by Andrew Thompson
The Kisoji - Nature, Spirituality and Myth
The Kisoji is a 70km stretch of the Nakasendo that runs perpendicular with the Central Japanese Alpine Ranges. The road runs through the narrow mountainous valley punctuated at regular intervals by the seven main post towns of the Kisoji – Shiojiri, Narai, Kiso-Fukushima, Nagiso, Tsumago and Magome that have somehow been squirrelled away in every available nook and cranny of this lush narrow valley.
In this post we cover:
- About the Kisoji;
- Location of the Kisoji;
- Folk History of the Kisoji;
- Arts and Craft Wares of the Kisoji;
About the Kisoji
The entire Kisoji section of the Nakasendo is in the mountains with many sacred sites of antiquity and places of natural beauty are scattered throughout this valley divulging new delights and 'hidden gems' with every return to the valley.
I lived close to the Kisoji for three years hiking and skiing the peaks of the Central Japanese Alps and still have not seen everything there is to be found. The natural beauty of the forests and mountains certainly add to the beauty of the post towns located here. The refurbishments and maintenance of these towns gives the traveller an eeri feeling as of time standing still, or just stopped. At any moment I have expect to see a retinue of soldiers and palanquins to appear from around the corner - I don't think I would be surprised in the least if this actually happened!
Location of the Kisoji
The Kiso region is located in the southwest of Nagano Prefecture including Shiojiri City, Kiso-gun (Shire or County) and covering a total of 1,836 km2 that roughly equates to the same size as a small prefecture in Japan. For centuries the Japanese have worshiped Mt Otake as a sacred mountain to which one’s spirit returns. The Kisogawa (Kiso river) flows and burbles through the forests of hinoki (cypress) trees and rock formations that run the length of the valley. Approximately 90% of the Kiso Valley is covered in lush forest.
Arable lands were small in Kiso and not sufficient to sustain the people of the area. In the time of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1637-1598) a wood tax was imposed in place of a rice tax as the valley had a ready supply of high quality wood. Wood was exchanged for rice as payment. During the Edo Period rice was the cornerstone of the economy.
History of the Kisoji
The official name of the road, and the one mostly used by Japanese is Nakasendo (road through the mountains), but the name Kisokaido is also used. The central part of the itinerary is taking over a very old road named Kisoji which follows the Kiso river valley. So it is the name Kisokaido which was chosen by the publisher for the prints series depicting the whole of the path and which I also used for this site.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), several sections of old roads were connected and the name Nakasendo was given to the reunited pathways. Two sets of kanji (characters) 中山道 and 中仙道 were used with the same pronunciation, but in the end the shogunate decided to use 中山道 as the official name in 1716. In the Japanese maps or road signs, Nakasendo is used and displayed, but in the Western world, thanks to the popularity of the print series, it is Kisokaido which is better known.
Japanese roads were measured in "ri" (里), equivalent to 3,927m or 2.37 mi. One ri is divided in 36 "Cho" (町) of 109.1m or 120 yards. The Nakasendo road is 135 ri, 34 cho long, or 534km / 322 mi. Markers named ichiri tsuka (一里塚) were erected every "ri" and some can still be seen.
After his victory at the Sekigahara battle in Oct.1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan and became Shogun with broad executive powers. Japan was then organized with a feudal system with lords (daimyo), clan chiefs or head of domains swearing allegiance to the Shogun. To control the lords, a system of alternate attendance (sankin-kotai) was devised. The requirement was that every daimyo (lord) was to move between his domain (han) and Edo, typically spending alternate years in each place. His wife and heir were required to remain in Edo as hostages.
The expenditures necessary to maintain lavish residences in both places, and for the procession to and from Edo, placed financial strains on the daimyo making them unable to wage war. The frequent travels of the daimyos encouraged road building and the construction of inns and facilities along the routes, generating economic activity.
There were about 250 domains, so with several hundreds lords moving with lavish processions (大名行列, daimyō-gyōretsu) to and from Edo every year, roads were busy, often clogged as the roads were kept narrow to hinder movement of any armed troops. Stations were created with lodgings and restaurants. Daimyo were accommodated in specific houses named Honjin (本陣). Secondary lodgings named waki-honjin ( 脇本陣 ) were reserved for officers and lower officials. inns or other lodgings known as hatago ( 旅籠 ), restaurants, brothels, warehouses known as toiyaba (問屋) and checkpoint to control the traffic or seki (関) were the other important buildings of the station.
