“One tree, one head. One branch, one arm,” an elderly woman explained to me as I looked at a drawing of a man, kneeling head down in front of his wife and children, awaiting the fatal blow of the executioner’s sword. The man’s crime: he cut down a tree in the thick forests of Kiso Valley. The sketch, one of many on display at the South Kiso Museum in Tsumago, depicts the harsher realities of a bygone era in this stunningly picturesque area of Nagano Prefecture, a valley surrounded by rushing cascades, Japan’s Central and North Alps, as well as beautiful forests long treasured by the nation’s rulers.
“The castles of Edo and Nagoya were built using wood from the Kiso forests. The trees here have never belonged to us and probably never will,” the woman elaborated. “The ‘Five Kiso Trees’ are like jewels and, therefore, to take their timber without permission has, over the centuries, carried various penalties-death, the loss of a limb or imprisonment,” she told me as I viewed another sketch of a man, with arms bound behind his back, being led shamefully through town on horseback.
“The trees have belonged to everybody else except the people of the Kiso Valley-the shogun, the emperor and now the government, but we still live in hope that one day they will be ours.”
When Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) built five highways to link his capital of Edo (now Tokyo) with the rest of the nation, he knew the value of the forests in the Kiso Valley. Here, the 500 km Nakasendo highway twists and turns through the verdant gap, curving west after Magome before merging with the great Tokaido Highway at Kusatsu near Lake Biwa and finally reaching Kyoto. The huge hinoki and sawara cypresses, koyamaki (umbrella pine), asuhi (hiba arborvitae) and nezuko (Japanese arborvitae) were considered to be of superior quality, and to this day Japan’s most venerated Shinto shrine, Ise, is rebuilt every 20 years with Kiso timber.
Along each highway, the Tokugawa Shogunate established post towns about a day’s walk apart where travelers and their horses could rest. Eleven of the 69 post towns of the Nakasendo highway were on the Kisoji, or Kiso Road, a stretch hugging the Kiso River that plunges through dense forest and which, with its sharp rises and bends, took Edo period (1603-1867) wayfarers some three days to cross. Nowadays, motorists can drive from one end of the Kiso Road to the other in a few hours, but the best way to savor the ambience of this great historical road and experience the refreshing fragrance of the woodlands is to put on some sturdy walking shoes and hike the stretch between Tsumago and Magome.
The hike, which takes a leisurely three hours, leads you through small hamlets of wooden houses where you can enjoy a glimpse of true Japanese rural life. The road winds past fields of rice and vegetables, through thick forest and along pathways offering stunning views of mountain ranges. Tell-tale signs of old Edo-era travels, such as ichi-ri-zuka, or milestones, that were placed every ri (about 4 km) and the Kotoku-ji temple, founded in 1500, which is noted for its singing floorboard, are everywhere. The site of the former Tsumago Castle offers a panoramic view of its namesake town. In addition, several houses at Otsumago have been preserved, and the checkpoint ruins, or Ichikoku-tochi-shirakiaratame-bansho-ato, where the removal of timber was controlled from 1749 to 1869, serve as a testament to the importance of the five species of local timber.
Of the 11 post towns situated along this strip of the 550 km-long Nakasendo, Tsumago and Magome are the most well-preserved. The former is less touristy, and an overnight stay in a minshuku or ryokan offers the opportunity to stroll the streets after dusk, when small outdoor lamps softly illuminate the Edo-era wooden houses and shop fronts. In the daytime too, the Terashita no Machi (lit, “town below the temple”), a row of traditional wooden buildings in the heart of the town, also brims with the romance of a bygone era.
Buildings of particular interest to history buffs include the Okuya, also known as the Waki-honjin (the house of a local influential family that was used to accommodate guests of high standing), the Tsumago-juku honjin (house of the former governors of Kiso that also served as an inn for daimyo) and the South Kiso Museum. The museum consists of three buildings: another honjin and waki-honjin and a museum of historical materials. The Tsumago-juku honjin gives you an idea of what life was like for the host family and daimyo to live under the same roof. The lower level of the house was used by the hosts and the upper level was reserved for the daimyo. The Okuya, home to the Hayashi family, is open to the public as a folk museum. Here, you can view the splendor of this magnificent house and various historical documents about the area, including materials concerning Emperor Meiji, who stopped by for tea in 1880, and Princess Kazu (1846-1877), the sister of Emperor Komei (1831-1867), who traveled the Nakasendo to Edo in 1861. Forced to marry the shogun Iemochi in 1862, the bride’s sacrifice failed to prevent the revolution that restored imperial power.
Magome also has old-style houses, inns, souvenir shops, the Eisho-ji temple that sits on a small hill, and the Toson Memorial Hall, which is dedicated to famed author Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943). The memorial, which is built on the site of Shimazaki’s former home, the Magome honjin (an officially appointed inn for daimyo), exhibits books, photos and other materials relating to the writer’s life. Shimazaki not only spent most of his childhood here but also chose the Kiso Valley as the theme for many of his works, including his most noted novel “Yoake-mae (Before the Dawn).”
History buffs with a penchant for ambling can get a double dose of nature and culture in the Kiso Valley.
From JR Tokyo Station take the Hikari shinkansen to Nagoya and change to the JR Chuo Line to reach Magome (Nakatsugawa Station) or Tsumago (Nagiso Station). From Nagiso Station, you can either catch a bus to Tsumago or walk to the town in 1 hr 30 min. For Magome, buses leave hourly from outside Nakatsugawa station. There is also bus service between Magome and Tsumago, which can drop you off at the start of the hike from the Magome-koge pass.
Where to stay
Welcome Inn Reservation Center can assist with booking accommodation. Tel: 03-3211-4201, fax: 03-3211-9009.
For Tsumago call 0264-57-3123; for Magome call 0264-59-2336.