Nakasendō: The Samurai Path 30

In the early seventeenth century Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate decided to resurrect an ancient network of five interconnecting roads across the main island of Honshu. Nakasendo, literally meaning 'Middle Mountain Way' and stretching 535 kilometres, was the longest of these roads and featured 69 post towns scattered along the spine of the Japanese Alps from Edo, today's Tokyo, to Kyoto. Travelling through mountain passes, bamboo forests, rice fields, pristine rivers and clustered with 'shukuba' post towns, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, Nakasendo is a cultural, natural and historical tour through Japan's legendary and iconic shogun and samurai past. This is the story of my search for the real Nakasendo, stopping off along the way at the most spellbinding highlights which the old road has to offer.

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Aug 27 2015

Before heading down the Nakasendo road, my first visit to Tokyo involved sushi at a ninja-themed restaurant in Chiyoda and blowing nine thousand yen at a pachinko arcade in Shinjuku. Despite everything modern and mercurial about Tokyo, among the neon and silver skyscrapers are the Imperial Palace and Senso-ji. Similarly, back along the road from the modern cities of Gifu and Shiga, Nakasendo has tranquil Shinto shrines and samurai ryokan inns. Both reflect each other. Both showcase relics and fragments of the old, classical Japan. Image Date: 02/25/2009

Ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Aug 28 2015

Also known as Kiso Kaido, Nakasendo also inspired visually enchanting artwork. In the nineteenth century, artists Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen created a series of woodblock paintings, or Ukiyo-e, which chronicle scenes from every one of Nakasendo's 69 stops and became known as 'Kiso Kaidō Rokujūkyū-tsugi', or 'The Sixty-nine Stations of the Nakasendō'. Their print of Nihonbashi, the starting point of the Nakasendo road, shows mariners and traders on the wooden bridge and fish and shellfish ready to be taken to market in Edo. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Nihonbashi Bridge, Tokyo

Aug 29 2015

As with the rest of Tokyo, Nihonbashi's modern bridge is a far cry from what it used to be back in the Edo-period and stone and metal have long replaced the old wooden frame and in the Nakasendo days Nihonbashi Bridge was known as 'Edobashi', literally meaning 'Bridge of Edo'. Construction on the original wooden bridge was finished in 1604 as part of an urban development project called 'Tenka Bushin', ordered by Shogun Tokugawa Ieassu to make Edo rival Kyoto as Japan's political, cultural and economic centre. Image Date: 06/06/2014

Kilometre Zero Marker, Nihonbashi Bridge

Aug 30 2015

At the middle of Nihonbashi Bridge a plaque known as 'Kilometre Zero' marks the point from which all distances from Tokyo across Japan were always calculated and this proves that the original idea behind Nakasendo, that of travel, trade and commerce, is still present in Nihonbashi today. A modern day replica of the plaque is located just off the bridge, displaying the precise distances from this point to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and other major Japanese cities. Image Date: 02/01/2009

The Uogashi Monument, Nihonbashi

Aug 30 2015

With the road connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, Nakasendo created a golden age of Japanese commerce and traders and merchants began travelling along the route. Tsukiji is unquestionably modern Tokyo's most famous fish market, but back in the Edo era Nihonbashi's Uogashi Market literally marked the business end of Nakasendo road with fish being a huge source of wealth for traders. Today the Uogashi Monument marks the location of the old fish market, complete with a black and white photograph depicting a market scene over a century ago. Image Credit: Flickr - Wei-Te Wong Image Date: 12/26/2014

Ukiyo-e print of Karuizawa-shuku, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Sep 1 2015

While nothing remains today of the old traditional post town of Karuizawa-shuku, Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen's woodblock print of the Nakasendo-era Karuizawa shows a villager tending to a horseman on his way down the trail from Edo. Nakasendo-era Karuizawa-shuku was one of the major stops along the road with over one hundred buildings specifically catering to travellers and merchants. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Onioshidashi Lava Flow and Mount Asama, Gunma

