The Five Routes
When we talk about the main routes in Honshu Island of Japan, we would say Tōkaidō, Nikkō Kaidō, Ōshū Kaidō, Kōshū Kaidō and Nakasendō, which are known as The Five Routes. The today infrastructures like highways and Shinkansen (high-speed trains) routes are based on them.
(Image from: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_Five_Routes)
All the roads start from Nihonbashi, Tokyo and spreads to the north, west and south of the Honshu Island. In 1601, Ieyasu Tokunaga, the first general and the founder of the Edo period, began to develop these main routes to control firmly all over Japan and activate distribution. After that the forth general Ietsuna decided them as the national arteries.
The routes where merchants, samurais and freights would pass by...
The government wanted to protect the peace and security of Edo, so every route had checkpoints in every important point to control travelers and freight. All travelers had to obtain travel visa. (For ordinary people, an inter-provincial trip was not an easy event)
Feudal lords of all over Japan were obliged to travel between their territories and Edo every two years to serve for the general in the capital city for a year. They had to travel with their wives and thousands of vassals. The travel expenses were great burden for them. It means that the Tokugawa government used to have them as hostages so that they could not carry out a coup d’état.
(Image from: Nikkei Trendy Net
(Photo above shows what feudal lord party’s travel was like.)
When passing through checkpoints, any falsification of documents and smokescreen were strictly prohibited as grave crime. Especially officials paid much attention when guns were being transferred to the capital city and women were going out of Edo through checkpoints. Women from Samurai family were obliged to obtain “woman visa”.
Why? It is because the government were afraid of guns could be used for a rebellion in the Edo city. About women’s going out of Edo, as written above, feudal lords had duty to live in Edo with their wives as hostages. If a woman of samurai family gets out of Edo while his husband has to stay in Edo, she can work as a spy between her local and Edo or can cause rebellion.
(Image from: Wikipedia https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%96%A2%E6%89%80#/media/File:Ishibe_shukubanosato02s3200.jpg)
(Photo above is a replica of a checkpoint)
Sometimes women disguised themselves men because it was much easier for men to get travel visa, so women’s body check were carefully done by women officials. In the feudal days, travelling from territory to territory was very difficult.
Post towns on Nakasendō.
Talking about post towns, they developed inns and restaurants for travelers. Now most post towns do not remain the same as they used to be, but there are some places that preserve classical atmosphere, like in Nakasendō.
Why Nakasendō was more popular among travelers in Edo period?
Let’s go back to the National Five routes. Two of them connect Edo and Kyoto, which are called Nakasendō and Tōkaidō.
(Image from: Travel Weekly
However, it is said that people would prefer Nakasendō for the following reasons though it makes a longer detour than Tōkaidō:
– In the Tōkaidō route people were not permitted to cross the large rivers on boat so they had to cross walking. Also there are difficult mountain peaks to climb up in Hakone.
– Tōkaidō was more strictly controlled than Nakasendō with regard to gun importation to Edo and women’s trip.
– Generally inn tariffs in Nakasendō were 20% cheaper than in Tōkaidō.
Nakasendō is 540 kilometers (36.7 miles) long with 69 post towns, 11 of which are in Kiso area (Nagano prefecture). The major towns like Magome, Tsumago, Kiso-Fukushima, and Narai.
Access to Kiso area: Get on a train on Chuo Honsen Line from Nagoya or Matsumoto. Get off at the following stations to visit the old post towns: Niekawa, Narai, Kiso-Fukushima, Minami-Kiso (For Tsumago town), and Ochiaigawa (For Magome town).
Personally I recommend you go to Narai, which has about a kilometer-long street with old and wooden and tasteful houses.
Nowadays, major touristic spots are getting more crowded than before in Japan thanks to increasing tourists from all over the world. If you are looking for somewhere excellent but less-known, why don’t you try the mountain-surrounded Kiso-route? Breathe deeply forest air imagining those old days when samurais and merchants used to be passing by.