During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), post towns were built and used throughout Japan. Post towns served as a resting and lodging spot for travelers, and were located on major routes connecting Edo (present day Tokyo) with other significant cities throughout the country.
Nakasendo is one of the “Edo Five Routes”, and connected Edo with Kyoto by going through central Honshu. Some of the post towns on Nakasendo remain today, and retain the Edo period atmosphere. Here are 5 post towns on the Nakasendo Route that you can visit.
What are the Edo Five Routes? ("Gokaido")
The "Edo Five Routes" or "Gokaido" were a web of five land routes connecting Edo, the capital city, with other prominent cities in Japan. The five routes are as follows:
・The Tokaido Route: Edo to Kyoto (along the coast)
・The Nakasendo Route: Edo to Kyoto (inland)
・The Koshu Kaido Route: Edo to Kai Province (current Yamanashi prefecture)
・The Oshu Kaido Route: Edo to Mutsu Province (current Fukushima prefecture)
・The Nikko Kaido Route: Edo to Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Routes in Edo Japan (Green = Edo Five Routes; Orange = Subroutes)
The routes were used for travel, and especially to facilitate the "sankin-kotai" policy. The policy forced daimyo, or local feudal lords, to spend a few months every year in Edo. This helped the Edo central government maintain their power over daimyo and to establish better communication with them.
What are Post Towns?
Post towns, called shukuba (宿場) in Japanese, were station-like rest stops built on the travel routes. These post towns had accommodation, shops and more, to give travelers well-needed rest during their long voyage. Just counting those along the Edo Five Routes, there were over 200 such post towns.
The post-towns were built to perform a defensive function for its visitors and inhabitants, with the "masu-gata" construction of their entrances. This was a strategic construction that curved the city's approach in a sharp right angle, thus lagging the attackers and buying time for the defenders to cull their numbers.
Nakasendo is one of the Five Edo Routes. While the Tokaido Route follows the eastern coast of Japan from Edo to Kyoto, the Nakasendo Route cuts through Honshu to reach Kyoto.
The route goes through present day Saitama, Gunma, Nagano, Gifu, Shiga and Nagano prefectures. Nakasendo was also called the “Kiso Route”, since it went through the Kiso region in Nagano. On the 540-km route, there were 69 post towns in total. This is the most number of post towns that any of the Edo Five Routes has.
Traveling the Nakasendo Route: 5 Post Towns of the Edo Period
Though many of the post town became unused and dismantled, some still remain to this day. Here are five post towns that continue to preserve parts of their Edo period townscapes. Changing their function from rest-stops to modern-day inheritors of old sceneries, the post towns continue to attract travelers in their role in tourism.
1. Narai-juku (Nagano)
Narai-juku locates in present day Nagano prefecture’s city of Shiojiri. The post town stretches for about 1 km, and is the longest of its kind. It was a popular post town during the Edo Period, and even nicknamed the “1000 houses of Narai”. In 1978, Narai-juku was designated as an important historical and architectural preservation district by the national government.
Exterior of the Kamitoiya Museum
When visiting Narai-juku, the Kamitoiya Museum is a must-visit. The museum filled with around 400 items that were used in Edo daily life.
Goheimochi is a popular street snack at Nakasenju. It is a rice cake on a stick lathered with sauce.
Many other post towns have goheimochi, but each of them tends to have their own unique sauce. In Narai-juku, the goheimochi from Tanakaya is popular.
Another popular snack from Narai-juku is Oyaki. Oyaki originated in the Narai region, and is a steamed bun with savory fillings (usually pickled vegetables). In Narai-juku, you can find a Oyaki specialty shop called Tezukara.
Narai-juku Ice Candle Festival
The Ice Candle Festival is a popular event held at Narai-juku every February 3rd. Candles made from ice are placed throughout Narai-juku’s streets and creates a dreamy winter atmosphere.
