Nakasendo, literally meaning ‘central mountain route’, was the product of an imperial road building program in the early 8th century.
The emperors of the time established a network of national highways, based on the Chinese model, to support the movement of troops and collection of taxes underpinning centralised imperial government.
In the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603 to 1867) the national highway system was rejuvenated to serve the needs of the hereditary military ruler or shogun and his Edo (now Tokyo) based central government. The Tokugawa shoguns sought to unite and stabilise Japan after civil war. They did so under a feudal system where power was cemented by the shogun’s ruthless domination of the daimyo (lords or nobles), their lands and lifestyles. Under the sankinkotai or ‘alternate attendance’ system, each daimyo was required to live for alternating periods of typically one year between Edo and his fief. His wife and heirs were required to remain in Edo effectively as hostages whilst he was away. The significant cost involved in maintaining two residences and travelling between the two with a large entourage ensured the daimyo were unlikely to build up the reserves necessary to wage war.
Sankinkotai also served as a form of military service to the shogun. Commensurate with the wealth of his domain, each daimyo was required to provide a designated number of samurai or soldiers to accompany him on his procession to and from Edo. With hundreds of daimyo entering or leaving Edo each year, processions were almost daily occurrences in Edo. The main routes to the provinces were the gokaido or five national highways established to transport government officials, correspondence and troops. The daimyo were directed as to which route they had to use.
The frequent travel of the daimyo encouraged road building and the shogunate appointed officials to oversee and regulate this work. These officials also administered post towns and barrier stations for strict control of travel along the roads.
Towns were built as staging posts along the highways to provide accommodation and a large supply of porters and horses to support highway transport. These services were provided according to rank as part of the government’s control of the highway system. Each town had a honjin or primary inn and a waki honjin or secondary inn. The highest ranking daimyo or official stayed in the honjin and lower ranked daimyo stayed in the waki honjin. As each town usually had only one of each type of inn, the travel schedules of the daimyo and government officials were carefully coordinated to ensure two similar ranking officials did not require the services of an inn at the same time.
The barrier stations or seki were checkpoints set up along the highways to inspect each passing traveller and porter, to enforce the shogunate’s control over the movement of certain goods and people. Erected at naturally narrow points on the trail, these seki funnelled all who travelled the trail through for checking, ensuring a wife or heir of a daimyo did not escape from Edo. Control of arms into Edo was also important. Whilst samurai were allowed to carry swords, daimyo were limited in the number of samurai allowed to accompany them to Edo to ensure they did not build up a large force to attack the shogun.
In addition to checking for the illegal movement of people and arms, some barrier stations targeted the illegal removal of timber. Five varieties of cypress and other Japanese native evergreens were protected and anyone caught faced strict punishment, even death. These large trees were reserved for building projects approved by the shogunate such as castles and the Ise shrine which is still rebuilt every 20 years.
The Nakasendo was one of the five national highways and one of two that linked Edo to Kyoto. The Tokaido linked Kyoto to Edo via the Pacific coast, and the Nakasendo or former Tosando, ran inland through the mountains. The Nakasendo was also known as the Kisoji, or the Kiso road, as the central section ran through the mountains of Kiso, in modern day Nagano prefecture. There were 69 stage posts along the Nakasendo including two it shared with the coastal Tokaido.
The Tokaido, with its mild coastal climate, was the route generally travelled by the daimyo and processions of feudal lords was a common sight. Ordinary travellers looking to avoid the crowds of official processions preferred the Nakasendo. The Nakasendo was also the preferred route of the Imperial court. Despite the Nakasendo having a number of difficult mountain passes, it was favoured by the imperial princesses and their entourages over the Tokaido which had several potentially dangerous river crossings.
During the Edo period there were a number of politically motivated marriages between princesses of the Imperial court and the shogunate. Such marriages necessitated large numbers of samurai to be sent out from Edo to collect the betrothed princess and her attendants from Kyoto, resulting in a huge procession of samurai, Imperial guards, maids and other attendants making the journey back to Edo with the princess along the Nakasendo. These processions gave the Nakasendo another name; hime no kaido or highway of princesses.
Although the national highway system was intended to give priority to officials and those transporting government supplies, the routes also made travel easier and safer for ordinary people and provided an effective distribution network for a variety of goods and services. They provided increased communication and the exchange of ideas and culture between the regions. Over time the highways came to be used not only for official purposes but also by merchants and ordinary travellers and became an important catalyst for economic growth. In addition to the honjin and waki honjin; inns were established to provide for merchants, craftsmen, lower ranked samurai, pilgrims and common people. The hatagoya inns provided meals but at the more basic kichinyado travellers had to provide their own food and were only charged for firewood lodging.
Perversely the national highway system set up by the shogunate to enforce its power played a part in its demise. Increased travel by ordinary people, salesmen and merchants placed huge demands on the limited resources of the post towns. Some of these merchants, traditionally ranked very lowly in society, now had the money to divert services away from official travellers and were often able to compete with the samurai class for the same services.
The restoration of imperial rule under the Meiji restoration brought an end to the shoguns’ feudal government and with it the central role of the national highways network as an instrument of state power. The staging post towns along the Nakasendo went into deep decline until they revived as part of the economic growth of the 19th century. The construction of the railways in the early 20th century was a mixed blessing for the Nakasendo towns with those hosting a railway station booming while the rest declined. This trend was reinforced with the building of Japan’s modern highway system after the Second World War pushing most of the old post towns and their highway sections into disuse and decay.
In recent years post towns strung along sections of the Nakasendo bypassed by modern development have been recognised for their authenticity and historical appearance. Due to the efforts of enthusiastic local people these towns have been wonderfully preserved to present a streetscape from a bygone age. Once again the towns of the Kiso road are welcoming travellers, this time from all over the world.
Art and the Nakasendo.
The Nakasendo trail has long been a source of inspiration for artists, poets and authors. One such work is a series of wood block prints depicting the 69 post towns along the Nakasendo trail by Ando Hiroshige and his collaborator Keisei Eisen. This series made towards the end of the Edo period gives an interesting insight into the trail during that time.