Peeping through the wooden slats, I start to realize that the inhabitants of the home I’m in prioritized safety and practicality over comfort.
The woodwork is angled at 90 degrees to maximize light in and views out while protecting the occupants’ privacy, and it is the only partition against the elements on the second floor of the Nakamura residence. Though refreshing on a summer’s day, the breeze that hits my face and rushes into the tatami-mat room would not be so kind during the snowy winter in this rural part of Nagano Prefecture. I soon understand the need for the small irori (sunken hearth) and the trap door our host reveals, which can be pulled over the staircase to keep in the heat.
These details are only some of the rare architectural features of this early 19th-century house. As in other buildings in Narai-juku (the suffix “juku” indicates a post station or post town), the first floor is sheltered by a protruding roof designed to collapse under the weight of would-be burglars. Also characteristic are the sarugarashi, the raised wooden supports that hold down the roof and resemble monkey’s heads stacked on top of one another.
The traditional burglar-proofing is a nod to the prosperity of this ancient post station that served the Nakasendo: one of only two routes that connected Kyoto with what is now Tokyo, during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Located at the entrance to the Torii Pass — the highest point on the ancient highway — Narai was one of the most popular points for travelers to break their journey, resulting in the town’s moniker: “Narai of a Thousand Houses.” Many travelers stopped at inns here both on their way to and from their destination, seeking rest before the steep and often strenuous climb as well as recovery afterward.
Before the decline of the Nakasendo, the town was also thriving industrially. It led in the manufacture and sale of what is believed to have been the country’s first lightweight souvenir: the comb.
Residents continue to provide those same services of accommodation and trinkets today, albeit for hikers and domestic tourists who come to see Narai’s verdant hills and picture-perfect traditional houses.
Most international visitors seeking a taste of Edo Period Japan opt for the more southerly post town of Magome, where they can alight at a bus stop close to the foot of the trail. But such great accessibility also brings crowds and, in high season, it’s possible to pass as many souvenir stores and eateries as sightseeing spots on the upward snaking path.
For those wishing to uncover some of the Nakasendo’s lesser-known yet equally breath-taking historic and cultural sights, Narai is a great choice. In 2016, it was recognized as a Japan Heritage Site and both the town and its surrounds are designated an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.
I start my journey back in time where the Torii Pass meets the main street, passing Shizume Shrine on my left. It is small but well-kept, a hint of its once critical role in the community. It was built to eradicate a plague that hit the town and acted as a hub where travelers prayed for a safe journey or gave thanks for a safe arrival.
Making my way down the gentle slope to the town, I soon hear water gushing down a stone channel alongside the street. A wooden well, with a roof and myriad points from which to gather water, is the source. It is one of six dotted along the kilometer-long main street that have been the lifeblood of the town since the Edo Period and are still used by the community. On a larger roof covering the structure are rows of rocks, a traditional way to keep down the tiles.
Nearby, a large, wooden roofed noticeboard enclosed by a fence displays the old town rules and public announcements in undecipherable kanji on individual plaques. My guide tells me it is called a kosatsuba, placed there strategically by the Tokugawa shogunate to convey messages to travelers and locals.
Continuing along the road, the history of the place is almost tangible, as the two long rows of Edo Period homes, ryokan (Japanese-style inns), restaurants and shops are a mere 200 meters apart. Aside from the intricate latticework that decorates the outside of many of the structures, I am struck by the low doorways and narrowness of the shop fronts even though the buildings on the street corners betray their large size.
According to my guide, the answer lies in the Edo system that taxed citizens based on their rice yields. Since Narai was not a rice-producing area, locals sought to display their relative lack of wealth to visiting tax inspectors by constructing buildings with small, narrow openings on the street concealing the expanse behind.
Behind the front door of the Nakamura residence, the home resembles a rabbit warren of passages leading to spacious living areas as well as a garden and workshop where the family stored their goods.
The Nakamuras were wealthy wholesale merchants who sold lacquered combs that were then decorated with flowers and cranes in Edo (present-day Tokyo) using a traditional local technique before being given as presents. Demand expanded to Kyoto and Osaka, and before long the variety of combs on sale was on the rise.
Now a museum, the building houses an impressive range of former merchandise. Take the short guided tour to be shown firsthand the building’s fascinating architectural features.
Just off the main street is a statue of a headless Virgin Mary cradling a baby, built in the shape of Buddhist follower Jizo. It is believed that “hidden Christians” secretly prayed at the statue but, when its identity was discovered, it was decapitated by the Tokugawa authorities who had outlawed Christianity.
Reflecting the abundance of hinoki (Japanese cypress) trees in the area, Kiso-Hirasawa, a town famous throughout Japan for its renowned lacquerware, is but three kilometers farther along. From the combs and pill boxes of yesteryear to the chopsticks and bento of today, its products have been popular as souvenirs since the Edo Period.
Worth a visit is Marumata Shikki Boutique, established by lacquerware creator Kiyoshi Ito in 1958. After studying under Shogyo Oba, a living national treasure, Ito began to push the boundaries of the craft.
While in the shop browsing his beautiful wares — handmade using an enduring process of coating — look out for his prototypes of the 1998 Nagano Olympic medals, in a stunning fusion of metal and lacquerware.
After the four-year innovative project to craft the final medals, Ito continues to expand the materials he uses and says he is “realizing the dreams I have envisioned one step at a time.” To date he has created a music box with 50 pins, a mechanical lacquered watch and a lacquered helmet for Japan’s Super Car Race series in 2015.
After a short drive south, I reach Fukushima-juku. Hemmed in on one side by a mountain ridge and on the other by a river, this post town played a crucial role in the Edo Period, both politically and economically. Check out the Sekisho Border Control Gate, one of only two main points on the Nakasendo chosen to be ancient “passport inspection points” because travelers had no choice but to pass through the town.
Although the original border control point no longer exists, a reconstructed building houses a museum featuring a range of original documents, arrows and other weaponry, restraints and replicas of the wooden passes that travelers would have had to show the Tokugawa regime’s guards.
Our guide explains there is evidence that people traveling illegitimately were constantly trying to outsmart the system while staff adopted new ways of catching them. The three key issues were ladies disguising themselves as men to escape forced marriage, people trying to steal precious hinoki from the nearby Kiso forests by hiding it under their clothes, and spies on the move to cause problems for the shogun.
A trip on the Nakasendo would not be complete without experiencing Tsumago-juku, a two-hour walk north from the popular Magome-juku. It was the birthplace of Japan’s first historic preservation movement, which led to Tsumago becoming the first post town in the country to be protected for its historical and cultural legacy, in 1968.
All traces of modernity seem to have been removed; even the postman in the area is provided with Edo Period clothing. And, on the beautifully maintained streets amid the ancient buildings, where traditional wooden structures box in fire extinguishers, mail boxes, cables and signs, I can easily slip into a daydream of the Nakasendo of yesteryear.
To get to Narai-juku, take the JR Limited Express from Shinjuku Station to Shiojiri Staion. From there, transfer to the JR Chuo Line for Nakatsugawa, and alight at Narai Station.