Sep 2 2015

Today, the former Nakasendo 'shukuba' post of town of Karuizawa is a hot spring and resort town, but just over thirty minutes north on the Seibu Kogen bus service is one of the most striking sites anywhere in the area that was once part of the Nakasendo road. Onioshidashi is a geological-cum-cultural site where vermilion red Buddhist shrines and temples nestle on top of the volcanic rocks of an old lava stream which throughout history has periodically flowed down the sides of the erupting Mount Asano. Image Date: 03/01/2007

Buddhist Pavilion, Onioshidashi

Sep 2 2015

Onioshidashi's name literally means 'Giants Throwing Rocks Down the Mountain' and the black rocks seen today at the site are the result of one of the biggest and most extreme seismic events in Honshu's history, when Mount Asama erupted on May 9th, 1783, and which continued for over three months. Onioshidashi also features a Buddhist temple which honours Asama Kannon-do, the goddess of mercy, which was built in 1958 to commemorate the locals which perished during Mount Asama's cataclysmic eruption in 1783. Image Date: 11/08/2010

Shiraito Falls, Nagano

Sep 3 2015

On the way from Onioshidashi back towards Karuizawa and back onto the Nakasendo-proper, Shiraito Falls is a man-made stretch of waterfalls measuring three metres high and seventy metres wide. The waterfalls are known locally as 'Shiraito no Taki', which translates to "The waterfall of white threads", due to the cascading water resembling a thick white curtain. Image Date: 03/31/2006

Ukiyo-e print of Narai-juku, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Sep 5 2015

Narai-juku marks the start of the most famous section of the Nakasendo road. Most easily accessed by taking a train along JR Chuo Line or on an express train to either Shojiri or Kiso-Fukushima station from Nagoya or Nagano, the path to Narai-juku heading up into the hills above the Kiso-ji valley. In Hiroshige and Eisen's woodblock painting a group of merchants and three samurai, with their swords sheathed, are shown leaving Narai-juku and heading further along the Kiso mountain path. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Nakasendo-era houses, Narai-juku

Sep 6 2015

When you arrive in Narai-juku something peculiar happens. As you enter the town this is the first time along the Nakasendo road which genuinely feels frozen in the Edo era - save for the modern cars which are allowed along the one kilometre road going through the town. With its perfectly preserved Edo-era 'shoin-zukiri' houses lining the main street, Narai-juku is where Nakasendo first starts to weave its samurai-era magic and at its height the town was often referred to as 'Narai of a Thousand Houses'. Image Date: 07/31/2013

Shizume-jinja shrine, Narai-juku

Sep 7 2015

At the southern end of Narai-juku, just before the path heads back out into the Kiso Valley forest, Shizume-jinja shrine was one of the first structures built at Narai-juku and was there even before the village became a Nakasendo post town in the early Edo-era. With 'Koma-inu', Shinto lion statues, guarding it Shizume-jinja was traditionally a place of rest and meditation for samurai and travellers arriving in Narai-juku and the shrine was built to honour Amatsu-Mikaboshi, the Shinto god of the stars. Image Credit: Flickr - Kasadera Image Date: 03/27/2013

Ukiyo-e print of Tsumago-juku, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Sep 10 2015

Tsumago-juku is one of the two most famous stops along the Nakasendo road as well as being a post town along the Kisoji, another trade route which runs alongside the Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley. In Hiroshige and Eisen's Ukiyo-e of Tsumago-juku, traders and travellers are shown heading from the town the along both the Nakasendo and Kisoji routes. Image Date: 07/12/1844


Sep 11 2015

Immediately noticeable in Tsumago-juku is how immaculately restored the row of twenty traditional Nakasendo-era houses along the main street is. This restoration was completed in 1971 exactly according to art and literature from the Edo period. Among the row of houses are traditional 'honjin' roadside inns and shops which would have sold provisions to travellers along the Nakasendo road. Image Date: 04/17/2013

