Travels in Early Modern Japan: Guest Post by Elizabeth Hopkinson

Today’s guest post is by historical fiction/fantasy writer, Elizabeth Hopkinson! The Seventeenth Century Lady is thrilled to have her contribution here as Early Modern Japan has not yet been covered on this site. It’s fascinating, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. So, please give a warm welcome to Elizabeth!

Travels in Early Modern Japan

In November 2011, I went on a small group tour of central Japan as part of the research for my historical fantasy novel, Silver Hands.  One of the highlights for me was our time on the Nakasendo Highway, and at the post-towns along it.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of Japan as shogun, and in 1603 moved the capital to Edo (now Tokyo), beginning the Edo Period of Japanese history, during which the country was isolated from the rest of the world.  Edo became the world’s largest city, twice as big as Paris or London by the late 18th century (also cleaner, well-lit and better organised).  The Nakesendo was one of five main highways connecting Edo with the rest of Japan.  Post towns like Narai, Tsumago and Magome were spaced out evenly along its length to accommodate travellers.  Nowadays, it is a pleasant walking trail for hikers; in the 17th century it would have carried the shogun’s official messengers – riding on horseback with bells so the man at the next station could hear them coming and be ready to change – traders with important goods to sell, pilgrims, travelling players, spies, and the huge entourage of aristocrats who had to attend the capital regularly under the alternate attendance system.  For a good description of 17th-century travel on the highway, see this page.

When I visited Japan, we stayed one night at the post town of Narai.  It was once called “Narai of a Thousand Houses” because of its role providing accommodation and transport facilities.  One of the town’s tourists attractions is the site of the Two Hundred Jizos.  These neatly lined-up Buddhist statues in the woods mark the resting place of travellers who died with no one to tend their graves.


Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

The next day we took the train to the next post town of Tsumago, where there is a honjin preserved as a museum.  This was the official inn, which every post town was required to have for important visitors.  In the 17th century, it was owned by the Shimazaki family, who also owned the honjin in the next town of Magome.  To quote from the museum’s guide leaflet, “The upper room, where feudal lords or court nobles used to stay, was luxurious, with an alcove (toko-no-ma), a reading platform and bamboo blinds.  It was surrounded by a six-feet long room, so that any villain in the garden would fail in any attempt to stab a lord or noble with a spear…  Feudal lords who came to stay at the honjin never ate any ready-made food.  They might get some provisions from the village.  However, they did not eat anything but food prepared by their own cook, after being poison-tasted, of course.”  Even nobles couldn’t rest easy on their travels!

Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

When we set off on our three-hour walk from Tsumago to Magome, we got a taste of what those travels might have been like.  It is a beautiful walk, past trees, bamboo groves and waterfalls.  But we also came across this sign…

Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

…reminding us of the very real danger to travellers on the road.  I also found the walk quite strenuous, as it involves going over the Magome Mountain Pass.  I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing, carrying your master along in a kago (palanquin), which was how all people of rank travelled in the Edo Period.  Even a rich farmer might have a straw kago.  For the common people, it was a case of, “get there however you can”.  In old woodblock prints of the famous highways, you can spot people riding on oxen and even children riding dogs as they travel from one place to the next.  Let’s not forget, there would also be local traffic, just going from village to village, as well as all the important people, with their servants sweeping the road ahead of them, forcing everyone to look away as they passed by.  All these travellers would have to contend with the threat of bears, bandits, the weather, sickness and sheer exhaustion to reach their destination safely and not end up like the Two Hundred Jizos.  Everyone would be as glad as I was to see the lights of Magome, and to imagine a meal and a hot bath ahead.

Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

Photo: Elizabeth Hopkinson

Elizabeth Hopkinson has a passion for history, fairy tale and Japan. She has lived all her life in Bradford, West Yorkshire (UK). She has had over 30 short stories published and won prizes in three writing competitions. Silver Hands is her first novel. You can buy it below:

[amazon asin=1780998724&template=image&chan=default]

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