Monday, April 20, 2009

The Nakasendo Way * Part 6


The Nakasendo Way ~ The Kiso Valley

We've got a long walk ahead of us today - about 22km. We leave from the 17th century Kaikokuya Inn at Hosokute - all of our gear has dried overnight in the drying room and we'll set off along the country roads passing through woodland and shady trees.

Hiroshige - Magome no eiki

After turning off the paved road we descend along a stone paved path. This section of the Nakasendo is said to incorporate the longest continuous stretch of original stone paving - ishidatami in Japan.

We take a gentle walk down to Okute, view the 1200 year old cedar tree and have our picnic lunch.

The kago or palanquin was a useful vehicle of transportation on the Nakasendo if you were a person of means. The coverings on the sides could drop down for to afford privacy and protection from the elements.

Photo courtesy of Old photos of

The Nakasendo is sometimes referred to as the Princess' Highway. Princess Kazunomiya, at age 16, was forced to leave the imperial court in Kyoto in 1862 to become the shogun's wife and live in Edo. She was carried by palanquin along the highway accompanied by a party of 10,000 minders- attendants, maids-in-waiting and a guard of samurai. (A party of 15,000 went to get her.)

This vast train took three days to pass any one spot. It also put a huge strain on the post towns passed through as they were required to feed and house the party, provide horses, porters and men.
The day before the procession arrived the town had to provide 2500 porters and 200 horses and then 8000 men and 3000 horses were required on the day it was passing. The royal trip took 26 days to complete, whereas normally the highway would be covered in 21 days.

Men and animals would have to be drafted from neighbouring villages and peasant farmers were obliged to provide labour.

The Nakasendo now is a mix of bitumen pathways, forest paths, rugged rocky passes and small portions of ishidatami.

An unofficial Nakasendo traveller

In the Edo period the road was reserved for official travel only. Travel was restricted to members of the samurai on official business, the shogun's officials and messengers , the lords or daimyos, a few foreign diplomats and the odd pilgrim.

Hiroshige - Fukushima Barrier Station

To ensure that the average commoner was not out on the roads the law was enforced by way of the barrier stations which screened all travellers. However as commerce developed over the Edo period there was a rise in the number of merchants and local traders who took advantage of the route. Villagers also devised a sponsored pilgrim scheme to enable at least some of their villagers to see the world beyond their village.


During the Edo period the shogunate initiated a policy of alternate residence duty for the provincial Lords - daimyos. For six to twelve months the Lord lived in Edo at court separated from his family, and then for the next six to twelve months he resided in his own castle. However wherever he was - his family was not... Sankin Kotai was designed to eliminate the possibility of a Lord accumulating wealth or influence and becoming a threat to the shogun. In order to maintain a level of respectability befitting his class the daimyo must travel with a considerable retinue of servants, guards, aids and advisers. This regular shuffle between Edo and outlying castle properties and the maintenance of two properties ensured that the daimyos spent at least 25% of their nett revenue on costs.
To avoid pressure on the highway system the travel of the daimyos was carefully scheduled. The policy of sankin kotai contributed to the growth of Edo which in 1700 became the world's largest city with a population of over one million people.

Ando Hiroshige 1797-1858

After traversing the thirteen passes, Jusan-toge, along picturesque ridges with distant views of the mountains, we arrive in the small city of Ena home to the Hiroshige museum, where next morning we view some of the prints in the series of wood block prints that Hiroshige was commissioned to make of the Nakasendo Way and try our hand at woodblock printing.

The inn at O-tsumago, a quaint hamlet on the outskirts of Magome post town , had a front entry opening of barely five feet in height. Perhaps this was to slow down unwelcome guests. Nakasendo towns often had multiple dog-leg bends in the approach road in order to slow the advance of invading hostile armies.

Through the front door, inside the dark living space, the fire burned in an open grate as it had done for over a hundred years. With the absence of a chimney the wooden interior walls had developed, over successive generations, a mellow amber glow.

The nearby town of Magome was a town attractive to tourists but balanced precariously on that fine line between authentic restoration and conservation- and Disney replication.

Oh who untouched by tenderness
can pass small white daisies
in the grass

Ho O

Hiroshige - Flowers



  1. I wish I had your blog when I had to study Japanese history in middle school! The ishidatami is extraordinary...

  2. It's incredible this whole history you are unravelling for our hungry eyes! I was thinking of that Japanese lady being transported in that hammock-like chair and could not help smile because even with a couple of men carrying you it must have been mighty uncomfortable to be intht position for a long time. I'd rather walk, which what you and your fellow travellers did. Fantastic photos. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  3. Tulsa,
    thanks for the vote of confidence...

    The ishidatami were not easy to walk on, especially when wet and mossy. It must have made for a bouncing ride in the palanquin.

