The Nakasendo: Narai-juku, Suwa and beyond

October 30th, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Information, Sightseeing

Princess Kazunomiya in the post-town of Narai.

From Kyoto, the Nakasendo passes through the Kiso valley and continues into the Eastern area of Nagano prefecture. There are 15 more post-towns along the way up to Karuizawa, many of which have preserved parts of their history. Recently, there has been resurgence in interest in these less-traveled areas, particularly in regards to one of its travelers.

The princess Kazunomiya lived in the late Edo period from 1846 to 1877. In her early teens, the Japanese government was thrown into chaos by the arrival of Commodore Perry, who ordered Japan to end its policy of isolation from the outside world. In an attempt to stabilize itself, the Tokugawa government in Edo arranged a marriage between Tokugawa Iemochi and the imperial princess Kazu-no-miya. Her bridal procession traveled from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo along the Nakasendo and was estimated to include about 40,000 people. Many records of her stay remain in its post-towns, and some have been celebrating that history in a variety of ways.

Narai-juku

Looking down on Narai from the local shrine

This town is at the northern tip of the Kiso valley near Shiojiri. It is the largest post-town, extending across a kilometer-long stretch of road. This area is also well-known for its craftsmen, who make Kiso lacquer wares and elegant products with local wood.

Samurai bodyguards at the front of a long procession.

Recently, a parade was held to recreate the procession of Kazunomiya. Many local people dressed in period costumes and carried the princess upon a palanquin through the town. Samurai retainers, archers, court nobles and young girls with bright bells walked together in the princess’s parade. For a short while I had trouble remembering what era I was in—was it Heisei or Edo? After it passed, visitors scattered to enjoy the food and souvenirs available at the many shops in town.

The shops feature many of the region’s best crafts: mage-wappa, rokuro and other lacquerwares. Mage-wappa wares are made by bending soft cypress planks into ovals and circles, then fastening them with glue and flexible cherry bark. Bento lunch boxes and recently beer mugs are popular mage-wappa items. Rokuro is a form of lathe-work where a block of wood is carved into beautiful bowls and plates, and more recently into high-end speaker systems. All of these items are then lacquered by specialists, and come in beautiful shades of red and black.

Shimo-suwa

This post-town marks an intersection between the Nakasendo and the Koshu-kaido. The Nakasendo route passes by Shimosuwa’s large shrines and buildings preserved as they were used during the Edo era. The area also prospers in precision machining, and visitors can visit the Gishodo clock museum and take watch-making workshops. The famous Onbashira festival, where villagers drag huge wooden pillars from the depths of the mountains to the major shrines of Suwa, is held in part here as well. It is celebrated only once every seven years and will be happening again in the spring of 2016! But I digress. . .

An old Onbashira pillar looking over one of the festivals many obstacles

We stopped by the Kikyo-ya ryokan in Shimo-suwa to have a special lunch: a recreation of the food eaten by Kazunomiya herself. The food was delicious and included unagi (eel), marinated sashimi, and some things I had never seen before. One of these was called iwatake, a fungus that grows naturally in mountain recesses in eastern Asia. It is very difficult to find these days, and the hostess told us of the lengths which she had to go to in procuring it. I wouldn’t say I loved the taste of this mountain fungus, but the rest of the meal was incredibly good.

Because Kazunomiya had a small appetite, this was served together with her typical breakfast.

As we were leaving, the owner showed us a room filled with framed scrolls and memorabilia. It could have been its own museum. There were original woodblock prints of the area, official papers used by the inn during the Edo period, as well as several Japanese swords and the largest English dictionary I’ve ever seen.

Higashi-Shinshu post-towns

Beyond Shimo-suwa we begin to enter into the Eastern area of Nagano prefecture. We visited Wada-juku in Nagawa and Ashida-juku in Tateshina. Much of what remains are areas of cobblestone, guide markers and Dosojin statues (gods that look over villagers and travelers). New roads pass through areas that were once dirt or grass. In some areas, important buildings from the Edo era still stand: often the major inns of town, temples and sake breweries.

The entrance to the main inn of Wada-juku

At Wada-juku we saw the main inn where princess Kazu-no-miya once stayed. The inn was renovated specifically for her arrival, and the interior of her wing is well-maintained. One of the main rooms displays a variety of Edo-era objects including lacquer wares and scrolls. In one of the upper rooms, they had several palanquins that were used hundreds of years ago; they were surprisingly small and did not look very comfortable at all.

At Ashida-juku, we walked part of the mountain pass and admired the beautiful view of Mt. Asama, one of Nagano’s active volcanos. The path was newly paved with stone and commemorative signs describe the town that was once here. As we descended further down the pass, we passed rest areas and rows of buildings, many of which retained their traditional appearance. After our walk here, we tried Ashida-juku’s version of the Kazunomiya bento. Most of the dishes were the same so I was able to eat unagi two days in a row (a lucky treat for me), as well as iwatake (maybe not so lucky). It also included vegetable tempura and a large shrimp, as well as different pickle varieties. It was interesting to try these chefs’ different takes on the princess’s diet during her travels. Nonetheless, they were both delicious, and I don’t think my walk around the Nakasendo was enough to burn off those calories.

These statues can be seen at the edges of villages and at the beginnings of difficult passes.

Conclusion

One of our lovely hostesses at Kikyo-ya.

Next year is the 300th year anniversary of when the Nakasendo received its current name. Officials are currently planning a celebration for the anniversary, but we’re not sure how they’ll be celebrating. Nagano prefecture and its people have been working hard to preserve this important part of its history, and as it continues into the future I’m sure more interesting stories of its travelers will come to light. Stay tuned for more about the Nakasendo and its post-towns.

Access

Narai-juku is just a short walk from Narai station on the JR Chuo line. From Nagano station, take the limited express Shinano train to Shiojiri (~60min.) and change to the JR Chuo line there. You’ll reach Narai station in about 25 minutes.

Shimo-suwa is also along the JR Chuo line. From Shiojiri station, take the JR Chuo line heading towards Tokyo and arrive in 12 minutes.

Wada-juku and Ashita-juku are in Nagawa-machi and Tateshina-machi respectively. The closest major station is Saku-daira station, and can be reached directly from Tokyo in just over 1 hour. From there, it is a 30-minute car ride to Tateshina-machi or 40-minute car ride to Nagawa-machi.

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