1 December 2019

Shimosuwa - Walking the Nakasendo

Last year I spent Christmas day staying in the small lakeside town of Shimosuwa on the Nakasendo – the “Middle Mountain Road” in Japan. The Nakasendo was one of five old highways linking Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto established in the sixteenth century by the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Shimosuwa is the only hot spring town on the Nakasendo and so was once a welcome stopping place for merchants and officials travelling between the two principal cities of Edo era Japan. There are still many ryokan, traditional inns, in Shimosuwa, each with their own onsen or hot spring bath houses.

These ryokan are the perfect place for a short stay to relax and unwind – as a guest it is easy to imagine yourself living as an old world prince or princess as you are treated to beautifully prepared meals, all sumptuously set-out, looking like works of art in terms of presentation and tasting just as exquisite. The mineral salts which saturate the natural onsen water, along with the fresh mountain air and the scent of the traditional-styled tatami mat floors of the rooms are a real escape from the everyday. The ryokan are often family run businesses which have been owned and operated by the same families for many generations.


Kameya, the ryokan in which we stayed has a suite of rooms preserved in its centre which were used by Princess Kazunomiya (1846-1877). Overlooking a stylised garden resembling a mountainscape in miniature, the suite still retains its old blue and white porcelain toilets which look rather quaint in an elegant although uncomfortable way when compared to the modern almost robotic marvels with which the current rooms are now equipped. A small historical display in the ryokan’s lobby had examples of the inn’s old sign boards, a music box, and guest registers – one of which was signed by the husband of the noted tanka poet, Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), who had stayed here too.

Each ryokan has a public bathhouse divided into two – one for men and one for women. These each consist of a large indoor communal bath, with numerous individual shower points for bathing, and an outdoor rotemburo bath, which in the winter provide a bracingly invigorating way to experience the naturally hot water. The indoor bath has large glass windows which allow for picturesque views of the wooded hills surrounding the ryokan, yet each has been contrived in such a way to ensure privacy for even though these baths are communal it is the Japanese custom to use them whilst completely nude, carrying only a small hand towel for the sake of modesty if needed. As a lone foreigner in such places it takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do get used to it it’s not so odd. Most bathers tend to keep to themselves, but occasionally you may find yourself engaged in some interested conversations with fellow bathers whilst soaking together in the big bath, often beginning with polite questions such as – where are you from; why are you visiting Japan; how do you like the onsen, and Japanese food? – That said though, it is nice to have the place entirely to yourself. I was lucky on this occasion, as Christmas fell during the working week and not many Japanese celebrate Christmas, so our ryokan was comparatively empty and on each of the occasions I used the public bath (twice a day) I had it all to myself.


It was wonderful to go early and see the sunrise from the rotemburo, with the steam rising all around you in the chilly early morning air, and also again to see the sunset at the end of the day, relaxing aching muscles having been out and about wandering round the town all day under the crisp, clear blue sky. Each morning though, I realised I wasn’t the earliest riser as, rather like Robinson Crusoe, I found a single dark wet footprint still etched onto the light grey stone paving by the outdoor bath. Each ryokan also has a private bath which can be reserved for exclusive use, usually for an hour at a time, by couples or families. This is often a nice way to end the day, having first let your dinner go down, relaxing with one last soak before going to bed. There’s something indescribable about the natural, volcanically heated water of an onsen – it is hot in a way which seems impossible for conventional baths to achieve, and, augmented by the natural salts and minerals, it is the most effective way to relax and rejuvenate both body and soul that I know of.

Asides from the many scenic views of the lake and Mount Fuji in the far distance, the town of Shimosuwa itself is studded with numerous sites of local interest. Forming a kind of triangle between the three main points of two Shinto shrines and a stone lantern, the Sankaku Batcho (literally, the “8-chō triangle” – a chō being an old unit of measurement, approximately 119 yards) forms a neat circuit for a day’s gentle stroll. We started at the Akimiya – the autumn shrine – close to our ryokan and also the junction of the Nakasendo and Koshu-dochu roads, where the nearby Honjin, run by the Iwanami family, was the official inn where feudal lords and court nobles stayed when passing through this post town in the old Edo era. The Akimiya is an imposing building flanked by two bronze Komainu, statues of guardian dogs – the largest of their kind made of bronze in Japan. There is also a large tree, known as the Neiri no sugi, or the “Sleeping Cedar” – it is said that if you put your ear against its trunk at midnight you may hear the tree snoring!

