By the time H.G Wells finished writing his popular novel “The Time Machine”, the halo of the Edo period in Japan was fading away. Restoration of the country under emperor Meiji brought the abolition of the old feudal system and, along with it, the end of daimyōs (feudal landlords) and their long time protectors, the samurais. The military title of “shogun” will never be used again.

“Time Travelling Japan” is a two-part article inspired by places that remain unspoiled by centuries and succeed in propelling their contemporary visitors into another space and time.

Part one of the story ships us 400 years ago back to the Edo era to introduce us to the way Japanese nobles traveled and how their system laid the basis for rejuvenating the country’s old post towns. These places eventually turned into present day portals to the past.

The Five Great Roads (五街道)

Gokaidō (五街道) or “The Five Great Roads” were the main routes connecting Edo (today’s Tokyo) to the outside provinces, during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868). Along these roads, government officials, merchandisers and commuters from across the country engaged in long horseback journeys from one region to another.

All five roads had their eastern terminus point at the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo. The bridge remains today the kilometre 0 from which all distances are measured to Tokyo. Two of the most travelled of the five roads were Tōkaidō and Nakasendō which connected Edo to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan.

Map of Gokaidō (The Five Great Roads) during Edo era. Credits: Dennis Kawaharada
  1. Tōkaidō (東海道, Eastern Sea Road) went 494 kilometres from Edo to Kyōto, along the southern coast of Honshū island, crossing fast-flowing rivers and forcing travellers to be ferried across by boat or carried by porters. Water crossings were a potential source of delay and the journey along Tōkaidō much depended on the weather.
  1. Nakasendō (中山道, Central Mountain Road) stretched across the heart of Honshū for a distance of 534 kilometres. While its mountainous terrain challenged both humans and horses, Nakasendō was the choice for those trying to avoid wide river crossings. It joined Tōkaidō at Kusatsu station near Kyōto and the roads continued on the same route to the former capital.
  1. Kōshū-kaidō (甲州街道, Kōshū Main Road) was the link between Edo and sacred Mount Fuji. The 215 kilometres road went through Kai Province and linked Edo to Shimosuwa, a station along Nakasendō.
  1. Nikkō-kaidō (日光街道, Nikkō Main Road) connected Edo to Nikkō, where the deified spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo shogunate, was enshrined at Tōshōgū (“Palace of the Eastern Light”), in 1617. The road went 104 kilometres north of Edo to Utsunomiya, then 40 kilometres northwest to Nikkō. 
  1. Ōshū-kaidō (奥州街道, Ōshū Main Road) branched to the northeast from Utsunomiya and went 99 kilometres to Shirakawa, a castle town in Mutsu Province.

Before Edo period, the main purpose of the roads between Edo and Kyōto was to serve shogunate officials in their journeys to and from the Imperial court. Messengers carrying letters and documents were also using the roads.

When the government moved from Kyoto to Edo, the shogunate needed reliable routes to connect the new capital with the main regions of the country. 

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate, commanded the rejuvenation of Japan’s thousand-year-old highway network. Under the shogunate supervision, the five main roads received general improvements. The steeper parts were paved with rough stone, others were flattened or widened. Trees (mainly cedars and pines) were planted alongside the roads to prevent erosion from the rain and provide shelter against the sun and the winds.

Tōkaidō road (東海道, Eastern Sea Route) in 1865. Photography by Felice Beato.

The width of the roads was on average between 5-7 metres, but the stretch varied according to the terrain. In some parts they were as wide as 15 metres, while in others they got really narrow, down to 2.5 metres.

Gravel and sand kept the roads hard and dry. Ditches along the way drained the rainwater.

The routes thrived during the Edo period, due to the shogunate’s policy of sankin kōtai, or “alternate attendance” that was mandatory for the regional rulers (daimyōs). The law required daimyōs to leave their castles and move to Edo every other year. When the daimyōs were at home, they had to leave their families in Edo. This was a hostage system which left either the daimyō or his family subject to the shogun’s control. The “sankin kōtai” was just one in a set of rules known as the bakuhan system, designed to keep the daimyōs and samurai in check and ensure their loyalty to the shogunate.

The daimyōs were influential Japanese magnates who ruled much of Japan from their large, inherited land holdings dating from the 10th century to the early Meiji era.

Map of daimyō territories around 1570.

