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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 Amazon.com. (Far Roads Press, 2015).

Full Bloom & Festivals

Sakura Enchantment on the Tokaido & Nakasendo / April 1-16, 2008

Last Edited: August 30, 2010

To be in Japan in the spring when sakura are in full bloom (mankai) is a traveler’s dream.

Sakura at Odawara CastleSakura at Hikone Castle

Sakura at Odawara Castle / Sakura at Hikone Castle

Planning a visit can be somewhat tricky, though, as sakura doesn’t bloom by the calendar, but by weather and location – earlier in warmer years, at lower latitudes and elevations, and in sunnier places; and later in cooler years, higher latitudes and locations, and in shadier places. Full bloom occurs within a week after opening of the first flowers (kaika) and lasts about a week.

To complicate matters, there are dozens of varieties, from white to deep pink, in clusters and sprays, upright or weeping, each blooming on a different cycle (a couple even in winter). And daily weather (wind and rain) may affect the quality of the bloom.

The ideal hanami, or flower-viewing, is at places where a lot of trees are in full-bloom, grouped together or in rows, usually in parks, around castles, temples and shrines, or along rivers and roadways.

Four years ago, we were in Japan in the last week of March and early April and caught the beginning of the blossoming in Osaka and Kyoto, but left before full bloom. This year we scheduled a trip from April 1-16, which on average is best time for hanami in the lower elevations of central Honshu.

Sakura season is also a great time to visit Japan for matsuri, or festivals, celebrating the coming of spring. Festivals occur on different days in different places, but often on set dates.

We planned to follow the old Tokaido (Eastern Sea Road) along the southern coast, from Tokyo to the ancient capital of Kyoto, where the sakura bloom on average three days later than in Tokyo; then to return to Tokyo via the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Road) to the north and into higher elevations for later blooming.

Map of route

Click on the image for a Google Map

These two roads were part of the road system established by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu after he unified the country in 1602. The Tokaido, the most traveled road, was 300 miles long; the more rugged, less traveled Nakasendo, was 310 miles.

Stations along the roads provided inns, teahouses, restaurants and entertainment quarters as well as  porters and horse stables. At selected stations were barrier gates where travelers were interviewed, permits were checked and goods inspected, as the government attempted to control travel and trade.

Between 1831-1834, woodblock artist Ando Hiroshige produced a series of prints with scenes from the fifty three stations of the Tokaido; between 1834-1842, he finished a series started by Keisai Yeisen depicting the the sixty-nine stations of the Kiso-kaido (another name for the Nakasendo, which went through the Kiso Valley, between Gifu and Suwa). As these prints spread to the West after the opening of Japan in 1854, they provided glimpses into a country closed to the rest of the world for 250 years; the prints visually defined “Japan” for generations of Westerrners.

Kamakura

When we flew into Narita, the news from aficionados was that the best day for hanami in Tokyo was the day before, as some wind and rain had already started the petals falling. The blossoms had begun opening about a week earlier than predicted.

We had planned to skip crowded Tokyo anyway, nad headed for Kamakura, to see the sakura along the walking path of Danzakura Avenue to Hachiman Shrine. The trees were in full bloom, but petals were swirling down with each gust of wind.

Dankazura Avenue Path Sakura along Dankazura Avenue
Danzakura Avenue Path
Sakura along Danzakura Avenue
Gempei Pond at Hachiman Shrine
Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine
Gempei Pond at Hachiman Shrine
Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine

Hachiman (“Eight Banners”) was originally worshiped by fishermen who found a mysterious object washed up on shore. Believing it was divine for having survived a long sea journey, it was prayed to for safety at sea.

“Eight Banners” refers to eight banners that fell from heaven before the birth of Emperor Ojin (270-310), the fifteenth head of the imperial family, who was believed to be Hachiman incarnate.

