By Hiroshi Nishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterNAGISO, Nagano — “The entire Kisoji is in the mountains” — this opening phrase about an ancient trail in Toson Shimazaki’s classic novel “Before the Dawn” still holds true today. The 11 post towns on the Kisoji section of the Nakasendo road are linked by a road that runs through tree-covered mountains. I walked the section between Midono-juku and Tsumago-juku, post towns in Nagiso, to get a taste of what travelers in the Edo period (1603-1867) experienced as they walked this path.
Midono, which is about 1.5 kilometers north of JR Nagiso Station, was almost completely burned down by a huge fire during the Meiji era (1868-1912). The site of the honjin main inn, marked by a stone monument indicating Emperor Meiji once stayed there, is among the vestiges of the former post town.
As I walked along the Kisogawa river, the Momosukebashi bridge — a 247-meter wooden suspension bridge completed in 1922 by businessman Momosuke Fukuzawa to facilitate electric power development in the region — came into view. A little further downstream stands the Yomikaki hydroelectric power station, built in the Taisho era (1912-1926). Both facilities have been designated as important national cultural properties. The retro designs of these symbols of the nation’s modernization evoke feelings of nostalgia.
As I leave the river and walk along the old Nakasendo road, I am surrounded by dense forest. Dotting the road are places of historic interest, such as the Kabuto Kannon shrine dedicated to Kiso Yoshinaka, a warlord in the late Heian period (from the late eighth century to the late 12th century), and a monument engraved with a poem by the monk Ryokan.
On the way, I left this road and stopped at the remains of Tsumago Castle, a mountaintop castle dating back to the Sengoku (warring) period (1493-1573). Only a trench and a few other ruins remain, but the magnificent view from the summit takes in the Kisogawa river, small settlements along the river, and the Central Alps in the distance.
With a few diversions along some side roads, this trip took about two hours. The townscape of Tsumago, with a row of quaint old wooden houses made in the dashibari-zukuri (overhanging second-floor rooms) style that stretches for about 500 meters, came into view. There are no signs of modernity here — electrical poles have been moved out of sight from the road and cars are prohibited on the street.
Stroll here and you can develop the illusion of having traveled back in time to the Edo period. The Association of Tsumago Lovers, a group formed in 1968 and involving all the residents who live in the district, has been engaged in activities to preserve Tsumago’s traditional buildings and landscape.
“The association was a last-ditch measure to rebuild a town that was on the verge of falling into obscurity after losing its purpose as a post town,” said Yoshinori Fujihara, 69, a standing director of the association.
“During the period of high economic growth, our town was losing its traditional old feeling. If we keep our historic things, in the future they will be admired as cultural assets and attract tourists. Inspired by this concept, the founder of the association exercised strong leadership to overcome the opposition of some settlement residents and get everybody going in the same direction.”
The association does more than just preservation activities. The post office is a renovated old house that blends in with its surroundings, and the town’s main inn, which was knocked down in the Meiji era, was rebuilt in 1995 based on the original floor plan. The townscape has steadily been restored to its original state.
The waki-honjin, a secondary inn built in the early Meiji period, retains its original, respectable appearance. It was also where Yufu, about whom Toson reportedly wrote the poem “Hatsukoi” (First love), lived after getting married. Upon entering, a staff member will accompany you to explain the history of the building and Tsumago.
“Different people have different areas of interest,” said my guide, Kazumi Isomura, 40. “By providing a human response to our guests, rather than just an audio guide, I hope to convey the spirit of hospitality typical of a post town.”
When the sun goes down and the lights come on, the town becomes even more charming. I was deeply touched by the sentiments of the people in Tsumago, who have gently turned back the hands of time.
I visited Tsumago about 40 years ago, when I was a junior high school student. Compared to now, the district lined with old houses was shorter, and it gave the impression of being a rustic country town from the good old days. During my latest visit, I was surprised that the townscape had expanded and become beautifully organized, right down to the finest detail. I keenly felt the town was moving forward as it increasingly resembles its appearance of bygone days.
Shiojiri Station is a 2 hour and 30 minute ride from Shinjuku Station via the JR Chuo Line limited express, and Nagiso Station is a 1 hour ride from Shiojiri Station via the JR Chuo Line limited express. Nagoya Station is a 1 hour and 40 minute ride from Tokyo Station via the Shinkansen bullet train, and Nagiso Station is a 1 hour ride from Nagoya Station via the JR Chuo Line limited express. For more information, call the Nagiso Town Tourism Association at (0264) 57-2001 or the Tsumago Tourism Association Tourist office at (0264) 57-3123.
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