“Road of Kiso” (Nakasendo highway), c. 1910.

1910sKaruizawa-NaganoOutside TokyoTransportation
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“Road of Kiso”, c. 1910. The road of Kiso Valley runs about sixty miles through central Nagano Prefecture, following first the Narai and then the Kiso rivers. It is the heart of the 340-mile long Nakasendo (also called the Kisokaido) highway stretching from Edo (the Shogun’s capital) to Kyoto (the Imperial capital). The Kisoji, the old trade route in the Kiso Valley, was most popular as a thoroughfare during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries when travelers walked, rode on horseback, or were carried on palanquins through the mountains and over steep passes, and was the favored route of the imperial family, the nobility and their princesses, and the family of the Shogun when they journeyed between the two capitals.

“The Nakasendo, or Central Mountain Road, is so named in contradistinction to the Tokaido or Eastern Sea Road, and the comparatively unimportant Hoku- roku-do, or Northern Land Road in Kaga and Etchu, between which it occupies a middle position. It runs from Kyoto to Tokyo, passing through the provinces of Tamashiro, Omi, Mino, Shiushu, Koteuke, and Musashi.

“The road seems to have been originally constructed early in the 8th century. Legendary history states, however, that in the reign of the Emperor Keiko (A. D. 71-130), his son, Prince Yamato-take, crossed over the Usui Pass during his conquest of Eastern Japan. suggesting the inference that some kind of track was believed to have existed there from the very earliest times.

“The Nakasendo traverses mountainous, sparsely cultivated districts, remote from populous centres; and it used to be noted that the peasantry along portions of the route had a poverty-stricken appearance. But the recent wonderful development of the silk industry has done much to ameliorate their condition; and the accommodation is everywhere good, — judged, that is, from a country [rural] stand-point.

“… The Eiso-gawa ranks as one of the San- dai-ka, or Three Great Rivers of Japan, the other two being the Tonegawa and the Shinano-gawa ; but the Eiso-gawa is incomparably the most beautiful. Rising near the Torii-toge in the province of Shinshu, it runs for a length of 135 miles, and after forming an intricate delta which is subject to dreadful Soods, falls into the Bay of Owari. The Nakasendo is often called by the alternative name of Kiso-Kaido, or Kiso-ji, that is, the ‘Road along the Kiso’.”

A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, by Basil Hall Chamberlain & W.B. Mason, 1901

[Note: The area was first made famous by the early 20th-century writer Shimazaki Tōson, who chronicled the effects of the Meiji Restoration on the Kiso Valley in his landmark novel Before the Dawn, first published in 1929 as a serialized work.]
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