An old post road called the Nakasendo once ran between Kyoto and present-day Tokyo. The Kisoji is a part of that road, passing through deep valleys, threading and twisting its way around steep forested mountains. Picturesque post towns full of historical charm are strung out along the road and the Kisofukushima area features several of them.
In 1600, following the Battle of Sekigahara, the Tokugawa Shogunate (government) developed a network of roads that stretched nationwide. A year later a horse traffic system was implemented and the year after that, post towns were established along the Nakasendo.
There were five such routes (the Tokaido, Nakasendo, Koshudochu, Nikkodochu, and the Okushudochu), each marked at regular intervals with milestones. All five originated in Edo’s (now Tokyo’s) Nihonbashi, and the first milestone for each route was located there.
After the establishment of these routes, a road commissioner was appointed in 1659 to oversee their repair and maintenance. He was also charged with bridge construction and the setting up of river crossing facilities, milestone markers, labor and horse rental services and more. He also administered post towns and checkpoints for strict control of travel along the roads.
These systems were originally intended to give priority to officials and those transporting government supplies. However, the routes also vastly improved the journeys of ordinary people and the distribution of all kinds of goods and services. This, in turn, advanced communication significantly and promoted inter-regional cultural exchange.
From its starting point in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi, the Nakasendo passes through the former provinces of Northern Musashi, Ueno, Shinano, Mino and many others before merging with the Tokaido at the Kusatsu Post Town (of Oumi) before continuing on to Kyoto.
In ancient times, the road was called the “Kiso Route” because it passed through Kiso. Its alternate name, Nakasendo (中仙道, “Central Mountain Highway”) was given because it passed through the center of the country. However, in 1710 the Edo Administration issued a directive making “Nakasendo” (中山道) its official and only legitimate name.
The Tokaido and the Nakasendo were the two routes that connected Edo and Kyoto, although the Tokaido had more traffic and larger post towns during the Edo Period. It had 53 post towns and was about 494 meters long, whereas the Nakasendo had 67 post towns and was about 546 meters long. Because it was laid out over more mountainous terrain, the Nakasendo journey was much more challenging for both humans and horses. Therefore, when regional feudal lords (daimyo) had to travel to Edo for their biennial obligatory residence, only a quarter as many used the Nakasendo as the Tokaido. However, the Nakasendo, in particular, was used to transport the famous Uji tea from Kyoto for the Shogun and by noble young ladies traveling with their entourages to Edo for marriage to high-ranking officials of the Shogunate.
Although they are now gone, the voices of those who used the Nakasendo seep from the walls of the old Japanese inns along the route. The light from their paper lanterns still resonates with visitors today and warms their hearts. Even now, each of us can experience this part of Japan’s rich history in the quaint old post towns where the heritage and antiquities of yesteryear still remain.