On the Nakasendo Trail in the Japan Alps
The Nakasendo Trail – one of the five main roads (Gokaido) of the Edo (Shogun) period. This exceptionally well preserved trail of post towns deep in the heart of Japans’ alps is an exceptional cultural and historical experience…even for Japanese. The trail is one of only two roads that connected Edo (modern day Tokyo) with Kyoto. Unlike the coastal Tokkaido (the other main road connecting the two cities), the Nakasendo 中山道 Central Mountain Route travels inland through the mountains and hence its name is quite appropriate.
There were 69 post-stations on the Nakasendo Trail. These post-towns provided accommodation and lodging for travelers and officials on the old highway and now, after being preserved and renovated since the 1960’s, are the location for well-preserved snapshots of the past. The Nakasendo trails are well sign-posted and great for hikers seeking out something of the ancient, rural and more slow-paced Japan.
The “Gokaido” (5 roads) were established by the Tokugawa shogunate as official routes for daimyo (feudal lords) and their families and retainers to travel to the capital (Edo) to perform “sankin-kotai” (the system of alternate residence in Edo) which allowed the central authorities to keep watch on and control the feudal lords. This system of well-maintained roads also facilitated the spread of central power to the outlying provinces. Information, troops and dispatches from central government could be speedily sent out along these highways and the passage of people and goods along these roads were checked at various “seki” (barrier stations) along the routes. The Tokaido, along the Pacific Coast, was the busiest route since it was the most direct and was mainly flat. However, due to the number of river crossings involved on the Tokaido, it was considered dangerous, and many daimyo sent their wives and families on the longer, but safer inland highway, the Nakasendo Trail.
“Cool Stuff” On the Trail
Some of the post-towns, such as Tsumago, have preserved their “honjin” and “waki-honjin”, high class ryokan (inns) reserved for daimyo (feudal lords) and other high-ranking officials. Kiso-Fukushima still has its “seki” (barrier station), where travelers on the Nakasendo had their travel passes checked by the authorities and were searched for firearms. No such checks exist today but if driving in the area, be aware of the local speed traps!
There are several interesting features of the ancient highway that have been preserved or recreated on the trail, such as the historic signboards and “joyato” (stone lanterns). Stone “Jizo” statues, (a Buddhist protector of travelers) and “dosojin” (Shinto guardians) [link to blog on religions] providing the same function can also be seen along the way, along with “namiki” (stretches of trees along the highway) which provide shade and protection from the elements. A number of “ichirizuka” (distance markers for one ri, about 2.4 miles, which are mounds with either a tree or stone marking the spot) have also been recreated.
We focused our journey trip on one of the more scenic sections, in the Kiso Valley in between Gifu and Nagano prefectures. The Kiso Valley (Kisoji) is heavily forested and known for the quality of its timber, especially “hinoki” (cypress) trees, which were used to rebuild the shrines in Ise, one of the most important Shrines in Japan. The local timber was so highly valued that logging was a capital offence during Tokugawa era. Lacquer is another important product and quality lacquer ware is available in Kiso-Hirosawa and Kiso-Fukushima along the way. The Kiso Valley is also known for its excellent cuisine which can include such exotic fare as “inoshishi” (wild boar), river crabs, ayu sweetfish, and crickets, along with mountain vegetables, fruits, rice, and of course sake. With the exception of the wild boar and river crabs, we managed to enjoy all of these on our brief two-day trip through the area.
Like much of rural Japan, once you ensconce yourself in the local village or town, prepare to be surprised, almost always pleasantly, but sometimes just surprised….by the old-style toilets in the 300-year-old ryokan (whose proprietors are well into their 80’s and yet going strong), the fried crickets served as an appetizer, or the sudden mountain squalls in the summer. But more likely you’ll be surprised by the warmth of the local’s hospitality.
A recent visit by your humble correspondent and family was a good example. We arrived in our trusty minivan that afternoon to the parking area just outside the Nakasendo village where we were staying (cars are strictly controlled within the exceptionally well preserved old-town). There we happened upon a group of overseas visitors whose car battery had died and they needed a jump start. We offered to help, but unfortunately realized we’d left the car jumper cables at home. Luckily a very helpful local “Oji-san” (uncle) on a tiny moped happened along, and being from the local village, made one phone call and immediately procured some cables. We were able to jump start the car and get our very happy tourists on their merry way, while we struck up a conversation with our heroic local oji-san. Being local, and friendly, he gave us all kinds of advice including where to find the best onsen (hot-springs) and the local watering hole. We said our goodbyes.
Later in the evening after a lovely meal at our simple ryokan, we took an evening stroll of the picturesque little town with all its lovely residences and shops – all of which were closed in keeping with the preservation of the town. But we noticed one door of one shop open, and even though the lights were off we could see it was a sake shop. It was riddled with interesting looking tipples, including home-made unfiltered sake. So we called out to see if anyone would answer and sure enough, they said please come in. They turned on the lights and proceeded to pour us a couple of their home sakes per our request. And then it got weird…in the course of our conversation, she began to tell us about some strangers who had car battery problems earlier this evening. Well, we told her we had the same experience earlier today. At which point she yelled back into the home adjacent to the shop and sure enough, our heroic “oji-san” pops out from their living room. He’d just taken his evening bath and it didn’t bother him (or us really) that he was naked from the waste up. We laughed about life’s coincidences and continued our conversation from earlier in the evening when helping the stranded tourists.
While we were talking and enjoying our sake (and since the lights were on) a lovely couple from Barcelona stopped by. We talked and translated for them and they had a home-made sake upon our recommendation. Then they sheepishly asked where they could find some hot water. They were camping in the nearby schoolyard per the local tourist association recommendations, but there was no hot water (and no convenience stores in the well-restored town) and dinner was a bowl of instant ramen. Of course, the shop owners immediately put a kettle on the boil. While it was heating, they provided the couple from Barcelona with some fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and some rich chashew pork (you’ll find slices of this wonderful meat often topping a bowl of ramen) to go with their cup of noodles. Once they finished eating, they also brought out some incredibly sweet, succulent watermelon pieces for everyone. All the while we continued to enjoy their local sake tasting. In short, the Japanese family, without saying so, had invited us all to join them in their evening meal. And all that had been asked for was some hot water. They were some very happy Japan visitors that evening, …until the torrential, but thankfully brief mountain downpours later that evening. Yes, travelling in Japan is full of wonderful surprises.