Traveling on Nakasendo Route means traveling with the spirits of samurai, feudal lords, pilgrims-possibly even with the spirit of a ninja or two, for Nakasendo is the name of an old inland route from Kyoto to Tokyo. You can still feel the spirits of Edo period even now by visiting the towns along the way.
Three hundred years ago, Tokyo was the political capital of Japan. True power rested in Tokyo because the Shogun (the military leader) lived there with his army. Kyoto, however, was the imperial capital where the Emperor resided and the fine arts flourished. Throughout Japan, the daimyo (feudal lords) had control of various fiefdoms-sometimes too much control.
The Shogun knew that if the daimyo stayed in their home fiefdoms too long, they might grow too powerful, maybe even powerful enough to overthrow the Shogun himself. Therefore, the Shogun instituted the system of Sankinkotai, mandatory visits back to Tokyo. This required the daimyo to spend every other year in Tokyo as a way to show loyalty to the Shogun - and weaken the daimyo's power at home. To get from Kyoto to Tokyo, the daimyo used the Nakasendo.
Old Post Towns, the Kiso Valley
This biannual journey, the daimyo gyoretsu, was an opportunity for the daimyo to show off their wealth and power. It was not just the daimyo himself who traveled, it was his servants and retainers as well. The need to feed and house all these people led to the development of the towns along the way.
There were 69 towns along the Nakasendo (335 miles), also called "Kisoji" that provided food and lodging to weary travelers. Most of these have disappeared, but in the Kiso Valley of Nagano Prefecture some of them have been preserved and there you can stop for tea, sweets, and lodging, just like the feudal lords did years ago. Tsumago, Magome, and Narai are some of the best preserved towns. There you can truly experience old Japan.
Traveling the Nakasendo Today
In the 17th century, the Nakasendo was crowded with samurai, merchants, and pilgrims. Today, the Nakasendo is a quieter walk but no less pleasant and invigorating. You can walk the entire Nakasendo from Kyoto to Tokyo. Guided walking tours in English are available. It will take you on a mixture of paved village paths and unpaved forest roads, with flat to mild climbs.
Every traveler needs to eat and sleep. As you recreate your journey as a feudal lord, don't forget to enjoy some of the pleasures along the route, such as a Japanese-style inn. If you want to experience old Japan, a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, is one of the best ways. Japanese ryokan have tatami (straw) mats, sliding paper doors, and crisp yukata (cotton kimono) to slip into after a visit to the ryokan's communal bath or hot springs.
Above all else, a good ryokan prides itself on its cuisine. At each ryokan along the way, the owner will be proud to introduce the special sake and cuisine of her hometown. Soba (buckwheat noodles) and goheimochi (pounded rice on a stick, covered in sticky sauce and flame-broiled - think char-broiled yummy!) are specialties of the Nakasendo.
And Don't Forget Sake
What did the Japanese feudal lords drink as they traveled the Nakasendo? Sake, of course! A Japanese ryokan experience would not be complete without sake. Each region has its own special taste - sweet or dry, flowery or woody. You have to sample them all to know which you like best.
Finally, in the Words of the Haiku Poet Basho…
The Haiku Master, Basho, also traveled the Nakasendo route. He was so inspired by its beauty that he wrote a poem about the chestnuts (a fall specialty) from Kiso. Like Basho, if you look closely as you travel the Nakasendo, you just might find inspiration for a poem.
For more information, visit these websites.
Nakasendo / Kisoji: http://www.kisoji.com/english/index.html
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