The original Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura was at Zaimokuza, on the beach. It was moved farther inland, to its present location by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), the head of the Minamoto family (Genji) who defeated the ruling Taira family (Heike) in the Gempei War (1180-1185). Yoritomo was appointed as the first shogun of the Kamakura Bakufu, or military government, which was formally recognized by the imperial family in 1192. Hachiman became the guardian of the Minamoto family and government.

On the way to our hotel just west of Kamakura town, the late afternoon traffic was heavy, the line of cars moving very slowly. As we crawled around Inamuragasaki, we could see Mt. Fuji ahead against the evening sky.

Mt. FujiMt. Fuji

The next day we went to see a memorial to Japan's first shogun, Yoritomo Minamoto; Shakado Kiritoshi, path cut through limestone rock leading down to Kamakura town; the great Buddha at Kotoku-in temple; and Hasedera remple.

Yoritomo Memorial Shakado Kiritoshi
Yoritomo Memorial
Shakado Kiritoshi
Buddha Statue at Kotoku-in
Rows of miniature Buddhas at Hasedera
Buddha Statue at Kotoku-in
Rows of miniature Buddhas at Hasedera

Odawara

Later that morning, we drove to Odawara Castle, where the sakura was in full bloom. In the square in front of the castle grounds were a flea market and food booths and the area was crowded with visitors to the castle enjoying hanami.

Odawara bridgeSakura

Odawara castle was originally built in 1495 as the headquarters of the so-called “late” Hojo clan, founded by a warlord who had married into a branch of the Hojo family that had survived the mass suicide in 1333. The castle was captured in 1590 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who cut off the food supply and starved the defenders into surrender, completing his campaign to unite Japan under his rule.

Hideyoshi gave the castle to his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu, who agreed to exchange five provinces in central Japan, including his home province of Mikawa (Aichi prefecture), for eight provinces to the east, including Sagami, which included Odawara, and Musashi, the largest province in the Kantø region, which included Edo. Hideyoshi’s strategy was to move his powerful ally away from Kyøto, the old capital, but the move eventually backfired: it made Ieyasu the largest landholder in Japan. After Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu defeated his rivals, including Hideyoshi’s son, to become shogun.

Odawara castle, on a hill at the eastern base of the Hakone mountains, was used by the Tokugawa shogunate to watch movements along the Tokaido, as daimyo came to and left Edo in alternate years. This requirement for daimyo to spend time in Edo was established to discourage anti-shogunate plots from developing in the provinces.

After the shogunate fell in 1868, Odawara castle abandoned. The castle was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. It was rebuilt as a cultural attraction in 1960.

Hakone

From Odawara a winding mountain road goes up to Hakone, which is noted not for its sakura, but for its Lake Ashi and a view of Mt. Fuji rising over the lake.

HakoneMt. Fuji

In Hakone, a stone-paved section (ishidatami) and a cedar-lined path of the old Tokaido are preserved.

Stone paved pathCedars

Along the lake are walking paths and a reconstruction of the barrier station where travelers were once requied to show permits.

BarrierGuards

After a quiet night at a small pension on Lake Ashi, we drove up to the steaming sulphur fields of Owakudani ("Big Boiling Valley") early the next morning from where Fujisan appears over a low range of mountains.

OwakudaniFujisan

Before leaving Hakone, we bought a bottle of Odawara sake (Gin-no-Mai, “Singing Dance”) that turned out to be excellent. We drove up Hakone Pass, and detoured off the Tokaido, on our way to Izu.

Now and Then

A view from Hakone Pass Travelers through Hakone Pass above Lake Ashi (Hiroshige)
A view from Hakone Pass
Travelers through Hakone Pass above Lake Ashi (Hiroshige)

Two years later, in the summer of 2010, when we drove the Hakone Skyline road, I recognized the view on which Hiroshige based his print: Mt. Mikuni, which is north of the Hakone Pass. The artist steepened the mountain considerably to create a more dramatic scene.

Mt. Mikuni

Izu Peninsula

On the road south to Izu Peninsula, at Himenosawa Park, the mountain sakura had not fully bloomed, but a tree with large white flowers and red camellias had.

