In stark contrast to many of today’s passport-toting Japanese, their compatriots of old weren’t a well-traveled bunch.
During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the feudal government was keen to keep its populace in check, and travel by ordinary citizens was tightly regulated. To this end, the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate established and administered the Gokaido (Five Highways) which crossed central Japan and converged on Edo (present-day Tokyo), so as to keep a close check on who exactly was going where. Among these highways was the Nakasendo.
Unlike the well-traveled Tokaido (Eastern Sea Road), which followed a largely coastal route of some 500 km from Edo to Kyoto, the longer Nakasendo (Middle of the Mountains Road) pursued an inland course between the two cities and bore much less traffic.
Travelers making their way along the Nakasendo were able to break up the trek, find accommodation and grab a little refreshment at the 67 designated points on the highway known as shukubamachi (post stations) — one of the best-preserved of which is Magome.
Located in the Kiso Valley in the southeastern corner of today’s Gifu Prefecture, Magome was the 43rd post station for those traveling from Edo to the imperial capital, Kyoyo. Perched on a mountainside and with a steep, stone-flagged main street, Magome is certainly a picturesque spot, though for travelers of yore heading toward Edo, all that grandly rugged terrain stretching ahead of them amounted to the steepest, most arduous section of the whole road.
Despite the restrictions on travel, the roads were colorful thoroughfares along which a vibrant slice of Edo Period life flowed. Without a doubt, the most spectacular depictions of the highways then are the exuberant ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures of the floating world”) woodblock prints of famed 19th-century artist Utagawa Hiroshige, who produced series of prints of scenes in and around the post stations of the Nakasendo and Tokaido.
All manner of people traveled the roads. As well as the pampered daimyo lords, with their pompously long retinues of retainers, there were pilgrims and those journeying on business, entertainers, storytellers and thieves. Peddlers offered talismans, snacks, baubles, fabrics and quack medicines. Despite certain religious trappings, the attractive nuns known as bikuni who also frequented these roads offered not spiritual succor, but themselves.
Though the scene in Magome today certainly looks different from when Hiroshige cast his eye over the place, the modern visitor doesn’t have to exercise too much imagination to picture things as they would have been in the artist’s day.
Like Tsumago, the next post station along, Magome is one of those rare, blessed spots in Japan that have seen the sense in doing away with the disfiguring cat’s cradles of electric cables above the streets by tucking them well out of sight. There are rather more decorative flowers lining Magome’s main road today than Hiroshige would have observed, but the town has not gone out of its way to gentrify itself. Along the 600-meter length of the main street, the old buildings serve as eateries, inns, stores selling such local produce as sansai (mountain vegetables) and the inevitable souvenir shops, vending optimistically displayed knickknacks — the frog-shaped thermometers and hedgehogs bristling toothpick quills that nobody ever actually seems to buy.
Agreeably old though Magome’s buildings may look, they do not in fact date back much more than a century. After a disastrous fire in 1895, the town had to be rebuilt, but the reconstruction was done in the style of traditional wood-and-plaster buildings. As testimony to the fierce weather in these upland regions, some of the roofs are still weighed down by stones.
One old original structure can be seen, however, just outside town in the form of a notice board. The Tokugawa Shogunate was never happier than when telling its citizens just what they could and could not do, and the notice board itemized some of its regulations. No one could accuse the shogunate of having been soft on crime, and the spirit here is not overly encumbered by leniency. Among the more draconian punishments for minor infringements was one decreeing the death sentence for anyone pilfering timber from the forest.
That sign stands on the mountainous section of the Nakasendo that leads from Magome to Tsumago. Visitors today wanting a taste of traveling the old Nakasendo can hike the 8-km course to Tsumago along the stone road. As you walk through the forest where locals of old would dice with death if they filched a bit of wood, the path is a pleasant one, with the bright scent of pines in the air, occasional wayside waterfalls and the squeal of kites wheeling overhead in search of lunch.
Probably the only thing likely to spoil one’s enjoyment of walking the old highway is having to share it with a mob of schoolchildren.
Magome is a beloved destination for school trips. Walking along the main street, you are apt to find yourself suddenly surrounded by a phalanx of junior high school girls, assiduously marching in the direction of Tsumago: They typically show great dedication, great purpose . . . and not the blindest bit of interest in their beautiful historical surroundings.
Unlike Tsumago, which has imposed specific building restrictions, Magome seems more at ease with itself and a little less artificial. Strolling around the usually deserted streets of Tsumago in the early evening can seem a little like walking around some giant period film set after everybody has packed up and gone home for the day.
Magome is well lived in, and it strains less to retain the air of a bygone age. The townspeople seem friendlier and fall much more readily into conversation. The lady at a stand serving the local specialty of goheimochi (pounded rice toasted on a stick and covered with a soy-based sauce) is happy to while away her time chatting to some foreigner and listening to his yarn. The friendly woman at the tourist information office is quite cheerfully ignorant of detailed points of local lore and history. But then, from signs like the sleek black Lexus parked outside one of the houses, and the town’s general air of comfortable prosperity, Magome seems to be doing things the right way.
Getting There: Meitetsu Highway buses reach Magome in about 90 min. from Nagoya Station (¥1,810), or in about four hours from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station (¥4,500).