Attractive NARAI (奈良井), 30km southwest of Matsumoto, is generally less infested with tour groups than Tsumago and Magome. This was the most prosperous of the Kiso-ji juku, a fact that shows in the village’s beautifully preserved and distinctive wooden buildings, with overhanging second floors and eaves, and renji-gōshi latticework. Only the cars that occasionally pass through the conservation area, which runs for about 1km south from the train station, remind you which century you’re in.
Opposite the tourist office (daily 10am–5pm; t 0264/34-3048, w en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narai-juku) in the Nakamachi area of town, look out for the shop selling kashira ningyō, colourfully painted, traditional dolls and toys made of wood and plaster, as well as the sake brewery Sugi-no-Mori. In the Kamimachi area stands Nakamura House (中村邸; daily 9am–4.30pm; ¥200), dating back to the 1830s and once the home of a merchant who made his fortune in combs, still one of the area’s specialities. Side streets lead off to pretty temples and shrines in the foothills and, on the other side, to the rocky banks of the Narai-gawa, crossed by the Kiso-no-Ōhashi, an arched wooden bridge.
Narai, a 45-minute local train journey from Matsumoto, can easily be visited in half a day. Dotted along the main street are several appealing cafés with soaring wooden-beamed ceilings and irori (central charcoal fires) serving soba noodles and other local dishes – a good one is Kokoro-ne (こころ音; t 0264/34-3345; daily except Wed 11am–3pm). For somewhere to stay, try the lovely minshuku Iseya (伊勢屋; t 0264/34-3051, w www.oyado-iseya.jp; ¥15,001−20,000); rates include two meals.