White flowersCamellias

Along the road to Shimoda in central Izu is Joren Falls.

Joren Falls

Wasabi was being planted below Joren Falls, where you can also fish for ayu, or sweetfish (smelt). We had ayu, roasted over coals, and wasabi ice cream for lunch.

Fishing at Joren Falls Roasting Ayu
Fishing below Joren Falls
Roasting Ayu
Planting Wasabi at Joren Falls
Planting Wasabi at Joren Falls
Wasabi Roots for Sale

Farther south are the seven falls of the Kawazu river, where visitors can walk along a path following the stream bed to view all seven. A circular ramp goes down from the highway to the river:

Along the walk are statues of the student and the dancing girl from Yasunari Kawabata's short story, "Dancing Girl of Izu."

WalkwayFallsDancing Girl of IzuKama Falls

At the southern end of Izu is Shimoda, a picturesque seaport, where Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” anchored in 1854 to force Japan open to trade with the West.

A modest row of trees along the Inozawa River was in prime bloom.

Inozawa River sakuraBoats

The Shimoda Museum is a museum in itself, housed in two adjacent buildings connected by a second-floor walkway. The “namako-kabe,” or “sea-cucumber walls,” feature dark slate tiles overlaid with white plaster cross-hatching, a building technique developed to prevent wooden houses from burning down. It’s a low-tech, small-town museum, with displays of the Shimoda festival floats.

Shimoda MuseumFloat display

The museum also featured artifacts of the American and Russian visitors during the 19th century, including a sea-weathered canvas and leather bag of the Russian admiral who was shipwrecked off the Izu peninsula and built a new ship at Heda, introducing Western shipbuilding techniques to Japanese craftsmen. When we told the the man selling tickets that we were from Hawai'i, he told us not to miss the Princess Ka‘iulani memorabilia in the second building; although the princess never visited Japan, King David Kalakaua, her uncle, had once proposed a marriage between her and a Japanese prince in hopes of forming an alliance between Hawai‘i and Japan that would protect Hawai‘i from Western intruders.

We also visited the hilltop park where Shimoda castle was once located and from where there was a view overlooking the town.

Shimoda parkView

Like the castle at Odawara, Shimoda Castle (also called Ujima Castle) was a stronghold of the Hojo clan, whose fleet was kept in the harbor. Before capturing Odawara Castle, Hideyoshi sent a naval force of 14,000 to besiege the hilltop castle overlooking the harbor. The six hundred defenders held out for fifty days before surrendering. The castle was destroyed. All that remains today, in Shimoda Park, are traces of the dry moat.

We spent the night at a ryokan at Tatado Beach, outside of town, where surfers in wetsuits were catching waves.

Tatado BeachSurfer

As we drove up the west coast of Izu the next day, we passed a field of stunning yellow rape flowers bordered by sakura, and farther north along a winding coastal road, sakura formed tunnels of flowers.

Rape flowersSakura tunnel

The road on westcoast of Izu runs along Suruga bay past the Sanshiro Islands, where visitors can wallk out at low tide to a nearby island or take excursion boats.

Nearby islandsExcursion boat

The cliffside road is scenic, and at the north end of the bay, Fujisan appeared above the Akashi Mountains.

Cliffside roadMt. Fuji

Shizuoka

Back on the Tokaido west of Izu, we arrived in Shizuoka for its spring festival, held on the first Saturday of April and featuring a flower-viewing procession to Sengen Shrine, a tradition started by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who became shogun of Japan in 1603 and retired in 1605 to Shizuoka, where he was brought up. His family ruled Japan for 250 years. The procession, with colorful floats and groups costumed as lords, ladies, and samurai, culminated in traditional dances in front of sakura blooming along the moat and outer walls of Ieyasu’s castle, Sumpu, which is the site of a park today.

ProcessionLadies on a floatFloatsDancers

Just east of Shizuoka are Nihondaira and Miho Beach, two of the best viewpoints for Mount Fuji. We drove to Nihondaira in the early morning to catch the faint glow of the rising sun on the sakura and the near-perfect, snow-covered cone that seemed to float above Shimizu harbor in spring mist (or was it smog?).

