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High Life on the Middle Road

A passion for the outdoors and cultural preservation were the inspiration of four friends to convert a kominka into Zenagi, the first luxury hotel in the Kiso Valley and a base for adventures you won’t find anywhere else in Japan. 

The Nakasendo has been rejuvenated in recent years with hiking enthusiasts and travelers searching for a path away from the well-trodden tourist trail. Connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, the Nakasendo (meaning “Middle Road”) is an ancient highway with a section that travels through the Kiso Valley. During the Edo Period, the post towns of Tsumago and Magome flourished as key traffic hubs. Hikers may recognize the names as the cobblestoned route between these two towns remains one of the best-maintained portions of the trail. 

During the Showa Era’s rapid economic growth, Tsumago was deemed as a model town of the Showa period for its preserved landscape and architecture. The residents then worked hard to establish the “Uranai, Kasanai, Kowasanai” principle: don’t sell, don’t lend and don’t destroy. This motto still stands strong today as the Nakasendo has retained its local, sleepy countryside atmosphere.

Although technically part of Nagano, this region is closer to Gifu. Without a car, access can take a while which is one of the main reasons why the Nakasendo remains largely uncongested. The surrounding mountains of hinoki (cypress trees) is a nod to the region’s history of supplying hinoki timber to rebuild Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine, the Grand Shrine of Ise. Fresh meltwater courses deep in the valley, starting from countless waterfalls and spilling into the town’s irrigation system. Kiso seems to have it all for outdoor lovers as well as the spiritually inclined.

So it’s no surprise that the team at Menex decided to build the region’s first luxury getaway here. Surrounded by terraced rice fields and misty hills, Zenagi, the “Expedition Hotel,” is a converted kominka (Japanese traditional farmhouse) aiming to provide travelers who are willing to pay a bit more for unique experiences you won’t find elsewhere, such as private tours with Olympics athletes, stream climbing to waterfalls you can’t access otherwise and farm-to-table fine dining.  

Menex is made up of four well-respected professionals in the outdoor industry: Olympic rafting athlete Taro Ando, national snowboarding champion Tadayoshi Chabara, Asian Games paragliding gold medalist Yoshiki Kuremoto and successful television documentarian Muneyuki Okabe. The team came together after becoming friends in 2013 at the tough team-relay race, the Red Bull Dolomitenmann, where Ando and Kuremoto were participants and Okabe was filming. Ando introduced Chabara to the group and the four bonded over their passion to revitalize Japan’s countryside through adventure tourism. With the help of the government, who wanted to promote tourism for Tokyo 2020, Menex decided to build a unique luxury experience in a region that encapsulated both nature and culture. Kiso Valley checked all the boxes.

Targeting high-end travelers looking for a romantic getaway or an exclusive vacation to Japan, Zenagi costs a lavish ¥120,000 per person for one night, which includes three meals and a guided tour of your choice. 

Stepping into Zenagi, visitors will immediately notice how quiet and calming this place is, with rustling leaves, chirping crickets and birds for background music. It lives up to its name; the “Zen” in Zenagi means different things: shizen (nature), ozen (celebratory meals), the meditative zen and zenkou (good deeds). 

At first glance, Zenagi seems minimalist with its wide-open lobby and high, beamed ceilings, but a closer inspection shows intricate details designed to create a relaxing haven. The building originally belonged to a wealthy farming household and is a few hundred years old, with the wooden columns and beams assembled without nails still intact.

Architects and interior designers will appreciate the art pieces and locally designed furniture handpicked by Okabe. The elegant lobby substitutes as an event room for private parties with the dining area along the right wall. Tucked behind hidden walls are three suites with an inviting hinoki bathtub and a view of a private rock garden on the first floor. The bedroom is right below the rafters overlooking the lobby below. The design evokes a sense of community, yet allows for privacy and subtlety when needed.

The restaurant on the first floor serves Japanese and Western slow food cuisine depending on your preference, using the season’s fresh produce and game meat from Kiso. Initially coming across as a bit shy and reserved, Eiji Fukuoka, the in-house chef, is an avid fisherman who after a while (right around the fourth and fifth course) starts enthusing about his daily catch of the day and his responsibly sourced ingredients like mountain vegetables, catfish and rainbow trout from the neighboring fish farms and bear meat and venison caught nearby. 

Depending on the weather, visitors can choose to go on an outdoor expedition or a cultural tour. The electric-powered mountain bike tours go to some of the fish farms and give travelers a chance to talk to the farmers, who are more than happy to share about their trade. 

Don’t let the label “e-bike tours” turn you off—it proves to be quite an adventure as you cycle up challenging mountain paths to waterfalls only long-time residents know about. Watch out for kamoshika (Japanese serow) which are commonly found bounding across the mountain roads on early mornings. This is also bear country, so it’s recommended to go outdoors in a group. 

You’ll also see the critically endangered Kiso horse, one of the eight indigenous horse breeds of Japan. It is revered by the town as it is an integral part of the Hanauma Festival held every October. This vibrant celebration is held to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and the horses are decorated with colorful paper blossoms which the locals rush to grab as they are said to ward off evil spirits. Even through all the commotion, the gentle Kiso horse remains calm, one of its notable characteristics. On a regular day, 12-year-old local favorite “Ossu” resides just a five-minute cycle from Zenagi. Standing just a few centimeters shorter than a human adult, the chestnut stubby horse is owned by the town and loved by the residents. 

The cycling tour also drops by an archeological site dating back to the Jomon Period (14,000 to 300 B.C.), when hunter-gatherer culture prevailed. It is said that the early Jomon people settled into this valley and flourished thanks to the abundance of water. 

Perhaps the most thrilling activity during the green season is sawanobori (stream climbing) up the emerald-blue Kakizore River. Unlike canyoning where you’re navigating down a valley, sawanobori is a type of mountaineering in Japan where you go against the current and up mountain streams to their source. Although you need to be in relatively good shape, the Kakizore Gorge in the summer is an ideal place for first-timers as there are plenty of resting spots in between rapids and climbs. 

There are even quiet swimming pools where the water is pristine for snorkeling or fishing for iwana and amago river fish. It takes around two hours to navigate upstream on a strong current day, but the swim to Kirigataki at the end is worth it, especially since the regular lookout spot for this waterfall only provides a distant, tree-blocked view. With your private waterfall and crystal blue swimming hole nestled in the valley, it feels otherworldly.

GETTING THERE

The fastest way from Tokyo or Osaka is the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya Station. From Nagoya, it’s an easy transfer on the JR Shinano Line to Nakatsugawa Station. From there, it’s a 30-minute drive to Zenagi. Zenagi has pick-up services available for staying guests. For more information, visit www.zen-resorts.com.

Interested in working at Zenagi? Zenagi is looking for bilingual hotel and kitchen staff and outdoor guides. Apply here.

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