History of Nakasendo
Nakasendo is an old trail constructed 400 years ago by the Tokugawa Shogunate as one of the major routes between Edo (Tokyo now) and Kyoto. When Tokugawa placed the shogunate in Edo, they started a new big policy called Sankin-kotai which means all the 250 Daimyos (feudal lords) had to come to Edo every other year to show loyalty to shogun. To operate this policy, shogunate needed to construct the roads from all over Japan to Edo.
The most frequent road was between Edo and Kyoto where Emperor lived. They made two routes to connect these two most important cities. One is called Tokaido which took the route along the coast line of Pacific Ocean. The total length was about 490 km which was shorter with 53 post towns in between. But there are big rivers without bridges, so they sometimes had to wait for the amount of the river water decrease for a week or more. On the other hand, Nakasendo was about 530 km, longer than Tokaido with 69 post towns. Though they needed to pass the mountain roads, they could walk constantly without bothered by the rivers.
I mentioned the post town. Post towns had very important roles for the travelers, especially for the Daimyo groups. Daimyos with large territories brought 4,000 people to Edo. They needed to stay on the route. So most important role of the post town is to offer accommodations for them. Each town had one Honjin, the accommodation for the most important person, Daimyo. Adn Waki-honjin was for the second rank officers. Low rank vassals needed to share the small accommodations with many people. Some times the big groups had to divide into the small groups and used two or three post towns on the same night.
The post towns were placed every 8 km. The fast walker groups walked more than 30 km per day passing 3 post towns per day. The slow walkers took about 20 km per day.
The another important role of the post town was to offer horses to transport the baggage. So they didn’t have to prepare many horses all the way. They could rent the horses and transporters at each town.
Unfortunately because of the modernization of the highways all over Japan, not many post towns have been preserved, but you can see some of the most well preserved ones in Nagano and Gifu Prefectures because these towns are in the mountains. Followings are some good examples.
Tsumago was the 42nd post town counting from Edo. It is the best preserved post town in Japan. It was the start of the townscape preservation movement of Japan. Tsumago has been designated as a preservation district containing important traditional structures, which means that today you can find the authentic atmosphere of the old post roads in the Edo Period here. Electrical wires, TV antennas, and telephone poles were hidden from sight along the main road and as a result, Tsumago looks much like it did in the 18th century.
Magome is the next post town from Tsumago, so the distance is about 8 km. The town is a part of Gifu Prefecture. It is well preserved, too. The difference is that Tsumago town is flat while Magome town spread on the slope. So they have very different atmosphere. Magome has become very popular because of the author Toson Shimazaki who was born in Magome. He wrote a very popular novel “Yoakemae” meaning before the dawn. He was born in the family of Honjin (main accommodation) right after the Meiji Restoration, so he experienced the changing of the history. He described the drastic changes in his book.
Narai is very easy to access. A few minutes walk from JR Line Narai Station, you are already in the middle of the old post town. This town is very well preserved, too. There are several inns where you can stay overnight. The town becomes very quiet and dark, so you will feel as if you have been transported back in time to the Edo period.
Hiking on Nakasendo Trail
You can walk part of Nakasendo in Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. The most recommended walk is between Tsumago and Magome Magome. You can enjoy these two most well-preserved towns. The distance is about 8 km and the total elevation gain is about 400 meters. It takes about three hours. On the way, you walk through the cedar forest, rice and vegetable fields, small villages and waterfalls. You will know how the local people live. If you walk from Tsumago, just before arriving at Magome, there is a view point to look the high mountain, Ena, 2,191 meters.