Fujisan in the spring mistFujisan from the beach at Miho

Fujisan in the spring mist / Fujisan from the beach at Miho

Also on Nihondaira is Tosho-gu, or “Eastern-Shining Shrine” at Kunozan, where Ieyasu’s remains were housed after his death, before they were moved to the more famous and elaborate Tosho-gu at Nikko the following year. We climbed the 1159 stone steps zigzagging up a steep hill to the immaculately maintained, elaborately carved, and colorfully painted shrine. There is also a ropeway down to the shrine from the top of Kunozan, but walking up is considered a form of purification. Visitors included groups of businessmen paying respect to and gaining inspiration from Japan’s greatest shogun.

WalkwayKunozan walkwayEntrywayShrine

Strawberry farms lined along the coastal highway below Nihondaira, and in payment for a parking space we spent ¥2000 ($20) in a shop that sold delicious fresh strawberry juice and strawberry wafers.

West of Shizuoka, on the shore of Lake Hamana, is Hamamatsu Flower Park, where sakura and red, yellow, and white tulips were blooming. The brackish-water lake is known for its abundance of seafood. When we arrived, the locals were digging clams along the shore. The hot spring inn we stayed at served lobster sashimi for dinner and offered a free shuttle to the park for hanami at night, with floral pathways lit to magical effect.

Lake Hamana, with boats and people digging for clams Sakura
Lake Hamana, with boats and people digging for clams
Yozakura (Night sakura viewing) at the flower park)
Hamamatsu Flower Park: Tulips and Sakura Gardens
Hamamatsu Flower Park: Tulips and Sakura
Water Fountain, with Music

On the way to Hamamatsu, we stopped at the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, where loggerhead turtles nest in the early summer to fall; and the barrier gate at Arai, which was established in 1601 by Tokugawa Ieyasu to restrict guns and girls from the capital. The barrier gate was destroyed by waves in 1708 and moved to a more protected spot inland.The structure at the site is the interview room, built in 1855; and the museum next door houses artifiacts from the era.

Now and Then

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

 West to Yoshino and Asuka

On the way west to Kansai, we stopped in Nagoya to visit Atsuta Shrine, founded 1900 years ago and considered the second most venerated shrine to the sun goddess Amaterasu, the first being the Grand Shrine at Ise where she resides. Atsuta houses one of the three Imperial regalia of Japan given to the ruling family by Amaterasu – the sacred sword Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (“Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven”), later renamed Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (“Grasscutting Sword”) after its possessor, Yamato Takeru, used it to escape death in a burning field by cutting a space in the surrounding grass. The sword is said to control the winds, and Yamato used it to direct the winds to blow the fire back at the treacherous lord who had set the field afire. (The other two Imperial regalia are a mirror, housed at the Grand Shrine at Ise, and a jewel, housed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.)

Torii at Atsuta Shrine Atsuta Shrine
Torii at Atsuta Shrine
Atsuta Shrine

Continuing toward Kyoto on the expressway through Nagoya with its modern bridges (Edo-period travelers on the Tokaido used to avoid the dangerous river crossings by taking a boat from Mina to Kuwana), we detoured off the Tokaido at Seki and headed for Yoshino. On the way, we planned to spend the night at the Menard Aoyama Resort in the mountains of Iga-Ueno. After driving on narrow roads through mountains and valleys, we turned onto what looked like on our map the most direct way to the resort, Route 755, which turned out to be a winding, deserted single-lane road through the forest. It was raining hard and the road was littered with fallen cedar twigs, with small dirt slides on the mountain side. I was wondering if we were lost, but the GPS indicated we were headed toward the resort so we kept going. After emerging from the forest, we came onto a two-lane road, and the resort was a short ways off, in a very pleasant location among rolling hills, with a golf course and an excellent restaurant and onsen. There were very few guests, since it was the off-season, but the service, kaiseki dinner and onsen and rotemburo were a delight after the cold rainy drive.

