Imagine you’re standing on the side of the dusty Sanyo Road during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868). You’re part of a growing crowd of townspeople anticipating the approach of a daimyo feudal lord from the surrounding regions of Shikoku and Chugoku.
The lord and his cavalcade of vassals, fief officials, soldiers and servants are on their scheduled sankin-kōtai journey to the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo), where they must spend every other year. Your town, called Yakage (in Okayama Prefecture), is one of 35 “post towns” along the 560-kilometer Sanyo Road that ends in Osaka. From Osaka, the military commander will then change to one of the go-kaidō roads that end in Nihonbashi, the center of Edo.
You’re a little anxious because you had planned on turning out for the procession with your four uncles, but they never showed, so you ended up standing along the road by yourself. You’re in the back of the crowd where it will be difficult to see. You can already hear the spectacle approach, however, as the usher calls out requesting all townspeople to come to heel.
The feudal lords are eager to show off their power as they pass through town with their entourage in tow. They’ll make their way to the honjin accommodation set aside for the warlord and a few of his top men. Another six to 10 retainers will stay at the village’s waki-honjin, while the servants — 50 to 100 of them — will stay in local hatagoya houses, which they had to wash their feet before entering, a scene you can still see on old ukiyo-e woodblock prints. They will eat from the same canteen or, if unlucky, may have to stay in the kichin-yado, or flophouse, and cook for themselves.
The daimyo arrives one day and is gone the next. Moving from post town to post town, the feudal lords of this region will arrive in the capital 53 days from when they left. Once in Edo, the feudal lord will reunite with his wife and children, who live under the shogun’s domination.
As one of the residents of Yakage, you and your family may witness dozens of daimyo gyōretsu parades in a year, with the months of March and May being the busiest. The only difference among these regional lords’ visits is the splendor and the size. But still, the excitement of the crowd is palpable.
‘Shitaaaaa ni!” shouts the usher, every five seconds. During each interval, the entire procession advances one step then comes to a halt. “Shitaaaaa ni!” They take another pace forward and halt. “Shitaaaaa ni!” And advance another step.
The procession moves past you, oh so slowly. “Shitaaaaa ni” is shouted in a rising tone with a quick plunge at the end. It means “Look down!” So respected are the feudal lords that to look at them would be disrespectful.
Although the daimyo is at the top of the military class, there are subdivisions within, and you can surmise the status of this one by the color of the kimono he is wearing: black is the highest followed by red, green and purple. This one is purple.
The post town will graciously host the daimyo and his VIPs at the honjin and waki-honjin. In return for the service, Yakage pays no taxes. But the lord must pay for his servants, so he is limited only by his wealth as to how many servants he may bring with him.
A small entourage does not bode well for the landowner, who feels he must show his wealth and power to those gathered along this thin strip of road. He had sent a few helpers ahead to Yakage before arriving, to summon some villagers to act as attendants so as to save himself embarrassment.
Dressed as servants, they keep their heads down in the hopes that, like switched identities in a Shakespeare play, no one will recognize them. “Shitaaaaa ni!”
Except that you’re peeking.
You gasp as you spy your four uncles! Surely others must have joined too! Surely others must be peeking! But you and the townspeople say nothing: It’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
The lord is directed through the special gate constructed for him in front of the honjin and his retainers retire to the waki-honjin. The servants are doled out among hatagoya and you reunite with your uncles that evening for a night of drinking and telling tall tales.
The next day the daimyo gyōretsu will leave Yakage and advance to the next post town, where the process will start all over again.
Yakage is the only preserved town along the Sanyo Road that survives in it’s near-original form. Its daimyo parade has been re-enacted on the second Sunday in November for over 40 years now, and in 2016 it attracted some 30,000 tourists. Over 80 townspeople dress in Edo Period costume to put on the spectacle.
While Japan attempts to revitalize country towns to take advantage of the new inbound tourism boom, the most outstanding feature of Yakage is its prescience. The town started restoring its Edo Period buildings 25 years ago, and since then has gone further than just preserving private residences. It has converted old buildings into accommodations and added events to every month on the calendar.
And they’re not stopping there. The town is eagerly uncovering more historical sites including tombs, ancient stone carvings and even a fish trail that spans 72 km from the Seto Inland Sea to the samurai town of Fukiya in the mountains that seafood couriers used to cover in a mere 12 hours. While reviving this route, dubbed the “toto michi” (set to open in 2018), the town uncovered an unexpected gem: a long-forgotten Kannon pilgrimage route.
The key to attracting inbound tourism is not building new attractions, but rediscovering Japan’s plethora of historical and cultural treasures.
Japan Lite appears in print on the last Monday of the month.
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