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Narai: the Lesser-known Nakasendo

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

Exploring this former post town offers insight on life in Japan centuries ago.

Narai-juku, in Nagano Prefecture, was once the longest post town in Japan (juku means post town). It provided shelter and hospitality to travellers on the Nakasendo, one of only two routes that connected Kyoto with present-day Tokyo during the Edo period (1603–1868).

The town’s location at the foot of the Torii Pass, one of the steepest parts of the Nakasendo, made it a hugely popular spot for merchants, samurai and other travellers to break their journey, resulting in the settlement’s other name: “Narai of a Thousand Homes.” People took a much-needed rest after their descent or gathered stamina to make the climb.

Historic atmosphere

Today, Nakasendo’s post towns of Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku tend to attract most visitors but that doesn’t mean Narai-juku doesn’t have a lot to offer. Evidence of the town’s rich history can be seen at every turn, and there is a quieter atmosphere.

Narai and its surrounds retain much of their original character and are designated a Japan Heritage Site and Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.

A roofed noticeboard, which dates from the Edo period, still displays old town rules and public announcements on wooden plaques. It was erected by the government to convey messages to travellers and locals. Stone channels convey water throughout the town from six wells along the length of the 1-kilometre (0.6-mile) main street, just as they have always done.

Preserved architecture

The wooden buildings have rare features that reflect local construction methods at that time, when the amount of tax paid to visiting tax inspectors was based on rice yields.

Since Narai was not a rice-producing area and the locals wanted to reflect their relative poverty, homes and shops were built with narrow and small openings that led to long and extensive living areas behind.

The Nakamura Residence, which was built in 1830, is a fascinating museum offering a chance to find out how its inhabitants once lived.

The building’s overhanging upper eaves are made from wood light enough to collapse under the weight of would-be burglars. Slanted latticework on the upper-storey window openings maximise light in without reducing privacy but, as there are no shutters, there is little protection from the elements. Instead, other design elements keep the house warm in the colder months. An iori (sunken hearth) is set into the tatami mat flooring and there is a wooden sliding trap door over the staircase to prevent heat loss between the two floors.

Religious history

Local artefacts suggest the presence of hidden Christians in the area centuries ago. Taihoji Temple contains a statue thought to be a Virgin Mary made in the form of a Buddhist follower. It has no head; scholars believe the head may have been removed when Christianity was outlawed in Japan in 1614.

Shizume Shrine was once a popular spot on any trip to and from Edo. It was at this small shrine, built to appease the gods after a plague hit Nakai, that travellers prayed for a safe journey or gave thanks for a safe arrival.

Woodwork and lacquerware

In addition to working in farming, food provision and accommodation, local people developed a thriving manufacturing industry. They used the abundant natural resources, including water and cypress forests, and techniques using wood and lacquer to produce items to sell to travellers.

Local people are credited with creating what is believed to be Japan’s first light-weight souvenir, the comb. The Nakamura Residence displays a collection of lacquered combs dating back hundreds of years.

Narai’s wood and lacquerware products remain renowned in Japan, the wood for its vivid hues and distinct aroma, the lacquerware for its quality and detail. Local people continue to make a wide range of products, from chopsticks and bento lunchboxes to cabinets and tables, resulting in ample souvenir options for today’s visitor, too.

Getting there

Take the JR Limited Express from Shinjuku Station to Shiojiri Station, From there, transfer to the JR Chuo Line for Nakatsugawa and alight at Narai Station.

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