Take a trip to old Japan with William Scott Wilson as he travels the ancient Kiso Road, a legendary route that remains much the same today as it was hundreds of years ago. The Kisoji, which runs through the Kiso Valley in the Japanese Alps, has been in use since at least 701 C.E. In the seventeenth century, it was the route that the daimyo (warlords) used for their biennial trips—along with their samurai and porters—to the new capital of Edo (now Tokyo). The natural beauty of the route is renowned—and famously inspired the landscapes of Hiroshige, as well as the work of many other artists and writers. Wilson, esteemed translator of samurai philosophy, has walked the road several times and is a delightful and expert guide to this popular tourist destination; he shares its rich history and lore, literary and artistic significance, cuisine and architecture, as well as his own experiences.
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From the introduction:
"The Kiso Road--the Kisoji in Japanese--runs about sixty miles through central Nagano Prefecture and mostly follows first the Narai and then the Kiso River (traveling from north to south) through the granite forest-covered mountains of that same name. It is the heart of the longer 340-mile road, the Nakasendo (also called the Kisokaido), which stretches from Tokyo to Kyoto. It is called a 'road,' and it often runs parallel to or on Highway 19 but just as often wanders into the mountains as a smaller paved road or just a narrow path of dirt or ancient paving stones. The Kisoji has been in use for perhaps over two thousand years, although it was most popular as a thoroughfare during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, when travelers walked, rode on horseback, or were carried in palanquins through the mountains, along scary suspension bridges built on cliffs overlooking the swift river, and over the steep passes.
"It is not too easy to get lost on this road, although it can be done, as I have sometimes proven; markers are posted along the way in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese because the authorities do not want to go looking for you. There are also eleven villages, established in 1601 as post towns, about six to seven miles apart, where the modern hiker can stop for the night in traditional inns just as his counterparts did far back into the past. And, although there are sometimes quick gains and drops in elevation as the road meanders through the mountains, even people in moderate shape can walk the entire sixty miles in less than a week. My preference, however, is to take it at a much more moderate pace. The beauty of the mountains and rivers, and the experience of the traditional baths, cuisine, and bedding in the inns are not to be rushed through.
"This account is also somewhat of a story map. Over the years that I've traveled the Kisoji, I've been lucky enough to meet with a number of people--innkeepers, coffee shop owners, farmers, Buddhist priests, and hikers like myself--who have generously shared their knowledge of the rich history, traditions, and folklore of the area. Because of the antiquity of the road--it is first mentioned in a Japanese chronicle dated 701 CE--there are also a number of books that describe not only the geography and topography of the road, but also local spots inhabited by ghosts and animals like foxes and badgers that bewitch the unwary traveler, or that are famous for some romantic or tragic event. These guidebooks, many of which were written in the early 1800s when the Kiso Road was at its greatest popularity, were intended for the inquisitive traveler of those times, and are still wonderfully informative. Poets and journalists such as Basho and Shiki also loved traveling the Kiso Road, and, along with excerpts from the early guidebooks, I have included a number of their poetic impressions, many by Santoka, the shabby Zen priest/haiku poet/sake drinker, whose presence I felt constantly.
"In this way, the territory covered here is not just geographical, the time line not limited, and the hike not mine alone."