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Written by: Sjaak Mintjens
Date: 2013/05/07

The inviting village

 This time I planned my trip to Narai-juku. I had an understanding of what kind of things I would see and what kind of place it would be, it was supposed to be a normal day of tourism. But it went completely not as expected, in a good way. It ended up to be a trip during which I was introduced to one of the most interesting places I had ever been.

 

 The town of a thousand buildings

 Narai-juku(奈良井宿), also known as the town of a thousand buildings, is an old post town, known for its preserved Edo period buildings dating back a few hundred years located on the old Nakasendo, the road from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). Even though it is called the town of a thousand buildings, it does not actually have a thousand houses but they are lined up pretty nicely on an area with a length of about 1 km (0.6 miles). Once you enter the old town, you will immediately realize why you came here. But, I tell you right here and now, if you go to Narai-juku to see an old post town along an old trade route, then you are going to miss out on more than you could ever imagine.
 
 

Word of caution

 When traveling by train you will notice that there are not that many trains stopping and leaving the station and it might make you watch the clock a lot more than you would like to. However, this may be a time schedule that you are not used to in Japan, it may actually work to your advantage, just do not let it go to your head.
 

A different kind of vending machine

 First off, there are of course vending machines there. They are after all the crème de la crème of JapanBut instead of using these awkwardly placed devices, you will find plenty of spring water sources around Narai-juku at which you can fill your bottle with clean and delicious water. At which you will sometimes come across some natives washing their vegetables, flower pots etc. Here is where Narai-juku becomes truly interesting.
 

A unique community

 Many of the post-towns that are still preserved in its old shape are more used for tourism and people who commute from their hometowns to the post towns where they work. This is where you will find one of the key reasons as to why Narai-juku is unique. People actually live and work in Narai-juku and therefore make a small community with a lot of energy including cleaning the roadside of small weeds. Going to Narai-juku and also spending some time with the people will most definitely improve your visit.
 


 

A more interesting than anticipated daytrip

 During my trip to Narai-juku I went in several of the many souvenir shops, eateries and also one of the few temples located there. Was I looking for souvenirs? A little bit. Was I looking to fill my stomach? Not really, though everything looked really good. Was I looking forward to seeing another temple to add up to the ones I had already visited? Not specifically. Did I find something that I was not expecting? Most definitely. The Japanese people in general are known for their friendliness, which travelers from all over the world talk about all the time. But here at Narai-juku, they take that even further. All you have to do is say “Hello! How are you?” and they will have a chat with you, possibly offer you some tea or coffee etc. Due to living in Japan for a total of one and a half year and speaking the language, I know about their hospitality, but Narai-juku blew me away.
 

 A warm welcome

 The first place I went to from the station was the nearby temple on top of a little hill. You might need to look twice to truly realize it is a temple, but there is most definitely a temple. I saw the door was closed but right at that time an old lady from the temple came outside and greeted me with the first great smile of many I came across that day. I entered the temple and her son, a middle aged man who was born and raised in Narai-juku, guided me through the temple’s garden, one with great visual impact and a hidden animal in plain sight for you to find. There were no signs to read about what each room was, he told me stories about how the temple came to be and where every location in the house was used for with great detail. As well as the two-headed bird in the picture, holds a meaning very true to many: if people do not work together they will not be able to go where you want to. This is especially true for such a small community. This was the first time I had such a personal guide through a temple and it was a great experience indeed, but not only that, the temple was also still being used by the community there. Which meant you could move in quite great freedom, greater than I had experience before with temples in Japan, where you are often kept to a certain path and sometimes are not even allowed to take photos. This freedom and kindness led to some more stories as well as some good photos.
 
 
   

A friendly place

 In Narai-juku there are a lot of gift shops, my trip led me to a small shop called “Friend” (written in Japanese as フ レンド). At entering I was greeted by the second and third great smiles provided by two very kind older ladies. Before I realized it we were talking about all sorts of things. I decided there and then that at the end of the day I would buy a souvenir there on my way back home. This however came to bite me in the end because I ended up buying at a few other places a few things as well but it also provided me another chance to chat up with the older ladies.
 
 
 

 

 An unanticipated welcome

  After visiting several interesting shops, including a drug store selling a medicine that has been used for over a few hundreds of years a few really good looking eateries and then I realized that I was hungry for some lunch. Before, at the temple, I asked one of their local favorite restaurants and they advised me to go to Tokuriya (徳利屋), so I went. At entering the restaurant I already went in awe due to the interior. Old wooden pillars reaching to a ceiling height where even temples would sometimes be impressed by, the building was beautiful. When I saw someone from the restaurant, or rather when they saw me, I was greeted by the fourth great smile I encountered and the old lady, who may have had an even more empowering smile than the smiles before, welcomed me in Japanese: “Ah! I had been awaiting you!”. What I did not know was that the temple I visited before sent a notice to her that a long blond foreigner was on route to her restaurant, but it was a very pleasant surprise! I ate here the Gohei-mochi Teishoku(五 平餅定食), which is a set menu that can change a little depending on the season. It consists of “gohei mochi”, a moiste, sticky delicious rice goodness topped over with even better sauce. And a whole lot of extra’s including soba noodles, some fish and a jelly-like dessert. The friendly old lady even brought me a few pieces of tempura as service. After having a really nice chat with her for quite a while, I went again on my way as I had yet to explore half of the town and I already used more than 80% of the time I allotted for Arai-juku, which easily meant an extension for me, if you remember my comment about the train schedule, I suddenly increased my time by about an extra one and a half hour, which eventually I wanted to extend even further, but sadly I was unable to do so this time. 

 

 Definitely not an empty-handed return

With extra time I went to see some more shops and talked to some more locals and I came to another interesting souvenir shop. At entering I was quickly offered some “hana-cha”, which is tea made with dried flowers and salt and when the hot water is poored over the dried flowers it reveals a beautiful flower once again. The tea has a stronger taste than you may have been used to from your average tea in Japan, but it was truly delicious. I had not even finished half of my cup and I was introduced to the hobby of the husband living there. A man who has lost a lot of ability to work due to Parkinson disease but he will not let a foreigner go home empty-handed. And I do not mean that he will force you to buy a souvenir. He may have a handicap, but he will still scribble you a beautiful calligraphy drawing, or several. And while he is scribbling you one you might be offered next to your cup of tea also a cup of coffee. I could simply not feel a limit to the hospitality at Narai-juku.
 
 

The town of a thousand faces

I could go on and on about the people of Narai-juku, but you simply have to experience it yourself. Try and get familiar with the people, ask them for example if it is their hometown, how long they have lived there and you will start a conversation that might lead you to having to take the last train home, but your trip to Narai-juku, the old town of a thousand faces, will be one you won’t forget any time soon!
 
 
 

Access

To get to Narai you will have to take the train from Nagoya or Matsumoto to Kiso-Fukushima or Shiojiri and change to a local train from there to Narai. Narai has its own station, but only local trains stop there.
 

Official website: http://www.naraijuku.com/
(Japanese only)