Passing along the Nakasendo we took a quick look at the Raiko-ji, a Buddhist temple housing an image of Kanayaki Jizoson – which I think is a bronze statue, but the temple buildings were closed that day so we weren’t able to see it for ourselves. We also visited the nearby Aozuka Kofun, a very ancient burial mound of a kind unique to Japan, which when viewed aerially in plan view from above seem to have a ‘keyhole’ shape. They are thought to be the ancestral burial sites of nobles long since passed away during Japan’s prehistoric phase. Some, such as Daisen Kofun in Osaka, thought to be the tomb of the Emperor Nintoku, can be vast in size and surrounded by deep water-filled moats. The larger Kofuns are thought to be the burial sites of Japan’s earliest (possibly mythical) emperors. Others, such as this one in Shimosuwa, are much smaller in size and now much misshapen too. This one has several very ancient looking trees firmly established with wide-girthed trunks on its twin summits. These Kofun are still sites of deep religious significance, hence little is factually known about them as few have been investigated archaeologically. They are usually marked by small shrines at which offerings are still regularly left by local people.

Heading on up a long avenue lined by cherry trees, which must be quite a sight when in full bloom in the springtime sakura season, we reached another Buddhist temple, Jiun-ji. Originally under the protection of a local Daimyo, or feudal warlord, called Shingen Takeda (1521-1573), this is one of the most beautiful temples I have ever visited in Japan. It is entered by a small and unassuming gatehouse by the road. A long stone path flanked with green mossy carpeted beds and tall cedar trees leads up to the temple entrance gates, which house a pair of fierce looking protective deities. Beyond this gate there are a number of imposing temple buildings with dark timber frames, white stucco plaster walls, topped by beautifully curved bronze tiled roofs. Just inside the entrance in the first part of the courtyard stands a gorgeous pine tree planted in the sixteenth century by the Zen monk, Tenkei. It has since been trained into the most amazing shape spanning a vast expanse.

Back outside the temple, just across the road, a long stone stairway leads down to a second Dragon spout fountain, this one of cold water mirroring the hot water one at Akimiya.

Buddhist temples are often located near to the more ancient shrines of the native Shinto religion, and so it’s only a short distance from Jiun-ji to the second of the two principal Shinto shrines of Shimosuwa, the Harumiya – spring shrine. The Harumiya and Akimiya form the lower half of the Suwa-taisha, or Grand Shrine, with the upper half located on the south side of Lake Suwa – each is dedicated to the deity Takeminakata-no-kami and his consort, Yasakatome-no-kami. The two shrines of the Kamisha, or south side, are thought to be dedicated to the male deity and Shimosha to the female deity or consort, along with Takeminakata’s divine younger brother, Yaekotoshironushi, as well.

Every six years the shrines of Shimosuwa are rebuilt, with the occasion being marked by a large festival, known as Onbashira-sai, when the enormous onbashira (literally, ‘sacred pillars’) are dragged by hand from the nearby mountain forests to be erected in the four corners of the shrine. Reading about this I couldn’t help wondering about parallels with other Southeast Asian religions, even those of faraway Papuan New Guinea (for instance, as with the Asmat people), where similar rituals of erecting sacred trees as special offerings to the local spirit deities occur. I’ve no idea as to whether or not these vastly differing cultures might have some long distant connection or common animist theological root, or if it would ever even be possible to know such a thing for sure, but it is an intriguing thought to wonder just how ancient the origins of such practices might actually be. One can imagine such a deeply ancient rite becoming ever more ritualised and refined, subtly morphing through the most ancient of aeons across huge distances and different peoples in diverse ways to the present day.

A little further on from the Harumiya we crossed two arched red footbridges to the sandbar shrine of Ukishima-sha, set in the midst of the Togawa River, to visit the Manji no sekibutsu. A stone sculpture, made in the Manji era (1658-1661), depicting Amitabha Buddha – but looking oddly reminiscent of one of the enormous moai statues of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. Here you are meant to say a silent prayer to Amitabha, and then walk in a short kora or circuit three times around the statue.

By this time we were more than ready for lunch, and so, close to the Gebabashi – a covered footbridge now marooned in the midst of the road, the oldest wooden structure in Shimosuwa – we stopped at a small restaurant, called Miya-no-mae Soba, for a delicious bowl of hot soba noodles with mountain vegetables and wild mushrooms. Afterwards following the road down to the Otoro, a stone lantern built in 1829, and then back along the main road into the town forming the right angle sides of the triangular walk. The town is filled with many craft shops of woodworkers, weavers and confectioners, which were sadly mostly closed by the time we got there. A couple of local museums look well worth a visit too, but by now we were very much ready to get back to our ryokan and have a soak in the onsen before dinner after our leisurely day of strolling around Shimosuwa’s Sankaku Batcho.