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Roads of Oku: Home

Inspiration ...

Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa / Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Road to the Deep North")

Journeys ...

Spring 2004: On the Road in Kansai / Google Map
Summer 2005: Roads of Oku / Google Map
Fall 2006: Where Gods Alight / Google Map
Summer 2007: Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama / Map
Winter 2008: Snow Country / Google Map
Spring 2008: Full Bloom & Festivals / Google Map
Summer 2009: Fireflies & Sweet Fish / Google Map
Fall 2009: North Country Colors / Google Map
Summer 2010: Legends of the Land / Google Map
Spring 2011: On the Far Side of Disaster / Google Map
Summer 2012: Travels in the Fifth Moon / Google Map
Summer 2013: Far Roads: Finishing Touches / Google Map
Summer 2015: Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew

Memorable ...

Roads / Seacoasts & Coastal Roads / Bridges / Ferries / Walks & Hikes / Mountains / Ropeways / Rivers / Waterfalls / Lakes / Trees / Rocks / Caves / Hot Springs / Sakura / Fall Colors / Archaeology and History / Castles / Shrines / Temples / Gardens / Festivals / Food / Drinks
Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono

Note ...

On Driving in Japan

Roads of Oku: Journeys in the Heartland

A collection of essays on Japanese culture, history and literature. Available at (Far Roads Press, 2015).


Historic Roads

Yamanobe-no-Michi, Nara

The Yamanobe Road in eastern Nara is the oldest recorded road in Japan, mentioned in Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) compiled in the 8th century. The road connected the capital of Nara in the north to Sakurai in the south; today traces of the road can be found between Isonokami Shrine in Tenri and Sakurai; walking paths allow visitors to follow the road.

Isonokami Shrine belonged to the 7th century Mononobe clan and served as its armory. Today it houses swords and other weaponry.

Entrance to Isonokami Shrine. Winter 2015

At the southern end of the road is Mt. Miwa (1532 feet, 467 meters), the shintai (sacred body) of the creation kami Ōmononushi. Nihon Shoki gives this account of Ōmononushi:

Ō-kuni-nushi no Kami is also called Ō-mono-nushi ... or else Ō-na-mochi no Mikoto. ... [Ō-mono-nushi no Kami] and Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, with united strength and one heart, constructed this sub-celestial world. Then, for the sake of the visible race of man as well as for beats, they determined the method of healing diseases. They also, in order to do away with the calamities of birds, beasts, and creeping things, established means for their prevention and control."

Later his guardian spirit appears to him and when asked where he wishes to dwell, the spirit answers Mt. Mimoro (Miwa) in Yamoto, and so the spirit was enshrined there: This is the God of Ō-miwa.

Ōmiwa Shrine. Spring 2011

According to the shrine website, Ō-mono-nushi "is the guardian deity of the human life, and in the age of the gods, cooperating with Sukuna-bikona no mikoto, cultivated the land and developed every industry such as agriculture, industry and commerce, and contrived to augment every social welfare such as curing disease, charming, saké-brewing, medicine manufacturing, and marriage." Thus saké brewers are said to worship at the shrine.

A white snake, a body of the kami, is also said to live in on the grounds.

Water fountain in the form of a snake, for purifying hands and mouth before entering the shrine. Spring 2011

A trail from the shrine leads to the summit, where three small shrine mark the places where the god Ō-kuni-nushi no Kami descended.

Shrine on Mt. Miwa. Internet Photo

On the north side of Mt. Miwa is Hibara Shrine, which is for the worship of the mountain itself, considered to be kami.

Road to Hibara Shrine. Winter 2015

Hibara Shrine. Winter 2015

Kofun (Imperial tomb) down the road from Hibara Shrine. Winter 2015

Kumano Kodō, Kii Peninsula

Kumano Kodō ("Ancient Roads of Kumano") are pilgrimage routes through the mountains and along the coasts of the Kii Peninsula to Kumano Sanzan, the Three Great Shrines of Kumano: Hongū Taisha, Hayatama Taisha (Shingū), and Nachi Taisha. (See "Shrines.")

The Imperial family made pilgrimages from Nara and Kyōto to the three shrines during the 11th-13th century. Kumano worship spread across Japan during the 16th-18th centuries. Pilgrimages increased under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), when roads were improved and lodgings built to accommodate travelers.

