The Nakasendō Road Part One: Day 1 – 3
Part One of Three: Japanophile Trevor Skingle ‘walks Japan’ to raise funds for the humanitarian charity RedR UK!
Stretching 533km from Edo (modern day Tōkyo) to Kyōtō the Nakasendō Road, though extant since the seventh century, was administratively established as one of the five official roads of the Edo Era (the others being the Tōkaidō, Kōshū Kaidō, Ōshū Kaidō, and Nikkō Kaidō) by Tokugawa Ieyasu shortly after his victory at Sekigahara.
‘The Kiso Road lies entirely in the mountains. In some places it cuts across the face of a precipice. In others it follows the banks of the Kiso River, far above the stream. Elsewhere it winds around a ridge and into another valley. All of it runs through dense forest’
So wrote Shimazaki Tōson in the introduction to his novel ‘Before the Dawn’ (Yoake Mae) familiar to most Japanese as a mandatory element of their high school Japanese literature studies. First published in 1932 it is loosely based on the life of his father, a senior official on the Kiso Road section of the Nakasendo, during the momentous events that were triggered by the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships in 1853 which led to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the emergence of a fledgling modern Japan. Tōson was describing the best preserved 82km central mountainous Kisoji section of the Nakasendo.
Inspired by ‘Before the Dawn’ in 2005 two years of intensive research were undertaken with the intention of making a solo hike from Mitake in Gifu Prefecture to Narai in Nagano Prefecture. However due to unforeseen circumstances the trip, scheduled for late 2007, had to be cancelled. It wasn’t until six years later in September 2013 that the journey actually began, though this time on guided hike under the auspices of the travel company Walk Japan.
There were a number of reasons for undertaking the walk; to complete what had been started in 2005, to promote the Nakasendō as an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of the official opening of trade relations between Japan and England marked by the year long 2013 Japan400 commemorative project, and to raise funds for the humanitarian charity RedR UK.
Day One: Pontocho and Sanjo Ohashi Bridge – After three days jet lag recovery in Kyōtō and a couple of side visits to the view the September exhibition of netsuke by Motomasa Kunita at the Kyōto Seishi Netsuke Museum (housed in a beautifully preserved old Samurai house opposite Mibu Dera Temple) and an exhibition of pictures of the Floating World (Ukiyo e) called ‘Enjoying the Cool Evening Breeze and Fireworks’ at the Isetan Department store museum, the tour began.
It started with a group meal and then a walk around Pontocho, an area associated with fine dining where the site of the Ikedaya Inn incident involving the Shinsengumi had, since the last visit, been turned into a replica of the Inn that is a Shinsengumi themed restaurant. This was followed by a visit to Sanjo Ohashi Bridge, the official start of the walk, and a stroll along the Kamogawa River bank where Meiko, trainee Geiko (the Kyōtō term for Geisha), can occasionally be spotted by the eagle eyed on the Pontocho restaurant platforms built out over Kamogawa River (which was flooded a few days later when Japan was hit by typhoon Man Yi).
Day Two: Hikone and Sekigahara – A short train ride from Kyōtō took the group to Hikone to visit the original castle, built by the son of one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s favoured generals Ii Naomasa, an ancestor of Ii Naosuke. The castle was built on an alternative hill to the nearby original which had been the property of Ishida Mitsunari, the enemy of Tokugawa Ieyasu who was defeated at the Battle of Sekigahara. The castle museum contains a fascinating collection of the family’s heirlooms including red yoroi armour and Noh drama accoutrements and a reconstruction of the original Noh stage (the Ii family were famous patrons of Noh Theatre).
Another train ride took the group to Sekigahara, the site of one of the most famous battles in Japanese history in October 1600 which began the Edo Era and determined the course of Japanese history for the next 268 years. Those defeated in the battle would come back to haunt and cause the demise of the Tokugawa Shōgunate in the lead up to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. As the dense fog lifted at 8:00am on the morning of the 21st October 1600 Ii Naomasa and his troops, the Red Devils, opened the battle with the first charge. Today the huge site of the battlefield is marked by various monuments of which the tour group visited but a few. Staying at the Masuya Inn, abutting the route of the Nakasendō (now overlaid by Highway 21), the group was treated to their first stay at a Ryokan and associated dining experience.
Day Three: Sekigahara to Hosokute via Mitake – Three train rides took the group to Mitake from where the longer, more contiguous, daily hikes began. The unseasonal heat, 35C/91F (a heat index of 42C), made the steady uphill walking very uncomfortable for a couple of the walkers. Along the way the group were introduced to the relics of Christianity in the area, large stone ‘night light lanterns’ to light the way for weary travellers, stone figures of Jizo the patron saint of travellers and deceased children, and the first experience of sections of the original old ishidatami stone paving that was originally laid on some parts of the Nakasendō. Arriving at Hosokute the group were greeted by the welcome sight of the inn for the evening, Daikokuya. Originally built in Keichō 15 (1610) the inn burnt down in 1858, the current rebuilt structure dates from 1859. As with most travelling in Japan one of the main attractions is the dining experience at the end of the day and Daikokuya did not let the group down, serving up what was for many in the group the fine dining experience of the tour, a revelation in taste for those whose previous experience of Japanese cuisine had till that point been in restaurants outside of Japan.
If you have enjoyed this article and would like to help Trevor’s efforts to raise funds for RedR UK his Just Giving page is still open
Walk Japan http://walkjapan.com/
Japan Times article
Nagasaki University Meta Database of Photographs in Bakamutsu-Meiji Period
Shinano Mainichi Shimbun article
Photographic images published before December 31st 1956, or photographed before 1946 and not published for 10 years thereafter, under jurisdiction of the Government of Japan, are considered to be public domain according to article 23 of old copyright law of Japan and article 2 of supplemental provision of copyright law of Japan
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.