Buddhist Shrine outside Rurisan Kōtoku-ji, Tsumago-juku

Sep 12 2015

Up a set of granite steps at the northern end of Tsumago-juku visitors will find Rurisan Kōtoku-ji Temple on a hill overlooking the rest of town. The temple was built around 1500 and immediately outside the front entrance is a Buddhist shrine which locals and visitors tie rice paper and scraps of red material with wishes written on them around smooth pebbles from the Kiso River and hang them with string from the shrine's wooden beams, themselves made of cherry tree wood from the Kiso forest. Image Date: 07/15/2012

Nakasendo-era Notice Board, Tsumago-juku

Sep 12 2015

Prominently placed in the centre of Tsumago-juku is a wooden notice board known as a 'kosatsuba'. These notice boards displayed official imperial decrees which filtered down from both Kyoto and Edo. Tsumago-juku's kosatsuba still features some of the Shogun's last imperial edicts before Nakasendo fell into disuse, including a wanted sign offering 100 Ryo - roughly two kilograms - of silver, five hundred pounds of rice and a samurai sword engraved with an official commendation from the Shogun himself, for the capture of a group of rebels. Image Credit: Flickr - Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi Image Date: 05/03/2013

Ukiyo-e print of Magome-juku, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Sep 14 2015

Along with Tsumago-juku, Magome-juku is the other Nakasendo post town which sees the most attention and visitors. In the woodblock painting merchants are shown travelling along the split paths of the Nakasendo and the Kisoji, with the paths flanked by cherry blossom and fruit trees. Throughout late summer and early autumn, another distinctly sweet and honey-scented dimension is added to the appeal of the Kiso Valley path as the forest's fruits are in full bloom at this time of year. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Nakasendo-era road signs in the Kiso Valley

Sep 14 2015

On the stretch of the Nakasendo road between Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku, traditional Japanese milestones were placed along the path to make travellers aware of their location. These signs were made of stone with the names of the shukuba post towns carved into them in Japanese kanji lettering and they are still visible on Nakasendo's Kiso-ji section today. Image Date: 10/14/2014

Kaki Fruit, Magome-juku

Sep 15 2015

In Magome-juku, the reason for the sweet-smelling air on the path leading into the town becomes clear to anyone touring the Nakasendo in early September. Autumn is fruit harvest season in this part of Honshu and at this time of year the famously honey-scented Kaki, or Japanese persimmon fruit, are wrapped in straw and left to air-dry hanging from horizontal bamboo poles suspended above the doorways of buildings all along the Kiso-ji section of the Nakasendo road. Image Date: 07/17/2012

Edo-era Water Mill, Magome-juku

Sep 15 2015

Magome-juku was built on the gently sloping natural incline of a hill in the Kiso valley and the Japanese kanji characters used to form the name 'Magome' are written as 'horse' and 'basket' because the path through the village was too steep for horses to negotiate. As the path winds its way from the bottom of Magome-juku right up to the top, a wooden water wheel from the Edo period can be seen. In the Nakasendo days, the water wheel building was used to mill rice flour and soba wheat for the town and the still fully functioning water wheel is still used today to generate hydroelectricity for Magome-juku's residents. Image Credit: Flickr - Yamakidoms Image Date: 03/19/2007

Ukiyo-e print of Nakatsugawa-juku, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Sep 18 2015

In Hiroshige and Eisen's Ukiyo-e woodblock painting of Nakatsugawa-juku, Nakasendo traders and merchants pass each other on a wooden bridge over the Kiso River. Today. the old post town has given rise to the city of Nakatsugawa, an urban agglomeration of towns and small villages in southeastern Gifu Prefecture. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Inn for Imperial Officials, Nakatsugawa-juku

Sep 18 2015

After the perfectly preserved shukuba towns of the Kiso-ji stretch, finding the real Nakasendo becomes more of a treasure hunt the closer you get to Kyoto. Nakasendo always rewards those who scratch below the surface and in 2 Chōme, or 'second block', of the Honmachi district of Nakatsugawa the prize is the old post town's Waki Honjin, an high-end inn exclusive to imperial and government officials with enough money to stay there. Nakatsugawa's Honmachi district also features Nakasendo and Edo-era narrow streets and alleyways which characterised Japanese towns at this point in history. In the Edo period these streets would have teemed with merchants, with soba wheat and rice from the paddies of the surrounding plains of the Tōnō region, one of Gifu's real breadbaskets, playing a significant role in Nakatsugawa-juku's rise and an important trading post on the Nakasendo road. Image Credit: Flickr - Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi Image Date: 05/02/2013

