Tsumago is, indisputably, a charming place. Low mountains swing the former post-town’s main street around in a curve of weathered wooden houses, backdropping the scene with the dark green of the firs that cloak the hills.
Along this section of the old Nakasendo road that, during the Edo Period (1603-1867), linked Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo), are slatted shop-fronts under tiled roofs, each doorway with a dark-indigo-and-white noren curtain hanging above it like a sign advertising the business within.
Just outside the town, feathery bamboo overhangs the road, and, on the way to the mountain pass between here in Nagano Prefecture to Magome in Gifu Prefecture, the river spills white over the rounded boulders between its wooded banks.
Though the main street lacks the hum of traffic and the overhead wires typical of most Japanese towns, at 4 p.m. on a weekday it’s also missing the bright chatter of children coming home from school, the murmur of women gossiping outside shops, and normal sounds of daily life.
In short, Tsumago is a tourist town, and most of the people walking the streets are quiet visitors from Tokyo, Osaka and abroad. Only one old local smokes on his stoop, watching the afternoon fade, and later, as dusk settles in, a few elderly women carry groceries home from the tiny shops that stock essential items that can’t be grown or aren’t brought in by car from supermarkets in bigger towns.
Consequently, there’s a museum quality to Tsumago. Tour buses pull up into a parking lot between rice paddies. Groups of tourists follow flag-flaunting tour guides between the traditional wooden houses and onto the main street that was once the Nakasendo itself.
Tourists come to Tsumago seeking the past, and many find a forgotten Japan. In his travelogue on Japan, “Looking for the Lost,” published posthumously in 1995, British-born writer Alan Booth calls places like this “theme-park villages.” Theme parks are, indeed, one-sided, dreamlike places, where everything is an ideal, and things are symbols of themselves.
Tsumago definitely embodies a certain ideal of Japan. The traditional houses, built in Edo times, have been painstakingly restored, and the village looks much as it must have done when samurai lords passed through on their way to or from their domains and the shogun’s stronghold at Edo. As a result, domestic tourists can revel in a received nostalgia; those from overseas are generally enchanted to discover “the real Japan” — the country stripped of its modern and Western influences.
However, there’s something artificial about both the place and the idea. Booth, observing the similarly preserved settlement of Shirakawago (a village in the Gifu mountains famed for its thatched gassho buildings) on one of his extensive walks across Japan, wonders if there isn’t more dignity for such places in dying and being buried in peace than being pickled and put on display.
Tourists, though, can easily feel they’ve found authenticity here. The original, cobbled sections of the Nakasendo lead past waterfalls and over the pass to Magome; the old shops sell miso and rice and dried fish; the main inn, the Honjin, has been consummately rebuilt using traditional techniques; and the original secondary inn, the Wakihonjin, has been lovingly restored.
Indeed, Tsumago’s economy relies almost entirely on tourism — which reportedly peaked at around a million visitors annually during Japan’s heady economic bubble of the 1980s and early ’90s. Now, though numbers have dipped slightly, Tsumago maintains its popularity — and for such a small place it offers a bewildering number of guest houses that serve up local cuisine at breakfast and dinner. “We never offer British guests horsemeat,” one innkeeper told me, “but Italians love it.”
There is a tourist information office, a cafe that serves coffee as a set with gohei-mochi rice cakes, and a service offers baggage forwarding to Magome so visitors can walk unburdened along the old stone-flagged highway toward Kyoto.
The economics of tourism mean that the more traditional Tsumago looks, the greater its draw.
Ironically, it was originally economics that preserved the town. When the Meiji Restoration of 1868 dissolved the feudal system, the town’s purpose — as an overnight stop for provincial daimyo lords making or returning from their mandatory biennial visits to Edo — faded, though some trade traffic still came along the road that wound up the Kiso Valley.
However, when the Chuo Railway came through in the early years of the 20th century, the line skirted Tsumago and the town began its slide into obscurity.
During World War II, Tsumago, like many other rural towns, offered relative safety and so sheltered many refugees from the cities. In the postwar period, however, it was once again overlooked as the growing national economy became increasingly urbanized. Where industry thrived, people replaced their traditional houses with sturdy concrete buildings. In Tsumago, bypassed by Japan’s economic miracle, the old wooden buildings gradually fell into disrepair.
By the 1960s, though, the national government had come to acknowledge a need to preserve both Japan’s cultural and its rapidly disintegrating architectural heritage. Alert to this new thinking on high, the savvy residents of Tsumago banded together to restore and protect their town from concretization.
They have done a remarkable job. Though the place is less than half living town and more than half museum, tourists visit a Tsumago today that both fulfills their expectations and fills the townspeople’s pockets. Very little, in fact, has changed since those lords of old passed through. Though tourists now take the place of samurai and their retainers, the town still clearly caters primarily to travelers.
Once a stopover on the road to and from the seat of power in Edo, now a destination in itself, Tsumago hasn’t so much changed its purpose as it has stayed true to its roots.
Tsumago, often called Tsumago-juku in Japanese, can be reached by infrequent buses, taxis — or on foot — from the nearby station of Nagiso, which is 80 minutes from Nagoya on the Chuo Line (¥3,280) by a combination of limited express and local trains. Other than exploring the town, the best thing to do is the hike to Magome along the old cobbled Nakasendo past waterfalls and over the pass. It takes about 2 1/2 hours one way, and it’s well worth taking a drink and a snack for the road. Baggage forwarding (¥500) is available from the tourist information office, where some English is spoken ( 57-3123).