Kumano KodoStream

Mountain Trail near Nachi Taisha, Spring 2004

Kumano Sanzan: Three Great Shrines of Kumano

Hongū Taisha: A giant torii (gateway) marks the area where the original Hongū Taisha was located, on the banks of the Kumano River. After it was destroyed by a flood, the shrine was moved to higher ground nearby.

Hongū Torii, Winter 2015

Hongū Taisha, Spring 2004

Hayatama Taisha is located in Shingū, on the east coast of the Kii Peninsula, where the Kumano River empties into Pacific Ocean.

Hayatama Taisha, Shingū, Spring 2004

Nachi Taisha is located in the coastal hills southwest of Shingū.

Nachi Taisha, Spring 2004

Nachi Falls (Nachi-no-Otaki), Spring 2004
See more photos of Kumano Sanzan at Shrines.

Five Routes to Kumano Sanzan

Five routes led south to Kumano Sanzan.

Two routes went south through the mountains of the central Kii Peninsula to Hongū Taisha:

(1) Kohechi started at the mountain temple at Kōyasan.

(2) Ōmine Okugake-Michi started at the mountain temple at Yoshino.

Two routes went east from Tanabe to Hongū Taisha.

(3) Nakahechi started at Takijiri-oji. Oji, or subsidiary shrines of the Kumano deity, lined the route; pilgrims stopped at oji to make offerings. The route passed through the hot spring town of Yunomine near Hongū Taisha.

Takijiri-oji: Starting point of the Nakahechi route, Winter 2015

Yunomine, a hot spring town on the Nakahechi Route. Winter 2015

(4) Ōhechi went from Tanabe around the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, past the rocks of Hashigui-iwa, to Nachi Taisha.

Hashigui-iwa ("Bridge post rocks")

(5) Iseji starts at Ise Shrine where pilgrims pay homage to Amaterasu, the sun goddess; the route goes east over the mountains and down to the eastern coast, to Hayatama Taisha, in Shingū. Just north of Shingū is Shichirimihama, a 13-mile long pebble beach.

Shichirimihama, Spring 2004

Shakado Kiritoshi, Kamakura, Kanagawa

This pass is cut through a limestone hill in Kamakura about 1200. A short walk up from the town, the pass connects two modern roads.

Shakado Kiritoshi. Spring 2008

Tokaidō, "Eastern Sea Road," Central Honshu

We drove along portions of the Tōkaidō (“Eastern Sea Road”) from Tōkyō to Kyotō in spring 2004 and summer 2012. I kept in mind the woodblock prints Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1831-1834) to locate scenes Hiroshige depicted and note changes in the country between the 19th and 21th century.

Map from "Ando Hiroshige: Tokaido–Hoeido Edition," The Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige (2014)

At their eastern end, the start/end of the Tokaidō and Nakasendō (see below) was Nihonbashi (Station 1) in Edo (Tōkyō):

An old section of the road is preserved in Hakone (station 11), a stone pathway in the hills above Lake Ashi and a cedar-lined gravel path along the lake shore.

Stone pathwayGravel path

Most of the road scenes are memories now, built over by expressways and city roads. However, you occasionally recognize a mountain or river or seacoast depicted in the prints. Below is Hakone Pass (Station 11). Hiroshige made the scene more dramatic visually by depicting Mt. Mikuni steeper than it really is.

Hiroshige printHakone Pass

The scene appeared while we drove along the Hakone-Ashinoko Skyline Road that runs above the west side of the Lake Ashinoko, from Gotemba to Hakone, with great views of Fujisan and Ashinoko:

Skyline roadAshinoko

Below is Hiroshige’s woodblock print of the Tōkaidō at Satta Pass (station 17, Yui), in Shizuoka:

Note the two travelers on the steep cliff to the left; Mt. Fuji appears in the distance. The scene today below: the Tokaidō has been replaced by the Tōmei expressway, Highway 1, and train tracks along the coast. Mt Fuji is hidden in rainy-season (early June) clouds. A white guardrail midway up the green slope marks the location of the old Tōkaido.

The old Tokaidō at Satta Pass is today a single-lane paved road:

Hamamatsu, Station 30: Travelers on the beach at Hamamatsu (Hiroshige). Right Photo: Families visiting the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, just east of Hamamatsu

Travelers on the beach at Hamamatsu (Hiroshige) Families visiting the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, just east of Hamamatsu

Arai, Station 32: Travelers for Kyoto caught a ferry to the Arai barrier, on the western side of the inlet into Lake Hamana. Right Photo: Reconstructed building where travelers were interviewed, at Arai Barrier Gate. A Tokaidō museum is located next to the building.

