Build a good tourist trap, and the world will beat a path to your door. This seems to have been the thinking in the small town of Tsumago in southwestern Nagano Prefecture. Facing rural decay in the late ’60s, the townspeople decided to do something about it. They reached for their one real asset the historical character of Tsumago as a way out.
Tsumago set about trying to re-create the old ambience of the post-station town it had been in more prosperous days. During Edo times (1603-1867), Tsumago was one of 67 stations on the Nakasendo, the lesser of the two main highways linking Edo (modern-day Tokyo) with Kyoto. These government-run post stations were places where travelers on the highway could stop for a break from their journey.
And Tsumago’s idea for a reverse renovation worked exceptionally well for a while. In the early ’70s, the place was swamped with visitors. But then, as is often the way with these things in Japan, the fad faded and tourists started looking to more exotic locations to spend their money. Visit Tsumago today, even during Golden Week, and you will have little problem finding a room for the night.
In its efforts to present its own particular slice of Edo Period life, Tsumago has been nothing if not dedicated. Many of the usual appurtenances of the modern world TV antennas, traffic signs, motor vehicles, yes, even convenience stores have been painstakingly excluded from the main street. All bar the asphalt underfoot hearkens back to Edo days.
The theme of traditional values continues to the top of the village, where a sprinkling of wooden houses gamely keep up appearances, despite having to share their section of the road with the concrete hulk of an electricity-generating station. For its part, the power station, too, has had its walls painted a woody shade of brown, is bound by an oldish-looking wooden fence and sports a sign announcing its line of business in a not-inelegant brush-written script.
At times, Tsumago’s old-world atmosphere appears so unreal, you feel you have stumbled upon some vast movie set where the crew and extras have yet to arrive. Away from the main street, though, things start to get distinctly post-Edo, as satellite dishes and TV antennas make their sly comeback on rooftops.
At other times, more rare, you discover the town’s essence, untouched by tourism: An ancient-looking wisteria draped over a moss-covered rock by the roadside did not spring up only yesterday. You sense the seasonal rhythms of the land in this agricultural village surrounded by paddy fields. Some traditions are clearly uncontrived: Locals have the endearing habit of doffing their caps when greeting a stranger. And they are charmingly removed from city ways.
At one souvenir shop, I got talking to the affable owner. When I told her I was a journalist, she gave me a look of deep sympathy. “Well, you’re from England, and you speak good Japanese,” she said. “I’m sure if you really tried, you could find yourself a job teaching English.” (Looking at my bank statement for this month, I believe she may well have a point.)
Tsumago’s flagging visitor figures might look more upbeat with the recent promotion of one of its buildings to the status of Important Cultural Property. The processions of the daimyo (feudal lords) were one of the most impressive features on the Nakasendo and other highways in Edo times. As creatures not especially disposed to frugality and self-denial, the daimyo naturally stayed at the best accommodation the post station had to offer. When two daimyo hit town at the same time, the grander daimyo took the more commodious honjin, while the lowlier lord had to make do with the slightly less luxurious waki-honjin. It is Tsumago’s waki-honjin, the Waki-Honjin Okuya, that achieved Important Cultural Property ranking last year. And it can be visited today, a comfortable, elegant space of ample rooms and painted screens where the unfortunate lowlier lord had to rough it for the night.
As in much of rural Japan, Tsumago shuts down early. Walk down the main street at 7:30 any evening and you will have the whole place to yourself. At such a time, it is rather headily romantic to be in the lantern-lit streets and imagine yourself back in Tsumago’s older days that is, until a young local motorist tearing down the Nakasendo at a speed a daimyo could only dream of jolts you back to the present. And after your stroll, it is such a delight to fall asleep to the nearby sound of a river pounding its course and the night chorus of frogs in the rice paddies.