The Central Japan area, lying right between the Eastern and the Western regions of Japan, is studded with picturesque old towns well preserved since their heyday in the19th century. Some of them are the post towns on important highways that connected Kyoto in the west and Edo, present day Tokyo in the east, and others are merchant towns which prospered by trading goods through those highways. Kyoto was the formal capital of Japan, the residence of the Emperor, until mid-19th century, while Edo was the political capital, from which the Tokugawa Shogunate governed the country. The highways and the trade routes stemming from them, bustling with people and goods, brought wealth to these towns, leading to an accumulation of rich cultures and traditions. Here are four outstanding examples of the old towns in Central Japan.
Looking as if it were frozen in time, Tsumago in Nagano Prefecture is an impeccably preserved post town on the Nakasendo Road. The Road is one of the five main highways established by the Tokugawa Shogunate for trade and Sankin Kotai, which mandated that the Daimyo, the feudal lords, must pay liege homage to the ruling Shogun every few years. Lined with rustic traditional houses, the town offers visitors a chance to soak in the atmosphere of the bygone days when the Samurai, merchants and pilgrims passed to and fro. The end of the main street leads into the mountains, connecting to the next post town, Magome. It is a pleasant 9 km or 6 mile trek over a pass, walking along a river and passing rice paddies and farmhouses. They have a luggage forwarding service between those two towns, costing JPY 1,000 per one bag for one way.
A prosperous centre of commerce in the region for 300 years since the 16th century, Hida Takayama in Gifu Prefecture, still maintains its rows of old merchant houses from the time. Its wealth came from the trading in timber from the surrounding mountains, as well as the silk produced by farmers in the mountain villages. Browsing through its historic district, Sanmachi-dori, visitors can enjoy the view of the tidy merchant houses decorated with wooden lattices, sampling locally produced Sake and Miso, and shopping for handicrafts.
Although the look of the old town of Shin-machi in Omi-Hachiman City, Shiga Prefecture, may be somewhat similar to that of Hida Takayama, its background is quite different. The neat traditional houses lining the street are not the shops but the offices of prosperous merchants. The town served as a home base to the famous Omi merchants who traveled all over Japan as early as the 16th century, trading goods from one region to another.
Among the many highways and trade routes that prospered in Medieval Japan, the Wakasa Road is unique in that it was the route used to bring the seafood from Japan Sea to Kyoto, including the kitchen of the imperial court. The most popular and affordable of the fishes caught in the bay of Wakasa was the mackerel, then preserved with salt and carried to Kyoto in a day’s time, from which the alternate name for the route, the “Mackerel Road” was born. Kumagawa in Wakasa Town, Fukui Prefecture was a major post town on this route. Along the stretch of 1.1 km or three quarters of a mile, stand the traditional Japanese houses and warehouses with white mortar walls. At its peak, the town had 200 houses, about half of which still stand today.