Celebrating 400 years
as the Shogunate's Official Road
- Part 1

*The Azuma - Nakasendo Road*

   In the 7th year of Keicho (1602), the Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, declared the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Road) as one of the 5 Major roads to link the country to the old Edo capital. Along the Road, 67 towns were designated as "stations", where travellers could rest, take meals, and renew their pack horses if necessary. Due to the moderization of Japan, these Station Towns were slowly falling into disrepair until the centennial commemoration of the Meiji era (1968), when Tsumago took the initiative to restore the township to what it was when the Meiji writer, Shimazaki Toson, wrote about it in his mammoth work Before the Dawn. Today, little of the original Nakasendo is seen when speedily following the highway or going by train, but ordinary roads have smoothed the trail for the average traveller. However, for the true adventurer it will sometimes be difficult to find just exactly where the original path went. Let's try to rediscover the beauty of the Nakasendo together.

*History of the Azuma Road*

   The history of the Nakasendo goes back over a thousand years, to the time when the wilderness beyond the capital (then in Nara and Kyoto) was collectively known as "Azuma", the Eastern Provinces. Consequently, the main road leading directly east through this wilderness was named the Azuma Mountain Road.
   In order that the Yamato central government could hold more power over the various surrounding 'kingdoms', the Taika Reforms (645) stipulated that 86 "stations" should be set up along the Azuma Road, and that each station should be approximately 16km apart. However, the path between Sakamoto of Mino and Achi of Shinano travelled through the Misaka Pass, at a height of 1,595m, and was 40km distant, making it the most difficult section to negotiate. While other stations were told to keep 5 to 10 pack horses available, these two stations kept up to 30 pack horses. Their biggest problem though was that the young boys who tended, and led the horses over the pass were apt to run away, especially before the heavy winter snow, when walking a horse over the path could mean your own freezing death!
   Between 678 and 789, the Mino-Fuwa Barrier, along with the Ise-Suzuka Barrier along the Tokaido Road, and the Echizen=Arachi Barrier along the Hokuriku Road were the three main gates protecting the capital. However, due to the high cost of keeping guards, and other expenses in preparing the Heian Capital, the Barriers were generally not maned after 789. Only the Fuwa Barrier continued to play a strategic role in the power struggle; most famous being the Battle of Seki-ga-hara which left Tokugawa Ieyasu the political leader of a united Japan.
   It is well known that a large part of the Man'yo-shu Book of Poetry contains a large section entitled "the Azuma Volumes" which is made up of many, often anonymous, poems written by warriors and locals of the eastern provinces.
   It seems that already in 759, towns along the trail were encouraged to line the path with flowering bushes and trees. Steep slopes and thoroughfares that became difficult to pass during wet weather were "paved" with stones to ease the way for the travellers and porters. Deep in the forests, one can still sometimes come across one of these stone paths.
   During the Muromachi Era (late C14th to mid C16th), many pilgrims made the journey to climb Mt Ontake. The Grand Shrine of Suwa, by the shores of the expansive Suwa Lake, was also a popular place for the religious. It is said that the second son of the God who coveted this land, Okuninushi, ran away to this sanctuary in the wilderness. Travel was made a little easier from 1574, when the head of the Kiso area suggested a valley slightly south of the Mikasa Pass, thus opening up Magome Pass.

*The Kiso Road in Literature*

   Written documents dating back to 713 (Shoku Nihon-gi), comment on the Kiso Road which leads on through a number of mountain passes to the plains of Matsumoto, in present Nagano Prefecture . .
   In the Ise Monogatari, you will find a story named "Azuma kudari", which describes Narihira's sojourn to Mt Asama and on to Musashino.
   The Kokin-Monogatari-Shu has one story set near the present-day village of Hozumi, in western Mino Province, present day Gifu Prefecture.
   These ancient anals however, consider the center of culture to be Kyoto, and anything beyond was "to the East" hence "the Azuma Road", or "the Kiso Road" which focused mainly on the road's most treacherous section. However, as power changed and the center of Government changed, Edo (present day Tokyo) became the focus of everyone's attention. All major roads now lead to (or splayed from) Edo, hence "the Nakasendo" or "middle mountain road".
   Some time in the middle of the Edo Period, the Shogunate allowed free travel to pilgrims who wanted to make pilgrimages to temples and shrines. This started a travel boom, with lots of guide books, maps, and travel diaries being published. Some books even went into details about how to deal with sore feet and blisters, how to prevent heat exhaustion and sea sickness, and how best to take a bath on an empty stomach.

*Princess Kazu-no-miya and the Hime Kaido*

   When Princess Kazu, younger sister of Emperor Komei, received a letter from the Shogunate in the eastern capital of Edo, she was very upset. Although it was usual for young princesses to become administers of the clergy, Princess Kazu had been betrothed to Prince Taruhito of the Arisugawa-no-miya royal family at the age of 6.
   The letter from the Tokugawa household asked for Kazu-no-miya's hand in marriage. From the very start, it was obvious that it was a political partnership. Foreign ships had started to enter the port of Yokohama. No longer could the Tokugawa family alone keep the fervour of the young clan leaders. A marriage between the Imperial house and the political rulers was thought to be the answer to the predicted troubles.
   On Oct 20th in the first year of Bunkyu (1861), 15-year-old Princess Kazu boarded the carriage that would take her from home in Kyoto, and headed east towards Edo. Along with her went 10,000 servants and retainers sent from Tokyo to greet her and another 12,000 servants and retainers from Kyoto who would accompany her to her new home. To spite the dwaining coffers of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the delegation to greet Kazu-no-miya took with them lavish gifts, and gifts of money to the empoverished elites in Kyoto. From Kyoto Princess Kazu took with her several personal items as well as the cabinets that contained them. Instructions were given that the young princess should feel no lonliness at leaving the city of her birth. Her room in Edo was decorated so as to mirror her room in Kyoto.
   In total, her entourage stretched for some 50 kms, it is said, and took 4 days for the last person to pass through each station town along the way. Ariyoshi Sawako, in her novel Kazu-no-miya O-tome, describes the stress of travelling in such a tiny carriage without the usual contact with family and staff. While travelling, meals were but twice a day, and the party travelled an average of 30 kms per day on foot.
   Princess Kazu passed through the Mino area between the 25th and 29th, staying overnight at Akasaka, Kano, Ota, Okute, and Nakatsugawa. In Ota and Okute, records remain describing how much rice, and charcoal, and how many pillows and dishes were needed to accomodate the troupe. From the two lists (for example 1,380 pillows for Ota, 6,000 at Okute), we can gather that the requirement was much greater than what the stations were able to provide. Even Toson's Before the Dawn describes the clammor to fulfill the designated quota.

Hosokute: Kazunomiya waits for the procession to begin A warrior awaits the princesses departure The procession begins with a rifle salute

On to the Celebrations of the 400th Anniversary of the Nakasendo    ..p.2/3pp. Go on my mini photo album of the Nakasendo through Gifu ..p.3/3pp.

Look forward to the following topics:

*Nakasendo and modern Japan*

*Nakasendo Photo Album*

Gifu Prefecture's Hime Kaido page    

Japanese Literature  Miyazawa Kenji    Murakami Haruki    Ariyoshi Sawako 

American Literature   Mark Twain    Native American Mythology 

Back to my Top Page

Copyright 2002-4 Margaret Yamanaka-Gevers