Travelers for Kyoto caught a ferry to the Arai barrier, on the western side of the inlet into Lake Hamana (Hiroshige)Building where Tokaido travelers were interviewed, at Arai Barrier Gate

Kyotō, Station 55, was the western start/end of the Tokaidō:

Nakasendō, "Central Mountain Road," Central Honshu

Driving from Otsu to Tōkyō in spring 2004, we followed the Nakasendō (“Central Mountain Road”) up the Kiso Valley, the major mountain road between Kyōto and Edo, depicted in Hiroshige and Eisen's Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō (1834-1842).

Map from "Ando Hiroshige: The Sixty-Nine Satations of the Kisokaidō," The Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige (2014)

Left: Hiroshige print, Station 70, Otsu, with Lake Biwa in the background; right: Otsu in dawn light; Mt. Hiei below the clouds.

At its western end, the Nakasendō started/ended in Otsu, where the Tokaidō intersected with it and continued on to Kyotō.

Otsu, with Lake Biwa (Hiroshige)Otsu in dawn light; Mt. Hiei below the clouds

The Nakasendō went up the Kiso Valley through Tsumago (station 43), where a portion of the old road is preserved.

NakasendoWoodblock print

From Tsumago, it continues up to Magome Pass (Station 44) before descending to Magome town:

Magome PassWoodblock print of pass

At Agematsu (station 39), Ono Falls:

Ono Falls

Above: In the Edo era, the Nakasendo crossed a foot bridge in front of Ono-no-Taki, considered one of the Eight Scenic Spots of Kiso (Hiroshige).




Left: Ono Falls, on the roadside of Route 19 in Agematsu, Kiso Valley; a train bridge passes overhead today.

Station 30 was Shiojiri Pass above Lake Suwa:

Lake Suwa

Station Station 21, Oiwake (print by Eisen), with Mt. Asama:

Mt. Asama at Oiwake (Yeisen)Mt. Asama above Naka Karuizawa

Oku no Hosomichi, Northern Honshu

Bashō and Sora departing at Senju. Ink Painting by Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Roads of Oku”), an account of a pilgrimage the poet Matsuo Bashō made with his traveling companiion Sora to Tōhoku in 1689, has inspired generations of travelers to follow his road. After copying the text for the haiku poet, the calligrapher Soryu wrote, “stirred to the core. Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey.” (See Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi for an annotated texts of his journey, with photos.)

Bashō left from Edo, the capital of Japan, in Musashi Province, and went north, to Nikkō, in Shimotsuke Province, then into Mutsu Province, traveling up the Abukuma River Valley to Sendai, then on to Matsushima, on the Pacific Coast, and Hiraizumi. From there he crossed the central mountains to Dewa Province on the Sea of Japan coast, as far north as Kitakata. Then he went south from Dewa through the provinces of Echigo, Etchū, Kaga, and Echizen, a region known as Hokuriku (“North Lands”) or Koshi. The narrative ends in Mino Province, with Bashō departing to visit Ise shrine, in Ise Province, to the south.

Click on the map for a Google map of the journey.


The Shirakawa Barrier Gate between Shimotsuke and Mutsu provinces was the symbolic passage to Oku, the North Country, the rustic heartland. Bashō wrote: “Days of uncertainty weighed heavily on me; but as we neared the Shirakawa Barrier, I felt destined to push on.”

Even in Bashō’s time, the barrier (once a fort defending the northern borderland of Yamato from the Ezo, or barbarian tribes) was only a poetic memory. Sora's diary records that the travelers "passed through the new barrier gate," but "made a ... detour in order to visit the ruins of the old gate."

Shirakawa was famous for "the deeply moving quality of spring and autumn and for viewing the moon and snow." Bashō crossed the barrier gate during an "off-season" (the first month of summer) when he saw "the green of barley sprouts" and "farmers toiling"; he laments, "I see not one of the hundred poetic scenes." About his summer crossing, he wrote: rice fields and barley—inside them, summer's hototogisu (ta ya mugi ya / naka ni mo natsu no / hototogisu)

Today, a marker (left) stands at a rest stop on Route 76, at the entrance to a hilltop shrine dedicated to the mountain god Oyama. When we went there in October 2009, a stockade that defended the Kantō plains against attacks from the northern Ezo tribes was being excavated nearby. On top of the hill is a shrine to the mountain god Ōyama.

