Kisoji (the Kiso Path) is a stretch of the Old Nakasendo Highway that passes through the mountains from Shinchaya in the south to Sakurasawa in the north. The Nakasendo was an important route that connected the shogunal capital of Edo with the imperial capital of Kyoto. As such, the Tokugawa shogunate established 11 post towns (-shuku/-juku) in the area. Of these towns, three were preserved and look very much as they would have in the Edo Period: Narai-juku, Tsumago-juku, and Magome-juku. In some other towns, historic buildings exist here and there. The Nakasendo Highway was replaced by the Chuo Line linking Tokyo with Nagoya, and as a result the need for the old route and the post towns disappeared. These towns bring to life the history of the Edo Period and the Kiso Valley in particular and are something you can only experience first hand.
Why stay at an inn, when you can do something far more unique? Eisho-ji (Manpuku-an) is a Zen Buddhist temple founded in 1665 during the reign of the 4th shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna, to serve the spiritual needs of the villagers living in Magome and to this day it’s still the only temple in town. In 1811, Eisho-ji established Manpuku-an as a hermitage for practitioners of Zen and itinerant acolytes. Today, it essentially functions as a minshuku, a family owned traditional inn. The family provides home cooked shojin ryori, delicious and healthy seasonal meals made in strict adherence to the Zen Buddhist prescription against killing. There are no animals or animal byproducts used and certain “strong vegetables” like onions and garlic are sometimes forbidden. At any time during the day, guests can enjoy the peaceful Japanese garden in back or take a stroll around the temple precinct. In the morning, you can learn Zen meditation with the head priest and find your inner peace before heading out to see the rest of the Kiso Valley.
In the Edo Period, permission to travel was generally limited to samurai on sankin-kotai duty traveling back and forth from their domain to the shogun’s capital in Edo, envoys from the imperial court in Kyoto, and merchants. On the other hand, anyone, commoners included could request permission to go on religious pilgrimages if they could afford such extravagances. Checkpoints were set up along the highways to check the paperwork of travelers to confirm they had permission, that they were heading in the right direction, and most importantly that they weren’t sneaking weapons into other domains or worse yet, sneaking women out. The Fukushima Sekisho was one of the major checkpoints on the Nakasendo and was even depicted in a famous ukiyo-e by Ando Hiroshige.
The area near Shiojiri Station called Hiraide Iseki (ruins) was home to a number of settlements populated by the original inhabitants of Japan, the Jomon people, as far back as 5000 years ago right up to the Heian Period (794-1185). Long a well known site, the ruins were excavated in earnest in the 1950’s and various buildings from 3 distinct eras were reconstructed in accordance to the best available data. Those areas are the Jomon Period (14,000 BCE-300 BCE), the Kofun Period (200-600), and the Heian Period. The buildings are basically pit dwellings (warm in winter, cool in summer) with thatched roofs (good for filtering smoke from the hearth and keeping out rain and snow). It’s pretty amazing to see how people lived before all of the great architecture that we associate with Japan was conceived.
Learn About Kiso no Yoshinaka
Minamoto no Yoshinaka was a cousin of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate. Yoshinaka, also a samurai warlord, took the name of the area and was known as Kiso no Yoshinaka. Legend says he was married to his childhood love, the beautiful yet ferocious female samurai, Tomoe Gozen. The Kiso family had a lot of influence in the area even during the Edo Period. The Yoshinaka Yakata in Miyanokoshi is a museum dedicated to the life and tragic demise of this local hero.