During the Edo Era which began in 1600 and ended in 1868, the capital was Kyoto and the Emperor’s residence in Kyoto, however power lay in the hands of a series of Tokugawa Shoguns who whose place of residence was Edo, or present-day Tokyo. During that time the Shogun developed five roads, or rather well developed foot paths which connected Edo with most of the main island of Honshu. Two of the old roads connected Edo with Kyoto, the Old Tokaido Road and the Nakasendo Road.
The better known and more widely used and shorter of the two was the Old Tokaido Road or the Coastal Route, however some preferred to use the Nakasendo Road, or the Central Mountain Route, because there were no major river to cross. The Nakasendo Road went west and a little north from Edo into the Japan Alps before turning southwest through present-day Nagano Prefecture and along the Kiso River in the Kiso Valley. Along the 332 mile road there were 69 stations where travelers could find lodging and food.
Much of the old road no longer exists or is in very poor condition, but some sections remain as they were and some has been restored and are probably in better condition than they were two centuries ago.
The most well-known section is in the Kiso Valley between the towns of Tsumago in Nagano Prefecture and Magome in Gifu Prefecture. This approximately five mile stretch of the historic old road is well preserved and walked by many tourists. Most take about two or three hours to walk along restored paving through forest with nice views of waterfalls and mountain scenes along the way and the two towns at have preserved and restored many of the Edo period structures.
The area became quite well known, maybe even famous, when a book titled “Before the Dawn” , considered a masterpiece in Japanese literature, was published in 1935. The author of the book was a man named Toson Shimazaki who was born in Magome. The story is about the struggles of a man in a small rural community during the early years of the Meiji Era. The main character in the novel depicts Shimazaki’s father and the rural community was Magome where Shimazaki lived as a child.
During the early years of the Meiji Era Japan was moving rapidly to modernize and westernize and in the eyes of the main character in the story, forgetting much of the centuries old culture and customs of Japan so important to the country, particularly to rural Japan. Thankfully, most of the culture and customs survived and are still enjoyed by the people across Japan today.
Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.