Scenic Mountain Roads

Yamanami Highway, Kyushu. Fall 2006

The highway runs through Aso-Kuji National Park. A highlight was Mt. Kuju smoldering in the distance.

We arrived at the Daikanbo Lookout, with a wide view of the crater of Aso and its volcanic mountains:

Oku Iya, Tokushima, Shikoku. Summer 2009

We drove from Kochi to Takamatsu via Oku Iya on Routes 45, 32, and 439. The famous pissing boy statue is on a side road off Ikeda.

Route 439 is one lane, winding along the Iya River. The GPS symbol for closed in winter (a snowman with an X over it) began looking like a skull and crossbones warning us not to continue; we kept going, stopping at the Oku Iya Kazurabashi (Vine Bridge):

Eventually we reached Mt. Tsuchiyama. From there, we descended down more winding mountain roads, shrouded in mist, to Takamatsu.

Shirakami Line, Aomori. Fall 2009

Shirakami Line Road is 36 miles long, mostly unpaved and winding, through the Shirakami Mountains, designated a World Heritage site for its primeval, pristine beech forests.

Shirakami LineRoadway

The oldest tree, known as Mother Tree, a four-hundred year old beech, is near Tsugaru pass.

Yahiko Skyline Road, Niigata. Fall 2009

Mt. Yahiko is a sacred mountain southeast of Niigata. On the east side of the mountain is Yahiko shrine and Yahiko park, whose Momiji-Dani ("Crimson Leaves Valley") was at prime viewing when we visited in early November.

Mt. YahikoMomiji-Dani

The skyline road on the west side offers views of Sado Island and the Echigo Coast.

Bandai Azuma Lakeline (Rte. 70) and Highway 2, Fukushima. Summer 2010

Routes 459, 115, and 70 go from Nihonmatsu up around Mt. Adatara to Lake Hibara in Urabandai, with views of Lake Akimoto, Mt. Bandai, and Lake Onogawa.

Lake AkimotoMt. Bandai

Lake OnogawaLake Bandai

From Lake Hibara, Highway 2 goes up to Funasaka Pass, where, looking back, there is a distant view of the lake and Mt. Bandai:

Farther along, as the road descends to Yonezawa in Yamagata, is a view of the rows of mountains at the borders of Fukushima, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures.

Echo Line Road to Katta Pass, Yamagata. Summer 2010

The Echo Line Road winds its way up to Katta Pass from Kamiyama, just south of Yamagata City:

From the parking lot at the end of the toll road off the Echo Line Road is a short walk to Lake Okama:

The summit of Mount Katta is a short hike from the lake (photo left); Mount Kumano, the tallest peak of Mt. Zao is a longer hike (photo right):

Mt. KattaMt. Kumano

Mt. Chokai Road, Akita and Yamagata. Summer 2010

The road goes from Nikaho, Akita, up toward the summit of Mt. Chokai, then down to Fukura in Yamagata, offering panoramic views of the coast. The shadow of the mountain falls on the Sea of Japan. On the day we drove the road, it was too cloudy for this phenomenon to occur. The road is closed from late Fall to late Spring due to snow. The snow was still there in May, at the upper elevations.

Snowy roadMt. Chokai mist

Hakusan Super Lindo. Summer 2012

Hakusan Super Rindō ("Forest Road”) opens in early June each year, when the mountains are arrayed in vivid shades of green.

The Super Rindō turned out to be one of the most spectacular we’ve traveled in ten road trips over the last eight years.

The twenty-mile road winds up a river valley north of Hakusan (“White Mountain”), a centuries-old pilgrimage site for mountain ascetics. The peak of Hakusan appears over other mountains near the top of the road, which includes bridges, tunnels, hairpin turns, steep cliffs, and roadside waterfalls.

While the road is considered most spectacular in autumn colors, the greens of summer have their own special beauty and the road is less crowded in June. We were the only car going up until mid-morning, when we passed other cars and buses as we were heading down.

The most famous waterfall is Ubagataki, which can be seen from the road, but is more impressive viewed close up after a walk down a steep stairway and along the river bank.

The end of the walk offers both a public outdoor hot spring, if you don't mind getting naked in public, or for the modest, a foot bath.

Route 140, Kofu to Chichibu. Summer 2015

Route 140 goes the 4 miles long Karisaka Tunnel and past Takizawa Dam. A spiral roadway goes down from the dam into the valley.

Boys' Day Carps on Route 140

Continue to Scenic Seacoasts and Coastal Roads ...