2. Tsumago-juku (Nagano)
Tsumago-juku locates in the town of Nagiso in southern Nagano. It is one of the representative post towns in the Kiso area, along with Magome-juku. It is the first post town in Japan to have actively made an effort in conserving the town’s retro streetscape. In 1976, Tsumago-juku was designated as an important historical and architectural preservation district by the national government.
Exterior of Nagisomachi Museum
The Nagisomachi Museum in Tsumago-juku is made up of three parts: Wakihonjin-okuya, Tsumago-juku Honjin and the Historical Archive Museum.
Wakihonjin-okuya is a building that remains from 1877, and is registered as a national important cultural property. Tsumago-juku Honjin is a life-size replica of a honjin, or an accommodation facility that was specially designated for daimyo. At the Historical Archive museum, you can find documents and artifacts about Tsumago-juku.
The light shining through the windows
Wakihonjin-okuya is particularly popular for its beautiful interior. The view of the light shining through the wooden windows is mesmerizing. You can see this between September and March on sunny days.
Kurikinton, a sweet cooked-chestnut snack, is a must-try when visiting Tsumago-juku. The ones from Sawadaya at Tsuma-gojuku are particularly popular.
3. Magome-juku (Gifu)
Magome-juku locates in the city of Nakatsugawa in Gifu prefecture. It is one of the very few post towns located on a hill. Since there wasn’t much water up on the hill, Magome-juku was very prone to fires and burned down twice in 1895 and in 1915. The streets of Magome-juku today were rebuilt after those fires.
Toson Memorial Museum
Magome-juku is where the famous Japanese writer Shimazaki Toson was born and spent a large portion of his childhood. In honor of him, the Toson Memorial Museum was built in the area. You can find over 6,000 documents and materials relating to Shimazaki Toson.
Near the entrance of Magome-juku, there is a watermill shed. This watermill shed and the stone-paved streets are the symbols of this post town. The watermill produces hydroelectric power, and it is used to light up the shed.
4. Samegai-juku (Shiga)
Samegai-juku is the 61st post town on Nakasendo, and is located in present day Shiga’s city of Maibara. The area is known for its clear, clean waters, and the post town locates by a stream.
These small flowers, called baikamo, are a popular sight at Samei-juku. They only blossom in areas with clean water, and look like small plum blossoms.
You can see the baikamo flowers between mid July and late August. From late July to early august, lights are set up in the river by the baikamo, creating ethereal scenery.
There is a legend behind Isame no Kiyomizu, the source of the river. It is said that the legendary Japanese prince, healed his wound with the waters from Isame no Kiyomizu.
The soy sauce made using the clear waters of Samei is a popular souvenir. At Yamaki Shoyu, you can buy soy sauce and other products made from Samei’s waters, such as miso. You can even try shoyu soft serve – a vanilla soft serve with a drizzle of soy sauce.
5. Kusatsu-juku (Shiga)
Kusatsu-juku locates in the city of Kusatsu in Shiga prefecture. This is where the Nakasendo and Tokaido routes merged, making it an important town for travellers.
One of Kusatsu-juku’s biggest attractions is Kusatsu-juku Honjin. This Honjin is known to have accomodated, significant historical figures such as military leader Hijikata Toshizo and member of the forty-seven ronin, Kira Kozuke-no-suke.
The facility was opened to the public in 1996 after a large reconstruction. Much of the interior has been restored to represent that of the Edo period.
The Kusatsu Kaido Koryukan is also a popular spot to visit at Kusatsu-juku. Here, you can learn about the history of Kusatsu-juku through panels, artifact displays and even a miniature model of the town of Kusatsu-juku.
At the “travel experience” area of Kusatsu Kaido Koryukan, you can change into Edo-style travelers’ attire and ride the kago, a human-transportation device basket used in those days. There is an ukiyo-e art experience session as well.
Spend a night at a post town!
Many of these post towns have accommodation facilities that use traditional-style Japanese buildings. Stay overnight at a post town for the full Edo-Period experience!