By 1853, there were 265 landlords who made alternate-year journeys to and from Edo. To protect their lives and assets, they employed samurais to travel along them. Convoys of hundreds of people were a common sight on the Gokaidō. The following woodblock prints by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige illustrate daimyōs processions along the Nakasendō.

Tokugawa shogunate brought times of peace and stability to Japan, that lasted more than two hundred years. During this period, towns flourished economy grew and people afforded more travel. While in the early days of the Edo era, commoners were not allowed on the Five Roads, travelling for leisure and pilgrimage slowly became part of the traffic landscape. They were still required to show servitude to the higher rank officials and cede priority on roads and the rest stops along the way.

Pilgrims crossing an autumn field near Ōdai station, on the Nakasendō. Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

During journeys, the social status of a person was indicated by the manner in which they traveled. For common people, the standard method of travelling was by foot, carrying their belongings on their backs. Whoever afforded, rent horses or paid porters to carry their luggage. Members of a higher class were carried in kago (open palanquin) or norimono (closed palanquin), the latest being much more spacious and comfortably furnished. The length of the pole and the number of porters also indicated the rank of the passenger.

Geisha travelling in kago.

Noble lady escorted by samurai, travelling in norimono.

The Nakasendō was used in particular to transport the famous Uji tea for the shogun from Kyoto and by noble young ladies traveling to Edo with their entourages to marry high-rank shogunate officials.

At some points during their journeys, travellers had to cross some wide river flows and few of these places had a bridge as an option. There were boats available sometimes, but most of them had to be taken by water.

The wealthiest were carried either in palanquins or using a platform held by river porters, while others hopped on the porters’ back. In case of a flooding, travellers had to wait for days, sometimes weeks, until the water level dropped.

Women carried across Abe River near Fuchū station, on the Tōkaidō. Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

The Post Towns (宿場)

The journeys along the five roads were long and exhausting. Nakasendō path, for example, would have taken anywhere between 16 to 25 days to complete.

As people travelled, shukuba (宿場) or “post towns” randomly appeared on the horizon. To elevate the comfort of its officials, Tokugawa commanded the restoration of the old towns along the main roads. He required these to be placed at regular distances and provide a collection of services, free of charge for government officials: food and housing, sherpas for guidance, animals of burden or horses to be used by fast messengers.

Agematsu – an old post town along Nakasendō. Credits: kiso-hinoki.jp

In order to fulfil these demands, many former towns along the five routes had to be fully rebuilt, while others were built from the ground. The result was that the appearance of all the post-towns became strikingly similar, sharing a number of common features.

The Honjin (本陣) was the primary inn of every town, therefore the top ranking officials stayed there. A second-level traveller was placed into the second best place – the Wakihonjin (脇本陣). Since every post-town had only one housing of each type, travel schedules had to be carefully taken care of, so conflicts for the top inn would not occur. Regular travellers, merchandisers and commuters were checked in at the Hatago (旅籠) – lodgings that also provided food and drinks for its visitors, in exchange for cash. There are many hatago still in existence today and some have continued to operate for the past few hundred years.

With just a few exceptions, the Nakasendō post-towns were arranged on either side of the route in a linear fashion. With an average length of 600-700 yards, they were basically one-street villages.

Old Japanese village. Painting by sDewpearls.

The post-towns also provided policing for the central government, becoming the “eyes and ears” of the law officers. While crimes were naturally reported to authorities, townspeople were also expected to report suspicious travellers and activities. Therefore, women who might try to avoid becoming captives in Edo under the alternate residence scheme, samurai attempting to sneak into Edo, or weapon smugglers were closely watched for and denounced.

Not all the post stations were built at the same time. However, by 1624, over two hundred post stations existed along Gokaidō. Sixty nine of those were established along the Nakasendō and fifty three along Tōkaidō. 

The Kisoji (木曽路)

Around its midway, the Nakasendō route passed through a picturesque area stretching over 60 kilometres, called the Kiso Valley. This section of the road was called “Kisoji”, an ancient trade route that connected 11 of the 69 post stations along the Nakasendō. 

The Kisoji section of the Nakasendō, on the Kiso Valley. Credits: kisoji.com

Some of the most preserved towns from ancient Japan were built hundreds of years ago along the Kisoji. Part two of the article will take us back to modern days and open the capsules of time.

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Tudor Tomos

Tudor Tomos

Senior Researcher, The Nagaoka Review