Expressway Bridge in Nagoya Route 755 through the mountains to Aoyam
Expressway Bridge in Nagoya
Route 755 through the mountains to Aoyama
Menard Aoyama Resort Onsen
Menard Aoyama Resort
Onsen

The next day, after inquiring at the front desk about the best way to get to Yoshino, we took Route 29 down from the resort to Route 165. Yoshino is considered the best site in Japan for hanami. The more trees, the more glorious the effect, and Yoshino has 30,000 of them. We were either early or late for the full bloom of the main body of trees, but there were groves and single trees in full bloom. Buses and cars were lining up to get on the road that goes up to the viewing sites, and the street to Kinpusen-ji, the main temple at Yoshino, was closed to traffic and full of visitors. Kinpusen-ji was established in the eighth century by En-no-Gyoja, a mountain-ascetic who was a founder of Shugendo, a mystic blend of Buddhism, Shinto, and Taoism. The cherry tree was sacred to this sect, which is why so many are planted in the area.

Kinpusenji, by Tomikichiro Tokuriki (Sept. 1941)

Hillside with sakuraTravelersSakuraKinpusen-ji

Just north of Yoshino, in Asuka we visited Ishibutai, the stone tomb of Soga no Umako (551-626), a nobleman who promoted Buddhism and government reforms introduced from China and Korea during the formative years of the nation. Visitors are allowed to walk into the empty underground chamber below the stones.

IshibutaiStone tomb

Just north, in Kashihara, we stopped at the mausoleum of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, a fifth-generation descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Tsukubai, or basin for water purificationTorii to Emperor Jimmu’s Mausoleum

Tsukubai, or basin for water purification / Torii to Emperor Jimmu’s Mausoleum

Jimmu migrated to Kansai from the Miyazaki area in southern Kyushu, where the sun goddess’ grandson Ninigi descended to earth. After defeating the local tribes, Jimmu established the rule of what became the imperial family. His mausoleum is behind a fence and a gate, in the woods; visitors can approach the gate but not enter.

North to Kyoto and Lake Biwa

We spent a night in Sakai, near the kofun, or keyhole-shaped burial mound, of the emperor Nintoku, the sixteenth emperor of Japan. This is the largest kofun in Japan, situated in the middle of a suburb of Osaka, in an area that also contains 20 keyhole-shaped tombs, 21 round tombs, and 5 square tombs.

Kofun

Nintoku’s kofun, over five football fields long (1600 feet), 1000 feet wide, and 118 feet high is surrounded by a moat and an outer fence beyond which visitors are not allowed. The mound itself is so huge, you can’t see the whole thing in its entirety except from the air.

From Sakai, we drove to Otsu, on Lake Biwa, the junction town where the Tokaido and the Nakasendo meet.

On the way we stopped at the Inari Shrine at Fushimi, where a rice goddess is worshiped, now prayed to for prosperity in business as well. The shrine is noted for its tunnel of torii and its statues of foxes who serve as the goddess' messangers.

Inari ShrineFoxes

Near Fushimi was the mausoleum of emperor Meiji (1852-1912), who guided Japan through the opening of trade with the West and modernization after 250 years of isolation under the Tokugawas. A thousands steps lead up to the mausoleum.

Mausoleum steps

Entrance

Later in the day, one of the current emperor’s son was scheduled to participate in a ceremony at his great great grandfather’s mausoleum.

Kyoto is just north of Fushimi. This was our second visit to Japan’s ancient capital, and we went to sites we missed on our first visit: our first stop was Gosho, the old imperial palace.

GoshoGate

North of Gosho is Kamigamo shrine, the oldest shrine in this ancient city and guardian of the northeast, the primary direction from which evil sprits are thought to come.

Kamigamo shrineKamigamo

The sakura along Kyoto’s Kamo river and its other sites were past prime, but still in bloom.