There were several barriers along the road with the main ones being the Usui-no-seki (Station Sakamoto #17) , Fukushima-no-seki (Station Fukushima, #37 ), Fuwa-no-seki (Station Sekigahara #58) and Oosaka-no-seki (between Otsu and Kyoto #69) Some of these structures are still standing, either as museums or still operating as business and I have tried to point these out in the following pages.
Folk History of the Kisoji
Kisobushi is a traditional folk song that tells of river loggers in the area, who rode rafts down the river to transport logs. Kisobushi is a folk song originating from the Koso District of Nagano Prefecture, Japan. It sings about the river, mountains and people who live there. "Fushi" (in Japanese: 節) or "Bushi", when immediately follows another nouns, as in "Tankobushi", means a melody or a song.
There are several stanzas and various versions or translations. The words, "Nakanori san", in the lyrics are generally agreed to mean the loggers who raft down the Kiso River, carrying the logs cut down from the woods in the Kiso Mountains.
木曽のナー 中乗りさん 木曽の御岳（おんたけ）さんは ナンジャラホーイ 夏でも寒い ヨイヨイヨイ 合唱：ヨイヨイヨイノ ヨイヨイヨイ 袷ょ（あわしょ）ナー 中乗りさん あわしょやりたや ナンジャラホーイ 足袋もそえて ヨイヨイヨイ 合唱：ハー ヨイヨイヨイノ ヨイヨイヨイ ...
Kiso no nah, Nakanori san, Kisono Ontakesan wa, nanjara hoi! Natu demo samui, yoi yoi yoi! Chorus: Hah, yoi yoi yoi no, yoi yoi yoi! Awasho nah, Nakanori san, Awasho yaritaya, nanjara hoi! Tabi o soete, yoi yoi yoi! Chorus: Hah, yoi yoi yoi no, yoi yoi yoi! ...
Since ancient times the high quality hinoki (cypress) wood has been highly sought after, the beautiful grain and inherent strength of the wood made it suitable for building temples, shrines and castles. The Kiso-hinoki cypress is the foundation of local industries in the Kiso Valley and synonymous with Kiso and the Tokugawa Shogunate regarded the Kisoji as an inexhaustible supply of quality lumber.
Huge tracts of high quality hinoki (cypress) were cut down and used in the construction of Edo Castle (part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo in modern times), Sanpu Castle and Nagoya Caslte and also purportedly used widely in the construction of joukamachi (castle towns). Shinto shrines were historically constructed from unfinished wood from the five trees. The Kiso regions has supplied the hinoki trees for the cyclical (every 20 years) rebuilding of the Ise Shrine, by floating them down the Kiso river – reminiscent of the folk songs already mentioned relating to actual historical events.
The highly valued cypress came under threat in the early Edo Period. As the Warring States Period came to a close and the Azuchi-momoyama Period began, a huge town building boom came into effect and large quantities of Kisoji lumber were in high demand leading to over exploitation of the precious resource. To combat this, the Oware Domain which had jurisdiction of the Kisoji began to regulate logging in the valley by about the middle of the Edo Period.
Regulation Tokugawa Shogunate style equated to ‘a head for a cypress, an arm for a branch’ making the logging of the Kisoji’s five types of trees a capital crime - the five varieties included the native evergreens of sawara, asuhi, koya maki, nezuko and hinoki (Japanese cypress). The forest also had scatterings of cherry (sakura), pine (matsu) and zelkova (keyaki, a relative of the elm but native to Japan) mixed in. All were prized for use in the construction industry because of their beautiful grain, durability, and ease of working.
When restrictions on logging were finally lifted in the early Meiji Period many local Japanese were quick to re-invest in rebuilding their homes. Consequently many of the homes or inns on the Nakasendo were relatively quickly transformed into buildings of great beauty. The Waki-honjin in Tsumago is a terrific example of such buildings.
