It you ask an average Japanese whether he or she has heard of the old town of Tsumago, let alone having visited it, don’t be surprised that you are likely to draw a negative reply on both counts. This is despite the fact that it is truly a rare gem in a tradition conscious country. The reason is that this almost perfectly preserved tiny post town of the Edo period (1615-1867) has not been actively promoted as a special tourist attraction to either the Japanese themselves or to foreign visitors as there are numerous other more well-known and seemingly more exciting sights for them to see in that country. Be that as it may, some visitors had somehow discovered Tsumago by stumbling upon it or, more often than not, through word of mouth recommendations from their heritage-minded friends.
Tsumago is in the Prefecture of Nagano, which is within easy access from Nagoya City and it is situated along the historic Nakasendo Route of the scenic Kiso Valley. In Edo time and earlier, Japan was ruled by successive powerful Shoguns (generals) in the name of the powerless Emperors until 1867, when the Shogunate system was overthrown by forces loyal to the Emperor after a bloody civil war. Emperor Meiji (1868-1912), with the enthusiastic support of his officials and people, immediately initiated the modernisation of Japan by learning from the advanced Western countries as a way forward for that country. In so doing their country had, within a short span of less than four decades, managed to surprise the world by defeating both imperial China and imperial Russia in two major wars in 1894 and 1904 respectively, thanks to military and technological prowess assiduously and systematically learnt from these Western nations, thus becoming a first-rate military power before the advent of World War I in 1914.
Going back to the Edo era when Japan was still a largely feudal and agricultural nation, a post town served as an overnight stopover station for top government officials when travelling on state matters between Edo (now Tokyo) and the capital in Kyoto and the other way round. To cater to their needs, many post towns had sprung up along the Nakasendo Route in Kiso Valley and Tsumago, owing to its strategic location, was one of the most important of the 64 post towns dotting this busy ancient highway. Tsumago had luxurious lodgings for these august officials as well as good separate lodgings for their subordinates.
When my family and I were planning for a memorable extended holiday in Japan, we came upon a guide book, written by a Japanese-American, in which Tsumago was highly recommended as a rare gem for those wishing to see what remains of old Japan. We decided to visit it and what a serendipity this place turned out to be. The first sight of this picture-postcard like post town nearly took my breadth away. I could well imagine myself being transported back in time to the Japan of 150 years ago. For those of you who are not familiar with traditional Japanese post towns like Tsumago, they come alive in the famous woodblock masterpieces (ukiyo-e) of famed Japanese artist Hiroshige. All the 64 post towns along the Kiso Valley have been well captured by him to remind future generations of their past glory. These works can be viewed in several Japanese museums in Tokyo and elsewhere and their reproductions can be purchased in the museum gift shops.
The Japanese Government in 1968 decided to preserve some of these post towns before they sank into oblivion and Tsumago was singled out to spearhead this national project. Among the measures taken were the strict rules and regulations which forbade the sale, alteration and demolition of old properties and other ancient structures there. In addition, no vehicles were allowed into Tsumago during daylight hours and all telephone and other cable wiring must be well concealed in order to protect the ancient feel and ambiance of this post town. In pursuit of this policy, the government also restored the historically important buildings and structures as close as possible to their original appearances. Through these concerted and sustained efforts. Tsumago is today one of the best preserved small towns in that country. However, to cater to the needs of all visitors, many of the old properties and buildings have been converted into inns, restaurants and souvenir shops.
The cobblestone-paved tiny township can be covered on foot from one end to the other in about 20 minutes of leisurely stroll. Most of the historic places are conveniently located in a single main street. Our first stop was to the Information Office where comprehensive materials on Tsumago and the surrounding areas were provided in both Japanese and English. The town is divided into three sections. At its top end are the historically important buildings, the mid-town is where the shops and inns are and at the bottom is the residential district. We then headed for the Okuya Kyodokan (Town Museum) in order to gain a good insight into the history and the development of this post town. During the Edo period, the older original building (which was later reconstructed in 1877 to overtake the Honjin as the most important property in town) was known as the Waki-Honjin (where the subordinates of top government officials would be lodged), while their superiors would spend the night at the more sumptuous Honjin, which is just across the street from it, Be that as it may, the Waki-Honjin had the rare distinction of having hosted both the legendary Emperor Meiji and an imperial princess as their honoured guests. In 1881, the Emperor spent a night there on his way to his imperial palace in Kyoto. A special royal apartment and a replica of his Kyoto toilet facility were specially constructed for his majesty’s comfort. The royal suite faces a lovely Japanese moss garden, complete with an artistic koi fish pond. Today, the toilet is still on display for all to see. Earlier during the Shogunate period, the then Emperor’s daughter, Princess Kazunomiya, also lodged here on her way to marry a Shogun, which was unprecedented in Japanese history, and this created a stir in that country. The Honjin, which was completely rebuilt in the 1990s, gave an interesting account of the sumptuous lifestyle of the elite officials of Edo period befitting their social standing when carrying out the affairs of state.
