Celebrating 400 years
as the Shogunate's Official Road
- Part 2

*400th Anniversary of the Nakasendo "stations"*

Hikers walk the cobbled Biwa Pass    From April till end November, 2002, Gifu Prefecture celebrated "the 400th anniversary of the Hime Kaido". Although the road is officially known as the Nakasendo, it has procured the appellation of "Hime Kaido" due to the fact that so many Kyoto women who went to Edo to enter into service for the Shogun took this road. Of course, the most famous of them all is Princess Kazunomiya descibed in Part 2, and the heroine of an Ariyoshi Sawako's historical novel.

One day in November 2002, I walked the few miles from Hosokute to Okute. The over 5,000 hikers who walked with me were not as orderly as the many who accompanied Princess Kazu, but it made for an enjoyable day. Please read my diary of the day.
   The early morning had been crisp, but since starting the walk, it had become quite warm. With each stride, I began to feel the weight of a backpack filled with too many "What if..." items and too few essentials.
   The newly paved road meandered behind a remote temple and crossed a mash before sharply ascending another hill. The morning seemed to drag on. At each incline, I came to realize that more and more people had entered the event, and I felt that many of those passing me were probably regular walkers.
   At last the road entered Hosokute. Today the village was crowded. What had become a steady flow of bodies congested as the path narrowed, and stopped in front of the Daikokuya Inn, a place that ordinarily seems no more than a low, black-tarred building on a lonely road mostly frequented by hefty trucks on their way to and from the quarries.
   Now there were no trucks, nor cars. For as far as one could see, up or down the slope, all one could see were people, people, and more people. Even the tiny car park in front of the Community Center was alive. Close to the building's entrance, a small battalion of warriors had lined up. Like the sightseers and hikers, they were waiting restlessly for word that the Princesses would be ready to embark their carriage for the journey to Okute.
   As I stood eying the Hinawa soldiers, each with a musket resting upright in his right hand, and a lit ignition rope hanging loosely from his left, I noticed courtiers to my left. Dressed in bright colored robes of pink and yellow, they also awaited the princesses. My body started to get stiff, and I too became eager to move on, but the air around me sparked with anticipation, and my eyes drank in every scene that hinted of an era long gone.
   As the heavy rhythm of the drums ceased ringing in my eyes, the tinkle of metal upon metal, and the creak of leather, mingled with the muffled sounds of straw sandals on the asphalt. The soldiers were standing to attention. The courtiers were getting ready to welcome their charges.
   At last the Princesses showed themselves, one by one, from the inner rooms of the Community Center. The princesses wore the traditional white make-up, and were dressed in richly brocaded ceremonial robes. They were accompanied by two maids, who wore wide straw hats from which hung long veils hiding not only their faces, but also the greater part of their bodies. Though their kimonos were only down to mid-calf, with arms and legs covered, not a speck of their flesh could be seen.
   I held my breath, and marveled at the ornamentation, and peculiar beauty of the scene. Yet at the same time, I wondered if the villagers of centuries before had actually been allowed to set eyes on the very princesses that were today parading through the town.
   With each princess now seated in her carriage, the soldiers lined up to fire a salute. The shots rang over the spectators in waves, each firing making me jump, no matter how hard I tried to prepare myself for the explosion and the pungent smell that followed.
   No sooner was I willing the sergeant to call "Cease fire!" than I found myself almost alone in the middle of the car park. The journey had begun. The carriages had departed. And with them walked a thousand spectators and Nakasendo enthusiasts.
   The road to Okute was wide yet bathed in the soft shadows of overhanging branches. As I bounced along the road with my fellow hikers, it amazed me how the atmosphere had changed. It had been just a month before that I had driven this same road. The only car. When the engine died, I had been struck by the eerie silence. Not a bird sang. Not even the wind wished to play among the still branches that hung low and seemed to suffocate the inquisitive stranger.
   But today the woods were alive. I wondered, which facade was the true one? Which Nakasendo did the travelers of yesteryear see?
   It wasn't long before we arrived at a shrine where food stalls lined the roadside and a program had been planned for our entertainment. But my feet were eager to walk on. Thinking I'd go on and get a head start, I found myself yet again in the middle of an endless trail of hikers, winding their way between brown paddies, and through valleys full of pampas grass. News leapt like electric flashes between us. Today's event had attracted over 5,000 hikers!
   The route soon veered and followed a narrow path that grew steeper and steeper. Grass gave way to cobblestones. A thick canopy overhead shut out all sunlight. The damp of the Biwa Pass already spoke of winter. As we reached the ichi-ri zuka and the stone Bato-Kannon, a feeble ray of sunlight filtered down to us. "All downhill now" I told myself as I wiped the sweat from my brow. Colored leaves filled the gaps between the cobbles along the pathway, only re-discovered some years before. Today so many thousands had passed this way, but how many would come tomorrow, or next year?
   The twin rocks of Hahakinu-iwa and Eboshi-iwa, so distinct in Hiroshige's wood block print, were viewed from a park bench, as cars whizzed by. At Okute they were pulling a different Princess Kazu in a slightly different carriage. The soldiers had long before packed away their lovingly restored guns and armor. The courtiers had changed clothes and were enjoying a beer. The event was coming to a close as the afternoon sun shone on a magnificent chrysanthemum that stood outside a traditional manor house.
   Later, as the young princesses joyfully boarded their bus and headed back home, my mind fought against the idea of returning to reality in the year 2002.
   Although many young women of noble birth had made the same journey before her, Princess Kazu (Kazunomiya) was the first Imperial Princess to travel the Nakasendo from Kyoto to Edo. But what did she really see? Her journey is recorded in Ariyoshi Sawako's Kazunomiya Otome, but the heroine is an imposter, made to take Princess Kazu's place. In Tenshoin Atsu-hime, Miyao Tomiko describes Princess Kazu's life in Edo, but barely makes mention of the 25-day journey there. Shimazaki Toson, in his mammoth historical novel, Before the Dawn, reveals the trouble of preparing to accommodate the Princess and her entourage of over 20,000 servants and retainers. A number of travelogues of the Edo period, like Mudashugyo kane-no-waraji Kiso-no-maki, tend to savor the simpleton's experience, telling humorously of the triumphs and tribulations of such an exotic trip.
   Each book hold bits and pieces of a forgotten time. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle that you've lost the picture of, the literature and the experience come together to form a scene. They show the era. They show the heroes and the heroines. They show the authors. And they give the reader the pleasant joy of discovery.
Back to the Azuma-Nakasendo History and Literature Page   ..p.1/3pp. Go on to my mini album of the Nakasendo through Gifu ..p.3/3pp.

Gifu Prefecture's Hime Kaido page    

Japanese Literature  Miyazawa Kenji    Murakami Haruki    Ariyoshi Sawako 

American Literature   Mark Twain    Native American Mythology 

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Copyright 2002-4 Margaret Yamanaka-Gevers