Now and Then

Kamo River, with tourists Bridge over the Kamo River (Hiroshige)
Kamo River, with tourists
Bridge over the Kamo River (Hiroshige)

Kamo RiverVisitors

That night, in the pouring rain, we went to see the trees Otsu’s Miidera temple, which, like the park at Hamamatsu, was lit up for visitors.

Miidera temple treesEvening lights

The next day the rain continues. We drove up the Mt. Hiei toll road (there’s also a train) to Enryakuji, the famous monastery of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. The temple grounds were shrouded in mist. Inside the main hall, unseen priests were chanting, their voices echoing eerily from the dark recesses.

EnryakujiRinging the bell

The next morning, at sunrise, Lake Biwa was spectacular as storm clouds from the night before hung low, but allowed the sun to light the lake and its Western shore.

Lake Biwa

Now and Then

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

Full Bloom in Hikone

On the way from Otsu to Gifu, at Hikone, a small town on the northeast side of Lake Biwa, far enough north and cold enough to be blooming later than Kyoto, the rows of white trees along the outer side of the moat and large pink trees hanging over the inner walls of the moat were in full bloom, forming long and lofty hills of pink.

Hikone moatHikone castle

There was a small fair below the castle, with booths selling food and local products. We bought an bottle of “Golden Turtle” sake, which turned out to be delicious. Below the castle was also a garden and a museum. Senior artists were out painting along the moat.

Hikone gardensArtists

We stayed a couple of nights in Gifu, noted for its cormorant fishing (May 11 through October 15 only) on the Nagara River and its castle atop Mt. Kinka.

Gifu Castle on Mt. Kinka Statue of the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, Gifu Park
Gifu Castle on Mt. Kinka
Statue of the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, Gifu Park

Originally completed in 1204 and rebuilt and renamed Gifu-jo by the daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the castle was destroyed by American warplanes in 1945, and rebuilt out of concrete in the 1950s. It offers a 360-degree view of Gifu city.

Gifu-joGifu City

We caught the ropeway up, then walked down the hill to a park that includes the site where the Nobunaga once lived.

Gifu ParkNobunaga's residence

Nobunaga hailed from Owari province (western Aichi prefecture), which includes the area occupied by Nagoya today. After gaining control over Owari in 1559, he began his campaign to bring Japan under his rule.

He had a reputation for ruthlessness – during his rise to power, he killed an uncle and had a rebellious younger brother assassinated; later he torched Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei and slaughtered its militant monks and their families for opposing him. Early on, he saw the advantage of firearms introduced by the Dutch over Japanese swords and bows and arrows, so he acquired guns to gain a military advantage over his rivals.

In 1582, while in Kyoto, Nobunaga was attacked at Honno-ji by the soldiers of one of his vassals and either committed suicide or burned to death in the temple. His corpse was destroyed in the fire. He never achieved his dream of unifying the country. At his death, he controlled thirty-one of the sixty-six provinces, all of them on Honshu.

Spring Fireworks Festival at Tejikarao Shrine

Just outside of Gifu, at Tejikarao Shrine, we went to a 300-year old spring fireworks festival held on the second Saturday in April. Here the twelve surrounding towns carry their kami, housed in mikoshi (portable shrines) hoisted on the backs of young men, to celebrate the arrival of spring. Each town erects two forty-foot tall poles, one with a triangle of ten lanterns and the other topped with a pack of gunpowder. The lanterns are ignited as the mikoshi enter the shrine grounds; then, as the young men, some bare-backed, dance with the mikoshi on their backs beneath the second pole, its gunpowder is ignited, showering sparks down on them. The omikoshi, packed with powder on their roofs, spew fountains of flames through pipes upward into the cascading sparks. Fire crackers, roman candles, and strings of cascading sparks accompany each dance.

Tejikarao street Portable shrine
Stage festivities
Carrying the mikoshi
Gunpowder sparks Shower of sparks

This festival features booths along a narrow street in front of the shrine, selling grilled foods, toys, and small golden fish. Children and parents and teenage boys and girls in groups or on dates walked up and down the street. The atmosphere recalled for me the small town bon dances in Hawai’i in the 1950’s.