  4. Mr Cuban, good evening,

    It makes my efforts feel worthwhile receiving your words of appreciation...

    The Japanese were and are good at squatting so the position would not be nearly as uncomfortable as it would be for us,- all the same you would think you could feel kinda seasick with the rocking motion...

  5. I love the way you've woven the history into the lovely walk. Beautiful photos and artwork, as well.

    Even when I visited Japan when I was much younger, I could never quite master that squatting thing!

  6. Willow - good evening /early morning to you,
    We did that 'squatting thing' in order to eat each night so became quite used to it, though it is hard on an unaccustomed back for a long period.
    We found that with a full tummy, and after an evening asahi or sake or two, we would edge our way backwards to the wall to gain some support...

  7. This was one incredible walk, Delwyn! I would have rather used my legs than squatted in that uncomfortable mode of transportation that is palanquin but I guess the Princess did not have much choice.

  8. Superbly written, Delwyn, and the photographs and images are bewitching. The history that you so deftly weave into your narrative is absolutely fascinating, too. Thank you so much for taking us along on such a memorable journey.

    (I've tagged you for a fun meme - no obligation, of course!)

  9. Another fascinating post. Isn't it interesting how royalty all over the globe forced the local gentry and peasants to sacrifice their economic stability to pay for the travels of kings/shoguns?

  10. Jelica,
    and still the royal family have very few choices. I have just read a book about the Crown Princess and her very sad life.
    Happy days

  11. Tessa,
    thanks for accompanying me Tessa,
    I will put the meme on my list, I have never done one and am not that attracted by them but I read your effort and was really impressed at how interesting you had made it so I may change my mind.
    Happy Days

  12. Meri,
    yes, those poor villages were often stripped of all their food stores when parties of dignitaries came through,
    happy days

  13. I really enjoy the history as we stroll along viewing current and old photos together to bring the history to life.

  14. Good Morning Delwyn,
    You published your post last night but I saved my dose of a hazy moon for this morning too read.
    I love the way you wrote "an unofficial Nakasendo traveler"!!..
    xxx Mona

  15. I just went to my other blog, the one associated with my business website, the one that I sorely neglect because visiting friends here is so much more fun...anyway I discovered 2 comments from you a month ago (I said neglected) thanking me for coming to your sight, but wondering how the heck I found you. Well, it was just me, commenting here with the wrong "identity." Tiny mystery solved.

  16. I love the now and then photos, witnessing the walk of history and celebrate the present of Japan.
    Yeah history-1200 year old cedar...
    Fun hands on-try your hand at woodblock printing....
    Thanks, I wish I could join in for a fun & meaningful trip!
    Love the bird post below. The photos are spectacular! That's more on geographic's picturescape sharing.
    Just love your blog, full of adventurous and passion in life!
    It makes me want to set a target to travel at least once a year:)

  17. Jennifer, it's all a bit of a mystery still!!!!
    I'll talk to you at your place...

  18. Mona,
    It's the unofficial traveller here...
    I have yet to read my friends' posts so I am excitedly anticipatory....

  19. Yoon see,
    the wood block printing was fun and also to see the entire range of Nakasendo and Tokaido prints.
    I recently experimented with a wood block print using a POTATO!!!!!!

  20. Wow, thanks for the wonderful post, Delwyn. Very interesting indeed. Still thinking about being carried hither and thither.....think I'd like it!.xx♥

  21. Hi Natalie,
    might be a little cramped do you think...
    Happy days

  22. ...another great post on this wonderful walk of yours...those stones do indeed look tough on the feet for walking but to think of all the history that has stepped on them! I had fun reading this as usual!

  23. Woodblock print with a potato.
    Please share Delwyn, I know you are into art and writing......I'm curious, just can wait to see the real masterpiece:)

    YOon See

  24. Sorry typpo error.
    The word "can" should be replaced by "can't"

  25. Yoon see
    I'll post my next Ukiyo post about its different forms and MAYBE put on my print!!!
    Happy days

  26. Hi,Delwyn.

    I happened to find your posts about your trip to Japan.
    Sorry for my slowness. I'm always slow.

    I read all of them and enjoyed them a lot. I was impressed with your good taste in selecting Ukiyo-e prints for posts.

    Weren't you surprised when you first heard about how to take a Japanese bath? You wrote "distinctive" so I couldn't help smiling.

    I just read your newest post too.
    It is really a lovely story and curious pelicans are very attractive because I've seen them only in the zoo. I'd like to at least once see them in the wild nature like you!!

    Thank you for sharing all these!

  27. Hi Sapphire

    I am glad you found this series...

    I did know in advance about the bathing etiquette so was prepared...

    I came to Japan a year earlier and visited Kanazawa, Yokosuka Tokyo and Kyoto with my girls.

    I hope you get to see the pelican up close in the wild..

    I will come and visit you now...

    happy Days


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