The History & Culture of the Nakasendo
by Andrew Thompson
What is the Nakasendo? The nakasendo is a ‘post-road’ that connects Kyoto and Tokyo that traversers the central Japanese alpine mountains. The Japanese characters literally mean through the mountains path or way – sometimes referred to as 'The Nakasendo Way'.
The nakasendo is one of the seven major post routes that were developed as part of the Taiho Reforms – a formalised system of national administration that became known as the ‘Ritsuryo System’ based on the Chinese road system established during the Cho Dynasty (1122BC – 222BC). Developed to facilitate rice taxes gathered for transport to the imperial capital, allow rapid movement of imperial troops around the country and in time of peace provide an efficient network of communications.
Travel by the 'hoi paloi', although not entirely banned, was hardly encouraged. From the point of view of the Tokugawa Government travellers were defined as officials, daimyo and samurai who were moving about the country on business connected with administrative responsibilities or in accordance with the Alternate Attendance System (sankin kotai). This essentially excluded individuals who travelled for pleasure, on pilgrimage, merchants transporting their wares from city to city or common people in search of employment.
The sankin kotai system was a policy enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate requiring daimyo (provincial lords) to divide their time between the capital in their own domain and the Shogun’s capital city Edo (known as Tokyo today). The shogun was able to demand compliance because the daimyo's first born son and wife were forced to remain in Edo as the Shogun's guests - essentially held as hostages. This tradition began informally during the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1585 – 1598) but was codified into law by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1635.
Under this system daimyo were forced to spend alternating years in their own domain capitals and in Edo attending the Shogun’s court. Subsequently, the daimyo had to maintain lavish estates in both cities and pay to travel with their retinues of large armies between the two places. With the daimyo spending large sums of money on these operations it made it infinitely more difficult to fund uprisings.
Large armies constantly on the move along these national highways stimulated economic growth. Post towns popped up at convenient intervals of about 12 miles catering to the long and seemingly never-ending processions of soldiers by providing accommodation, food and services. A new kind hotel or guest home called the honjin established specifically for the daimyo sprang up along these routes. It also provided entertainment for local people as they turned out to watch them pass by - after all, who wouldn't enjoy a parade?
In due course the post roads became well established routes connecting provincial Japan with the Capital until the end of the Edo Period and the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships and the forced industrial modernisation of Japan at the start of the Meiji Period in 1688.
Today the original post road still exists although much of it is not in the original form as it has become a paved roadway, train tracks or morphed into modern cities and villages. And, as you will see when we travel together along the nakasendo that the best parts of this ancient road still exists, the pretty mountain passes, villages and post towns remain in the original Edo Period style.
Where will you Stay?
As much as possible we’ve selected traditional Japanese accommodation. The majority of nights will be spent in Japanese ryokans (inns) or minshuku (bed & breakfast). Some of the establishments are hundreds of years old, and the business has been handed down from father to son for many generations.
These establishments also come with a number of interesting etiquette that you will be expected to follow. Shoes are removed from the entrance and you will be provided with slippers to wear. However, these slippers are not worn in the tatami rooms and you will be expected to change into another set of slippers when using the convenience.
The toilet and Tatatmi mat rooms, cypress wood baths, multi-course meals are all part of the experience in staying in a traditional inn. Over the centuries, Japanese would share rooms, segregated by gender. Often sleeping in a room with people you had never met before. Futon, thick comfortable mattresses and kaki-buton, or donna covers are laid out for guests.