We almost missed the festival. That morning, after the hotel desk clerk told us that there was no parking at the shrine and advised us to catch the local train, we drove out to look at the site and locate parking nearby. We were walking around Tejikarao Shrine taking photos when an old man who had come for a morning prayer began talking about the shrine. We asked him where the festival grounds were, and he told us that we were at the wrong Tejikarao Shrine, that the festival was held at another shrine of the same name, over a mile away to the southwest, near the local train station of the same name.

We drove there, and found the townspeople erecting the lantern and gunpowder poles, packing tubes with gunpowder, and preparing a wide stage with nearly life-sized figures from Shinto mythology. We also found an empty lot and parked there that evening for the festival.

Tejikarao stageSetting the stagePreparationsGunpowder poles

The festival was spectacular yet intimate, with spectators crowded into the limited space at the perimeter of the small temple grounds, which were roped off for safety. That night, there were a couple minor unplanned fires that sent fire fighters scurrying about with extinguishers.

On the Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley

From Gifu, we drove through the Ena Valley and up the Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley, noted for its waterfall and sculpted river rocks and for two old post towns, Magome and Tsumago, between which you can still walk the historic road up to and down from Magome Pass.

Ena Valley Nezamenotoko Gorge, Kiso Valley
Ena Valley
Nezamenotoko Gorge, Kiso Valley
Repaved Nakasendo
Magome Pass
Repaved Nakasendo; 1.0 km from Magome; 6.7 km to Tsumago
Magome Pass: 2.2 km from Magome; 5.5 km to Tsumago
The Nakasendo near Tsumago (Hiroshige) he Nakasendo near Magome Pass (Hiroshige)
The Nakasendo near Tsumago (Hiroshige)
The Nakasendo near Magome Pass (Hiroshige)

Now and Then

Ono Falls Eight Scenic Spots of Kiso (Hiroshige)

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.

We spent the night in the castle town of Matsumoto, before backtacking off the Nakasendo to see the Takayama Spring Festival. Before we left early the next morning to get to Takayama by 9 am, we stopped by the castle.

CastleSakura

The castle, an original construction, belonged to the Ogasawara family. the It’s nicknamed Karasu or Crow Castle because of its black walls and roofs.

Takayama Spring Festival

At Shiojiri, we turned off the Nakasendo for Takayama, which puts on one of the best spring festivals in Japan, held on April 14 and 15 each year. This festival features twelve exquisitely-made floats, beautifully lacquered, carved, and embellished with metal ornaments, and hung with banners and paintings on silk. Three of the floats house 21-string puppets that perform dances to traditional music.

Takayama floatsFloatPuppets on floatPuppet with fanPuppeteerDrum on cart

Takayama is a great tourist town, with morning markets along the Miya River and an old town with narrow streets lined with traditional houses and shops, including eight sake breweries.  We bought some spices at the morning market and a bottle of daiginjyo from Harada brewery; we had a delicious lunch of ten-zaru, tempura and buckwheat noodles, for which the area is known.

Miya River Morning Market
Miya River
Morning Market

In the morning the floats were put on display around town; after the puppet show, several hundred residents dressed up in Edo-style costumes and paraded through the town, stopping to perform a lion dance before the shrines along the way and ending up at the center square.

Lion Dance Procession
Lion Dance
Procession

There is a lantern festival at night, but we didn’t stay because the town was packed, and we weren’t able to book a hotel for that night (people start making reservations a year in advance); so we headed into the still-snowy Hida Mountains, to Hirayu Onsen, to relax in a rotemburo (outdoor hot spring). The specialty in these mountain towns is beef, served with mountain potatoes, ferns and freshly-picked bamboo shoots.

Between Takayama and Hirayu is Hida Limestone Cave, which features miniature stalactites and stalagmites. Ten miles north of the onsen is the Shinhodaka Ropeway, which ascends in two stages to the top of Mt. Hodaka, over 7000 feet above sea level, for a spectacular view of the Japan Alps. Near the onsen is Hirayu falls, thawing out with the season (it’s frozen in the winter); a signboard tells of the legend of the discovery of the onsen: a white monkey (shirozaru) led some exhausted samurai warriors to the site.

