Welcome to ‘Let’s Walking’* – a series of blog posts about hiking the Kiso valley. In this post we’ll be taking a leisurely stroll along the Kisoji between Kiso-Fukushima and Agematsu stations.
The Kisoji is the section of the historical Nakasendo route that runs between Niekawa-juku in Nagano prefecture and Magome-juku in Gifu prefecture. Now, if that sentence sounded like the kind of noun soup you get at the beginning of a middling fantasy novel, all you need to know is that the Kisoji is a very nice walking route through the Kiso valley, and I’ve been hiking it in bits and pieces whenever I have some spare time.
One day last week I found myself with time to spare in the bustling metropolis of Kiso (featuring a population in the quadruple digits and over three laundromats), so I decided to walk to Agematsu station. It’s a relatively short walk – only a couple of hours if you take your time to stop and smell the roses – but a very nice one. What starts off with winding roads passing suburban vegetable gardens gradually gives way to secluded woodland paths, before finally curving along the long arcs of the Kiso river towards the town of Agematsu.
Towards the edge of Kiso town proper, I came upon a roadside sign explaining a bit of the history of the area. Now, I’ve always tended to ignore signs like this, mostly because (a) the Japanese on them was always really difficult to understand, and (b) the kind of information Japanese historical sites tend to provide is so incredibly uninteresting that it instantly sloughs off the surface of the human brain, defying any attempt at appreciation (Gifu castle, for instance, just can’t get enough of telling you exactly how many square meters each of its rooms take up).
Recently though, I’ve been making an effort to stop and read these signs whenever I see them. I’m Pretty Darn Good at Japanese now (thanks to my amazing language learning hack I like to call ‘studying literally every day for about eight years’ (patent pending)), so I can generally understand them well enough now. And would you know, occasionally they’re actually pretty interesting.
Like this one in the Kiso area of Shobuchi (塩渕 – which could be translated literally as ‘salt pool’), which explains how the neighbourhood supposedly got its name when a horse carrying a load of salt fell into a pool of water along the river and spilled all the salt.
Okay, it’s not the most fascinating thing I’ve ever read in my life either, but it’s at least an interesting enough tidbit that a tour guide might mention it while walking past, resulting in interested noises among at least some of the tour group.
After Shobuchi, I left Kiso town proper and entered the shady hills separating it from Agematsu. Fairly soon I passed the above tori gate, though with no accompanying temple or shrine to speak of. Very nice vibes in this place, with the faint sound of the train passing not too far away.
It’s at this point that I remembered to get out and start using my bear bell. Because this is Bear Country, and I don’t want to get eaten by a bear, resultiing in the local paper publishing a story titled: “Local Foreign Man Eaten Whole by Bear – Was Most Likely English Teacher Before His Gruesome Death”.
A long trek up and down some steep-ish hills later, the valley narrowed, and the view went from pleasant to absolutely bloody lovely:
At this point, instead of crossing the bridge above, the old Kisoji trail follows the road along the river to the left. Unfortunately, it seemed the road was closed due to construction (and had been for at least a year).
“No problem,” I thought, stepping past the ‘ROAD CLOSED’ sign. “The pedestrian path should still be open…”
“The pedestrian path is also closed”
Oh well. I decided to be a pioneer – to throw caution to the wind and cross the bridge in search of pristine, untrodden paths to Agematsu.
I was rewarded by some lovely sights from the bridge…
…and about thirty minutes of walking along the unpaved shoulder of a semi-busy road as trucks shot past nearby.
Eventually I was able to turn off the road, climbing some fairly steep hills and eventually being treated to some great views of the mountains separating the Kiso valley from the cities of Ina and Ida to the east.
It doesn’t show up well in the photo at all, but at the top of the taller, more distant mountains you can just about see some nice ice and snow forming in anticipation of the coming five month-long winter.
Finally, after another twenty or so minutes walking through quaint family farms, picturesque woodlands, and crumbling industrial buildings that stand as silent witnesses to Japan’s late 1980s Bubble Economy and the long economic stagnation that followed (likely never to end), I reached Agematsu station.
There I looked over a tourist map and made my favourite discovery of this entire hike: the existence of a fairly major observatory near Agematsu – the Tomo-e Gozen Observatory, and its absolute blinder of an English website.
I mean, just look at this:
This is, quite possibly, the best picture there has ever been. Move over Michelangelo – Bigdata of the sky is about to collide with a digital kimono girl to create both Information and Knowledge.
The name Tomo-e Gozen apparently comes from a potentially real, potentially fictional historical onna-musha (female warrior) called Tomoe Gozen, who seems like she was very cool.
I’m not sure the observatory is actually very interesting and cool in terms of science, too. I’m just too taken by its late 1990s-early 2000s digital style to actually read any of the explanatory text.
And that was my short-ish hike along the Kisoji. Join me next time where I’ll most likely (but not definitely) talk about another hike from Kiso-Fukushima, only going the opposite direction towards Harano station (featuring a nice shrine, a sumo ring, and 2-3 stuffed tanuki).
In the meantime, please enjoy some more Tomoe Gozen:
* Yes, I know this title is a Grammatical Crime. But anyone who’s lived in Japan will be familiar with the country’s fondness for pairing the word let’s with a variety of nouns, as is often seen in poster campaigns such as ‘Let’s Travel’ and ‘Let’s Safety’. Consider this my love letter to this weird idiosyncrasy of Japanese English.