Japan Atlas: Historic Sites 


Location: From Tokyo to Kyoto

Total Distance: 533 km (330 miles)  


Quietly Traversing Areas of Natural Beauty: The Ancient Mountain Highway from Edo to Kyoto 

The Nakasendo was an ancient highway linking Kyoto with Edo (present-day Tokyo) that began to take form around the 7th century. In the second half of the 17th century, The Tokugawa Shogunate, the central government at the time, made it one of the Gokaido or five major trunk roads that were under its direct control and that radiated out from Edo, the center of government to the rest of the country.

The Nakasendo is about 533 km (around 330 miles) long. In the past it would take travelers 18 to 20 days to walk the full length of the road, and there were 67 stages along the way. Another of the Gokaido, the Tokaido, also linked Edo and Kyoto. This demonstrates how important these two great cities were.

Whereas the Tokaido passes through coastal regions with a mild climate, the Nakasendo goes between mountain ranges. Processions of feudal lords were a common sight on the Tokaido, and at times it was crowded. Consequently, many ordinary travelers normally preferred to use the Nakasendo. In addition, despite the difficult mountain passes, women travelers tended to prefer the Nakasendo because it wasn't necessary to cross rivers.

The road was also known by another name, Kisoji (Kiso Road,) because the central section passed through the mountains of Kiso (in present-day Nagano Prefecture). Kiso had 11 stages and is still today an area famous for its many beautiful views. The finest sight on whole road is said to be near Agematsu no Yado, where the Kiso River has eroded granite rock, creating a wonderful scene of deep green water and white rock.

With the coming of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), railways become the main means of long-distance transportation and the great highways of Japan were forgotten. The stages declined in prosperity and the trees that lined the highways withered and were cut down. Then the highways were widened and paved for motor vehicles. Only a few vestiges of the old highways remain, but there are a few traces of the stages and milestones.

In particular, because the local people in Kiso have made strong efforts to maintain their historical appearance, the stages at Tsumago and Magome have been wonderfully preserved to present a streetscape from a bygone age, and are full of tourists.

Photos: The central section of Nakasendo passed through the mountains of Nagano Prefecture (Nagano Prefecture)

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