The little town of Agematsu rests in the Japanese Alps alongside a mountain stream and surrounded by the Akasawa National Forest, home of Kiso cypresses over 300 years old. These grand trees have survived until today because of one of the strictest environmental protections dating back 400 years, an anti-logging policy of “one tree, one head.” On a lighter note, this is also the home of “forest bathing,” calling scientific attention to the health benefits of being in nature.
The forest has been nurtured by humans for centuries and thrived with the support of the local community. David George Haskell, in The Songs of Trees, suggests that attempts to preserve forests in their “natural” and “primeval” condition has the consequence of excluding humans from the “natural” community of life. Here, humans live with the forest, appreciating its benefits and sustaining the ecosystem.
The cold of this region causes slower growth of the cypress, or hinoki, trees resulting in denser lumber of superior quality. Ironically, when the Ise Jingu Shrine was being rebuilt and needed new timber, a ceremony was held to harvest the trees here, generating attention resulting in renewed interest in the forest and its preservation.
The old narrow-gauge Forest Railway has been revived for recreational use and makes for a special way to experience this place. An industry in products made from the trees has also grown, with woodworks and cypress essential oil becoming leading souvenirs here. Furthermore, extensive hiking trails through the forest and past dramatic waterfalls, along with the fantastic blocky boulder formations of Nezame no Toko along the river, all under a sky full of stars at night, have created a superb environment for “forest bathing.”
Highlights in Agematsu
Surrounded by the national forest to the west and Mt. Kiso Komagatake, the highest mountain of the central alps, to the east sightseeing attractions and highlights in the area are dominated by nature. Some of the best views in the area are of Mt. Kiso Komagatake and the the surrounding Alps. The near 3,000 meter mountain is one of Japan’s most famous and includes hiking routes for experienced mountaineers. To get deep into the forest and experience “forest bathing”, Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest is the destination to visit. Forest bathing is a recognized medical therapy that is meant to heighten the senses (sight, hearing, smell) while providing deep relaxation during the immersion into the woods.
Taking the forest railroad is the ideal way to literally cut straight through the forest and the abundance of natural scenery. The railroad was key to the local economy and forest industry in years past and has been preserved and restored remarkably. The railroad is open from late April to early November and closes during the winter due to snow. Along the railroad, one of the major highlights is Nezame no Toko. The distinct rock formations carved by the Kiso river are highlighted by striking, white granite formations against the vibrant emerald green waters.
Festivals, food and local crafts in Agematsu
Events in the area are numerous and a mix of multiple themes such as dance, nature and spiritualism. Forest bathing day is held twice a year for visitors with reservations. A winter lantern festival is held in mid-February with warm food and snow statues. Lion dances and kabuki performances are held at local shrines. Summer has log pulling competitions, fireworks and more. For more details, refer to the official event calendar.
Famous local dishes include soba noodles, pickles, and gohei-mochi (skewered rice cakes). Most restaurants also take advantage of local ingredients from the surrounding fields and mountains particularly vegetables. Even so there are numerous restaurants to satisfy all tastes including curry, barbecue, sushi and more.
Crafts in Agematsu center around the traditional woodworking industry. From frames to flooring all of the basics are covered. For tourists selections such as utensils, cups, and even traditional toys make a fun souvenir with a characteristic woody fragrance and smooth touch from the local Kiso cypress trees.
Agematsu represents the perfect rural escape for those looking to explore its forested land. The forest railway provides the best introduction to the region, along its 2.2 km roundtrip, but the full Agematsu experience promises guided walks, hiking and foresting bathing/therapy sessions.
And for those keen to stay longer, numerous stay options exist in both the Nakasendo way area (Kakehashi Onsen Ryokan, Tamasa Ryokan, Sakaiju Ryokan), the Nishiogawa/Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest area (family-run lodges including Nishiogawa, Sawaguchi and Kyoraiso) and even Mt. Kiso Komagatake itself (mountain huts Kiso, Tamanokubo and Kisotono).
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I'm also known as Faer Out. I love learning about people and nature all around the world. I've traveled throughout Japan and visited some 40 countries on 5 continents and hope to continue seeing and experiencing the wonder of this planet as long as I live.Based in Japan for nearly two decades, I'm the Regional Partner here for Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures. In addition to my work at JapanTravel, I have a language school called Rainbow Bridges English Academy in Fukuoka and am very interested in teaching, languages, communication, and photography, among other things. This October, I was a guest host on NHK World's J-Trip Plan, Caving Adventures in Western Japan.I love heading downtown to meet up with friends for a night out as well as being able to hop on my motorcycle and be riding through forest-covered mountains or to sandy beaches in 20 minutes. This area is very photogenic and even after years of exploration, there are still plenty of places to discover each weekend! My photographs are available for purchase on iStock, Shutterstock, and Dreamstime or by contacting me.Please contact me if you have any questions about travel in Japan. I'd also be grateful for any follows on social media!