Tsukechi Gorge, Gifu Prefecture

Sep 19 2015

Nakatsugawa-juku also makes a great gateway for exploring the natural treasure chest of the Tsukechi-kyo Valley. The Kitaena Kotsu service leaves Nakatsugawa bus station and heads north to a first set of waterfalls known as Fudo-taki. Just to the north along a wooden promenade are the more impressive Takataru-no-taki Falls. Image Date: 01/09/2015

Ukiyo-e print of Ōtsu-juku, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō", Keisei Eisen

Sep 22 2015

Hiroshige and Eisen's depiction of Ōtsu-juku shows travellers and Geisha on the stretch of the Nakasendo road which lead through the city of Ōtsu and down to the shore of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Restored Nakasendo Road, Ōtsu-juku

Sep 23 2015

Today, Ōtsu-juku can be found at the meeting point of the Nakasendo road and another of the Edo-period's five overland routes, the Tokaido, just off the city of Ōtsu's modern day Nishi-Oumi Highway. The small concrete road leading through a street of traditional Japanese houses seen today was once part of both the Nakasendo and Tokaido roads. Image Date: 04/13/2007

Amida Hall, Enryaku-ji, Ōtsu

Sep 24 2015

Easy access through a forest path near Ōtsu's Sakamoto Station, or by a cable car up the western face of Mount Hiei today, the famous and strikingly red Tendai Buddhist monastery of Enryaku-ji made Ōtsu-juku a frequent first stop along the Nakasendo for pilgrims travelling along the road from Kyoto. Enryaku-ji dates back to 788 CE and was the first point through which Tendai-shū Buddhism entered Japan from China. Image Credit: Flickr - Tataquax Image Date: 11/15/2010

Statues of Yaji and Kita at Sanjo Ohashi, Kyoto

Sep 26 2015

On the Isachiyo side of Sanjo Ohashi you meet Yaji and Kita, two famous travellers who made the journey along the road from Edo to Kyoto in 'Tōkaidōchū Hizakurigea', a nineteenth century serialied novel by writer Jippensha Ikku. Despite being originally published as a comic novel, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurigea was regarded as a guidebook to the Nakasendo and Tokaido roads and ultimately became one of Japan's first officially published travel guides. Image Date: 04/22/2011

Ukiyo-e print of Sanjo Ohashi, "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō", Utagawa Hiroshige

Sep 26 2015

In their original Ukiyo-e of Kyoto's Sanjo Ohashi bridge, Hiroshige and Eisen show merchants either arriving in Kyoto or just setting off towards Edo across the Kamo River, with the shadow of Mount Hiei to the north back towards Ōtsu. Image Date: 07/12/1844

Today's Sanjo Ohashi

Sep 26 2015

Marking either the very start or the very end of the old road between Edo and Kyoto, today's Sanjo Ohashi mirrors Nihonbashi bridge at Nakasendo's opposite end as the old wooden frame has been replaced with stone and metal. At the height of the Nakasendo era, Sanjo Ohashi was the gateway to the shinto shrines, sake breweries and geisha houses of Kyoto's Ebisucho and Nakasujicho districts and these buildings still exist to this day. Image Date: 06/13/2008

Kyoto from Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Sep 28 2015

Arriving in Kyoto having travelled along the Nakasendo road it becomes apparent that you've seen the authentic side of classical, Edo-era Japan. Today's Tokyo and Nihonbashi at the start of the route and Kyoto and Ōtsu at the end of it are two sets of extremes, the first commercial and the latter imperial. What a tour along the Nakasendo road does, if nothing else, is to showcase how everyday life used to be for real Japanese people living in the area of Honshu between the country's imperial capital and its commercial core. Image Date: 09/03/2005

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