Walking along Tsumago’s main Street, where many of the wood and plaster old buildings have been converted into Japanese inns and eating places, we were warmly greeted by the inn and restaurant staff to take a good look at their premises and to admire their well maintained interiors, showcasing their sturdy timbers and the fine workmanship of their constructions. The marvel is that the whole street was kept so scrupulously clean that one would be hard put to find a cigarette butt or a discarded soft drink bottle there. There was no need for the town council to install refuse bins there.
The quieter residential area provided an air of tranquility and their small plots of garden in front of each house were attractively planted with seasonal flowering plants and shrubs. Some housewives were seen fastidiously sweeping not only the concrete path leading to their front door but also saw to it that the road immediately fronting their property was swept spotlessly clean too. What delighted us most was to see a very shallow stream with crystal clear mountain water flowing through the frontage of many of the houses and some of the residents had kept large multi-colour Japanese koi fish in their portion of the stream by placing wooden planks at both ends to prevent their kois from swimming away down stream. A housewife there told us that these fish would be quite safe there as no one would steal them in the dead of night. In any other country they would have been stolen as they are costly to buy.
Another historic sight worth a visit is Kotam, a Zen Buddhist temple of 16th century vintage. To mitigate its unremarkable architecture and surroundings, there is on display an old palanquin reputed to be an ingenious invention of a temple monk there in the early 1800s and claimed to be the forerunner of the latter day rickshaw. This is still an active temple and many Japanese tourists, especially the older ones, would make it a point to pray there and to make a donation for the upkeep of this place of worship.
Close to one end of Tsumago was a well-crafted replica of an ancient Notice Board that would inform the local residents of government edicts and other important announcements affecting them. One of the reproduced ancient edicts exhorted them to live in harmony with one another and another forbade them to indulge in gambling or to engage in slave trafficking.
At night fall, Tsumago presented a totally different ambiance compared with that in the day. All the old-fashioned dimly lit street lamps of bygone days came on and many yukata-clad Japanese men and women of the older generation would descend on the town’s main thoroughfare and were gayly engaged in animated chatter, after a satisfying meal at one of the inns or eating places. Shops and stores selling specialities of this region were doing roaring business and stayed open till late. These visitors would end the evening sipping Japanese sake rice wine or drinking tea or coffee in the bars or tea houses. After the visitors had returned to their respective lodgings after the evening’s revelry, the entire town would become dead quiet again.
After our delightful two-day stay in Tsumago, we were eagerly looking forward to our eight-kilometer walking tour along the historic Nakasendo trail in the Kiso Valley which would take us from Tsumago to Magome, another famed post town nearest to Tsumago. The whole journey would take close to two and a half hours to complete. It turned out to be a tiring but exhilarating experience. It gave us a grandstand view of the scenic Japanese countryside unspoiled by modernisation and dotted with old thatched-roof timber houses and well-tended vegetable fields and fruit orchards with their ripening persimmons and other fruits adding to the charm of the unhurried and tranquil rural life which city folks like us can only envy. This route was relatively easy to navigate except for several uphill climbs during the journey. The clear route sinages in both Japanese and English added to our enjoyment. We took a couple of rest stops to admire the majestic waterfalls along the trail This route was one of the busiest thoroughfares in Japan and connected Edo (now Tokyo) to the capital in Kyoto during the Shogunate era. However, as this ancient route gradually fell into disuse as the country industrialised, many of the hitherto prosperous post towns in the Valley declined and finally becoming backwater towns, completely cut off and forgotten by the rest of the country except for the history buffs, heritage lovers, sentimental Japanese and some adventurous travellers seeking off the beaten path places to satisfy their travel lust to see the fast disappearing Japan of a bygone age.
Magome is quite different from Tsumago and it is a larger post town. It also has a bigger resident population and is certainly more lively and flamboyant in ambiance. On the debit side, it gives a less authentic feel of Edo Japan as most of its old buildings have either been over restored or reconstructed so as to lose their original character and flavour compared to the more skillful preservation efforts carried out by its rival post town. Having said that, it is still well worth a visit as there are still a few old structures and houses remaining that are quite representative of Edo Japan. My family and I did enjoy our day trip there overall. To round up one’s visit to this fascinating region of Japan, one should also go to Narai, which is quite close to both Tsumago and Magome, where there are a number of genuine Edo period houses and ryokans for one’s viewing pleasure.
How to get to Tsumago
- From Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, there is a direct bus service to this town
- The best time to go there is either in spring or autumn when the weather is comfortably cool and the scenic countryside along the Nakasendo trail of the Kiso Valley is at its most alluring.
- Don’t forget to bring along a comfortable walking shoes and an umbrella for the above hike.
Lam Pin Foo