The Nakasendo: Japan’s Oldest Highway

The Nakasendo Highway is one of the five important roads of the Edo Period. The Edo Period which roughly started in the 17th and ended in the 19th century was a time of prosperity for Japan. Economic growth, stability, and the value of art and culture all increased during this era. In order to connect the country together, the Japanese started to build long roads.

nakasendo highway

Despite the need for new roads, Japan was still using roads from the 8th century and so on. Therefore, they took inspiration from their ancient roads from centuries ago. The Nakasendo was one of two roads that connected Tokyo to Kyoto. While the other road required passengers to cross rivers, the Nakasendo was fairly more comfortable for one particular reason.

the bridge of the highway

Nakasendo is 534 km long and it means “the central mountain route.” This was because Nakasendo was an inland main road. Due to its position, it became the most popular road of the Edo Period. As its popularity increased, the Japanese developed the road even further.

nakasendo houses
Junko Uemura

Many people from different classes and backgrounds started to use the road which increased the road’s economic growth. More than 60 stations and towns along the Nakasendo were established so that the passengers could have a convenient trip and the townspeople some money. Among the people who traveled the road, there were some of the most famous in Japan at that time.

nakasendo and the forest

One of these famous people was the poet Matsuo Basho. Basho was one of the most influential literary figures of Japan. He was also a traveler and wanted to experience the legendary Nakasendo road. While he was scared due to the bandits on the road, he began his travel all the same. When he finished his travel, Basho turned his experiences into a book. Today, the distance he traveled is known as Basho’s Trail.

nakasendo during winter

Another legendary figure who traveled the Nakasendo was the samurai Miyamato Musashi. Musashi was a ronin, a samurai who had no master, and a teacher of the Way of the Sword. While he was one of the best samurai during the Japanese Civil War, when the war ended he found out that people did not need him anymore.

winter scenes from higway

Not knowing what to do, Musashi made the Nakasendo his home. He traveled the road, stopped at schools, challenged people to duels, and caused a lot of trouble. While the authorities wanted to catch and stop him, he managed to get away and live his life along the Nakasendo. He perfected his craft while traveling the road and became the most famous sword-fighting teacher in Japan.

winter in nakasendo

Despite the legends, myths, and famous people strolling the Nakasendo, the road’s popularity decreased when the Edo Period came to an end. As the Meiji Restoration took place, the new Imperial rule wanted to modernize the country. Therefore, long hiking trails were out of fashion, and modern and faster train roads were in.

winter in the highway
Shaira Castro

However, in the 1960s, the Japanese government decided to revive this historic road and the many towns along it. The Japanese began restoring the road and the towns with their original appearances in mind as well. Today, the Nakasendo is one of the most interesting tourist attractions in Japan. Many tour companies take people on hiking trips and let them experience the Edo Period by themselves.

wooden house
Jeffrey Francis