Understand and Experience: The Historical Nakasendo Road

It often goes unappreciated how, what usually takes about an hour’s worth of train rides in modern times, may have taken an entire day’s worth of travel 200 years ago. During those times, rocky paths were made to get from one place to the other. You had to travel through those paths by whatever means you had; riding a horse or simply walking it. This didn’t come without the danger of starvation, freezing to death, and possibly being attacked by thieves or enemies.

In Japan’s case, way before it developed its incredibly efficient mass public transportation system, there were ancient roads strategically paved around mountainous terrains to help people travel from Kyoto to Edo, and Japan’s other provinces. One of these roads is named “Nakasendo”.

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Fast Facts About Nakasendo

Nakasendo was the name of one of the routes that were part of the Edo Five Routes. It is also known as the Central Mountain Route, and is written as “中山道”, or Kisokaido, “木曾街道”.

There were only two routes at that time that connected Kyoto (which was Japan’s capital at that time) to Edo, which is now known as Tokyo. Nakasendo was one of those routes, alongside Tokaido, which was trodden more on the southern regions. Its half point was located in Narai.

Overall, Nakasendo had the most number of staging-posts, also known as stations, amounting to 69. It would cross the provinces of Kozuke, Mino, Musashi, Omi, and Shinano. It was a popular route, too, because it was more developed than the other roads, as people – both peasants and the famous, took this road. One example of a famous Japanese man who has traversed this road is Matsuo Basho, an iconic Japanese haiku master of Japan’s Edo era.  

Currently, Nakasendo’s path stretches out through several Prefectures. These are Gifu (near Nagoya), Gunma, Nagano, Saitama, and Shiga. The road measured about 534 km long. 

The Etymology of Nakasendo’s Kanji

Nakasendo is characterized as an inland road, unlike Tokaido, which moved along Honshu’s eastern coastal line. If you look closely at the characters ascribed to Nakasendo, which is 中山道, the first kanji means “central”, the second is “mountain”, and the third is “route”.

More About the Edo Five Routes

There were five main routes used for travelers to get around the busier areas of Japan. This collection of roads (“kaido” in Japanese) was known as “Gokaido”, written as “五街道”. These routes were namely Tokaido, Nakasendo, Koshu Kaido, Oshu Kaido, and Nikko Kaido.

The man behind the construction of these roads was Tokugawa Ieyasu. While the creation of these roads did centralize routes to the different provinces, thus making traveling easier, these roads were formed mainly to help Tokugawa Ieyasu have better control on the different states by granting him strategic access in the early 17th century.

Before these roads were known as the Edo Five Routes, they were simpler dirt roads. It was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s great-grandson, Tokugawa Ietsuna who officialized the declaration of these roads as “Gokaido”. Ever since then, they were built to withstand public use and lined with post stations for weary travelers to stay in. 

What Is a Post Station/Post Station?

Known in Japanese as a “Shukuba” (宿場), or “Shuku-eki” (宿駅) a post station/post town is a place which had several facilities and ryokan that travelers could stop by and use to make their travels more comfortable and secure. Many of these sat in along Nakasendo. These facilities included the following:

  • Shops where travelers could buy extra supplies
  • A chaya (茶屋) which is an area one could rest and have a cup of tea or a swig of alcohol
  • A toiyaba (問屋場) which works as the town’s managing center
  • A honjin (本陣), which is a large and luxurious lodging area built for nobles and important figures only
  • A waki-honjin (脇本陣) which is similarly as luxurious as the honjin but is open to the public, a hatago (旅籠) which is an inn where travelers can rest and have breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner
  • A kichin-yado (木賃宿) an inn/accommodation service that does not serve food
  • And a kosatsu (高札), which displayed written proclamations of the Shogun on its wooden placard.

Highway History; The Years Behind Nakasendo

It was in the early 7th century that the path of Nakasendo began to form, as this connected what was then called Kinai (currently known as Kansai) and the eastern Tosando provinces, which were crucial areas for the Japanese government.

This path existed in shorter intervals but remained unimportant. It was in the Sengoku Period (1467 to 1603) that Japan saw many bloody battles for land and power by brutal feudal warlords. Some of these clans decided to team up with others. At this time, 3 clans were in control of Tosando; the Kai province was under Takeda clan, Mino Province was under Oda clan, Hida Province was under the Kanamori clan, and the Shinano Province was under the Ogasawara clan. 

Connecting Powerful Clans

The Takeda clan, most prominently, wanted to combine with Oda’s troops, and thus worked to create a road system that would make traveling between these crucial provinces easier. Even today, this route is still patterned after, and exist as numbers 22, 51, 151, and 153 of Japan’s current national highways.

From Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto

The Edo period saw great changes in Japan, and the shogunate made efforts to improve much of the country’s public systems. Dirt roads were paved and made easier to traverse, thus it was truly only in the Edo period when Nakasendo was recognized as the main route, and a crucial one, connecting the capital which was Kyoto, to the shogunate’s seat of Power, which was Edo.

The Official Naming of Nakasendo

The name “Nakasendo” was granted to this path in 1716, after connecting many different, shorter routes in various villages and towns to officially form it. Z

Before it was named Nakasendo, it was simply a collection of roads labeled many names that it grew to be called over earlier centuries. The Kisoji route, particularly from Niekawa-juku to Magome-juku, for instance, merged to create Nakasendo. The entire stretch used to be called “Sando”, which means “mountain route”, or “tosando”, translating to “eastern mountain route”. 

Nakasendo Today: Experience What It’s Like to Hike Along the Nakasendo Trail

Although Japan has developed immensely over the past century and road no longer exists in its full form, there are still some segments of it that exist in the way that it did hundreds of years ago. Some of these segments have been kept well over time, while other segments were rebuilt to respect the historical significance of Nakasendo’s presence. 

The Walk from Magome to Tsumago

Two of these sections that currently exist, and are often visited include the one in Kiso Valley, which is between Nagano Prefecture’s Tsumago-juku (Tsumago) and Gifu Prefecture’s Magome-juku (Magome). Shimazaki Toson, a Japanese author whose literary movement was in naturalism, was the first to point out in his novel “Before the Dawn”, how the Meiji restoration inflicted changes on the Kiso Valley.

Par Douggers [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ou CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], de Wikimedia Commons

This stretch is measured to be 8 kilometers and is a scenic route that is taken by tourists who don’t mind a 3 to 4-hour, long mile stroll that has refreshing views of lush greenery and waterfalls. The forests and small structures, such as sign posts, have been restored and cared for, to give the trail a feel of what it must have been like to journey in the same path centuries ago.

Book A Guided Tour, Or Experience It Yourself

There are companies and organizations in this area you can contact that would gladly take you down this road in a comprehensive guided tour that could maximize your experience. At the same time, there have been travelers who prefer to hike this trail by themselves, learning about it before they start their trip. 

Walking through the Nakasendo Walking Trail is rated 2nd place out of the 56 things to do in Nakatsugawa. It has 161 reviews so far on TripAdvisor, rating it 4.5 stars out of 5. You don’t have to pay anyone to hike this road by yourself, but guided tours usually add this to their itineraries. The entire tour sometimes has a 3-day duration, some can last up to more than 10 days, going for hundreds of thousands of JPY. 

Taken Over by Modern Roads

There are modern roads that sort of go along the path of Nakasendo, though much of its original path is no longer available to travel on. These roads include Gunma Prefecture’s National Route 17, which connects Tokyo to Takasaki, Nagano Prefecture’s National Route 18, leading Takasaki to Karuziwa, National Route 142, from Saku to Shimosuwa, and National Route 20, from Shimosuwa to Shiojiri.

As for Gifu Prefecture, Nakasendo’s route lives on in modern form through National Route 19, connecting Shiojori to Ena, and National Route 21, from Mitaki to Shiga Prefecture’s Maibara. Shiga Prefecture has another road under this category, which is National Route 8, leading from Maibara to Kusatsu. Lastly, National Route 1, the road that goes from Kusatsu to Kyoto, has also been patterned after Nakasendo’s general direction. 

There are also railway lines that go by Nakasendo’s old route. These railway lines include the Chuo Main Line, Shin-Etsu Main Line, Takasaki Line, Taita Line, and lastly, the Tokaido Line.

Where Is Nakasendo Located on the Map?

The address of Nakasendo is Nakatsugawa 508-0502, Gifu Prefecture. Google maps offer markings how the ancient road looked, crossing clusters of present-day cities. 

Nakasendo in Pop Culture

Having such a critical role in Japanese history, Nakasendo is sometimes referred to when telling or illustrating stories in Japan. Its name is sometimes used or taken inspiration from to name certain places. 

An Area in “Onigiri”, a Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game

An example of Nakasendo being used is in the game “Onigiri”, which is played online by many people. In Onigiri’s version of Nakasendo, there are 2 dungeons; Azami Crossing and Warabizuka. It connects to Kusatsu and Ginza in Edo and has several Yokai in it. You will also see seventeen NPC’s here, and get to do 3 quests; The Medicine of Nakasendo, Naked Soldier, and the Imperial Capital, Edo.

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Visit Nakasendo Yourself

Nakasendo was a crucial part of Japan’s development during the Edo era and holds many stories of the samurai, townsfolk, traders, and important political figures who have been on that path. Try hiking that small segment of Nakasendo, and feel what it’s like to walk in their footsteps.