Hida Limestone Cave Ropeway to Mt. Hodaka
Hida Limestone Cave
Ropeway to Mt. Hodaka
Hirayu Falls Rotemburo at Hirayu Onsen in Morning Light
Hirayu Falls
Rotemburo at Hirayu Onsen in Morning Light

The next morning, I was relaxing alone in the rotemburo, my body afloat just below the surface, images of spring festivals, melting ice, and sakura blooming, adrift in a pool of memories. The steam swirling rhythmically in the chilly mountain breeze over the hot water entranced me, the glowing swirls rising and vanishing into sunlight.

With the morning sun peeping up over the snowy mountains, I felt deeply and with a pure heart the reverence sun worshippers have for the rising sun. Was it Amaterasu (“Heaven Shining”)? The goddess of that name was so interwoven into the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of the Imperial Family, I now think otherwise. It was a more primitive goddess, nameless, embodied in the sun that farmers and fishermen have worshiped on mountain summits and eastern shores since the dawn of human awareness of our dependence on the sun for bringing forth all that’s radiant, robust, and beautiful in this world.

Its light and warmth is a blessing on the land and people, calling forth the bloom of sakura that sweeps across the ancestral homeland, in the third moon of the year, the culmination of spring. The young leaves, the green leaves of forests and rice fields are awash in a golden glow. And through summer rains, droughts, and fierce winds of the year, with the care and toil of farmers, the rice fields flower and bear grain:

At their tips, which waited patiently in the rain,
tiny white flowers glisten
and above the quiet amber puddles reflecting the sun
red dragonflies glide.
Ah, we must dance, dance like children
and that’s not enough.....
we must dance, clapping our hand,
like the innocent gods of the past,
and that is not enough.
(Kenji Miyazawa, “The Breeze Comes Filling the Valley”)

The rice ripe and for three festival days
The whole sky clear.
(Kenji Miyazawa, "Last Poems")

East to Karuizawa

On the way to Karuizawa, our last stop, we drove around Lake Suwa to reconnect with the Nakasendo and follow it east to the Kanto plains, past Tokyo, to Narita. The sakura around this mountain lake, like the sakura in Takayama, were just starting to open.

Now and Then

Lake Suwa A frozen Lake Suwa, from Shiojiri (Hiroshige)
Lake Suwa
A frozen Lake Suwa, from Shiojiri (Hiroshige)

Beyond Wada Pass (we drove through the new Wada tunnel rather than over the old winding road through the highest pass on the Nakasendo) and down at Kasadori, the snow-covered peak of Mt. Asama appeared in the distance, an active volcano which dominates this mountain valley as Fuji-san does the southern coast.

Now and Then

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

Karuizawa, at the foot of Mt. Asama, has become a resort for the upper middle class from Tokyo, with two-story Western-style summer houses and mansions on relatively large lots, surrounded by birches, larches and cedars. The town has a modern shopping street and plaza, as well as an old town (Naka-Karuizawa), where we had an excellent sushi dinner.

The highlights of this stop were the lava fields of Mt. Asama; the falls of Shiraito (“White Threads,” so called because water seeps out from the side of a steep hill in thin white streams); and the look-out above Usui pass, where the eroded ridge tops to the south were like none others I’ve seen in Japan.

Shiraito Falls Look-out above Usui Pass
Shiraito Falls
Look-out above Usui Pass

By the time we got to Karuizawa, the hanami season was almost over in the coastal areas of south-central Honshu. But in mountain towns like Suwa and Takayama, buds were still opening, and spring would continue to bloom, sweeping north for Hokkaido, where the season lasts into May.

Note: Woodblock prints of the Tokaido and Nakasendo, are from these two websites:

For historical background on the Nakasendo, see Nakasendo Highway: A Journey to the Heart of Japan.