Sunday, June 21, 2020

Crossing the Barrier

-- Susan, every other Sunday

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) the Nakasendō ("Middle-mountain Road") - also known as the Kiso-Kaidō - was one of the primary routes that connected the former capital of Kyoto with Edo (now called Tokyo), the "new" capital of Japan.

Large "barrier stations" (sekishō) stood at intervals along these routes, guarding the roads and inspecting people and cargo that passed through. While they functioned as toll stations and collected fees at many times and places, their primary purpose was military: preventing undocumented soldiers or firearms from entering or leaving Edo, or from traveling along the major highways.

The Barrier at Kiso-Fukushima

To pass, most travelers had to present a tegata--a special travel pass, customarily made of wood and inscribed with information about the bearer, as well as the seal of the village headman or daimyō who granted the bearer the right to travel.

A woman's tegata (lower wooden block) from the Edo period

The most famous of these barriers stands in Hakone, a couple of hours south of Tokyo, where it guarded access to the famous Tokaidō.

The Hakone Barrier

While hiking the Nakasendo last November, I had the opportunity to visit the famous barrier station in Kiso-Fukushima, deep in the mountains of the Kiso Valley.

Fukushima Sekisho - clearly a member of the same family.

Like the Hakone Barrier, the Fukushima Sekisho is well-preserved and has been reconstructed using the original plans and materials to give visitors a chance to experience a slice of life in Edo Period Japan.

The barrier station, where officials checked travelers' documents.

Barriers were normally built in places where the natural geography funneled travelers through a small, defensible gap. This was important both for security (invading armies are easier to stop in bottlenecks) and to prevent travelers from trying to circumvent the barrier (both to avoid inspection and to dodge the tolls they paid when passing through).

 In Hakone, the barrier sits between Lake Asahi and a steep mountain ridge that would have been a bear to climb in sandals even in good weather, let alone in snow or rain. (I know from experience, because I climbed it as part of my 100 Summits year.)

In Kiso-fukushima, the barrier nestles in a deep gorge carved by the Kiso River, with steep mountains on either side.

Kiso-Fukushima, as seen from the barrier.

The Nakasendo rises to the bottleneck where the station sits.

The barrier is just visible at the top of the hill on the left.

Like the Hakone Barrier, the Fukushima Sekishō consists of a large yard, with enormous wooden  gates on either end. Travelers would enter through the gate, leave any horses or beasts of burden in the yard, and present their passes to the officials inside the barrier station.

The station served as both an office and a barracks, and was home to a cohort of samurai warriors at all times. The warriors lived and trained at the barrier, prepared to defend it at a moment's notice.

The officials who inspected papers and passes lived in separate quarters--including one female official, who had responsibility for inspecting the papers and hair of every woman who passed through the barrier station.

Edo period rain gear, used by officials when the weather did not cooperate.

(During this era, daimyō and their wives and eldest sons were supposed to live in Edo for specified periods of time; preventing women from leaving the capital without permission helped to keep these "hostages" close at hand, and their husbands under the shogun's direct control.)

The barrier opened at 6am and closed at 6pm--and since nobody could pass through the barrier station (which blocked the entire Nakasendo route) inns and teahouses sprang up on both sides of the barrier, to cater to travelers who arrived too late in the day (or too early in the morning) and had to wait.

Edo period lanterns, used by the night watchmen. (They still didn't let you pass.)

By the 1840s, the tiny mountain village of Kiso-Fukushima had a permanent population of just over 1,000 people - and 14 inns (a very large number for a town of that size, all of them due to the Nakasendo traffic).

My room at the ryokan (traditional inn) in Kiso-Fukushima.

The town was also a thriving center for the lumber trade. Wood from the Kiso Valley has been valued--and valuable--for centuries, and the Tokugawa shoguns posted a special lumber administrator in Kiso-Fukushima to oversee the valley and manage the lumber farms, forestry, and trade.

While walking the Nakasendo last autumn, I arrived in Kiso-Fukushima near midday, but opted to hike to a famous waterfall in the mountains above the town before visiting the barrier.

The view from the hills above the barrier.

The hike took longer than expected (though the waterfall was worth it) and I found myself hurrying through the streets of this tiny town with only minutes before the barrier and museum closed for the night (at 6pm, as it has for centuries).

I made it with twenty minutes to spare - fortunately, enough time to tour the small museum and appreciate the displays of artifacts, including some discovered during archaeological excavations of the site before it was rebuilt.

Pottery found in the ruins when the sekisho was reconstructed.

As I walked back through the darkening streets to my ryokan, I thought about the thousands of visitors who, like me, had spent the night in this mountain town.

Night falls on the Fukushima Sekisho

The road and the barrier that brought them here continue drawing visitors to this day, a pair of anchors on a chain whose links stretch back for centuries, connecting the present with the past along the Kiso Road.



  1. It's fascinating to "live" with all this history. Thanks, Susan.

  2. I love environs where you can in peace imagine how close your thoughts at that moment might be to those of persons who'd once been in that same location at that same time of day thousands of years earlier. Thanks for the trip, Susan.

  3. Fascinating! I envy the table in your ryokan! I had no such luxury when I was in Kyoto. I struggled to find a comfortable position.