If you travel through Japan you’ll soon discover it isn’t all about skyscrapers, neon lights and fast-paced city life. Far from it; the diversity of experiences the country offers spans ancient cultural heritages, breathtaking natural scenery and plenty more. Two shining examples? Kiso and Nagoya. Kiso, in central Japan, offers mountainscapes, dense forests and historic charm, while neighbouring Nagoya has a long history of manufacturing prowess. Find out what the two places have to offer with our first timer’s guide to Kiso and Nagoya.
Kiso lies in Nagano Prefecture and is one of the most scenic spots to visit in the area. The town was once the centre of Japan’s central trading route; today, visitors can take in the nostalgic wonders of its old main road, the Nakasendo. While there’s plenty of history to uncover, its natural beauty is just as impressive, from scenic Nagano mountain hikes to unique rock formations.
Kiso is located in the southwestern part of Nagano Prefecture. It’s easiest to get here by train; take the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano in 1hr25min; you can also take the train from Kanazawa and Nagoya. Top tip: the Nagoya route passes through the scenic Kiso River Valley so you’ll get a sneak-peek of the area before you arrive! Buses to Nagano take longer but are cheaper; routes run from Hida-Takayama and Tokyo, and take between three to six hours.
Once you arrive in Nagano, you can take a local train to your final destination in Kiso.
Kiso Road (otherwise known as Kisoji) made up the central part of the Nakasendo, which was an important road that connected Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) during the Edo period (1603–1868). Stretching along the Kiso River, the Kiso Road crosses a steep mountain pass, winds through a deep valley and consists of 11 post towns.
There are plenty of ways to experience this Japanese Heritage Site for yourself. Start off by admiring the abundance of old-fashioned Japanese landscapes and feel as if you’ve truly stepped back in time. Make sure you browse the variety of traditional crafts and local food for sale. And on the note of food, take the time to sample Kiso’s delicious cuisine – which is made all the more better in the peaceful, quiet valley setting.
Narai-juku, or Narai Post Town, is a small, picturesque town dotted along the Nakasendo Way and Kiso Road. It’s the steepest post town along the Kiso Road, so many visitors here enjoy pushing themselves with walking the sharp incline! However, the route is helped by the addition of inviting, traditional ryokans.
Some of the highlights of Narai-juku include touring the Nakamura Residence. This was the former residence of a wealthy business owner and is set in an Edo-period townhouse with authentic artefacts on display. Afterwards, head over to Taihoji Temple, where you can read suggestions that Christians once resided in the area. You can also find out more about the customs and culture of the local community at Narakawa Museum of History and Folklore. And, as you stroll past the low-set buildings, be sure to stop off at the shops selling dried fruits, local sake, woodwork and more.
Further along the Nakasendo Way is Tsumago-juku. You’ll really get a feel for the area’s ancient history with its preserved museums and restored castles. It’s not just a tourist attraction, though, as the town is fully inhabited with local residents.
The Tsumagojuku Honjin is a reconstruction of an original inn that once accommodated feudal lords, but Waki Honjin Okuya, the town’s secondary inn, still stands in its original form. It has since been converted into a popular museum, including a picturesque moss garden. Its success accounts for some ten percent of the total visitors that visit Tsumago-juku every year! Next up, head to Tsumago Castle. Although the castle was destroyed in the seventeenth century, some of its ruins remain. Its mountain-top position affords incredible views over lovely Tsumago-juku below and neighbouring Midono-juku.
Another top thing to do in Nagano is to take an excursion from Tsumago-juku to the well-preserved Magome-juku. While Magome-juku is located in Gifu prefecture (not Nagano), you can still enjoy more of the Nakasendo Way here, before returning to Tsumago-juku by local bus.
Nezame-no-toko Gorge is well-known for its uniquely shaped rocks that protrude from the Kiso River. The site is so fascinating that there’s no doubt it lives up to its name, “Bed of Awakening”. Take in the grey monoliths jutting out of the depths of the emerald green water – and take plenty of photographs to treasure this unique view. Legend has it that Urashima Taro, the protagonist of the Dragon Palace fairytale, once fished at this site.
Atera Valley is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful spots in Nagano prefecture. Hemmed in by dense, lush foliage and rocks of all sizes, its river water is so clear that you can see the river bed. In fact, the water is so striking that it even has its own name: Atera Blue.
