer and severely cold in winter, which is the perfect condition for varnishing lacquers. In addition, having been surrounded by a vast range of forests, local businesses have access to high quality woods to produce numerous products. Combined with having a main road that runs through the area, this is an added advantage. These two crucial factors result in a 400-year history of producing high quality Japanese lacquerwares in this area.
#2. Kiso Shunkei
Kiso Shunkei is a type of Japanese lacquerwares made of naturally dried coniferous trees. Kiso Shunkei is known for its straight grained wood materials which are varnished in many layers of lacquer and finished with Shunkei lacquer, a type of lacquer that has a high degree of transparency. Kiso Shunkei can be seen in items such as cups, trays, plates, Japanese bento boxes, or steaming baskets for soba noodles.
Magemono (literally translated: bend products) is another type of lacquerware products that the Kiso area is known for. Straight grained Japanese cypress is split into several pieces, which is then boiled and softened for the purpose of making it easier to bend into circle or oval shapes. The bend wood would be sewn together using the tree barks of Kanba, followed by attaching the bottom piece. The products will be varnished in lacquers to finish. Some products of Magemono include ladles, steaming baskets for soba noodles, or Sushi baskets, which is used to mix sushi rice.
#4. Tsuchi Ningyo
Tsuchi Ningyo (Clay Dolls) in Narai-juku is often a character from the 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs or Japanese traditional folk tales. Clays are poured into molds and baked in low heat. They are carefully colored once it’s baked, which is loved by many for its simplicity.
Narai-juku was such a flourishing town with many well established eateries that it was called, “Narai Sengen” (Narai’s Thousand Eateries). It has many traditional local dishes to offer such as followings.
#1. Oyaki and Sansai Dishes
Located in the middle of a grand nature, sansai (wild vegetables) is readily available in Narai-juku. Because of that, visitors can enjoy different sansai dishes that can only be tasted here. Recently, Sansai Oyaki (baked flour dough with cooked sansai stuffings inside) is gaining popularity among the visitors to Narai-juku.
#2. Shinshu Soba and Kawauo Yaki
Post-towns are known for its authentic taste in soba noodles, which is the same for Narai-juku as well. Here at Narai-juku, however, you can savor not only the authentic soba noodles but also fresh wild vegetable tempura called Sansai Tempura as well as grilled freshwater fish sprinkled in salt (Kawauo Yaki).
Goheimochi is a traditional local dish made of rice. Roll the steamed rice into an approximately 2-cm ball, then press it flat and make it an oval shape. Skew a few of these on a bamboo or wooden stick and grill them. Rub some sauce, usually made of soy sauce or miso paste with sesame or walnut and lots of sugar. Some use peanuts instead of walnut and others add honey. There are many different variations depending on your own preferences.
Restaurants & Cafes
Matsunami is known for its meat dishes. Using locally raised pork, the chef has created many savouring meat dishes that will satisfied your hunger. Everything from the sauce to the final touch is homemade, which is the reason why it is also loved very much by the locals. Come and enjoy the at home atmosphere here at Matsunami.
Going underneath the web of grape vines and through the entrance, one can find themselves in an over-one-hundred-year-old house preserved as it was during that time period. In winter, a Japanese traditional fireplace in the middle of the room “Irori (囲炉裏)” will warm up not only the building but also everyone in it. It creates a very calm and nostalgic atmosphere where customers can enjoy their afternoon tea or meals in such a peaceful atmosphere. Kanameya is loved by everyone from children to adults and by foreign visitors as well.
#3. Cafe Miyama
An office of a sawmill was renovated and transformed into a one-of-a-kind cafe that stands among the trees in the woods. Here at Cafe Miyama, birds’ chirping and the sound of leaves rubbing against each other can be a very relaxing “background music” while you enjoy your cup of coffee or tea. Their special menu item, the “100-year-old Curry Rice,” is a very popular dish.
#4. Cafe Fuka
Located right in this post-town is a small cafe that operates out of a historical private residence. Coffee is brewed after an order is placed, using a hand drip brewing method. Coffee beans are changed everyday so customers can enjoy a different flavor each day. Yet, you can also request to have your preferred beans. With Bossa Nova playing in the background, a wide variety of coffee can be enjoyed here at Cafe Fuka with a book or magazine provided by the cafe. It is a perfect place to have your down time.
#5. Sabo Kodemari
Sabo Kodemari has originally been a lacquerware studio. They used to serve their customers who came to the studio sweets such as cakes and Hobamochi. The sweets they served received a really good review and became popular. Since they had a desire for their customers to use their lacquerwares, they decided to add a cafe. Hence came the birth of Cafe Kodemari.
#4. Matsuya Sabo
Another cafe operated from a traditional residence with 180 year history is Matsuya Sabo. It welcomes its customers with its trade marks, a lamp and a red Japanese umbrella. And inside the cafe, different seasonal wild flowers welcome customers with a visual appeal. The cafe is decorated with antiques and their desserts are served in Kiso lacquerwares. Stop by casually during your walk and relax with a rich cup of coffee made with a siphon coffee brewer.
#1. Ryokan Aburaya
Originally an oil shop, Ryokan Aburaya was once a tobacco shop as well before it was converted to an inn more than 50 years ago. Enjoy their home cooked meals with vegetables grown in the owner’s own garden while relaxing here at Aburaya.
Address: 619-1 Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano
Accommodation Fee: 9,975 yen ~
Echigoya is the only original inn that is still around after it first opened its door over 220 years ago. They limit it to 2 groups of customers per day so that customers can spend an uninterrupted relaxing time at Echigoya. Different seasonal dishes are served, which is an added bonus.
Address: 493 Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano
Accommodation Fee: 15,660 yen ~
#3. Oyado Iseya
Stepping out from Iseya inn, you walk back in time as you enter the main street where buildings preserved from Edo period stands adjoined to each other. This inn keeps the architectural condition from the Edo period and has over 220 years history. Only two groups are able to stay there per night. Enjoy the home-inspired atmosphere here at Iseya inn.
Address: 388 Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano
Accommodation Fee: 8,800 yen ~
Website: Oyado Iseya (Japanese)
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Address: Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano prefecture
Access: 3-minute walk from Narai Station
Website: Narai-juku (Japanese)