The long, loud cascade of a waterfall raced blue over sand-colored boulders. We didn't see another soul until we reached Magome, a lazy 2 1/2 hours later.
Magome looks as though it's tumbling down the steep hillside, a long collection of old shop houses. The stone-paved street is filled with Japanese visitors munching on skewers of grilled rice dumplings. Unlike Tsumago, Magome has made some compromises with the modern world — a glass window here and there, a vending machine — and it's also livelier. But it's just as picturesque, with houses perched on stone platforms, and two furiously turning wooden waterwheels by the side of the road.
After picnicking on tuna-rice balls and fruit from the grocery store at the bottom of the street and lingering much too long, we finally started back uphill toward Tsumago. Our trip's imminent end had me engraving details in my memory: the exuberant burst of blue morning glories, orange marigolds and purple cosmos blossoms against somber brown farmhouse walls, an elderly woman in her traditional indigo-dyed smock keeping a watchful eye on the path.
When we reached Tsumago, the shutters were banging down, the paper doors sliding closed. The day-trippers had vanished. On the way to catch the bus, the first leg of the trip back to Nagoya, we returned to our minshuku to pick up our bags. Our hostess made a deep bow of farewell and then hurried off to the kitchen, preparing to welcome the next guests traveling along this timeless road.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is available on JAL, All Nippon, Northwest, Korean, Air Canada, Air China International, Asiana and China airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $538.
From Nagoya, the JR Chuo railroad line runs north through the Kiso Valley to Matsumoto. Local trains stop in Narai, Kiso-Fukushima, Nagiso (with a connecting bus to Tsumago) and Nakatsugawa (with a connecting bus to Magome.) Service is infrequent, so check the English timetables posted in all stations before setting out.
Walking the Nakasendo highway is not overly strenuous for anyone in reasonable physical shape. But be sure to change as much money as you'll need before heading to the Kiso Valley. (With normal precautions, carrying cash is safe in Japan.) Few businesses take credit cards, and there are no currency exchanges or ATMs that accept foreign cards in any of the towns along the Nakasendo.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodations in Narai, Magome and Tsumago are available in minshuku, guesthouses in family homes. Most are very small (only two or three guest rooms) so it's best to have a Japanese speaker call ahead to a town's tourist information office to make reservations for you. Prices run $64-$92 per person, including an elaborate dinner and breakfast.
Kiso Ryojoan Youth Hostel, between Narai and Nagiso, 20 minutes by bus from Kiso-Fukushima Station; 011-81-264-23-7716. The friendly manager speaks English and is an excellent cook. Overnight with dinner is $38 per person.
WHERE TO EAT:
Have breakfast and dinner in your minshuku, which will almost certainly offer a parade of Kiso specialties. For lunch, visit towns along the route, all of which have restaurants serving quick meals for visitors. Local dishes to look for include sansai soba (buckwheat noodles with wild mountain vegetables), ayu (river trout), and gohei-mochi (grilled rice cakes with nut sauce).
TO LEARN MORE:
Japan National Tourist Organization, (213) 623-1952, http://www.jnto.go.jp . A Kiso Valley guide is available at http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/RTG/PTG/pdf/pg-408.pdf .
Magome Tourist Information Office, 011-81-264-59-2336.
Tsumago Tourist Information Office, 011-81-264-57-3123, http://email@example.com .
— Kristin Johannsen