The Kiso Path and the Nakasendo Highway

The Kiso Valley refers to the area between the Central Alps and Northern Alps in southwest Nagano, part of the old Shinano Province (called Shinshu for short). In the late 1100’s, the area fell under the control of a samurai warlord, Kiso no Yoshinaka – cousin of the Kamakura Shogunate founder, Minamoto no Yoritomo. Although he and his mythological samurai warrior wife, Tomoe Gozen only controlled the area until they were defeated in battle by Yoritomo, the Kiso clan and its cadastral branches remained powerful in the region well into the Meiji Period. The life and tragic demise of Kiso no Yoshinaka is commemorated in the Yoshinaka Yakata, a museum located in Miyanokoshi.

In Yoshinaka’s time there was an ancient road called Kisoji – the Kiso Path – that ran roughly 70 km through the area from Shinchaya in the southwest to Sakurasawa in the northeast. In the early 1600’s the newly established Tokugawa government began developing a new route from the shogun’s capital in Edo to the imperial capital in Kyoto. This new highway was called the Nakasendo and was simply an extension of the original Kiso Path. The shogunate established 69 official post towns along the road, 11 of which were located on the old Kisoji. These post towns were required to maintain horses and men to facilitate official business efficiently along the highway.

Post Towns

Both the Tokaido Highway and Nakasendo Highway connected Edo with Kyoto and were easily the busiest roads in all of Japan. Merchants would travel across the highways to purchase unique, locally produced goods to bring back their hometowns where demand was high for exotic products. Wealthy commoners would travel these roads too in order to go on religious pilgrimages. Samurai who wanted to learn new styles of swordsmanship would travel across the country to famous dojos. But the bulk of traffic was made up of long processions of daimyo, feudal lords, traveling back and forth from their domains to perform their yearly service for the shogun in Edo. Post towns catered to travelers by providing comfortable lodging, hot baths, and delicious meals, as well as necessary supplies and services like new shoes, fresh horses, and prostitutes. The towns were busy and given the constant influx of travelers from all over Japan, they were fairly cosmopolitan despite being isolated mountain villages of their size.

As with all post towns throughout Japan, the 11 villages in the Kiso Valley weren’t just a place to find lodging. Feudal lords and official shogunate officials often passed through these towns. As such, each town was entrusted with the maintenance and service of two government owned inns: a 本陣 honjin and 脇本陣 waki-honjin (sometimes called “sub-honjin”). The honjin was a large residence for a daimyo and his family and entourage. If another higher ranking lord was staying in the town, the lower ranking daimyo and his retinue would stay in the smaller waki-honjin. If the waki-honjin was available, shogunate officials or rich merchants could stay over, but the honjin was strictly limited to daimyo, court nobles, direct retainers of the shogun, and powerful priests. After the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, some of these official buildings became private residences, but most fell into disrepair or were just destroyed. However, in the Kiso Valley post towns, the preserved waki-honjin in Tsumago and the restored honjin in Miyanokoshi are great examples of these Edo Period buildings that are quite rare today.

Post towns also required a building called a toiya. These were the offices responsible for the management of manpower and horses on behalf of the shogunate. In Narai, this building has been preserved. In the Edo Period, it fell under the proprietorship of the Tezuka clan, who still maintain it to this day. In 1880, the Meiji Emperor and his wife rested at the toiya and had lunch. The family has kept that room exactly as it was that day.

Some post towns featured checkpoints called sekisho. This is where shogunate officials checked paperwork issued by local authorities to travelers describing the purpose of their journey. If the paperwork wasn’t legit or travelers were found transporting contraband, such as illegal weapons, they could be detained, sent back home, or worse – arrested and tortured. With the collapse of the shogunate and all former travel restrictions lifted, the need for maintaining checkpoints ended almost overnight. Most were torn down, but in the Kiso Valley two have been reconstructed according to the original blueprints: the Fukushima sekisho and the Niekawa sekisho. Architecturally, both are quite different, but the Fukushima checkpoint was one of the biggest in Japan and was even depicted in a famous ukiyo-e woodblock print by Hiroshige. Fukushima has also kept the main residence and garden of the daikan, a kind of regional governor. The family held this post for about 15 generations – the entire Edo Period – which was basically unheard of, a testament to how wisely the Yamamura clan ruled the area. This Yamamura family were actually retainers of the Kiso clan dating back to the time of Kiso no Yoshinaka.

The Kiso Path Today

Today, all 11 post towns of the Kiso Path still exist. Most of them have just become modern small towns that look like any other small, country town. However, three towns in particular stand out: Narai-juku, Tsumago-juku, and Magome-juku. Because these towns have been beautifully preserved, travelers can enjoy stepping back in time and taking in the beauty of Old Japan. Much of the original Nakasendo route is still intact and can be traversed in exactly the same way people did 300 years ago.  One of the most popular courses is the wooded 8 km hike from Magome to Tsumago. Narai is a popular day trip from Matsumoto or Nagoya. Fukushima is partially preserved and maintains an interesting balance between medieval post town and modern rural city (it’s also home to the area’s two most famous sake breweries). The Kiso Tourist Federation has even instituted a walking course that begins at the southernmost entrance of the Kiso Valley and continues through all 11 post towns up to the northernmost exit point. At each post town, you can have a special commemorative walking stick branded with the town’s name, the perfect souvenir to remember an epic hike through history.