Walking the Nakesendo Way.

Day 10, 12th November, 2018.

Breakfast – once again a smorgasbord but especially interesting was the mini donabe type pot that we fried our bacon in.B1059EF2-734A-4DCF-9AD6-FE842ACF5BFAAfter yesterday’s epic day, Brunyfire is looking forward to a gentler day, and so it is only a 10-12 km hike from Kiso- Fukushima to the Kaida Plateau. So we have time to visit the Sekisho barrier station before starting. EAB15886-4B44-400D-8CF9-7E1DE7D57756

During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), Kiso-Fukushima post town was known as one of only two ‘sekisho’ barrier stations along the Nakesendo route. These barrier stations date back to the origins of the highway system and by the the start of the Edo Period there were 50 of them. Their purpose was twofold. The first was to prevent women being smuggled from Edo who were being kept hostage under the ‘sankin kotai’* system and secondly was to prevent the movement of arms.**

We walk back up through the town from the Iwaya Inn……DFA8A816-E305-4E8C-94E0-ADB4CD874F53……passing some interesting art work on a residential roller door and on up the road to check out the barrier station. The town seems quiet, and so it’s surprising to learn that in fact Kiso-Fukushima is hugely popular with modern day pilgrims, who still travel through enroute to Mount Ontake, tourists, hikers, anglers and, during winter time, thousands of skiers. The town is it seems, the gateway to the Kiso Valley, which is where we’re headed.

The gate we pass through is the same as Hiroshige’s woodblock print (above)…….8B0AAAAF-1066-41B4-9371-1D5665403C8D…….and it’s easy to imagine the tension that travellers may have felt having to have their papers and goods checked – Edo samurai styled customs officials metered out severe penalties if travellers were found guilty of flouting the Sankin kotai system, or bearing arms. Woe betide if your gender was considered suspect – any person dressed as a male who looked suspiciously like a woman (fears of smuggled daimyō wives attempting to get home for example**) were subjected to a full inspection.

Gates across the road were closed at 6pm and travelers who missed this deadline risked sleeping rough outside the town or returning to the previous post town. BF77C7BE-27B4-4A68-9600-3179346F49C9The Intrepids head back to the Inn, pick up our luggage as today we are being taxied to the start of our walk whilst our cases get delivered to our next inn for tonight.

Once again, there are a couple of walking options…….646F0361-56AA-49E6-90C7-4DD8B63C23C2……..and the party splits again – the first option, from the Karasawa no taki waterfall, over the Jizo Pass and to Kisoumanosato is where Lucy and Brunyfire will catch a bus to the next ryokan destination, while Kay and Di opt for the afternoon hike to the Shiroyama viewpoint and then down to join us at the Yamakanoyu Inn.

Having diverged from the original Nakesendo, our trail starts at 1200m along the Hilda Highway, an old salt and medicinal herb trade route. We plod up rugged and winding trails, having crossed over the water at the base of the falls. 9D15359B-8B79-4ECA-947A-9EEE2F0F8998We continue up a number of switchbacks through the forest, our feet stirring the leaves and softening our steps setting a comfortable rhythm. Autumn has been the best possible time to do this hike, the mild weather, clear sunny skies and the carpet of colour underfoot have made the walking a pleasure. Giving thanks to the small Jizo stone statue at the top of the pass……AA4C7CA6-51F6-4161-A49B-5C45F5489870…….protector of lost children and travellers, we head on down to take a welcome break and to refresh our water bottles.67122603-D3F9-4381-921F-FF4BF01F5D5DAdvised by our trusted self guided route book, the Intrepids head back down the other side of the Pass and into the Kaida hamlet of Suekawa to have a lunch stop at the Kaida Café Poppoya.

Café Poppoya, with its uniquely weird combo of Japanese style Italian pizzas, home baking, toy train set up and comely hand made Japanese indigo dyed farm style pants and handbags is a café run by husband and wife team, Hideji (a former railway man still sporting his official cap) and Mitsuko Ando. As we neared this strange little gem, we were greeted by Mitsuko herself and deftly steered like flies into a web, into the café. It was lunch time, we were hungry and we were curious.

Accompanying our signature miso marinated pizza……..5C62F37E-6604-47B7-9BBE-78BCD3ECF863……we were treated to a bizarre combination of traditional tsugara-jamisen (a large shamisen three stringed instrument), melancholic jazz from  Mitsuko’s mouth organ and a rousing round of karaoke – something to do with a mountain (note Ontake) – coming round the……?

Managing to extracate ourselves from the Café, we head to the Kiso Horse village, stumbling across an interesting hut that housed a kiln used for making charcoal.D4E17D44-E7CC-4C0A-8030-83F8217C1DFDAs we’d already ascertained in our own observations walking through near deserted hamlets and villages, it seems that many of the past ways of life associated with rural areas are disappearing and the Japanese countryside is increasingly being affected by depopulation and aging.

