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Walking in the Kiso Mountains

Written on: Sunday January 8th, 2012

A journal entry from: Japan

The Kiso mountains, in Japan's Central Alps region, stretch across Gifu and Nagano prefectures. I came to do a walk along the old post road, in an area very different to the craggy peaks I had headed for in the Northern Japanese Alps. This walk instead followed the Kiso river valley, and was a rather gentle landscape. 

The postal road dates from feudal times, when the Tokugawa Shogun moved the capital to Edo (Tokyo), and exerted his control by forcing the nobility to travel back and forth between Kyoto and Edo on a regular basis. It was a long and expensive journey, and took them away frequently from their families and their own land-holdings (i.e., their power bases), limiting their ability to plot against or defy the Shogunate. There were five great roads connecting to Edo. The path I walked here was part of the Nakasendo road, connecting Edo and Kyoto via an inland mountainous route. Incidentally, the area where I live is often referred to as Tokaido, as the coastal Tokaido road - the primary route between Kyoto and Edo - ran through here. Even today, the train line which I take to get to Tokyo is still called the Toakido line, and the area serves as the main east-west corridor between Tokyo and Kyoto, Osaka, and the rest of western Japan. Many of the towns both along the Tokaido route and the Nakasendo route existed primarily to service travellers.

There is an easily walkable, relatively flat section of the old road that is still popular for hiking today, between the old postal towns of Tsumago and Magome. Both towns have been pretty well preserved / restored, and are supposed to be fairly faithful to their Edo-era look. Though of course with plenty of modern souvenir shops and cafes. Tsumago is supposed to be the more accurate, I've read, and it certainly was quieter and felt a little less touristy. I caught a bus to Magome, wandered around, and then started on the trail the Tsumago. I spent the night in Tsumago at a plain, small little ryokan/minshuku. (I'm not sure what their official designation was, but it was basically a guest area in someone's house, so I would say minshuku.) Tsumago has no train station, so the next morning I walked to the next town over to get a train home, another pleasant little walk.

What really struck me about the Edo-era style I saw in these two towns was how very simple some it was, and how seamlessly (some of) it could fit into a modern style. I suspect it might be partly because these were rural areas, deep in the mountains, so anything more elaborate would simply not have been done. I don't think you can really see it from these photos, though, as I don't seem to have caught a lot of the plainer buildings with clean white and chocolate brown lines.

These pictures are from May 2010.