On a fine autumn morning last November, I set off on another day trip from Nagoya – this time heading deep into the mountainous heart of the Chūbu region. My target: two beautifully preserved post towns that once served an Edo Period highway. There, in the refreshing peace of the Japanese countryside, I enjoyed an atmosphere as far removed as one can possibly imagine from the heaving, bustling, incredibly modern city I’d just left behind.
Welcome to the Kiso Valley.
My starting point was Nagoya (名古屋): the largest city and main transportation hub of Japan’s Chūbu region.
Nagoya is one of my favourite cities in Japan, and I certainly think its reputation as a boring industrial centre is somewhat undeserved. Sure, it pales in comparison to Kyōto for age or Tōkyō and Ōsaka for sheer size, but it’s got culture and history and fantastic local cuisine in spades. And when one has had one’s fill of all that, the vast network of railways and bus routes stretching out across the region from Nagoya puts even more attractions within easy reach…
…including the famed Kiso-ji (木曽路), the old trade route running across the thickly forested Kiso Valley (木曽谷, Kiso-dani) in the mountains between Nagoya and Nagano.
Click here to read my separate post describing how to travel between Nagano and the Kiso Valley.
The Kiso-ji was later absorbed into the famous Nakasendō (中山道), one of five major highways laid out by the Tokugawa Bakufu in order to consolidate their hold over Japan during the early part of the Edo Period (1603–1868). Measuring over 500 kilometres in length, the Nakasendō offered an inland alternative to the famous Tōkaidō along the coast, with both roads connecting Kyōto (the imperial capital) and Edo (the capital of the shōgun).
Strategically positioned along the Nakasendō were 69 shukuba, or “post towns”, where travellers could replenish their provisions and arrange overnight lodging. Those journeying on state-sanctioned business – such as daimyō fulfilling their duties under the Tokugawa government’s sankin-kōtai policy – could even stay at special inns set up for their use. A typical post town had two such facilities: the honjin, reserved exclusively for high-status official travellers; and the similar waki-honjin, which catered mainly to official groups but, vacancies permitting, might also welcome ordinary travellers who could afford their services.
After the end of the Edo Period, new means of transport and changing travel patterns signalled a terminal decline in the post town system. Many lapsed into obscurity, evolved into normal towns, or became mere suburbs of Japan’s sprawling cities. However, a few have preserved at least some portion of their architectural endowment, and we shall have a look at two such places in this post.
I’ve written a separate post describing how to travel between Nagoya and the Kiso Valley, so let’s jump straight to my first stop: the post town of Tsumago-juku (妻籠宿), also referred to simply as Tsumago (妻籠).
Here’s a map of Tsumago, with the Nakasendō marked in yellow (click to enlarge).
From the bus stop, I followed a short path leading towards the old Edo Period highway, which runs right through the heart of the post town.
Tsumago is a small place, navigable entirely on foot from end to end. Motorised traffic is prohibited on the main street (at least, the part within the preservation zone) from 10 AM to 4 PM.
Let’s highlight a few specific places of interest.
Roughly midway through the town (heading southward), the street kinks sharply to the right before sloping down and straightening out again. This angle is a defensive feature, meant to slow the progress of any hostile forces marching on the Nakasendō.
Standing near the bend in the road is an old Western-style schoolhouse, now used as Tsumago’s tourist information centre.
This long flight of stone steps leads to Kōtoku-ji, a small temple compound perched upon a hill overlooking Tsumago.
Tsumago’s former honjin was meticulously rebuilt in 1995, based on how it appeared during the last few decades of the Edo Period.
Unlike the honjin, the original 19th-century waki-honjin just down the road survived more or less intact.
Now then, let’s move on to our next stop.
Tsumago and the next post town – which we’ll have a look at very shortly – are still linked by a section of the old Nakasendō, which today serves as a popular hiking route. Those preferring not to walk can use a local bus service instead (further details available in my separate transportation report).
Whether by foot or by wheeled transport, one will soon reach the post town of Magome-juku (馬籠宿) – or simply Magome (馬籠) for short.
Here’s a map of Magome (click to enlarge). Like Tsumago, Magome is easily navigable on foot, with the core heritage district closed to automobiles from 10 AM to 4 PM.
Both post towns might be pedestrian-friendly, but there are a number of differences between the two (some aspects of which are noticeable in the pictures that follow). For example, whilst Tsumago is generally flat, Magome sits on a sloping stretch of the Nakasendō. This means that visitors entering the town from its lower, southwestern entrance face a gentle but consistently uphill walk to reach the other end.
The other difference has more to do with character and atmosphere. As we’ve seen earlier, Tsumago exudes a certain rustic charm with its unpainted façades of age-browned wood and plain-looking main street. Well, plain-looking asphalt-concrete paved main street, but a little imagination might easily transform it – at least in the mind’s eye – into an unpaved dirt or gravel road, somewhat closer in spirit to its Edo Period predecessor.
Magome, on the other hand, clearly feels like a town built (or rather rebuilt) for the modern tourist trade. The main street has been completely paved in stone, with a strip of sneaker-friendly flat slabs running down the middle. The architecture, whilst broadly traditional, looks and feels either fresh or refreshed: the wood a little less weathered, the roof tiles a bit more gleaming, the plaster blindingly white.
That said, my mentioning the modern tourist trade shouldn’t make readers assume that this place is touristy … at least, not in the negative sense of the word. Tsumago’s charm might be more rustic, perhaps more authentic (and how does a non-specialist even define what’s “authentic”?), but Magome has a very powerful charm of its own: that of a pleasant, photogenic, very welcoming countryside town with great views of the glorious natural setting that surrounds it.
Now for some key points of interest.
Although the main part of Magome’s former honjin no longer exists, a few surviving elements have been incorporated into the Tōson Memorial Museum (藤村記念館, Tōson Kinenkan). This facility was established in honour of Shimazaki Tōson (1872-1943), a writer whose career spanned the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The location was chosen not simply for its prominence as a local landmark, but because Shimazaki himself was actually born here: his father had been in charge of running the honjin as its last proprietor before the end of the Edo Period.
The post town’s former waki-honjin is also long gone, but the Magome Waki-Honjin Museum (馬籠脇本陣史料館, Magome Waki-Honjin Shiryōkan) now stands in its place. Apart from the indoor exhibits, the museum’s highlight – in a lower courtyard accessed from within the building – is the so called Genbu Ishigaki (Genbu Stone Wall), a surviving section of Edo Period masonry fashioned from close-fitting hexagonal stone blocks. “Genbu” refers to the mythical black tortoise revered in those days as the guardian of the north, which explains why this wall was so named: after all, it was erected near what was the northern side of the waki-honjin‘s “VIP room” and it’s visually similar to a tortoise shell.
Situated at Magome’s highest point – all the way at, indeed a little past, its northeastern end – is an observation point that offers breathtaking views of the mountains and forests surrounding the Kiso Valley.
On the way back to the bus stop, I found time to pause for a quick tea break … but let’s save that for another post.
In due course, I boarded a bus bound for Nakatsugawa Station, where I connected to a limited express service that brought me back to Nagoya. (More on the journey in my separate transportation post.)
And there we have it. A beautiful day in the beautiful Japanese countryside – history and culture and architecture all served with lashings of fresh mountain air and great natural vistas. Ahh, sweet bliss.