Saturday, September 12, 2020

Oi Juku: A Living Museum in the Heart of Japan

 --Susan, every other Sunday

A little over a year ago, I traveled to the tiny but historically important town of Oi in Gifu Prefecture, Japan, to begin a week-long hike on the Nakasendo, one of the historic travel roads that once connected the ancient capital of Kyoto with the then-modern capital of Edo (now called Tokyo . . . and still the capital of Japan).

A carved map showing the post towns of the Nakasendo (Oi is the large one about 2/3 of the way to the right)

This famous bridge marks the official entrance into Oi, and is decorated with Hiroshige prints of the Nakasendo.

Most people have never heard of Oi. Even during its 17th century heyday, it was a small, rural town--little more than a village--near the base of the first major mountain range travelers had to climb on their northward journey.

Hand painted 17th century map of the Nakasendo. Many mountains...

Like most of the post towns on the Nakasendo, Oi derived the bulk of its income from the travel road. Although the road itself predated the 17th century, after the capital moved to Edo in 1603, then-shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Nakasendo as one of five official travel roads. After that time, most of the visitors who passed through town were required to register with shogunate officials (generally, an ancillary duty of the village headman or the largest merchant in the town) and display a travel pass to demonstrate their right to move along the road.

Nakasendo travel pass, Oi Juku Museum

Most of the passes were made of wood, for purposes of durability. The authorization was either handwritten or, more commonly, stamped on the surface.

Taxes were also levied in the post towns; clerks sat at low, wooden desks and deposited the taxes in special lockboxes. Then, as now, there was apparently a need to ensure that money went in, but did not come out:

Assessor's desk. Note the narrow slit in the lockbox to the left, where taxes went.

Although not a major tourist destination, like some of the other Nakasendo post towns, Oi is proud of its history. In addition to transforming one of the original merchants' homes into a small (but delightful) museum, the town is also home to the Hiroshige Museum, featuring the work of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) one of Japan's most famous, and most skilled, carvers of woodblock prints. (His work on the Stations of the Tokaido is better known outside Japan, but he also did a beautiful, famous series on the Nakasendo.)

At the print museum, visitors can view a number of works by Hiroshige and other artists, and can also make a woodblock print of their own, using the traditional Japanese method. This is mine:

Don't worry. I'm not giving up my day job.

After touring the museums and walking the stretch of the Nakasendo that runs through the tiny town, in preparation for the next day's longer hike to Magome, I headed to Ichikawa ryokan, the traditional inn where I planned to spend the night.

Ichikawa Ryokan, Oi Juku

Ichikawa has been owned and operated by a single family for 16 generations--and the inn has been serving travelers on the Nakasendo all that time.   

The traditional wall that encircles the property conceals an inn that has changed very little (except for the introduction of modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing aside) since the original travelers stopped here. The stone lantern in the entry garden is original, and guests still leave their shoes on a rack in the genkan upon arrival, for retrieval the following morning.

The entry to Ichikawa Ryokan.

Dinner at a ryokan is always an experience, and Ichikawa is no exception. Like most traditional inns, the meals feature fresh, local ingredients and recipes handed down by generations of innkeepers. Fortunately for me, Ichikawa was also able to accommodate my allergy to fish - and even noted it on my place card, to ensure the servers did not accidentally offer me the incorrect plates.

The first two courses at Ichikawa - many more followed ...

Traditional Japanese dinners are often coursed, and the meal at Ichikawa was no exception. In addition to the cook-at-the-table hot pot (nabe) and appetizers pictured, the innkeepers had prepared seven other small, delightful offerings, which were served sequentially over about an hour's time.

Like many other small, historic towns and villages in Japan, Oi has managed to maintain and celebrate its past while also keeping pace with the 21st century. 

Traditional children's toys in the Oi Museum

Its position off the beaten path has helped--as has the fact that outside visitors tend to be people interested in the Nakasendo and its history, and willing to travel a few extra miles to learn about this special part of that history.

People used to wear these on the Nakasendo. Makes me grateful for modern boots.

Each of the post towns on the Nakasendo has a unique character and feel, despite their common history as links in the chain of commerce that connected Japan's two major Edo-Period cities. People often start a Nakasendo walk a day later, in the better-known town of Magome, but I was glad I gave my walk an extra day, and started in Oi instead. The town, and its people, were one of my many favorite experiences hiking the Nakasendo in 2019. 

Little towns and little museums...yes or no? I like big city museums too, but the tiny, local museums have character that's often missing from the displays in larger urban settings. Which one do you prefer?


  1. I always find the smaller ones more interesting and, I suppose, more manageable. With large museums I always feel in danger of missing something vital, which can spoil the enjoyment.

  2. How beautiful, Susan! How I wish I could see it in person. I am so grateful to have this vicarious trip with you!

    David and I had a passion for small local art museums and took a trip to find them every year. In the US they were often gems on college and university campuses or houses that had been turned into museums.

  3. Susan, I love how you describe your adventures...and your printmaking makes me downright envious! As for museums, I generally prefer the smaller ones, because they somehow convey a more intimate sense of what they exhibit than the biggies.

  4. How beautiful, Susan! How I wish I could see it in person. I am so grateful to have this vicarious trip with you!

    David and I had a passion for small local art museums and took a trip to find them every year. In the US they were often gems on college and university campuses or houses that had been turned into museums.