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in nature than by hiking through the Atera Gorge. Feel at one with nature as you breathe in the flora, go for a swim or even choose to camp.
Visiting Kiso means savouring the natural and historical beauty of the area. With untouched flora and pristine buildings, visitors will enjoy a first-hand experience of Japanese culture in its historic and natural forms.
Nagoya is in Aichi Prefecture, and is hailed as the ‘manufacturing kingdom of Japan’ for good reason. It has a history of innovative manufacturing that has created something of a legacy for the city, which you’ll find out more about in this guide. From skilled puppets to thriving industries, visitors have plenty of itineraries to choose from in lively Nagoya.
Nagoya is well-connected with trains, buses and airports. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka and Kanazawa operate Shinkansen (bullet trains) that take as little as 36 minutes to Nagoya Station, with JR lines also an option. Buses depart from the same cities (except Fukuoka) and take between two to five hours to reach Nagoya Station. You can also fly into Central Japan International Airport (Centrair) from Kochi, Fukuoka and Izumo airports with flight times averaging 1hr.
Inuyama Castle was built in the fifteenth-century and stands at 19m tall. As beautiful as it is to look at, its story lies hidden in the details; for example, the castle towers are a rare example of the Muromachi period style. Not only is it one of twelve remaining original castle towers in Japan, but it’s also the oldest existing wooden castle tower in the country, too. Wondering what to do in Nagoya? With so much wood used in its construction, this castle has a history like no other – making it one of the top sites to visit in Nagoya and the wider prefecture.
Enjoy the beauty and woodworking skills of this traditional craftsmanship for yourself by touching the smooth wood that has stood for 500 years; hear the heavy floorboards creak beneath your feet; and take in the musky smell of the ancient fortress. At 80m tall, it’s not the tallest castle but overlooks the appealing Kiso River.
Enjoy a fun day out at Meiji Mura. This open-air museum is laid out like a village with its Meijia period-style buildings as well as Edo period-style architecture. The Meijia period symbolises the age when Japan adopted Western influences, from 1868 onwards. It’s also combined with more traditional Edo period-style wooden architecture, too.
While you’re here, take in the authentic aesthetics - but there’s ample opportunity to get stuck in, too! Dress up in Meiji-era clothing, climb aboard a steam locomotive or play with otedama and kendama. Otedama are small bags filled with beans that can be passed around and juggled, while kendama is made up of a wooden handle, two cups and a ball connected by string (guess where the ball has to go?).
There’s also archery, old streetcars and more - fun for all ages.
You only have to visit Inuyama Karakuri Museum to discover just how far back Nagoya’s innovative status goes. Karakuri (meaning ‘trick’ or ‘mechanism’) is the traditional craft-making skill of dolls that ‘perform’ via a series of strings or mechanical devices. Their creation is so refined and intricate that they’re able to carry tea, shoot arrows and more.
Visitors to this intriguing museum can learn all about the history of this traditional craft. There’s a variety of karakuri dolls on display, and you can also see craftspeople at work during insightful daily demonstrations (twice-daily; 10.30am and 2pm).
If you’re in Nagoya, you simply have to visit the TOYOTA Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. Nagoya Japan is famous for its thriving automobile business. This museum showcases the history of TOYOTA’s manufacturing prowess, giving you the chance to grips with the automobile giant’s ingenuity and global success.
As well as displays of innovative machinery, inside the museum you’ll have the chance to find out more about car production and TOYOTA’s first mass-produced automobile. Learn about manufacturing safety and technology as well as the latest developments, like robots used for painting and welding. Once you’ve soaked up as much information as you can, make sure you check out the classic Toyota models on display.
It’s clear to see that Nagoya’s manufacturing skills have developed over the centuries, but this is arguably what Nagoya does best – these hardworking cultural foundations were set several hundred years ago. There’s no wonder that this legacy is one of the main things that Japan is famous for. Behind these innovative creations are the hard-working people of Nagoya. Thanks to them, this manufacturing kingdom of Japan knows how to work harder, better, faster, stronger. It’s exciting to imagine what lies ahead for it.
This article was created in partnership with Chubu District Transport Bureau.
Aimee is an in-house Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and is the podcast host of The Rough Guide to Everywhere. She is also a freelance travel writer and has written for various online and print publications, including a guidebook to the Isle of Wight. Follow her on Twitter at