‘Charcoal played a prominent role in Japanese life until the 1950s. Its production and use as a household fuel probably became widespread about 2,000 years ago, enabling the transition from the pit houses of the Jomon period (circa 14,000 to 300 BCE), which had hearths for firewood dug in the middle of the dirt floor, to the raised-floor dwellings of the Yayoi period (circa 300 BCE to 300 AD). Iron smelting furnaces relying on charcoal are also believed to have appeared about two millennia ago, marking the dawn of metallurgy in Japan.

Until recently, traditional Japanese homes used to feature a communal room with an open-hearth fireplace (irori) where the family would gather to cook, eat and socialize. In addition, a variety of portable braziers and body warmers were developed, including ceramic or even wooden open charcoal braziers (hibachi), containers used to heat the feet or bedding (anka), hand warmers (teaburi) and portable body warmers (kairo). Charcoal occupied an important place in the lives of people of all social classes and in Japan’s economy as a whole’. ***

From the charcoal hut to the Kaido Kiso Horse Village, the centre of breeding and conservation efforts for the breed, the village cares for about thirty horses under the auspices of the local government and the Kiso Horse Preservation Socity. The Kiso horse is one of eight horse breeds native to Japan. DNA tests have shown that some breeds, including the Kiso horse, date back to the Neolithic era and are closest in species origin to horses from the Mongolian steppe. 1AFA5650-ED2D-41FE-81C0-0914562E57B8Sturdy and sure footed, their extended bellies containing longer than normal intestines, enable these nubby little horses to face the extreme cold of winter by being able to digest the tough grasses that grow in the Kiso Valley and Kaida Plateau’s harsher mountain climates. B36C6D9D-63F5-425B-ACBA-82CFC06E845DAmongst the prevalence of elegantly tall white birch in the fenced off pastures, we note what we initially assumed were nests of some kind but learnt later these are in fact mistletoe balls.

The Intrepids temporarily part company at the Kaido Branch Office bus stop – Kay and Di head for the Nashino Pass, whilst Lucy and Brunyfire hop on the bus to our next ryokan.F35A6906-2B14-4BE8-9AC7-0F697BFAC68AA meandering route deposits us finally at the Yamakanoyu Ryokan, where Lucy and Brunyfire are offered a choice of beautiful yukata by our young hostess, Yukiko-San, daughter and seventh generation of the Chimura family, the current owners of the 120 year old Inn. Yukiko-San speaks beautiful English and makes us feel very at home once we’ve settled into our rooms with a fresh pot of green tea – we wait in comfortable peace and quiet for the arrival of Kay and Di – and dinner!6EE2E023-83CA-465E-9A41-AAE5328B617B1915BD45-4699-4427-B3D2-99F9588B2F155652F56F-2B3F-4446-BBE1-0919BCF4396CThe dinner menu was one of the best we’d eaten. For us carnivores, there was thinly sliced shin shu beef on a bed of hoba miso paste cooked on a magnolia leaf on a table top hibachi. Then there were crispy crickets served on a shiso or perilla leaf (sometimes refered to as beefsteak plant) – as well as a dizzying array of pickles and soup – we finished off with cold soba noodles. These are a handmade speciality of the house, made by Yukiko-San‘s mother – soba also being a speciality crop of the Kiso region.

The art of the handmade also featured in a nice display of wood fired pots in the corridor of the ryokan, enroute to our rooms – sadly, Brunyfire was unable to find out much about the artist, except that he was local.A0F0AC8B-4C81-486D-8224-8CF4CDB3EF02Another onsen, another comfortable futon and the end of another great day….



*Sankin kotai was a system developed in the Warring States period and perfected by the Tokugawa shogunate. In essence, the system demanded that daimyō (powerful Japanese feudal lords) reside in the Tokugawa castle at Edo for periods of time, alternating with residence at the daimyō‘s own castle. When a daimyō was not residing in the Tokugawa castle, he was required to leave his family at his overlord’s castle town. It was, at its simplest, a hostage system which required that either the daimyō or his family (including the very important heir) always be physically subject to the whim of the overlord. (From https://www.nakasendoway.com/barrier-stations/).

**For more detailed information about the barrier stations, check Walk Japan’ site https://www.nakasendoway.com/barrier-stations/

***From an online article, Japan’s Charcoal Making Traditions Still Alive
DEVELOPMENT & SOCIETY : Biodiversity, Traditional Knowledge, Forestry, Asia
2010•07•05 Laura Cocora and Kaori Brand United Nations University.



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