Notwithstanding due to this proclamation the ‘wood tax’ was also abolished around this time. Naturally this was a rather server regulation for the people of the Kisoji who depended on the quality lumber for their livelihoods and booming economy. However other new industries were about to emerge and flourish to support the people of the Kisoji…
Arts and Craft Wares of the Kisoji
The end of the Edo Period saw vast improvement made to the road and the number of pilgrims to Mt Ontake increased. The people of the Kisoji honned their skill in crafts that were supported by the local rich resources supported by the region. The Kisoji become renowned throughout Japan for the quality of their Kisouma (kiso horses), Kiso-hinoki and traditional Japanese crafts such lacquerware. These are still strong industries in modern day Kiso Valley. Kiso-Hirosawa, the post town next to Narai is famous for its modern day lacquerware. Lacquerware created in this town is sold to Japanese Department Stores, so there in no second guessing the high standard of these wares.
If there is time and interest it is well worth the walk from Narai to Kido-Hirosawa (the next station) to explore some of the showrooms in the old stores that line the street of this town.
- Orodushi Combs
- Kiso Lacquerware Museum
- Nagiso Lathed Woodcrafts
- Araragi Cypress Hat
- Kiso Wooden Crafts
- Kisouma (Kiso Horse)
The Oroku Comb
A small Minebari comb with about 100 teeth that is less than just 10cm wide, "Orokugushi" has been a specialty of Nakasendo since the Edo period, as a souvenir of the Mitake faith and Zenkoji visit It was known throughout the country. Even now, the Okukushi comb, made mainly in Kashiharajuku, is a practical comb and continues to be loved as a traditional Nagano craft.
Kiso Lacquerware Museum
Lacquerware from Kiso Hirasawa has been popular as a souvenir from Nakasendo since the Edo period. In addition to traditional techniques that have been handed down, new painting methods and products that match modern lifestyles have also been born, and many people are now pleased with them as souvenirs.
Nagiso Lathed Woodcrafts
Nagiso lathed woodcrafts are manufactured around Nagiso Town, Kiso-gun, Nagano Prefecture. The traditional crafts were born in the early 18th century. They are manufactured with a technique of lathe craft.
The feature of the technique is to keep the natural beauty of wood grain. Serving trays and tea bins are the main products. The fine wood from the abundant forests in Kiso is the source of the lathed woodcrafts.
Araragi Cypress Hat
The technique for Araragi cypress hat was conveyed by a person who came from Ochibe, Hida in 1662. At that time, hats were in high demand and hat manufacture became a key industry of Araragi, where arable lands were small. Lifestyles have changed since the war and the demand for the hat has reduced. However, the hat has an enduring popularity as a practical and decorative item. Tourists who visit Tsumago and Magome and Mt. Ontake climbers have another look at the handmade feel of the hat coming from the traditional technique.
*Araragi cypress hat was designated as a Nagano Prefectural Traditional Craft in 1982.
Kiso Wooden Crafts
Kiso wooden crafts are small pieces of woodwork that are made of the Five Trees of Kiso (hinoki cypress, sawara cypress, nezuko cypress, asunaro cypress, and Japanese umbrella-pine). Buckets, barrels, and boxes have been made since the Edo period, and a wide variety of housewares is manufactured by keeping wooden features of nezuko.
Kisouma (Kiso Horses)
Kiso horses are horses that have been kept in Japan for a long time and are called “Japanese native horses” or “Japanese Japanese breeds”. It belongs to medium-sized horses, and the average height is 133cm. Kiso horses bred for years in rugged mountainous cold areas adapt to harsh natural environments, are extremely robust and withstand rough meals, have strong tortoises and do not require horseshoes. Durable and stable legs can safely climb up and down steep hills without stepping over narrow mountain roads. Since the Heian period, it has been carefully nurtured for military and agricultural purposes. You will also find smaller high-quality lacquerware venders in Narai, Tsumago and Magome.
The Kisoji is undoubtedly a beautiful section of the Nakasendo and well known throughout Japan for its rich natural resources and highly sought after craft wear. The daily life of people of the Kisoji became enshrined in Japanese folk lore, with colourful folk songs, shaukuhachi and art. The museums dotted throughout the trail provide deeper insight into the arts and crafts associated with life in the region. The Kisojo has the best preserved sections of the Nakasendo that show what life was was like during Edo Japan.
Have you visited the Kisoji on the Nakasendo? Let us know below in the comments what you think of the Kisoji and what do you hope to see when you visit. Let us know in the comments below.