Sunday, December 6, 2020

Walking Into History on the Koshū Kaidō

 --Susan, every other Sunday

By now, it's no secret that I love both hiking and Japanese history. Fortunately, so does everyone else in Japan, including the people manage the mountain trails. 

Autumn Foliage on the History Trail, December 2020

Many of Japan's most famous ancient routes remain (at least partially) intact and walkable, from the 88-temple pilgrimage that circumambulates the southern island of Shikoku to the Kumano Kodo, the Nakasendo, and countless other partially-or-entirely preserved trails across Japan.

The country has numerous "modern" hiking routes as well, including the 1,799-meter (1,118 mile) Kantō Fureai no Michi, which consists of 160 day-long (and in some cases, long day!) segments that pass through 7 different prefectures, ultimately carving a circular route through the mountains and along the coast, around the perimeter of the Kantō, Japan's largest flatland plain.

Mt. Sengenrei, as seen from the History Trail segment (Tokyo #4)

Earlier this month, I began what I hope will be a three-year (mostly weekend) journey to walk the entire trail. Last weekend's segment (Tokyo #4) is called "The History Trail" because a portion of the hike follows the route of the Koshū Kaidō, one of the "Five Great Roads" built during the Edo period (1603-1868) to connect the then-new capital of Edo (read "Tokyo") with other important areas of Japan.

Monuments at the start of the History Trail

Outside Japan, the Tokaidō, or Eastern Sea Route, once connected Edo with the former capital of Kyoto, and is by far the most famous of the Five Great Roads--all of which began at Nihonbashi (the Great Bridge of Japan) in Tokyo. (The bridge still stands, though now it's surrounded by a modern skyline of steel and glass.)

Full-scale 17th century Nihonbashi Replica, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo

A second "great road" called the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Road) connected Kyoto with Edo by passing through the center of Japan, up the mountainous Kiso Valley. 

In constructing the Great Roads, the Tokugawa Shogunate cobbled together pieces of older travel roads and commercial routes, many of which had been used on a local or regional basis for centuries.

A mountainous portion of the Koshū Kaidō in Tokyo Prefecture

Unlike the other roads, which led mostly to and from centers of commerce, the Koshū Kaidō connected Edo with Kai province, in what is now Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Edo. The first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu (who unified Japan and claimed the shogunate in 1600), seized the important military stronghold of Kai in 1582. 

44 post towns connected Kai with Edo along the Koshū Kaidō, but in fact the route was rarely used. The road was considered militarily sensitive, and passage required special permission from the shogun. Most travelers, including important samurai and their retainers, were forced to use the longer Nakasendo or Tokaido routes to travel to the capital. Military outposts along the road enforced the rules and prevented unauthorized travel.

The Fukushima Barrier, on the old Nakasendo - similar barriers existed on the Koshū Kaidō

Sadly, the outposts along the Koshū Kaidō were not preserved, and have been lost to history. The route itself is well documented, however, and when plans were made to establish a "long trail" around the Kantō the planners took advantage of this ancient road (and other historical sites of interest) and arranged for an overlap along the History Trail.

A section of the History Trail that follows the route of the Koshū Kaidō

Few people outside Japan have heard the name Koshū Kaidō--and even among Japanese people, the road is less well-known than its better preserved, more famous counterparts. Fortunately, the Kantō Fureai is preserving, and hopefully revitalizing, this piece of history by encouraging a new breed of travelers to walk the ancient paths once walked by samurai. 

A view from the Koshū Kaidō, near the summit of Mt. Sengenrei

We may have traded hand-woven sandals for hiking boots, and carbon-fiber poles for swords, but the history of the Koshū Kaidō survives, and lives on, on Tokyo's History Trail. 


  1. Such rich culture and history along with the beauty!

  2. I remember SO CLEARLY the day we walked across that that bridge on our visit to the museum!!!

  3. A lot of people in NYC agree about keeping Koshu...

    Hard not to with how appetizing you make it all seem, Susan.